Laura Kasischke: Mind of Winter (2014)

Mind Of Winter

I wonder sometimes whether authors prefer we read their books very slowly, savouring every word or whether they take it as a compliment if we devour a novel in one sitting. I don’t think Laura Kasischke’s going to pop in and let me know how she feels about the way I read her latest novel Mind of Winter. I bought it, started reading on the tram, kept on reading at home – resenting even the shortest interruptions – and finished it a couple of hours later. I don’t do that very often and if I do, it means that I found a book highly enthralling and couldn’t wait to find out what’s going on. Not a bad thing for a psychological thriller, right?

Mind of Winter (which I discovered on Tony’s Book World here) takes place on December 25, during one snowy day. Holly Judges, a poet, who has been suffering from writer’s block for decades, wakes late on Christmas morning. Her husband dashes out the door to get his parents at the airport, their daughter Tatty – Tatiana – is still sleeping. Holly, who woke from a nightmare, tries to make sense of a sentence that haunted her when she woke up “Something had followed them from Russia.”

Moving back and forth in time we hear about the adoption of Holly’s daughter, thirteen years ago, from a Russian orphanage and we witness how this Christmas day develops. It’s snowing constantly and after a few hours it’s obvious that neither friends nor family will make it and join Holly and Tatty for their traditional Christmas meal.

Inside of the house tensions rise. Tatiana not only displays the moodiness of a teenager but behaves more and more erratic.

There are many dark elements of the past mentioned – dead animals, neighbours who don’t speak to Holly anymore, a family history of hereditary cancer and much more. In the beginning there are just a couple of words that hint at something sinister but then, more information is added on every page, a fuller picture emerges and the reader is wondering constantly what really happened in the past and what is going on in the present.

Saying more would spoil this utterly compelling novel. There’s just one tiny thing that I feel I have to reveal—while the atmosphere is dark and brooding, and the book is more than a little creepy at times, there’s no supernatural explanation. As much as I love ghost stories, I really hate it when a psychological thriller takes the easy way out and uses some lame paranormal explanation for the things that go on.

This is a tightly woven novel, a real page-turner, but still a book that explores a huge amount of interesting themes like hereditary disease, writer’s block, poetry, motherhood, family  . . .  I know I’ll be returning to this author soon.

Laura Kasischke isn’t only a novelist, she’s also a poet. It’s not surprising that poetry is important in this book. I’m grateful that she introduce me to a whole bunch of poets I didn’t know and to the poem referred to in the title,  Wallace Stevens’  The Snow Man.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;


And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter


Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,


Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place


For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Yasushi Inoue – Three Short Stories

Yasushi Inoue

A review of a collection of Yasushi Inoue’s short stories on the blog 1streading inspired me to look for a book by this author. Luckily I found one just in time, before the end of Tony’s January in Japan. They had a large number of novellas, novels, and short story collections at the book shop. Clearly there’s more available in German than in English. Since I wanted to find out whether he’s an author I want to read more of, I got a collection with short stories first. The book is called Liebe (Love) in German and contains three stories. Translated these would be the titles : Death, Love and Waves – The Stone Garden – The Honeymoon. I’m annoyed that they didn’t bother including the Japanese titles even though I don’t speak or read it. Because of this omission I’m not sure whether you can find translations of these or not.

The first story tells the story of a man who has come to a hotel because he wants to kill himself. It took him some time to find the ideal spot. He wanted a place that was visually appealing and practical; one that would allow him to jump off a cliff and be dead right away. We don’t know why he wants to die at first, we only know that things don’t go according to plan because a young woman arrives with the same idea in mind. I was really wondering whether they would both jump, or if only one of them would do it or whether they would even decide to stay alive. This is such a typically Japanese story. I don’t think that Westerners write like this about suicide. What strikes a Western reader even more than the choice of topic is the reasoning behind the choice. In Western literature people who commit sucide are in great distress, but these two, sound very sober. It’s a question of honor and the logical thing to do. Our narrator looks at his own death from a great distance.

The second story was the one I liked best. A newly married man visits a stone garden with his young bride. The description of the nature and the garden is exquisite. The stone garden is a zen garden that proves to have a stunning effect. Every time the man visits the garden, his life changes completely. This time is no exception.

The last story was the saddest because it captured two absolutely unfulfilled lives. The only thing this married couple had in common was that they both avoided joy and were extremely avaricious. The only sign of their love for each other is that they agree so much in their avarice and that the man follows his wife’s example even after her death.

Yasushi Inoue, it seems, isn’t as widely read outside of Japan although he’s one of the greatest Japanese writers. I wonder why. Maybe the stories are too quietly odd? I thought these stories were a great introduction to Inoue’s work and I know I’ll read more of him. The mix between delicate descriptions of nature and character analysis that seems to have been executed with a scalpel is fascinating. I also loved that it felt strange and familiar at the same time.

If you have read Inoue I’d love to hear which books you’d recommend.

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven (2014)

Station Eleven

Another post-apocalyptic novel and one that so  many have reviewed already. Still, I have to write about Station Eleven because it’s such an impressive book and even though there are so many dystopian and post-apocalyptic books published every year, this one stands out. To a large extent because it’s one of a few – maybe even the only one – that doesn’t make you feel as if someone just bashed you over the head. It has so many moments of glorious beauty that you’ll finish it without feeling a major depression coming on.

The book opens with a theater play. It’s Arthur Leander’s last performance of King Lear. Although he dies during the play he has a pivotal role in the book. The night of the play, a winter night in Toronto, isn’t only Arthur’s last night, it marks the end of most of humanity. In a few days a pandemic will have wiped out 99% of the world’s population.

From that night the novel flash forwards to the future, fifteen years later. Kirsten is part of the Travelling Symphony, an orchestra and theater group who performs Shakespeare plays while travelling from one place to the next. The world has changed a great deal. Everywhere lie the remnants of the old world, in which there still was electricity, air planes, iPhones etc.

I mentioned that Arthur Leander has a pivotal role and that’s because Emily St. John Mandel decided to tell the story of all those who were close to him and present when he died, including the story of some other people linked to him. Kirsten, for example, played a child Cordelia in this modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.

Some of the people who were close to Arthur will make it, some won’t. There are some heartbreaking scenes when we read how some of them struggle in vain and die during the pandemic.

What makes the book stand out, apart from the ingenious structure, was how people looked back on what they lost. It makes you grateful for everything we have but at the same time, the book shows that there will always be great things. Because the society we live in now has so much to offer, so  much beauty – art, theater, even technology – that, although 99% of its population are wiped out, many live in a lawless state, and other’s form fanatic cults, there’s still enough that has survived and will go on making our world a special place.

I wonder if this book made it into other people’s dreams as well. While I was reading it, I dreamt every night of the landscapes in the book. That’s why I called it impressive. It’s not overburdened with descriptions but what little she uses is very powerful. If you wonder why it’s called Station Eleven – the title refers to a comic book one of the characters has been drawing almost all of her life.

I liked that the book made me look at what I have and wonder what I would like to keep. Even when it comes to objects. Only things that are useful or even things that are just beautiful?

I could say a lot more about this book but I feel it’s OK to only write a short review because there are so many around at the moment. The important thing is – pick it up. It’s really worth it. If you love post-apocalyptic stories, you’ll read it anyway. If you don’t, maybe it will show you that not every book about the end must be traumatic. Certainly not one that makes you grateful for everything we have and, ultimately, shows that it’s possible to find beauty, no matter what will happen to our world. Nothing illustrates the message of the book better than the reversal of Sartre’s famous quote L’enfer c’est les autres – Hell is other people. In the novel Kirsten thinks that he’s wrong. She has come to the conclusion that hell is the absence of people you feel close to.

I haven’t read The Road yet but I could imagine the two complement each other; one being very gloomy, the other one very luminous.

Phil Rickman: The Smile of a Ghost (2005) Merrily Watkins Series

Smile of a Ghost

In the affluent, historic town of Ludlow, a teenage boy dies in a fall from the castle ruins. Accident or suicide? No great mystery, so why does the boy’s uncle, newly-retired detective sergeant Andy Mumford take his personal fears to diocesan exorcist Merrily Watkins? More people will die before Merrily, her own future uncertain, uncovers in those shadowed, medieval streets, a dangerous obsession with suicide, the nature of death and the afterlife.

I bought The Smile of a Ghost by accident, thinking it was the first in the Merrily Watkins series, but it’s already book seven. I think it says a lot about a series though if new readers do not feel left out and don’t get the impression that there’s a huge amount of backstory that would be annoying for those already familiar with the books.

When you read about some of the elements of the novels, notably that they are set in small English towns and that the main protagonist/investigator is a vicar, you might be led to thinking this is cozy crime. You’d be very wrong. The series is far edgier than you’d expect. And in some ways quite eccentric. Think Trollope meets the Gilmore Girls and you have a pretty good idea of the flavour of the series.

The main investigator is thirty-six-year-old Merrily Watkins, vicar of Ledwardine, in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border. Merrily isn’t only a vicar she’s also a deliverance minister – in other words an exorcist. And she’s the single mom of a teenage daughter and dates a rock musician. With these ingredients it’s not surprising that the books offer a mix of solid mystery, with a gothic flair and a very realistic look at life in contemporary Britain.

In this seventh book of the series Merrily has a lot of trouble with the church. Exorcist is a role that many among the clergy want gone. It whiffs too much of medieval superstitions. But Merrily persists. She’s not entirely sure herself whether she believes in ghosts, all she knows is that there are phenomena nobody can explain and if people feel the need of a priest to help them, why should the church refuse this. It’s decided that she can go on doing what she does but only after consulting with a whole group of people first, one of which a retired, pompous psychiatrist.

Merrily is a very independent person. She hates these new rules. But she’s got more troubles of her own . Her boyfriend, rock musician Lol, has moved to Ledwardine and they try to keep it a secret for the time being. Someone knows though or they wouldn’t receive hate mail. Jane, Merrily’s feisty daughter, starts to investigate, only to find a few other worrying things.

When a young boy, Robbie Walsh, falls from Ludlow castle, it looks like an accident at first. His uncle, newly-retired police investigator Mumford doubts it was an accident. As usual the boy stayed with his grandparents for the holidays. He loves staying at Ludlow. His own home is anything but peaceful. His mother is a druggie and pregnant with a much younger guy’s kid. Robbie’s a history buff and knows everything about Ludlow, including its ghost stories. Shortly before he dies he’s seen with Belladonna, an eccentric goth musician who has bought a house in Ludlow. She’s often seen at night in a dark cape, possibly naked underneath, holding a flickering candle. Does she have something to do with Robbie’s death? Was it a suicide?

If Mumford’s mother wouldn’t pretend she’s still seeing Robbie and he’s talking to her, Merrily might not have been drawn into this, but since there’s the possibility of a haunting, Mumford asks her for help.

Shortly afterwards Mumford’s mother is found dead in the river and a girl jumps from the castle. There’s clearly something very sinister at work here. A suicide cult led by Belladonna? Drug-dealing youth who force others to throw themselves from the ruin? Murder?

I loved this book and will return to this series again. It has such an arresting mix of elements: a suspenseful mystery, elements of ghost stories, a strong sense of place and setting, social commentary and a lot more. The characters are wonderfully well drawn. Merrily and her daughter Jane are a great team. They made me think of the Gilmore Girls more than once. The only reservation I have is the length of the books. None is shorter than 500 pages, many are over 600 and a lot of these pages are filled with church politics. It didn’t bother me too much because everything else was so different and fresh. And I had a tiny problem with the occasional use of vernacular though. It’s just something I don’t like.

I highly recommend this series. It offers a terrific mix of elements, wonderfully likable characters, and great setting and atmosphere. I was almost sad when I came to the end of the novel and didn’t have another one at hand. And I would love to visit Ludlow Castle.

Ludlow Castle

Marcus Sedgwick: Floodland (2000)


Marcus Sedgwick has been on my radar for a while. I’ve seen more than one enthusiastic review of his books. He’s regularly nominated for awards and has won a few, notably the Branford Boase Award for first children’s book for Floodland. When you come to a writer who is as prolific as Marcus Sedgwick it’s hard to know where to start. Last year he even published a book for adults A Love Like Blood, that’s high on my TBR piles. I first wanted to read Midwinterblood but then decided to start with his first novel Floodland.

Floodland is set in the UK in the future. Most of the country is flooded, some of the higher regions building small islands. Food is scarce and people try to flee from the smaller islands to a larger part of the mainland. Zoe is left behind on the island of Norwich when her parents leave. During a moment of total chaos they boarded without making sure that she was really following them. Zoe’s been fighting for herself ever since. She’s a loner and most people leave her alone that’s why, when she discovers a boat, she’s able to hide it, and make it seaworthy again. One day she leaves the island, looking for the mainland. Instead of finding the mainland she’s stranded on an even smaller island than Norwich. Dooby, who is only a few years older than Zoe, is the leader of the people on that island. Food is even scarcer and so is shelter. Most people live in an old cathedral. Dooby confiscates her boat and Zoe’s forced to stay on this island on which people have turned into barbaric mobs, periodically overrun by other mobs who they torture and kill, if given a chance. Her only aim is to find her boat, flee and find the mainland and her parents.

I thought that the idea of Norwich being an island was pretty uncanny. I liked how this book was structured and divided into three parts “before”, “then” and “after”. Each part is subdivided into short chapters. At the beginning of every part and every chapter we find haunting wood carvings by Marcus Sedgwick.

Floodland is a short novel and so it may not be surprising that the writing is taut. There’s no superfluous word here. It all moves along at a steady pace and is very suspenseful.The middle part, which is the longest, was reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. It was also the part which carried the strongest message. There’s only one elderly person on that island and he makes Zoe understand how important it is to tell stories if humans want to keep their humanity.

The end felt a bit rushed but I still thought it was well done. Overall I enjoyed this adventurous story a great deal. Zoe’s a wonderful heroine and the world Marcus Sedgwick created felt realistic. There’s not too much backstory but we still understand it’s all a result of global warming. For children this may be a very emotional book because Zoe wonders until the end why her parents didn’t come back to find her. There’s one thing I didn’t like and that’s the idea that people turn into animals when they lose their humanity. I’m not keen on the dichotomy animal/human. The people in this book lose their compassion and their altruism because they are in a very precarious situation. They are cruel and depraved. That doesn’t make them animals. Animals don’t know cruelty.

If you’d like to find out more about Marcus Sedgwick here’s his website Marcus Sedgwick. It’s one of the most appealing writer’s websites I’ve come across. He also writes a blog where I found this quote that sums up his writing

I’m not a writer who tells you something five times. I usually say it just once, and if I say it any more in a first draft, my editor makes me take it out in a rewrite anyway. That’s one of the reasons that my books are sometimes shorter than other people’s. And that’s one of the reasons why I wish some people would read more slowly. Books are patient; you can afford to take your time when you’re reading for pleasure.

Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014)

The Narrow Road To The Deep North

In December I left an overhasty comment on Bellezza’s blog (here). She’d reviewed Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, saying that it was very hard to read. I was about 100 pages into the novel and commented that I didn’t think it was all that bad. Unfortunately, I still had 350 pages to go and those were anything but easy. They were extremely hard and I kept on wondering “Why am I reading this?”. I’m not sure why I thought like that. I’ve seen many movies on POWs, have read more than one book and never had this reaction. It wasn’t even anything new. I was familiar with what the Japanese did to their prisoners. I knew about the vivisection on American soldiers. I just felt that it’s too much. Too graphic. After I finished the book I chatted with Vishy about it and he told me that Claire had written about the book (here), having a similar reaction. She couldn’t even finish it. I’m still not entirely sure why I reacted like this. I just know that I didn’t get anything out of reading this novel. If it hadn’t been for the brittle writing style and the mostly non-linear structure, which I both found very engaging, I would have given up. And I bought a hardback. It’s one of a few rules I try to stick to; if I buy a hardback, I finish it. I think I have to stop buying hardbacks.

The largest part of The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of the surgeon Dorrigo Evans. Before the war he’s engaged to Ella but just before being shipped overseas he meets his uncle’s young wife Amy and falls in love with her. The love affair is intense and passionate and will haunt him all through the war years and even after the war. There’s a reason why they don’t get together at the end of the war and this plot line was the one I liked best because it illustrates so well how sometimes a whole life can take another turn just because of some small element.

The book is divided into several parts, one of which tells about Dorrigo’s time as a prisoner of war on the Burma Death Railway. In this section, like in the sections in the last part, the point of view changes from one Australian prisoner to the next, and from one Japanese officer or guard to the next. The parts told from the prisoner’s point of view are awful. The descriptions of the horrors, the beatings, the wounds, infections, illnesses  . . . they are so detailed and graphic, it’s too much. And the parts told from the point of view of the Japanese are very disturbing. I’ve never read anything as disturbing as that. We are in the mind of monsters who believe they are superior beings, who go on and on about honor and shame, who constantly rationalize their evil deeds and sadism,  and find not only excuses but reasons that make them believe they are “good men”.

On returning to the camp late that afternoon, Colonel Kota gave Nakamura a dressing down, his rage driven by his own shame at having forgotten a haiku and thus having been unable to behead a prisoner—and this in front of a Korean guard. In turn deeply ashamed, the Japanese major found the Korean sergeant whose name he could never remember, slapped him hard a few times, got the name of the prisoner who was apparently—of all things—hiding out in the hospital, and ordered a parade to be called and the prisoner to be punished in front of the assembled POWs.

After the war Dorrigo gets married to Ella, becomes a famous surgeon and turns into a philanderer.

He (Dorrigo after the war) was a lighthouse whose light could not be relit. In his dreams he would hear his mother calling to him from the kitchen: Boy, come here, boy. But when he would go inside it was dark and cold, the kitchen was charred beams and ash and smelt of gas, and no one was home.

In the last part we’re spending a lot of time in the mind of the Japanese war criminal, officer Nakamura. And once again that’s even more disturbing than anything else.

Flanagan’s writing style and the way he structured the first parts of the book made me finish it. It’s his strength of writing vivid scenes and descriptions that made the book worthwhile, but at the smae time these qualities also made it extremely hard to read. It’s debatable how graphic and explicit a novel should be. I think he did the right thing in being this explicit, only, I didn’t want to read it. Not at this time. However, I have other points to criticize. The book is too long. The last part felt as if he wanted to add too much. We didn’t need to read about the vivisections and there was a scene involving a fire, almost at the end, that I found superfluous as well. As if Flanagan didn’t exactly know when and how to end the book.

The brittle, vivid style makes me want to pick up another of his novels. But I wish I hadn’t read this one.