3 March, 2014
Freedom for Ukraine, or Death.
Vasyl Shkliar’s historical novel, Raven, can be described as a revolutionary adventure set after the four year war resulting in Ukraine’s annexation by Russia in 1921. It’s a romantic vision of the Ukrainian resistance centring around Kholodnyi Yar, in the central region of Ukraine. Shkliar’s freedom fighters, including Raven, who leads a faction of the outlaws, living within rigid rules of honour and conduct as opposed to the treacherous Russian communists, especially the Chekists (the Bolshevik secret police) who would do anything to capture these men, are patriotic heroes refusing to bow to communist rule and spend their days in guerrilla warfare and sabotage, risking their lives and forsaking their families for a free homeland. Shkliar’s style and the wonderful translation by S.J. Speight and Stephen Komarnyckyj make this an entertaining and thrilling read studded with pockets of philosophical musings. Shkliar mixes fact and fiction and digs deep into Cossack folklore which gives this masculine tale a romantic edge, probably one of the reasons why it is so popular in the Ukraine considering the current political climate. I’m sure the reality would have been a lot more gruesome and violent than depicted in this novel, but Shkliar holds back just enough to make Raven a novel of hope.
The novel begins with the supposed death and burial of Otoman Veremii, a Ukrainian rebel and military leader of such mythic proportion that the Russians refuse to believe that he has died and go hunting for his body. Raven himself is a man of myth, fitting into the heroic mold of the Ukrainian Cossack warrior with a full black beard and long hair, reputedly born strapped with a sword; invincible, clever, uncapturable. He is never without his horse, Mudei, a white stallion, proud and fearless. His fight with the communists is one not just of the body but of the mind, spying, counter-spying and using information to confuse and mislead them. Together with the other Otamans, Raven raids grain stores to feed his people and gathers intelligence to try and stop the Russians from gaining even more control of his beloved country. There are many adventures and we meet many of Raven’s contemporaries, Cossack bandits with honour and fury that burn bright. And when Raven meets Tina, a beautiful actress, fighting her own battle against the Russians, he falls in love and tries to forge a path that includes her without sacrificing his principles.
It’s an interesting novel in that it is a mixture of adventure, history and also comedy. The darkness of the struggle is alleviated with occasional bursts of comic moments that take you by surprise. In some ways, it follows the traditions of the Russian masters (how ironic considering the main struggle in the novel is in direct opposition to the Russians) and although I am unfamiliar with Ukrainian literature, I’m assuming it shares a similar literary heritage. Even though Raven is a novel about war, revolution and resistance, it is softened somewhat by philosophy and romance.
The only thing that held me back is the confusion with names and titles (such as Otaman which I kept getting confused with the Turkish Ottoman) but this is due to my unfamiliarity with Ukrainian history and culture. There is a helpful glossary at the end of the book and it did make me want to explore Ukrainian history and literature in more detail which is a good thing. Nevertheless this was an enjoyable read and once again made me feel the strength of the Cossack mythos.
Do also check out Stu’s review of Raven.
I would like to thank Aventura eBooks for kindly sending me a copy of the book to review.
20 February, 2014
After the triumph of Wolf Hall, it was hard to imagine how Hilary Mantel could top it. And yet she does and her second Booker Prize win, Bring Up The Bodies, shows how much ingenuity and talent lies in her work. Like its prequel Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies is a robust book, charting the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, mirrored through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes.
Here, Cromwell is middle-aged, former Secretary, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Henry VIII’s court; a confidante, a schemer, always practical, always cautious. There is compassion as well as reflection, and yet there is also a ruthlessness, necessary in order to survive in such deadly political climate. He has surrounded himself with people he trusts: his ward Ralph Sadler, nephew Richard, both capable and discreet, and later Gregory his son, who is being educated as a gentleman.
But he must deal carefully with Henry’s Queen, Anne, for she is suspicious, paranoid and hoards affronts. And intelligent enough to know that she can go down the same way she came up in the King’s affections. And when Henry’s eyes begin to rove following her miscarriages, Anne begins to prepare for war. Mantel paints Anne as a chilling figure, one who has the intelligence to match that of Cromwell and who keeps him on his toes.
And as Cromwell’s duties grow and his power increases, we begin to see the blurring of lines as his decisions in court become increasingly complex. With great power comes great responsibility and we begin to see what it is that changes in people as they go up the power ladder. The meaning of trust and friendship, secrets and lies, all begin to change. Cromwell thinks himself unchanged and yet we begin to see how it is that he begins to accumulate enemies, just like his old master, Thomas Wolsey, betrayed by those around him for having too much power.
Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell as ultimately a solitary being, working hard for England and his King, often weighed down by the many decisions and yet unflinching regarding the path he must take, is an attractive one. He’s human and compassionate and yet set Anne Boleyn on her path to the executioner’s block. It’s subtly chilling because Cromwell doesn’t want to be the bad guy.
The fact that Wolf Hall is the country seat of the Seymour family can come as no surprise to Mantel’s readers. It spells Anne’s doom as much as Cromwell’s uncertain future. Like its prequel, Bring Up The Bodies won’t disappoint. It’s a juggernaut of a novel, rich in history, politics and survival strategy, just like its protagonist, Cromwell. It’s dense, intelligent and soulful and reads like a thriller. Just how does Mantel do it?
14 February, 2014
I’m halfway through M.J. Carter’s debut novel The Strangler Vine and am loving the mix of history, mystery and Victorian sensation reminiscent of G.W. Dahlquist’s The Glass Books trilogy with a whiff of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Set in India before the Raj when the British East India Company still controlled vast areas of the country, The Strangler Vine follows Jeremiah Blake, special agent and soldier in the East India Company who has gone native, and his reluctant side-kick, the uptight junior officer William Avery, who are sent on a mission to track down a missing writer who has been sniffing around things that should have been left alone.
So when Penguin kindly invited me to the launch party at the London Review Bookshop thrown by John Lanchester, author of two of my favourite books, The Debt to Pleasure and Fragrant Harbour, and who turned out to be Carter’s husband, I leapt at the chance.
It was a lovely evening of wine, snacks and scintillating conversation. It was great to chat to Carter about her love for historical research (she has also written a number of non-fiction books as Miranda Carter) and I was pleasantly surprised when she asked me if my blog name, chasing bawa, had anything to do with the architect Geoffrey Bawa (yes it does).
It was also really nice to speak to the Penguin publicists Lija and Anna and get an insight into the publishing world and to talk books, books and books. A tip for bloggers: do cross-post your reviews on other social media sites such as Goodreads and Amazon.*
And I spotted Kazuo Ishiguro there too!
*but do obviously check the terms and conditions regarding rights and copyright.
11 February, 2014
We called all our alligators Seth.
Twelve year old Ava Bigtree is the youngest of the Bigtrees, a faux Seminole/Miccosukee tribal family who runs Swamplandia!, an alligator park, just off Loomis County in the Florida Everglades. Hers is a busy and jolly family, her father Chief, the overall manager, her mother Hilola, acclaimed alligator wrestler and star of the show, her grandad Sawtooth who started their love-affair with the Seths, and her studious brother Kiwi, dreaming of going to college, and changeling sister Osceola, the only one who is pale and blond.
Swamplandia! begins as Hilola succumbs to cancer and this signals the slow disintegration of their family venture as the tourists dry up with the disappearance of the star act. As another more commercial venture, The World of Darkness, opens up nearby, the Bigtrees start to struggle financially. Ava’s world begins to crumble as Kiwi runs away to Loomis County searching for ordinary life and Ossie starts dating ghosts. When their grandfather is sent to an old people’s home and their father goes away on one of his ‘business’ trips to save Swamplandia!, it is left to Ava to save her sister, who plans to elope with her spectral fiancé, and revive Swamplandia!. For Ava has discovered a red Seth hatchling amongst their brood and has a secret plan. But everything goes awry when Ossie disappears and Ava is left to venture into the swamps to search for her with the help of the strange Bird Man, a casual worker who occasionally clears the area of buzzards.
This is a strange tale. One that alternates between the fierce imaginations of a family living off the grid and encroaching reality as the kids grow up. The death of their mother is the catalyst which sends their idyllic life off-kilter and brings them in line with modern life. Their naiveté is shocking and as the tale progresses with Ava’s search for Osceola, there is a growing sense of trepidation which is mirrored by Ava’s concern for her sister, but one that is totally different for the reader. What at first seems a childhood free of suffocating rules slowly coalesces into an unruly and irresponsible upbringing, the only saving grace being the children themselves. It’s frightening to see the consequences of irresponsible parenting.
What one is left with is the tragic consequences of the children’s coming-of-age facilitated by the unbelievable selfishness and self-delusion of the adult Bigtrees. Did the Chief not realise what he was doing leaving his kids behind? As the kids’ illusions crumble and they slowly realise their life on Swamplandia! was all smoke and mirrors, what is heartwarming is the love they still feel for each other and the place they call home.
This isn’t a gushingly sad book. It’s actually very funny, if not a little long, and Russell is adept at sliding in some comedic moments with such flair that, like Swamplandia!, it masks the grim reality of what is happening to the Bigtrees. She lulls you into a false sense of security which is suddenly stripped just as Ava’s perception shifts. It’s deftly done and packs an awful punch.
Stories with animals aren’t really my thing but I loved the way Russell makes the Seths a central part of the Bigtree story. And don’t you just love the way they call the alligators Seth?
Ultimately, Swamplandia! is a bildungsroman, a bittersweet coming-of-age novel where over one hot summer, a family’s dreams and hopes are swept away as reality finally kicks in.
Swamplandia! sharply divided my book group for which I chose the book. It was lauded widely (in the New York Times and New Yorker) and Russell was picked as one of the recipients of the MacArthur ‘genius’ grants last year and is also one of the 20 Under 40 Granta authors, so expectations were very high. With comparisons to Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter, we all agreed that there were flashes of brilliance in her prose and that it’s certainly a very original novel but many of us found it very slow and hard going. I think there is a lot more going on in Russell’s story and I may have missed all the subtext such as the importance of the colour of the red Seth, allusions to Dante in The World of Darkness and the hellish swamps, or the reality behind Chief and Hilola’s marriage, what exactly does the Bird Man symbolise, etc. which I think re-reading Swamplandia! would probably unearth. I am, however, curious to read the short story from which this novel was born and will be checking out St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
Have you read Swamplandia! and if so, what did you think?
3 February, 2014
It’s been a while, right? It doesn’t mean I haven’t been eating. At the end of last year, I did a runner for my birthday and flew to Perth with my friends and stopped in Hong Kong on the way back. It was 3 days of eating and sightseeing and boy did we manage to eat lots and lots of incredible Chinese food. And we insisted on only Chinese food. And we started with Tim Ho Wan, the Michelin-starred dim sum joint where you have to queue with the locals and there is no special treatment. But it is SO worth it. Check me out at Umami Mart: Slightly Peckish!
In bookish news, I finally finished parts 1 & 2 of Haruki Murakami’s chunkster, 1Q84. I’ll review it once I finish part 3 which I am dying to read. It’s proving to be one of my favourite Murakami novels at the moment. I’m currently trying to finish Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, my pick for this month’s book group which I can only describe as different.
Upcoming is a brand new literary festival hosted by Daunt Books, details here, on March 27th and 28th. Some quality sessions including one to celebrate Virago Modern Classics. Deborah Levy will be there and they will be discussing Barbara Comyns, one of my favourite authors! So do put it in your diaries. I recently swung by Daunt Books in Marylebone and got myself one of their canvas bags in navy and a copy of Sisters By A River.
I’m so glad that Virago is bringing Comyns back into print. I wouldn’t have discovered her if not for Simon T kindly sending me an out of print copy of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead which was magnificent. More people need to read her!
10 January, 2014
My first foray into recent Nobel prize-winning literature is Mo Yan’s satirical ode to China’s modern history, Big Breasts and Wide Hips. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read this book if it wasn’t for my book group but I’m glad I did. (I seem to say this about all my book group choices which means the choices tend to be outside my comfort zone which is the whole point of being in a book group. Win win.)
I have to admit the beginning of Big Breasts and Wide Hips almost defeated me. It’s not the easiest book to read, meandering all over the place and generally being too wordy. And yet, there is a certain charm to Mo Yan’s treatment of what is often a brutal and savage history. The light, comic touches with which he brushes aside the extreme nature of China’s transition into the modern world without rendering any of the experiences futile. I laughed as much as I winced in pain at the harsh life lessons thrown to Shangguan Lu, the Mother, whose resilience provides the backbone to her large, mainly female family. With seven elder sisters and a twin sister, the narrator is the much-loved and longed-for son, whose otherwise assured life is thrown upside down by the civil war and fighting which tears through 400 years of traditional Manchu rule. What is unfortunate to the narrator proves to be a golden opportunity for his sisters; all strong-willed and bent upon finding their own paths in life, brushing aside what would have been a traditionally submissive and slavish existence.
One of the things I loved about Big Breasts and Wide Hips were the adventurous life choices made by the narrator’s sisters, not all of them wise, and most often ending in tragedy. But nevertheless, you feel as though they grabbed life by its horns and lived their lives to the fullest. Compared to them, the narrator is passive, an observer, swept along the tides of history, impotent to his own fate. I wanted to know more about the sisters: Laidi who runs away with a rebel, Zhaodi who marries the local warlord Sima Ku, Lingdi who falls in love with a Birdman and becomes a Bird Fairy, Xiangdi who sells herself to a brothel to feed her family, Pandi who turns Communist, Niandi who falls in love with an American, Qiudi sold to a Russian lady and Yunü, blind yet tough. All so vital and driven by their desperate search for meaning in their lives.
The ironic nature of history is first revealed as Xuan’er who later becomes Shangguan Lu, the narrator’s mother, is brought up with such care, her feet bound, to become a desirable wife to a rich man. Just on the cusp of adulthood, the government abolishes foot binding and she becomes a liability and has no choice but to marry a blacksmith from a lower class, a useless, sniveling son to a strong-willed mother with a fervent wish for a grandson. Xuan-er’s future is bleak as she is unable to get pregnant, and later when she bears daughters in succession, it is only her strong will and adaptive nature that keeps her alive including looking for prospective sperm donors.
The harsh lessons of history are all here. The atrocities committed by the Nationalists, Communists and the Japanese and the way the Chinese people had to cope with the upheavals in their lives that are beyond their control. It’s humbling to read about what people had to endure, especially when we know that reality is probably much more severe than fiction. However, Mo Yan dampens this considerably through ‘daft hilarity’ but this can sometimes make you feel as though the characters are jaded, that they can only go on living through just their actions rather than thought and the reader isn’t given enough emotional substance to process these events. I’m not sure if he gets the balance quite right. There’s been several criticism of Mo Yan’s award of the Nobel Prize including accusation of being a spokesperson for the People’s Republic of China and you can read about it here , here and here.
If the narrator’s obsession with breasts and breastfeeding doesn’t put you off, Mo Yan’s epic tale of China’s relentless march towards modernism via Communism is simultaneously heart-breaking and ludicrous that you will indeed think he is some kind of a genius to be able to pull off such a narrative.
The wordy, meandering nature of Mo Yan’s tale, the complex family relationships and the length of the book almost broke our book group. But if you do persist, it’s an incredibly dense and wonderful tale that celebrates life in all it’s absurdity and one that I did enjoy reading although it did take me a while to get into the book and a family tree would have been helpful.
31 December, 2013
I’ve been rather lax this year. I’ve participated in some challenges but forgot the wrap-ups, I have a lot of reviews I still need to write about books I really loved – why are they the hardest to write? And I still have a lot of books I was planning to read this year which remain untouched. But, I did have a fabulous reading year filled with so many really good books and I can’t wait to share my thoughts even if it means I may post my reviews next year. Life, eh?
So my eleven picks of the year in alphabetical order are:
Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
Silence by Shusaku Endo
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Under The Skin by Michel Faber
The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
I’ll be writing about some of these in the next few months but do hope you’ll give them a try!
2013 was also a strong year for sequels. I really enjoyed Danielle Trussoni’s Angelopolis and Laini Taylor’s Days of Blood and Starlight, two very original and compelling takes on angel lore and I can’t wait to read more.
And a special mention goes to Xu Xi’s History’s Fiction: Stories from the City of Hong Kong which was an unexpected find for me – a collection of beautiful, finely-tuned short stories.
So have you read any of these books? And what was your favourite read of the year?