BOOK REVIEWS

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

“I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”

As much as it pains me to admit this…I didn’t particularly care for this novel. While it is written in Kazuo Ishiguro’s trademark prose, which is both eloquent and introspective, the more I read and the less invested I felt in the story and in particular in Christopher Banks, our narrator and protagonist. It saddens me not to have enjoyed When We Were Orphans as I consider Ishiguro to be an excellent writer and certainly a favourite of mine. Then again, Ishiguro himself said that “It’s not my best book”. Still, while I wasn’t expecting When We Were Orphans to be as poignant as
The Remains of Day or Never Let Me Go, I hoped that I would at least find it to be an engaging read.
At first I was intrigued by the narrative. Although Christopher is a famous detective his investigations are only alluded to. This itself is very unusual and it subverts the reader’s expectations. Usually, when a book revolves around a detective chances are that whatever case(s) they are working on will be a central part of the story. Here instead Christopher’s job is treated like any other job. It is Christopher himself who is a mystery. Ishiguro introduces us to certain aspects of his life, for example at first we read many scenes in which he is socialising at glitzy parties or events. The story begins in the 1930s England and Christopher is slowly making a name for himself. We learn that he is an orphan and that he grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai. As with other novels by Ishiguro our narrator finds himself recollecting a certain period of his life, in this case is childhood. He reconsiders figures and scenes from his past, scrutinizing and questioning his own memories, re-experiencing specific episodes both through the uncomprehending eyes of a child and through his newly acquired adult perspective.
Scenes from his past are interspersed throughout Christopher’s narrative. In the present he meets Sarah, a young woman who also happens to be an orphan. Sarah seems intent on upward social mobility or so we can assume given that she expresses a wish to marry someone of importance. We also learn more of Christopher’s circumstances.
Throughout his careful examination of his past Christopher remains a somewhat remote and cautious narrator. Usually I find cold or detached narrators to be right up my street (such as with Brontë and Kincaid’s Lucys) but Christopher’s opaqueness seemed a bit contrived at times. He remains a half-formed thing for much of his narrative. For instance, when he is thinking of childhood it is Akira who steals ‘the sh0w’. Child-Christopher remains an amorphous figure, who possesses no discernible traits.
Still, I appreciated the way he considers the limitations of memory, how certain events are coloured by later ones, how some incidents will always remain unclear.
What seems to drive his remembrance is the loss of his parents (the exact nature of which we learn quite late in the narrative). The second half of the novel sees Christopher back in Shanghai and here things take on a hazy quality. While in the first half there are many time skips, I never felt that I was missing out on any vital scene. Once Christopher is Shanghai however I started to feel mildly annoyed by how many things happened off page. Nothing is explained to us, we are simply made to go along with Christopher and his outlandish plans. He finds himself in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and kind of loses his marbles. He makes foolish decisions and behaves in an abhorrent fashion. I could not for the life of me believe that he felt any particular strong feelings for Sarah. During his earlier reminiscence I did not feel his grief or anguish when he considered his parents. And yet, all of a sudden, it seems imperative for him to uncover the truth. The more ill-behaved he became the more antipathy I felt for him and the book as a whole. This character change was abrupt and doubtful. While Christopher never struck me as a particularly likeable or kind person he seemed a level-headed and sensible person. And then he just becomes this increasingly tyrannical, inconsiderate, and impudent man.
The mystery was anti-climatic and the story lacked a cohesive structure or at least a rewarding storyline. Christopher remains undeveloped and uninteresting, while the secondary character seemed mere devices. Take Akira for example…his role in the story is disappointing. At the end especially he just ‘puffs’, vanishes, disappears. Christopher doesn’t think of him or their last encounter.
Nevertheless Ishiguro’s prose is certainly refined and, to begin with, thoughtful. His dialogues always ring true, from the words they use to express themselves to the vernaculars they use, even when the motivations of his characters don’t. He certainly succeeds in evoking the society in which Christopher moves, as well as the cultural differences between England and China. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel I still consider Ishiguro to be one of the best writers ‘out there’.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano — book review

45294613.jpgDear Edward presents its readers with a moving coming of age that deals with themes of grief, loss, and death. Throughout the course of Edward’s narrative Ann Napolitano depicts the important role that friends and family play in a person’s recovery process.
While I was certainly felt invested in Edward’s story, I found the structure of Napolitano’s novel to be distracting and counterproductive.

Napolitano’s detailed yet slightly cold writing style may not appeal to some readers (it brought to mind Mira T. Lee and Ann Patchett). For the most part I appreciated her exact prose as it presents us with scenes that are both vivid and realistic.
Ordinary moments or motions were often the backdrop to emotionally charged scenes or realisations.
Napolitano also successfully renders the character of Edward, a 12-year old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. Having lost his parents and his brothers, and with the heavy weight of the guilt that comes when you are only one to survive a crash that killed 183 other people, Edward becomes untethered. His ‘new’ life with his aunt and uncle isn’t easy. Suffering from physical wounds, PTSD, and increasingly detached from his own existence, Edward is struggling to find a place in a world that no longer makes sense to him. While he wasn’t the only one to be affected by the crash, the knowledge that he is the ‘sole survivor’ haunts him. Edward no longer feels the drive to do anything: he loses weight, he no longer feels hungry, and he has difficulties sleeping.

Edward’s story was compelling and heart-rendering. There were quite a few jarring scenes, and it wasn’t easy not to feel protective on his behalf as he the adults and kids around him try to make him ‘better’. The idea that anyone can move past something like a plane crash which killed the three people you loved the most in the whole world as well as many others…is madness. Yet, as the years pass, Edward fears that he is the only one who remembers this horrific tragedy.
The presence of his therapist, his aunt and uncle, his neighbours, and later on his school’s president help on his journey of self-recovery. Nevertheless he remains plagued by his sense of guilt and it is only when he comes across some letters addressed to him (as per the title of the novel: ‘Dear Edward’) from the friends, families, and loved ones of those who died on Flight 2977 that Edward begins to believe and envision a future in which he can help others and subsequently himself.

As heart-wrenching as Edward’s story was, the presence of Shay in his life was frustrating. From the first she treats Edward as some sort of oddity. She starts feeding him stories of his being ‘chosen’ by drawing parallels to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Way to make him feel normal or not to blame…
She also often sounded a lot younger than her actual age. The stuff she comes up with was idiotic. I really didn’t see why Edward finds her presence to be so necessary to him. She wasn’t very bright or kind, she mostly tells Edward that she has it worse than him because he is a white and she isn’t and because her mom wants her to wear dresses and behave in an old-fashioned ‘girly’ manner.
The worst thing she says is that he is LUCKY. Like, what-the-actual-fuck.
Here we have this young boy who is detached from his reality, haunted by the deaths of his loved ones, and she tells him he is LUCKY. Because he “can get away with stuff”.
Part of believed that she would be cut out of his life since she is basically poison…but no. She remains a constant, for some bizarre reason I cannot grasp. She was toxic, and it seemed weird that her character would be made to seem as a positive presence in his life. She finds Edward fascinating because of his being a sole survivor. Years later she sort of grows tired of him being still ‘not over it’….young or not she sort of ruined the story for me.
She has one brief redeeming moment at the end of the novel which didn’t make up for her prior behaviour and attitude.

I would have liked this novel a lot more if the narrative had remained focused on Edward rather than jumping back to the Flight 2977. Here we have a very gimmicky jumping into the passenger’s lives, and they all seem to be having a mid-life-crisis or a long moment of introspection/self-analysis on this flight. How likely is it that so many people are reliving their past mistakes and present wants on a flight?
Sadly these characters were mere clichés.
We have the rich-business man with a drug problem, a cranky big-shot who is wheelchair bound and suffering from some form of dementia, the spiritual woman who wears bells on her skirts and exudes mystic vibes, the young woman who just found out she is pregnant, the soldier questioning his sexuality, and the most eye-roll-worthy of the lot: the flight attendant who is pure sex appeal and spends her time sashaying up and down the plane (view spoiler).

As Edward grows into a young adult who is trying to overcome or at least reconcile himself with his trauma, readers are constantly being pulled back into the past.
Given that I felt that Edward was a much more nuanced character than those on the plane, I found these switches to be annoying breaks in his narrative. Maybe they couldn’t have seemed so one-dimensional if we’d seen them prior the flight (so rather than having chapters jumping back to these characters on the plane we could have had chapters showing us a ‘day’ in their lives). Their confinement to this space however didn’t allow for a lot of variation to their thought patterns etc. They sit there and they think of what has led them to this flight. They comment on other passengers, they chat with one another. And in the end they all die.
To me it seemed unnecessary to prolong their deaths…and I would have found it much more impactful if the flight ‘scenes’ had ended at the start of the novel.

While I certainly appreciated the way in which Napolitano’s handles this difficult if not frankly horrific subject manner, I wasn’t very taken by the structure of her novel or by Shay’s characterisation and the role she plays in Edward’s story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — book review

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“IT WAS DUSK – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was one of my favourite books as a child. We have a winter-y and atmospheric setting, an evil governess who alongside some other knavish characters is up to no good, intrepid children—possibly an orphan or two—who outsmart wicked adults, and, last but not least, wild and ferocious wolves.

The fairy-tale elements and imagery contribute to the novel’s simultaneously cozy and spine-tingling atmosphere that really brought to mind Jane Eyre (the first part of the novel, when Jane is a child).
Set in an alternative history of early-19th century England, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase follows the adventurous of two cousins as they try to escape from the evil clutches of their new governess and her cronies. We have bold Bonnie, daughter of Sir Willoughby, and her more timid cousin Sylvia who is an orphan and was raised by her frail aunt. When Sir Willoughby takes his wife onto a voyage for her health, he leaves Bonnie and Sylvia at Willoughby Chase. The two girls soon realise that their new governess Miss Slighcarp is up to no good. What follows is an engrossing adventure starring two brave children, train rides across dark forests, wicked governesses and teachers, a horrid boarding ‘school’, and many dangerous treks across forests teeming with wolves.

Aiken’s deceptively simple language ingeniously conjures Bonnie and Sylvia’s adventures in a way that reflects their ‘young’ point of view. The adults have a certain Dickensian quality to them that is apparent through their names and appearances.

There is so much to love in these pages. We have snow, sumptuous meals, hidden passageways, shipwrecks, and daring escapes. In spite of the many injustices Bonnie and Sylvia are made to experience, there is always an undercurrent of hope in this narrative.
Perhaps I love this novel so much because it speaks of my childhood, perhaps I simply recognise for what it is (a truly lovely and entertaining tale).

my rating: ★★★★✰

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Winterhouse by Ben Guterson — book review

 

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“She was good at all sorts of puzzles—word searches, hangman, acrostics, cryptograms, any puzzle with words.”

Although I am not part of Winterhouse’s target audience, I do enjoy reading the occasional book aimed towards younger readers as they can be quite uplifting and entertaining reads. In fact, I picked Winterhouse up hoping for a light and amusing read…which it was…occasionally, and the artwork was very cute, I’m not sure Winterhouse lives up to its summary. It has plenty of clever puzzles and word-plays but it lacked…oomph.

Winterhouse has an intriguing yet familiar premise. Elizabeth Somers is an orphan, who is raised by uncaring relatives and who doesn’t have any friends. She is a precocious bibliophile (she does bring up some childhood favourites such as Inkheart, The Golden Compass, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) who is a fan of puzzles, especially anagrams—and of using long or clever words (not always successfully). One Christmas her aunt and uncle decide to go on a holiday without her and so without any explanation or apology they send to the Winterhouse hotel. Once there Elizabeth meets Winterhouse’s eccentric owner, the kind librarian, a boy who happens to be as bespectacled and puzzle-lover as she is, and a sinister couple.
While there was a lot to like, once at Winterhouse Elizabeth’s behaviour becomes increasingly annoying. She is bossy towards her new friend and repeatedly jumps to silly conclusions. The mystery of Winterhouse is weakened by the incredibly cartoonish villains and by a general lack of atmosphere. The rather obvious connection between two characters did not in fact come across as a surprise.
The setting, which had so much potential, never came to life. It remained rather nondescript.

All in all this was an okay MG read. The simple writing style and story reminded me of The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood. At times it seemed that the narrative was trying to be as quirky and clever as a book by Lemony Snicket but it doesn’t quite succeed.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë — book review

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“Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes.”

Jane Eyre is not only considered a classic (if not the classic) in feminist literature, but an exemplary piece of Romantic Gothic literature. Personally, I view Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman novel, one that wonderfully dramatises a woman’s quest for self-realisation and personal freedom. Throughout the course of the narrative, the eponymous heroine of this novel undergoes an organic growth that allows her to find and develop her own individuality and to become, not only independent, but socially integrated.

If I had to be perfectly honest however I will admit that I enjoyed Jane Eyre more the first time I read it. This second time round I felt vaguely disenchanted by its story and baffled by its romance (which I will discuss further ahead). This may be because in the years between these re-readings I read and fell in love with Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (which happens to be an extremely underrated novel). Jane Eyre feels a lot ‘safer’ by comparison. The storyline is fairly straightforward, whereas Villette has a rather labyrinthine plot, and Jane—unlike the dark horse Lucy Snowe—carries her heart on her sleeve. Nevertheless, there is much to be appreciated in Jane Eyre.
Brontë’s writing is captivating and beautifully eloquent. Readers are likely to become fond of Jane and her many ‘plights’ within the very first pages. Jane is such a genuine character, and Brontë perfectly renders the workings of her mind.
There are also an abundance of insightful passages regarding questions of gender, class, and freedom. Sometimes these subjects are actively spoken about or discussed between the novel’s characters. At times it is Jane who turns these issues over in her mind, questioning her motives, aspirations, and feelings.
The friendship Jane develops with another girl early on in the narrative is quite touching. We can see the way in which this connection enables Jane to self-improve and to survive Lowood.
Jane also finds a constant companion in nature. As a child she escapes her painful existence by reading Bewick’s History of British Birds. Whereas as an adult she finds it soothing to go outside for walks, often projecting her own states of mind onto the landscape surrounding her. Throughout the course of her story the image of the moon takes on an almost maternal role.

“I watched her come—watched with the strangest anticipation; as though some word of doom were to be written on her disk. She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward. It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my heart—”

Like Villette, Jane Eyre demonstrates Brontë’s awareness to the harsh realities faced by women who lack financial, social, or familial support. As an orphan Jane is incredibly vulnerable as she is entirely responsible for her own survival. As ‘humble’ governess she does not believe that she could ever enter the marital marketplace. Jane occupies an awkward space: she is not a servant or working-class woman, yet she is repeatedly made to feel as socially inferior to her cousins and socialites such as Blanche Ingram.

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

Jane herself merely wants to escape the oppression and starvation that she experienced at Gateshead and at Lowood. Yet, although Thornfield Hall is presented to us through a fairy-tale lens (early on Jane compares Mr. Rochester’s mansion to “Bluebeard’s castle”), it is by no means a safe haven. Still, Jane can see beyond its gloomy interiors, and in spite of whatever or whoever may roam inside its walls, she falls in love with Thornfield Hall. Its ground have a particularly soothing effect on her.
Jane’s pilgrimage however does not end at Thornfield and the depravations that follow her employment to Mr. Rochester strengthen her resolve to gain true independence.

What I love the most about Jane Eyre is steeped in solitariness. Jane is an outsider, a single woman without any concrete social aspirations (as an orphan Jane is wholly responsible for her own survival and independence), who as an adult is most at ease in the role of impassive observer. Yet, underneath her fixed demeanour lies a passionate soul. Throughout the course of the novel, as Jane grows from a “passionate child” into a solemn governess, she is negotiating contradictory forces: on the one hand she desperately craves independence so that she can positively and freely experience the world, on the other, she does not want to be ‘wicked’ or to stray away from a morally righteous path. She simultaneously fears and desires to be the type of woman that Victorian society would deem ‘unnatural’.
Jane’s self-divide is strikingly rendered by her interior monologue which emphasises the interplay of psychological and social forces have on one’s ‘formation’. The dialogue between Jane’s different selves occurs throughout the course of the narrative. Most of her decision are dictated by her simultaneous and conflicting desire for self-sacrifice and self-dependence.
An aspect of Jane’s personality that is present from her childhood to her adulthood is her integrity (which other characters—such as Mrs. Sarah Reed, St. John Eyre Rivers, and Mr. Rochester—mistake as pride). Jane’s coming of age is the focus of Jane Eyre. Sadly the romance within this novel has often eclipsed its actual heroine. And while I can understand that modern readers may not see think of Jane as rebellious, to focus on her forgiveness of Mr. Rochester would be somewhat dismissive of her her earlier actions.

Whereas in Villette Lucy was fully aware of her romantic interest(s) flaws, Jane is much less critical. She does not seem to resent Mr. Rochester for having repeatedly lied to her and for having manipulated her. To Jane, Mr. Rochester is a victim. To me, Mr. Rochester is literally and figuratively big-headed. He gaslights, threatens, and emotionally manipulates Jane. He is awful. Brooding Byronic hero…as if. Most of what he said frustrated me. His redemption is extremely cheesy.
Jane is also blind to St. John Eyre Rivers’ horrible personality. He is yet another man who tries to coerce Jane into doing something she does not want to do. He also acts as if his own desires have godly origins and therefore must be obeyed.
While I do understand that Jane no longer wished to be separated from the man she loves, part of me wishes that her story could have ended in a more unconventional way…

“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to four)

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens — book review

9780307947192.jpegWhile the first few chapters of Bleak House are rather entertaining, the fifty chapters that follow? Not so much.

There is a lot of ‘jumble and jargon’ going on in Bleak House. Having genuinely loved Great Expectations I am rather disappointment by this novel.
The humour present in Bleak House consists mostly in the narrative painting its characters as utter fools and in the usage and repetition of funny names (such as Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Joodle, Koodle, Loodle, Moodle, Noodle, Poodle, and Quoodle….highly amusing stuff, right?).

This mammoth of a novel presents its readers with a dizzying constellation of subplots that are allegedly unified by the absurd and never-ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
The novel intertwines two narratives: one is from the heroine’s, Esther Summerson, perspective, while the other one is the classic omniscient narrative. These two narratives have rather clashing tones: Esther’s chapters convey her ‘kind’ worldview (and alongside her we are supposed to feel pity for everybody she encounters and everything that happens) while the third-person one makes fun of everybody and everything. In one we are meant to take seriously the characters and their dramas, while in the other we are made to see the story’s many players as little more than laughing stocks.
Only one scene truly struck me as bleak. Every single other ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ thing after that? Those scenes were laughable. Character drop dead for no good reason, and their deaths have no emotional impact on other characters or the narrative itself.
Scenes that should be of key-importance are sped through, yet we linger on recursive dialogues and jumbled monologues. The interactions between Dickens’ various characters are extremely formulaic, so much so that one could always predict the way certain discussions or exchanges would end.
Whereas in Great Expectations I came to care for the all the characters—whether they were simple, ambitious, or somewhat removed—Bleak House seems to be populated by impossibly static characters. In spite of the many life-changing events they experience, they seem not to undergo any actual character change or development. They all have their fixed role, and they stick to it. They also one or two catchphrases which they seem to say whenever they make an appearance. They are unfunny caricatures who always behave in a certain silly way or say a certain silly thing. Within their first few appearances readers know that they are parodies, so why constantly repeat their ‘catchphrases’ or clumsily emphasise their vices/hypocrisies?
Rather than finding them amusing or clever, they annoyed me to no end. We have two or three virtuous young women, a lot of incompetent men, a few not-so-charitable charity-obsessed women, one or two cunning men, the ‘I know nothing’ or ‘I’m just a child’ type of characters…they all irked me. Their silly names failed to amuse me and I struggled to keep them straight in my mind as they all played a similarly clown-ish role.
Rather than focusing on parodying the legal system, Dickens’ attention seems to be all over the place Any aside or digression will do. Whether these digressions and ramblings are amusing or relevant…that seems of no concern. I soon came to regard these narratives as little more than words piled on words piled on words (ie. there was no, nil, nada, suspension of disbelief on my part).

The most dislikable thing about Bleak House is its heroine. I’m glad she’s Dickens’ only female narrator as her characterisation is utterly ridiculous (is this really how Dickens’ thinks that women are/were?). I guess this an early example on how to write an unbelievable female lead. Perhaps a third person narrative could have made her less insufferable…
Esther Summerson is a paragon of purity. She is self-effacing, kind-hearted, empathetic, self-sacrificing, forgiving, innocent, a true Mother Teresa.
I know that characters such as her can have a certain function in a narrative…usually however they are not the narrators and they are not to be taken seriously. Here it seemed that readers are not only meant to believe in Esther’s existence but also like her. Personally, I’d rather read from the perspective of an unscrupulous social-climber or an ambivalent dark horse than from this type of demure and saintly young woman. Throughout the narrative Esther appears as the embodiment of perfection. Esther does no wrong and everyone loves her. She spends her narrative saying ‘dear’ this and that or feeling ‘sad’ or ‘pity’ for others. She gave me a massive toothache and I was relieved to see her narrative draw to a close.
Also, this might seem like I’m being unnecessarily picky, variations of the word ‘tremble’ appear 35 times. I probably wouldn’t have minded if the word had been attached to different characters. In Bleak House 99% of the trembling is done by none other than our heroine, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes Esther Summerson.
This book had a potentially intriguing storyline. Sadly the mystery is lost in an ocean of subplots, side-stories, and never-ending digressions. Dickens’ serious themes—such as extreme poverty, child neglect, domestic abuse, class disparity—are diluted and overshadowed by his humour. His satire is all bark and no bite, his heroine is trying, the legions of secondary characters are forgettable and mildly annoying…all in all this was an unnecessarily long and rather forgettable novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger — book review

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“Whatever happens, Odie, we’ll still have each other. We’ll always be brothers.”

Stephen King meets Charles Dickens in William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. Set against the Great Depression Krueger’s Odyssean-like narrative takes inspiration from stories such as the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and/or Huckleberry Finn. Rather than offering a rehash of these tales, This Tender Land presents us with a series of complex and thought-provoking adventures. The experiences of our protagonists, four orphans who call themselves the vagabonds, will surely strike a chord with most readers.

Unwanted and neglected, these four children will experience hardship after hardship, and throughout their travels they will encounter many different sides of their society. Lincoln School ( a school where Native American, after being ripped away from their families, are ‘educated’ ) has left both physical and emotional scars in all of them. The only two white boys there Odie and Albert together with their best-friend Mose and Emmy, a recently orphaned girl of six, embark towards their own idea of home. In their journey towards safety and love they are hunted down by Lincoln School’s superintendent Mrs. Brickman, a woman who holds a particular grudge against Odie.
Soon the four vagabonds will learn that the world outside their prison-like school is a lot bleaker than they’d hoped for. The land is harsh, the people are desperate, and soon they come to understand that their ideas of ‘home’ do not coincide. As each child gains understanding of who they are and what they want, they risk drifting away from each other.
Odie, our narrator, particularly struggles with this. The cruelties he suffers time and again have made him cling all the more desperately to his chosen family. His lack of judgement and impulsivity often get the better of him, yet readers will find themselves sympathising with him even in his biggest mistakes. His gift for storytelling and playing the harmonica provide some truly heartfelt scenes.
In his odyssey Odie is forced to question if the end justifies the means…yet even as he lies, steals, and does even worse, he begins to interrogate his own morality making for some provoking reflections on justice, duty, and the extent to which we can categorise are choices as being right or wrong.

The vagabond’s mis-adventures, similarly to the winding river they travel on, will whisk them far away from Lincoln School. Krueger’s depiction of Minnesota is startling vivid. The land he writes is a harsh mistress indeed. It causes strife, poverty, starvation, and death, turning good men into husks of their former selves. Krueger also doesn’t flinch away from the time’s attitude towards child abuse and labour, the persecution and dehumanisation of Native Americans, and the large quantity of homeless people…within his tale there is cruelty, hatred, racism, greed…and yet the story never succumbs to darkness.
There is the beautiful friendship between the four vagabonds, as well as the big and small acts of kindness and love they witness along the way, and there is always hope for a better future.
Krueger’s poetic style provides plenty of melodic descriptions, thoughtful reflections, and heartfelt conversations. He has an ear for the way people speak, which makes his dialogues all the more authentic.

All of his characters were nuanced and believable. Regardless of our feelings towards a particular character we couldn’t easily label or dismiss them as being good or bad. Each character has individual circumstances that have shaped their worldview and their actions. Also Krueger makes it quite clear that often our narrator’s descriptions of certain characters are influenced by his own feelings towards them. Similarly to him, Odie’s friends are also affected and shaped by their journey. Unlike him however readers can only witness their character development from the outside, so that we see how they slowly begin to behave differently without always knowing what exactly is occurring ‘inside’ them.

I switched between reading this and listening to the audiobook edition and equally enjoyed both version. Readers who are looking for an emotional tale of forgiveness and hope should definitely consider picking up This Tender Land.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4)

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