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Pushing the Limits

Product DetailsPushing the Limits by Katie McGarry

I took a chance on this novel when it was on special earlier this year. Boy, am I glad I did as the story really blew me away.

The chapters alternate between Echo and Noah, two senior high school students. The opening chapter begins with Echo, her father and pregnant stepmother in the clinical psychologist’s office at school. This heavy scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Both Echo and Noah are suffering. Echo has recently returned to school after a long absence and spends the days instinctively hiding her heavily scarred arms. Noah, the delinquent of the story, doesn’t take school seriously. He lives in the basement of his disinterested foster parents’ house and works at a fast food restaurant to keep some respectability in order to maintain visitation with his two younger brothers. As you would imagine, Echo and Noah are drawn together through a mutual understanding of loss and confusion.

This is a sad read but the author avoids turning it into train crash drama. Instead, throughout all the misery, Katie McGarry has created a believable plot and real electricity between Echo and Noah. I think I fell in love with Noah a bit too! I love Echo’s name; she is named for the mountain nymph in Greek mythology who acted as a diversion and then lost her voice. Both of these attributes are seen in Echo’s character and subtle references to the Greek myths are included in Noah’s chapters.

The only weakness in the story is perhaps there was just one misunderstanding between Echo and Noah too many. However, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book and I would have immediately started the next book in the series had it been published!

Pushing the Limits: 5 stars

Product DetailsDare You To by Katie McGarry. Due to be published on 7 June 2013. The cover doesn’t really speak to me but I can overlook it as I am so keen to read the second book in this series.

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Tigers in Mild Weather

Product DetailsTigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

This deliciously named novel along with its eye catching cover has been on my to read list for a while. It’s getting a lot of hype at the moment so I thought I should finally make the effort to read it.

The story is told from the perspective of five characters – two cousins, their two children and one husband. Their narratives move back and forth in time, from WW2 to the 1960s. The one downside of reading it on a Kindle is that it isn’t so easy to flick back to compare timelines. The bulk of the story takes place at the family home, Tiger House, and the key scenes occur in the middle of a long sultry summer. For the most part it is a novel about relationships but there is an odd twist in the mood at the end which makes you wonder what sort of novel you have actually been reading!

I honestly cannot decide if I like or dislike the change in the story or not. This ambivalence I feel sort of summarises my feelings for the novel. It was an interesting read and I certainly enjoyed it but I just didn’t feel strongly about anything in the novel. I didn’t particularly like or dislike any of the characters which makes it hard to become fully involved in their lives. The author has written a well structured novel but much to my disappointment it failed to leave a strong enough impression.

Tigers in Red Weather: 4 stars

The are a few novels about women in early to mid 20th century USA being published at the moment. They all have rather glamorous covers which is no doubt part of the reason I am drawn to them!

Product DetailsThe Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani (published 6 June 2013). I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of this from Tinder Press. It is actually set in WW1 but for some reason the style reminds me of Tigers in Red Weather. It is a coming of age novel within the confines of Southern decorum and social conventions. A little bit slow to reflect the pace of things in the South, it is a good read that will probably be a hit in the summer. 4 Stars.

Product DetailsPalisades Park by Alan Brennert (published 9 April 2013). Not surprisingly, this cover really caught my eye.

Product DetailsGossip by Beth Gutcheon. I have downloaded this on to my Kindle.

Product DetailsThe Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell (published 9 May 2013).

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Lost in Translation

Purge by Sofi Oskanen

Please look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin

Purge by Sofi Oksanen  was heavier in content than expected; I skimmed the blurb and wasn’t necessarily expecting historical fiction. However, I always like an unanticipated journey when reading a novel and this novel did not fail to disappoint.

Aliide is an elderly woman living on the edge of a village in an Estonian forest. She challenges the stereotype of the elderly right from the beginning by showing how alert she is to ploys used by gangs to rob and harass people. One morning she finds a distressed young girl, Zara, in her garden. Zara seems to be tainted by involvement in a gang; is she there as a decoy for a more sinister crime?

As the novel progresses the stories of both women are revealed with Aliide’s story taking the reader to both WW2 and Soviet Estonia. I’ve studied a reasonable amount of history but I had never thought exclusively about Estonia. The fact that this novel describes a moment in history from an Estonian point of view was really interesting. I really got the sense that prior to the war the country was not purely a homogenous Estonian population. Rather it seemed to be a crossroads with people from all surrounding countries drawn there for work including an established German community in the novel.

I also found it interesting that at times of difficulty the old Finnish marrka was used on the black market as a trustworthy ‘hard currency’. Furthermore, Finland was seen as ‘the west’ and many characters would lament that they wished they had left for Finland when they had the chance.

The poverty and suffering in the countryside as a legacy of communism is rather uncomfortable at times. Issues of young people’s migration to cities and other countries also permeates the story. Interestingly, on a recent trip to Helsinki I was quite aware of the large number of young Estonians in the hospitality and service industries.

For the most part the novel is a rather bleak read and some scenes are quite uncomfortably violent. The broader themes of the novel encompass both women’s stories but I really do not want to give them away. Be warned that the book description on Amazon has a spoiler.

One thing that let the book down was the implied Estonian nuances about life in some of the longer passages of description. The whole novel was very readable but someone with an insight into the unsaid parts of Estonian culture may have found some parts of the novel more satisfying.

When I felt I was missing some cultural knowledge in Purge, it reminded me of another book in translation I read recently – Please look after Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin.  I was initially drawn to the mystery of what happened to the elderly family matriarch when she disappeared in the Seoul subway. The story is told from multiple viewpoints with different members of the family revealing to the reader their private lives and surfacing feelings of guilt about not noticing Mother more.

I enjoy reading family dramas but this one just did not captivate me enough. I felt the writing a bit stilted which may have been due to the translation. I can be quite forgiving about this but my main feeling throughout was that there was too much cultural understanding embedded in the novel which made it difficult for me to appreciate the story. I have read quite a few books set in Asia – including a few set in Korea – so I am quite open minded about the cultural differences. In this book the parents lived in the countryside which may have added a different layer of difficulty to the story as they were quite old fashioned in their ways. The lack of communication and awareness between the family members was also something I could not relate to easily. I imagine this book was popular in Korea but I just found it too difficult to become fully absorbed in the story.

Purge: 4 Stars
Please look after Mother: 3 stars

More about Korea I have read:

A Step from Heaven by An Na – A short and poignant exploration of the Korean immigrant experience in the USA. It is narrated by the family’s young daughter.  The sadness and cruelty in the story really brings a tear to the eye. Published about 10 years ago. It’s a shame that vampires, magic and angels have pushed this sort of YA novel to the margins.

All Woman and Springtime by B.W.  Jones – About two female orphans in North Korea. The story branches out to South Korea and beyond. It really made me think about the North Korean diaspora.

Drifting House:  Krys Lee – An interesting collection of stories about family, duty and the struggle between the generations when western influence abound. I particularly liked the sedate friendship that developed between two retirees in the USA.

1000 Chestnut Trees by Mira Stout – I read and loved this when it was first published in 1999. It takes the reader back to the partition between North and South, and the current DMZ.

If you know any other great novels in translation please let me know. Any Estonian suggestions are welcome!

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Dystopian Survival

Cover of "The Hunger Games"

Cover of The Hunger Games

I once heard a comment that Lord of the Flies was like, Gone, but in Gone they get to eat people too. Ah, the horrors of dystopian futures! Are some older novels no longer timeless?

The sensation of The Hunger Games had me intrigued. I avoided reading it for a while in case fighting to the death proved too gory for my delicate constitution. However, once I started I couldn’t stoop. While I didn’t read the three books in quick succession, I did finish each of them in one sitting. The chapters always ended in such a way that I was lured into starting the next. I am someone who has from a young age enjoyed the idea of post-apocalyptic or chaotic worlds (Robert O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, for instance) and Suzanne Collins didn’t disappoint. However,  I did feel that she had in some ways created a pastiche of ideas that had been used before. As I was reading, the following stories quickly came to mind:

  • Hatchet (Gary Paulson) and My Side of the Mountain (Jean George) both detail surviving in the wild. My concerns about gore in The Hunger Games were dismissed when I realised the bulk of the time in the arena is spent  finding food, shelter and water, and hiding from danger. Ultimately, The Hunger Games is an old fashioned survival story.
  • Tomorrow when the War Began – John Marsden. A 1990s YA war series about a group of teenagers in country Australia fighting to survive against the ruling army. Filled with weapons, danger, hunger and refugees. Is Ellie no longer bold enough to be a contemporary heroine?
  • The famous American gothic short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson describes  villagers being selected for a gruesome fate.
  • The cult Japanese movie Battle Royale (this one is according to my husband). Based on his descriptions, among other things the ‘giant clock’ in Catching Fire seems to resemble the destruction patterns in Battle Royale.

All this being said, I did enjoy the series and thought that movie was excellent. I only watched the movie this past weekend which is partly why I am inspired to write this blog today. The contrast between the Captial and District 12 was stunning to see. I did not expect the fashions in the Capital to resemble the ostentatious couture of the French Revolution and I was surprised that Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna was not more flamboyant! The Victorian poverty and dull colours in District 12 also added to the story. While both locations were described well in the novels, I felt that Suzanne Collins was not always convincing enough with the setting and SF elements. For example, some miracles of futuristic science and medicine seemed to solve plot problems too easily, while other storylines grew only because what you would imagine to be a simpler discovery was not yet made. There didn’t seem to be a pattern with the names either and it was not clear why certain people had Latin names and others did not.

My favourite of the three books is the third, Mockingjay. It is a darker book with cat and mouse elements. Some people I have spoken to found this book too unnerving but I found it was a nice break from the first two which had somewhat similar plots.

One other successful YA novel set in a dystopian future is Hollowland by Amanda Hocking. In a USA ravaged by war, the zombie threat means survivors are placed in secure facilities. Vigilantes and religious cults have bunkered down and stockpiled arms.  Remy is separated from her brother and, carrying a family secret, she travels across the country to find him. I found this novel to be convincing throughout, even with the random sounding inclusions of a pop star and a tame lion. It is a little short at 290 pages but it is sharp throughout. Hocking has avoided padding out the story – a skill by which all authors should abide. Hollowland should have a wider reputation than it currently does. It is only available as an ebook so this may be why.

Similar YA  dystopian books at the top of my to read list:

And two more, perhaps suited to adults:

If you have any more suggestions please get in touch.