Jenn Ashworth: Cold Light (2011) Giveaway

This is the tale of three fourteen-year-old girls and a volatile combination of lies, jealousy and perversion that ends in tragedy. Except the tragedy is even darker and more tangled than their tight-knit community has been persuaded to believe.
Blackly funny and with a surreal edge to its portrait of a northern English town, Jenn Ashworth’s gripping novel captures the intensity of girls’ friendships and the dangers they face in a predatory adult world they think they can handle. And it shows just how far that world is willing to let sentiment get in the way of the truth.

Anyone who follows this blog knows how much I loved Jenn Ashworth’s novel A Kind of Intimacy (here is my review). That’s why I am especially pleased to be able to giveaway 2 copies of her new book Cold Light courtesy of

The giveaway is open internationally. All you need to do is leave a comment and tell me if you would like one of the books. If there is a lot of interest, I will determine the winners with the help of They will be announced next Monday.

I started reading my review copy and so far I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s different from A Kind of Intimacy but quite captivating as well.

The giveaway ends Sunday June 5 2011.

Juan José Campanella’s El Secreto de Sus Ojos / The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) An Argentinian/Spanish Thriller

Juan José Campanella’s movie El Secreto de Sus Ojos aka The Secret in Their Eyes is an unusual thriller. It’s a Argentinian/Spanish co production, based on Eduardo Sacheri’s novel El Secreto de Sus Ojos.

The story is told in an unusual way, takes many twists and turns and offers an astonishing and thought-provoking ending.

Benjamín Espósito is a retired Argentinian federal agent. He has started to write a novel about a case that happened many years ago and that took an unsatisfactory turn. Liliana Coloto, a beautiful young woman, was brutally raped and murdered in her own apartment. Although Espósito and his colleague probably found the killer, the man was let go.

Espósito writes his novel for many reasons, one of which is giving an ending to something that didn’t have one. In order to achieve this, he revisits the case and the people who were involved.

Espósito pays a visit to the former chief of the department, Irene Menéndez-Hastings and tells her about his plans to write a novel about the case. She isn’t very keen on the idea. The case and its outcome were too upsetting. And there may be other reasons why she doesn’t want to remember what happened so many years ago.

The story of the case is told in flash backs and bit by bit we see what happened, how the people involved in the investigation lived, how they got emotionally involved in the case. Espósito cares a lot about Liliana’s husband. The man is devastated by the loss and the brutality of the crime and tries to find the murderer on his own.

In a conversation between Liliana’s husband and Espósito, Liliana’s husband says that he wouldn’t want the man to be executed. Capital punishment would be much too merciful.

I liked this movie a lot, it’s very melancholic, manages to interweave different story lines and offers a few interesting themes like writing as a means to find closure,  second chances, capital punishment and justice. The characters are very complex and interesting.

The movie is mysterious for a long time but I can assure you that everything is resolved in the end, all the loose ends will be tied together.

I’m not always tempted to read a novel after having watched a movie but it in this case I’m really curious. Has any one read the Spanish original? The English translation The Secret in Their Eyes will be out soon as well.

Shusaku Endo: The Sea and Poison aka Umi to dokuyaku (1958) Literature and War Readalong May

Against the backdrop of World War II, Japanese writer Endo ( Scandal ) explores the nature of morality. In this novel, originally published in Japan in 1958, the author examines the inner lives of three characters in the central drama, a grisly vivisection of an American prisoner of war, in an attempt to understand what conscience, or lack of conscience, allowed them to participate in such an atrocity.

The Sea and Poison is the first novel in this readalong that truly upset me. It’s an excellent book but so depressing and bleak, it reminded me of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony which was so far one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. I was afraid that the part on the vivisection might be too graphic but Endo is far to subtle a writer to be too explicit. The horror lies somewhere else.

The Sea and Poison is divided in three parts plus a prologue. Each part is told from another point of view, part 2 from different points of view. It is set during WWII in a hospital outside of the city of Fukuoka. Before we even hear about the planned vivisection on American prisoners of war we get to see the doctors at work. What we see is highly depressing. They do not seem guided by the love of their fellow human beings but purely because they are careerists and love power. Seldom have I read such an utterly negative depiction of doctors. This is best shown in the way they treat poor patients. They are unfriendly and heartless, whether they die or not, it doesn’t matter. It seems as if they did try to excuse this with the war as Suguro thinks:

No doubt it was a time when everybody was on the way out. If a man didn’t breathe his last in the hospital, he might well die that night in an air raid.

The central story is the vivisection which isn’t described in great detail. What is at the core is the study of the people who take part in it. “The old man”, chief surgeon Dr. Hashimoto and Dr. Asai are in charge. Dr. Toda and Dr. Suguro, two young interns, will assist, and two nurses will help as well. We do not hear much about Hashimoto’s motivations or only what Toda explains to Suguro:

“Doctors aren’t saints. They want to be successful. They want to become full professors. And when they want to try out new techniques, they don’t limit their experiments to monkeys and dogs. Suguro, this is the world and you ought to take a closer look at it. “

However we get to know Toda, the nurse and Suguro’s motivations and their stories. What is important is to underline that they could have refused. All three of them were asked whether they were willing to particpate and none of them refused.

Suguro is the only one with a conscience, still he accepts because the proposal comes at a moment of utter disillusionment. He has lost a patient and has seen how “The Old Man” lied about a patient he lost. He sees how many people are killed in air raids, how hopeless it is to help. When he is asked he doesn’t really say yes but he can’t refuse. Only at the last moment does he back off and doesn’t want to touch the patient.

The nurse has a complicated and sad life story. It seems as if there is nothing in this world for her anymore after her personal tragedy. It looks as if she was thinking “If I am miserable, why shouldn’t the others be?”

And Toda? Toda is a being without any feelings. Since his early childhood he is aware that he doesn’t care about other people, that he cannot connect. He has no empathy, no compassion. Occasionally he wonders if there is something wrong with him but at the end of the day he thinks that most people are like him.

I would like to ask you. Aren’t you too, deep down, unmoved by the death and sufferings of others? Aren’t we brothers under the skin perhaps? Haven’t you, too, lived your life up to now without excessive self-recrimination and shame? And then someday doesn’t there stir in you, too, the thought that you are a bit strange?

The questions the novel poses are manyfold and extremely interesting. One could ask whether those who do not directly kill the prisoners are as guilty as those who kill them. Is Suguro who can’t say no and watches but doesn’t touch the patient less guilty than the chief surgeon who performs the surgery?

And what about the chief surgeon? He is a man who is responsible for the death of many people. He performs a surgery and it goes wrong. He makes mistakes, people die. Is he less guilty of those deaths than of those of the American prisoners?

The type of questions this novel poses are the same that were asked in Germany after the war as well. Were those who watched and let things happen less guilty than those who took an active part? This made me think of Macbeth. Who is guiltier? Macbeth who did the killing or Lady Macbeth who had the idea?

I know it is said that this novel explores individual responsibility in wartime. I’m sure that is an important topic but I think two other things were far more important. I think this book criticises doctors and health care professionals in general, showing them as too keen on success and power, as heartless and inhuman. And it also wants to illustrate that people are selfish and mean.

I cannot say I “liked” this book but I did find it extremely thought-provoking, the writing is captivating and the character studies interesting.

I’m really looking forward to read what you thought of it.

Please read also what others wrote:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Gary (The Parrish Lantern)


Novroz (Polychrome Interest)


The Sea and Poison was the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Primo Levi’s If This is a Man aka Se questo è un uomo. Discussion starts on Friday June 24, 2011 .

Dutch Reading Month in June

I just wanted to raise awareness for the upcoming Dutch reading month that will be organized by Iris on Books. She already hosted the read along for Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven and now, all through June, we will be reading Dutch books. There are already quite a lot of people who want to participate. I did a post a while back with Dutch reading recommendations. If you would like to participate, have a look at my Dutch Book Recommendations or at those Iris is giving on her Blog.

I’m not sure what I will read but I enjoy the fact that I don’t have to decide in advance.  I have two new books on my TBR pile, one is Tommy Wieringa’s Caesarion, the other one Willem Frederik Herman’s The Darkroom of Damocles. Both have been recommended by Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life) and by Iris.

You can also find recommendations on The Dutch Foundation For Literature.

Bernice L. McFadden: Glorious (2010)

Glorious is set against the backdrops of the Jim Crow South, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights era. Blending fact and fiction, Glorious is the story of Easter Venetta Bartlett, a fictional Harlem Renaissance writer whose tumultuous path to success, ruin, and ultimately revival offers a candid and true portrait of the American experience in all its beauty and cruelty.

What an entertaining and well written book! I always say that I don’t like historical novels but I really liked this one a great deal. I had a feeling I had only just started when it was already finished.

Glorious tells the story of the fictitious Harlem Renaissance writer E.V. Gibbs whose maiden name was Easter Venetta Bartlett.

Easter’s story is a blend of fact and fiction and from what I can judge McFadden put a lot of effort into the research of her topic and manages to weave it artfully into the story.

I was drawn into the book from the first pages on. In the prologue we read about the tragic beginning of Easter’s story. I liked the way McFadden did this in adding a long list of sentences  and paragraphs all starting with “If….” It exemplifies something that is on my mind a lot, namely the one single instance or occurrence in which a fatal or happy series of events is triggered, the one crucial point that determines the course a life will take.

If her father hadn’t won a boxing match, Easter’s sister wouldn’t have been raped. If that hadn’t happened her father wouldn’t have had an affair and her mother wouldn’t have died. If her mother hadn’t died, Easter wouldn’t have left her hometown and if….

But it did happen and Easter leaves. First she stays with relatives in the Jim Crow South until she witnesses a lynching.  She escapes and joins a travelling circus where she meets the charismatic, lesbian Rain. Easter will not stay very long with the circus and moves on. After some more trials and tribulations she arrives in New York.

She settles down in New York, finds a job that pays he bills, meets a man from the Caribbean and gets married.

Since her early days Easter has always written stories. In New York, after having met Rain again and been introduced to Meredith Tomas, the rich wife of a Cuban plantation owner, she is discovered as the great hidden talent she is. All the prominent people of the Harlem  Renaissance like her writing and she is very influential.

Chance however is not on her side. Her husband who attempts to murder Marcus Garvey, dies soon after her talent has been discovered and Meredith, consumed by envy of her talent, steals Easter’s novel.

The last chapters fast forward some 4o years and we see what has become of  Easter who is now an elderly woman working as a maid in her hometown.

As I said, this book is based on a lot of facts and I’m pretty sure, that it is to a large extent inspired by Nella Larsen’s biography whose career did also end with an accusation of plagiarism.

The beginning in the Jim Crow South is maybe the best part of the novel. The descriptions are very powerful and almost cinematographic. What a monstrosity the South of those days was. It made me think of the song Strange Fruit. I have been collecting versions of it for years now.

Glorious will not be my last Bernice McFadden novel. She really is a very talented writer and it was a highly entertaining read. I already got her first novel Sugar here.

I’m amazed that she hasn’t been translated into German. If there is one market for which her novel would be perfect, it is the German one.

I wouldn’t have read this book if it hadn’t been for a comment by Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) who mentioned it on my first Nella Larsen post.

Here is the link to Anna’s review and to my first Nella Larsen post on Quicksand and to the second on Passing.

Last but not least here is the link to Bernice McFadden’s Blog.

I couldn’t resist and have attached one of my favourite Strange Fruit versions sung by Nina Simone. The video is worth watching as well. It’s very shocking.

Anton Chekhov: The Black Monk aka Чёрный монах (1894) and Peasants aka Мужики (1897) Stories

The Black Monk (Penguin 60s)

Unlike Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, Chekhov isn’t known for his novels but for his short stories and his theater plays. Some people believe that there has never been a finer short story writer than him. I agree, he is an accomplished writer and reading him is a real joy. I had this little Penguin book containing The Black Monk and Peasants for years now but never got around to reading it.

I have read many of Chekhov’s stories and I’m well aware that he was someone who was interested in the fate of the Russian peasant and the poor, nevertheless I don’t think I have ever read anything by him that was as bleak as these two stories.

They are very different but there is a common topic in those stories which is illness. Mental illness in the first and a neurological illness in the second.

The Black Monk tells the story of the Master of Arts Andrey Kovrin. Kovrin feels exhausted and tired and decides to go and spend the summer with his former mentor, the famous horticulturalist Pesotsky and his daughter. Being an orphan, Korvin grew up with Pesotsky and loves him dearly. The old man has a wonderful estate with beautiful gardens and orchards that produce a lot of fruit and vegetables.

The beginning of the story is very idyllic. Korvin enjoys the beauty of the gardens, the company of his friend and to work on his numerous projects. Nobody seems to be aware at first that he hardly sleeps. He is very nervous and overeager and works like a mad man. Strange thoughts haunt him and he constantly thinks of a tale that he once read about a black monk who is a real person in one place but a sort of mirage in others.

As idyllic as the story starts it soon gets darker when Korvin not only to sees the black monk but speaks to him as well and finally has a nervous breakdown. I found this a highly interesting story as we think at first that it is a ghost story and then realize that Korvin is psychotic. This reminded me a lot of Maupassant’s Le Horla and there could be an influence. The Black Monk is a story of a nervous breakdown that leads to hallucinations and visions that are so intense that Korvin takes them for real. He believes everything the monk tells him and what he tells him flatters him.

The black monk says to Korvin that he is one of the chosen ones, an artist and that artists never see the world like everybody else.

But how do you know that men of genius, in whom the whole world puts its faith, haven’t seen ghosts too? Nowadays scientists say genius is akin to madness. My friend, only the mediocre, the common herd are healthy and normal.

After the breakdown Korvin undergoes a treatment with bromides, gets a lot of rest and becomes extremely depressed. His visions are gone and so is his feeling of grandeur. Being cured is insufferable to him. Chekhov’s psychological insight is really amazing. I’m not sure whether Korvin suffers of schizophrenia but it could be. He could also be bipolar. Both explanations are possible and both illnesses have the trait that during the moments of (megalo)mania the patient is quite happy. Often however they don’t sleep, don’t eat, are highly agitated and a break down mostly puts an end to the high.

Peasants is a completely different story. Nikolay Chikildeyev is a waiter in Moscow when he starts to develop a strange illness. His legs get numb and he cannot work anymore as he falls constantly. It isn’t said what it is but it could have been a neurological affliction or MS. In any case he decides to go back to the country and take his wife and his daughter with him.

What follows is unbelievable and I think it must be one of the bleakest stories I have ever read. Chikildeyev’s family are peasants and so incredibly poor, it would be heartbreaking. I did say “would” on purpose because these people are not only poor, they are dirty and brutal, constantly drunk, they hate each other and life, they are mean and abusive.

During the summer and winter months there were hours and days when these people appeared to live worse than cattle, and life with them was really terrible. They were coarse, dishonest, filthy, drunk, always quarreling and arguing amongst themselves, with no respect for one another and living in mutual fear and suspicion.

On the other hand they are extremely religious but in a very irrational way. No one can read and would really know what is in the Bible but they mix up elements the priests said, with Bible quotes and childish beliefs and wishes and pure superstitions. They believe in heaven and hell and the Virgin Mary but without a clear idea what each of them really means. The holidays are followed religiously as each of them is an opportunity to get drunk.

If they could choose they would rather be dead than alive but on the other hand they are extremely scared of being ill and hate Chikildeyev because he is a mirror of their own frailty.

Far from having any fear of death, Marya was only sorry it was such a long time coming, and she was glad when any of her children died.

What is also amazing is the fact that some of the older peasants wish themselves back to serfdom as they were at least fed regularly.

I have never read anything like it and it felt almost like reading nonfiction as it is written in a very realistic and detailed way. It seems as if  Chikildeyev’s illness was just a pretext to have these outsiders come to that place of desolation and depravity. The story also underlines that when you have lived under such circumstances for a long time you hardly see them any more and certainly do not see that you are part of the problem.

Both stories are amazing and show how talented Chekhov was. I cannot say I “liked” them but I would recommend them because they are very enlightening. They show you the talent of an author and the reality of a society of which we don’t know that much anymore but that has certain traits and elements that can still be found nowadays.

Patricia A. McKillip: Winter Rose (1996)

They said later that he rode into the village on a horse the colour of buttermilk. But I saw him first – as a fall of light. And then as something shaping out of the light. So it seemed. There was a blur of gold: his hair. And then I blinked and saw his face more clearly.’ From that moment, Rois is obsessed with Corbett Lynn. His pale green eyes fill her thoughts and her dreams are consumed by tales of his family’s dark past. Of son’s murdering fathers, of homes fallen to ruin, and of a curse that, as winter draws in, is crawling from the frozen forest to engulf them all.

Ever since I read Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beast of Eld, I wanted to read another of her books. She is one of those writers who quietly write one novel after the other and every new book is greeted with a lot of enthusiasm by her fans. Despite her many fans McKillip isn’t a fantasy writer with a huge commercial success, for the simple reason  – I’m guessing – that she doesn’t write trilogies and series. All of her novels are standalones or diptychs, with the exception of The Riddle Master Trilogy. Most of her books are out of print but you can easily get cheap used copies. McKillip’s books are lovely and enchanting and distinctly influenced by fairy tales.

Winter Rose is a retelling of the Scottish tale of Tam Lin. It is a peculiar book and maybe not a typical McKillip because readers either love or hate it. I liked it a lot but can see why others might not have been equally charmed.

While Winter Rose starts like a normal fantasy novel, as soon as reality starts to shift, the writing reads like a fever dream. It is never really clear whether Rois, the main character, is dreaming, has entered another reality or a sort of parallel world. If you want to enjoy this book you have to just let go and follow the flow and not try too much to understand it rationally. It is a bit like reading poetry. Try to picture the images she creates of a world in which the forest can claim people, in which winter swallows everything, in which thorns and ivy weave a web so dense that there is no escaping them. The images are lush and hypnotic, the language is flowery.

Winter Rose isn’t a love story in a conventional sense although Rois falls in love with Corbet the moment she lays eyes on him or rather the moment he materializes before her eyes. Corbet has never been seen in the village in which Rois, her father, her sister Laurel and Laurel’s fiancé Perrin live. It is said that Corbet’s father killed his own father and was cursed. Lynn Hall, the family home, has been standing empty since then and the forest has claimed it back. It is nothing more than an overgrown ruin.

Corbet starts to renovate the house and, accepting Rois’ fathers kind dinner invitations, spends many evenings in their house, talking and laughing with them. Both girls are equally fascinated by Corbet’s mysterious story and want to know everything about him. As much as Rois is infatuated, she is no fool and senses that there is something between Corbet and her sister.

The storytelling is very hypnotic and evokes different layers of reality that are interwoven. When Rois starts to spy on Corbet and follows him into the woods, the realities start to shift for good. There is a strange presence in this other world. Something is waiting in the wood. Is it the Spirit of the Forest, a Guardian, a Faerie? Whatever it is, it is a disquieting being and seems to lure people. Is this the place where Corbet’s father is?

Another mystery that Rois tries to solve is what happened to their mother who died when Rois was just a baby. It is told that Winter took her, she wasn’t ill, she just stopped living. And why has Rois “wood eyes” and sees more than other people?

One day Corbet disappears and Rois goes after him. She crosses the threshold between this world and the other one, and discovers a lot of things that no one else knows.

There really is a lot to like in this novel. The language is poetical and rich in images and Rois is a lovely girl. She is wild and free-spirited and loves to roam the forest. She knows all the medicinal herbs and plants and makes teas and potions for the people of the village.

Despite all the positive aspects, this isn’t a book for everyone. There is simply not enough in terms of story, as said, it is much more like a fever dream.

I’m still in the mood to read another of Patricia A. McKillips novels.  Does anyone have suggestions? I got The Forests of Serre here. Which is your favourite McKillip book?

Winter Rose was my second book for the Once Upon A Time V Challenge.