Thursday, May 27, 2010

Revamped and raring to go!

I have all but one book left in that stack of Ngaio Marshes I mentioned. Sad isn't it that I haven't written about any of them yet! I got a bit pre-occupied with trying to do the blog up. I'm fairly pleased and hope it'll be easier to work with. And I hope to take a photo of loads of my fave books (that I own ... ) soon and change, the seaside one is lovely but I do need a book theme.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Biting the bullet and going for three columns!

Let's see if this works! I've downloaded a template from and am hoping to make great things happen with it. It's an awfully messy site, slow and difficult to find one's way around and all, so I just ended up taking the first best one. Now, apparently I'll have to re-add links and all. Work to be done!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book discussion club x 2

Well, the one meeting never seems to be taking place, we've had to postpone and cancel due to illness and what-have-you, but the other one ticks right on ahead like a fabulous old railway station clock. For the former we read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, a book I've been wanting to read for years and plugged hard for for that reason and because I was sure I already owned it ha ha ha. Only to come home that night and be reminded by my husband that we gave our pristine copy away to a friend ages ago when we hadn't had time to look for a present. So we re-bought it. Re-buying should be just as well-known as a word as re-gifting is. Anway, I'm not sorry because it's a great book, more on that in a while.

For the other group, meeting tonight at our flat (fingers crossed that goes well, that Minimus cooperates and goes to sleep with no problems, that rest of family don't feel too put out etc.), we read Sofi Oksanen's Stalin's Cows. It doesn't seem to exist in English yet, but her most recent novel, Purge (Puhdistus), has been translated into several languages and is being heavily promoted, so I think it's only a matter of time. Oksanen is a sort of wonderchild, one of those authors whose themes, talent, outspokenness and appearance combine to make her a media superstar, loved and hated to the max. Finland has a small population and a tradition of homogeneity in culture and ethnicity which we here in Sweden use to explain (away) the superior results Finnish children reach in national tests compared to Swedish children. Oksanen shows a darker side of the coin, with those qualities serving to alienate people who are different, to ostracize them, to openly abuse them and take advantage of them.

The book is about Anna, and her Estonian mother who married a Finn and came to Finland in the late seventies, and her grandmother who raised two children under Stalin while her husband hid in the woods. A lot of stuff written about the book focuses on Anna's eating disorders, but this is more than a book about a girl/woman with bulimia - to me her bulimia is only interesting because it is juxtaposed with the starvation and deprivation of the war and Communism. Her grandmother struggled to feed her family, the relations in Sibiria battled starvation daily (at one point we read that the Sibirian cookery book is simple - for vegetable soup you need vegetables and water, for flour soup flour and water, for cabbage soup cabbage and water). After the war the shortages continued, with endless black market bargaining, different ways to cheat the system, constant queuing. It's three generations of eating problems, Anna is just the final stage.

I can see why this is so controversial in Finland. According to Oksanen, the Finns ignored the Estonian brother-people and dismissed them as Soviets during all the Communist years, and the Estonian women were just Russian whores. After independence the Finns flock to buy cheap alcohol and cheap prostitutes. Now the Russian whores were recognized as Estonian, but they were still whores. At age 11 Anna is approached on the ferry by a Finnish man who whispers "how much?". The Finnish men can't be trusted in this book, they visit countless prostitutes and keep cheap mistresses on the side behind the Iron curtain. (It's a brave book to write seeing as how it's inevitable that the reader will confuse Oksanen with Anna - is she saying that her own father was a cheating drunk?) Anna learns this, and also that probably all women are prostitutes who will sell themselves for a pair of tights, for food, for a life in the West maybe. "Eat up" says the mother and grandmother who remembers the war "but not too much, because you have to stay slim and attractive to get the right kind of man".

I can relate to so many things here, even though I come from a different background. Many of the emotional experiences of belonging to two cultures apply, although I never had to learn how to shut up in passport controls, how to smuggle, how to play up one side and play down or lie about the other. That paranoia was never mine - but I remember reading about it, I remember friends going to visit relations and talking about all the things they had to bring.

A wonderful writer and even though her writing is heart-breaking and has no happy endings, I'll simply have to read more. These are stories that need to be told, not just for Estonians and Finns but for everyone.

Oscar Wao is another one. For one thing, what do I know of the Dominican Republic? Nothing. It's the one next to Haiti, and most of what I know of Haiti I think I learned from Graham Greene. Fiction, that's where the history is. You can't beat this for education, the kind that makes your blood boil and the tears roll down your face. So much injustice and so much violence, and it never seems to end. And despite the book being almost entirely half in Spanish (it sometimes feels like), I understand it, because it compensates by referencing the kind of popular culture that I know about - Lord of the Rings for example. The dictator is Sauron - no matter if the rest of the sentence is in Spanish, I get it anyway. And poor Oscar, the Dominican geek - reads LOTR for comfort but the sentence "black men like half-trolls" makes him put it away. How I wish Tolkien hadn't put that in.

Wonderful story-telling, fantastic and imaginative language, hilarious, angry and heart-breaking. I'm thrilled with this. There's a lot written about it already and I'm running late now, so I'll leave off now despite the unfairness of Oscar getting one paragraph and a bare half - it's worth more and everyone should read it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fooling around.

I borrowed a template from, a site that on the whole is a little too shabby for me really, but it had books in it and I'm so tired of being too lazy to make my own. But I dunno. *thinks* Something must be done though.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Charlie Higson: The Enemy, also Melissa de la Cruz: Blue Bloods

My daughter had her first two weeks of work experience through school this spring, and had landed it at Uppsala English Bookshop, of all brilliant places. In the staff kitchen there they have two bookshelves full of books that she was encouraged to peruse - mostly promotional copies judging from what she brought home. At the end of her two weeks she was given the books she had read as a present, and her first thought was "Great! I get to keep The Enemy!" and her second "Oh. I get to keep Blue Bloods." Possibly her third was "Why didn't I knuckle down and read more?", but who knows, maybe that was just me.

The Enemy (do check out the website, he's made a trailer and all, it's great!) is the first in a planned series for young adults, set in a dystopian future in which all adults over the age of 14 have succumbed to some sort of disease that either killed them or turned them into crazed, pustulent creatures who prey on the surviving children for food. (Yeah, zombies. Kind of.) This was only about a year or so ago, we find out. Things happened very fast.  Later in the book we come across a third group of adults, who seem to be able to remain normal if they stay in the dark - but since they also turn out to be predators it isn't certain how normal they are, really. I hope that avenue is explored more in the subsequent books.

We follow a group of kids who have barricaded themselves in a Waitrose supermarket. Every day a small party go out to scavenge for food, and the book starts with the scavenging party falling into a trap that surprisingly intelligent adults set for them, leaving one of them dead. When the survivors make it back to Waitrose they learn that one of the smaller kids was taken from the supermarket car park while they were out. They're feeling desperate and beleaguered. So when a strange boy arrives with the news that a group of kids are setting up a new, paradisical society at Buckingham palace they team up with kids from another supermarket nearby and trek across London. However, the palace turns out to be a disappointment, and the book ends with them leaving with their hopes set on another safe haven. 

I found this book very disturbing and ... well, moving, I suppose. I'm surprised at how much it's affected me. Now, the prose and story-telling technique are good, but not spectacular, so the charm lies a lot in identification and recognition. Since this is a new book, set in what could be the present or just a year or two in the future, an imaginative person such as myself can get swept away with the idea that this could really be happening or this could start happening tomorrow. The kids whisper in the dark about their lives before disaster struck. Did you have an iPod? We used to order take-out on Friday nights and watch a film. I loved to ride my bike in the park. One boy's parents abandoned him and his sister before they got too sick, kissing them goodbye and crying, rather then risk turning on them. One boy killed his mother when he saw that she was going feral. Another dreams of his mother's smiling face and then sees it morph into a bloodthirsty snarl. I sat reading this on the bus, sobbing my eyes out thinking of my own kids. Only the youngest two would survive according to the story premise, since they're under 14 (13 and 3, respectively). The idea of them having to fight the rest of us off really tore into me.

Yes, I know, it's more than a bit embarrassing, but there you are. I tried to calm myself by remembering that this is not that original (hello? Tribe? they also hid out in a shopping mall!) and what is this with 14 being a cut-off age? Biologically some sort of weight limit or hormonal development limit would make more sense. Didn't really work though. I was emotionally affected, that's just how it is. My poor babies!

Higson, who also wrote the Young Bond series apparently, not that I've read them, does a good job of writing a horrific and very gory book without too much of the stuff that is seriously disturbing. Like how youth gangs in the early days must have roamed the streets and done whatever they liked "drugs, drinking, shagging". There is not much mention of sex, for example, which could become seriously personal. "Our" group do come across another group that has babies, however. I get the feeling that it has a few levels - younger kids will only read it as a horror book but not pick up on the more adult, complicated themes. Alright, to sum up, there are plenty of quibbles with pace, character development and general logic, sure, but what the hell - this book has etched itself into my imagination which is more than can be said for a lot of literature.

Blue Bloods has to be mentioned even though I only read a chapter or so. It is utter, utter rubbish. Some sort of Gossip Girl meets vampires. The beautiful young teenager wearing [brand] shoes, a fabulous [brand] dress and flashing a [very expensive brand] bracelet glitters her fangs - that type of thing. It was horrible. This needed to be said.  I can't believe it touched the inside of a printing press.

I have to edit this on May 18th to add a link to a great blog post about Higson's visit to a school. In which he openly admits to stealing a lot if his ideas (that's how you get the best ones). Cheers for honesty! I'm hoping my nephew WILL read this book. Although he mightn't sleep for a week.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Tad Williams: Tailchaser's Song

My sister lent this to me with the caveat that it wasn't that great, but if you like cats (like she does) it can be kind of fun.

Me, I don't hate cats or anything. I'm not cat-mad, that's for sure, but I don't hate them.  However, this absolute disgrace of an excuse for a novel I think can only be enjoyed at all by someone who really really really gets a kick out of cats. It's pretty much unreadable tripe.

It starts off not too badly, with establishing that cats are The Folk, who have their own mythology and see humans as a ruined, inferior offshoot of the cat family. Fritti, the hero, decides to leave his clan to search for a female cat he knows, amid rumours that cats are disappearing and that something terrifying is hunting them in small but increasing numbers. There's a bit of cultural explanations, and some language invention, and some other fantasy basics. A little silly-feeling, but okay. Not everything one reads is awesome.

Then Fritti goes off on his trek, teams up with a kitten, meets a madcat, a bunch of other cats including a psychic one, meets the royal cats at court (this was DIRE), discovers that the origin of the evil is a cat-figure of evil from their mythology who contrary to what the myth says is not dead, but now lives inside a hill gorging himself on cats, forcing cat slaves to dig tunnels for him, creating evil slaves by breeding cats with maybe even DOGS (who are called Growlers - ohdearchrist). It is truly terrible and completely completely unoriginal.

If you're ever in a library and the new ice age is coming, forcing you to burn books for your survival - reach for this one first.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


Found a whole stack of Ngaio Marsh novels, ratty old paperbacks with lurid seventies covers, at the Red Cross charity shop yesterday. Am very pleased.

Monday, May 03, 2010

A reprieve

The book discussion club meeting is postponed until next week. Score. I've been reading NOTHING recently. It's SO DEPRESSING.