A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

It seems a dull kind of recommendation, but I cried terribly while reading this book. Moreover, I actually held my breath at some points, not daring to move or make a sound for fear of what should happen to the characters. The story isn’t sweet, or comforting, or funny, but it is so, so beautiful.

A little girl, Mariam, grows up in a remote cabin in sixties’ Afghanistan, living with her manipulative mother. The two are shunned by the inhabitants of a nearby town: Mariam is a harami, the bastard child of a rich businessman, Jalil. At just fifteen years old, she is married off by Jalil to a middle-aged man who lives in the capital: Kabul. Torn away from her little cabin, she has to grow up in her new house, at the same time performing her duties as a wife for the harsh and demanding Rasheed. She is both afraid of and dependent on her husband, craving his sporadic attentions and dreading his contempt. As years go by and Mariam can’t give Rasheed the sons that he wanted from the marriage, he becomes more and more abusive and even cruel.

The story then shifts to follow the growing up of another little girl, who made an entirely different start in life. Born in Kabul on the night of the communist april coup of 1978, Laila’s life is intertwined with the history of her country from the start. Her parents are kind, supportive people: her mother is very practical and her father, an academic, anything but. They argue a lot because of their worries about Laila’s brothers, who are at the front, fighting the faraway war against the communists. But Laila loves her parents very much and is well taken care of. She enjoys going to school and spending time with her girlfriends or her best friend, Tariq, an exuberant crippled boy.

Mariam and Laila are thrown together in a violently shocking and heartbreaking way when the civil war comes to Kabul, bringing death and devastation with it. The pain the two young women endure is trumped only by the strong bond they develop, as one does, over tea. Humiliation and fear, disempowerment and dependency in their most infuriating forms are put to shame by the quiet defiance of two women, whose eyes seem to shimmer all the brighter from behind their burqa’s: Khaled Hosseini creates women characters of immeasurable strength.

Mariam’s keen interest in learning, from simple sums to world affairs, is consistently rebuked by people who believe a girl, especially a harami, doesn’t need to be educated. When she asks Rasheed what a ‘communist’ is, he laughs at her for being so ignorant that she doesn’t even know such a common term. He then refuses to explain, making it very clear that he doesn’t know what a communist is either. But when she is older, Mariam focuses all that undeveloped intelligence on Laila and her small children. What she was denied herself, she doesn’t begrudge the younger woman and she gives all that is in her power in order to ensure a future for Laila, protecting the girl and overcoming her own fears. Laila makes hard choices also, but it is Mariam who leaves you in astonishment through her unselfishness.

This, in my opinion, makes for a better ‘strong woman’ than characters who show no vulnerability, who take the lead and play the hero. Mariam fits no stereotype: she is insecure, jealous, and scared. The strength she finds throughout her life doesn’t come from a desire to do the noble thing, but rather from intuition and instinctive love, even though she hasn’t had the best role models. Laila isn’t perfect either: she can be childish (though to be fair, she is a child for most of the book), and quick-tempered at all the wrong moments. Even Rasheed, mostly a brute, has his tender moments, just like Laila’s parents, who are mostly likeable, can be weak and mean.

People seem to love or hate this book. If they propagate the last sentiment, they usually point out that a few flaws don’t make a well-rounded character. This is true, but I think they expect a more explicit kind of storytelling than Khaled Hosseini practices. This is not a book in which characters make very distinct right or wrong choices. Often a ‘three-dimensional character’ is expected to have a combination of good and bad, like a murderess who loves her wife or a wise general who lies about his feelings to the people he holds dear. But real people also have characteristics that are neither good nor bad, or a bit of both. This book focuses on those characteristics: it shows the main characters’ actions, words and thoughts without much interpretation. Therefore the amount of times that a sympathetic character does something clearly bad, or an unlikable character does something strikingly good, are scarce.

The same goes for the book’s treatment of situations and cultural practices. Khaled Hosseini describes patiently the many ambiguous scenes that make up real life. For instance, Mariam, bewildered and scared in her new home town, is surprised by the comfort she takes in the burqa that Rasheed orders her to wear. It allows her to hide from strange faces in the street and reassures her that her husband cares about her honour. At the same time, she doesn’t have a choice in wearing the garment and her husband is actually the person who scares her the most out of everyone. She is even more confused when she finds a porn magazine in Rasheed’s room. She can’t reconcile her husband’s concern for her honour with his interest in the naked women on the pictures.

The book is truly a wonder of storytelling. As the story unfolds, Khaled Hosseini colours the country, and especially the city with its different districts, the women baking bread at the communal tandoor (clay oven), the smell of green tea with cardamom. An unknown place stops being exotic or fairytale-like once it becomes real to a person, and this book makes Afghanistan all too real. National and even global developments are brought back to simple, almost small life stories of ordinary people. Through them it becomes clear that Afghanistan is broken but not shattered, ailing but far from dead. On the contrary: it brims with life under the rusted cover of the violence and successive terror reigns.

Book dedication award for: “This book is dedicated to Haris and Farah, both the noor [light] of my eyes, and to the women of Afghanistan.”

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (New York, 2007)

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Jo Robin

The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

As the saying goes, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be fair: I did. Just starting off with the title, ‘The Axeman’s Jazz’: such a brilliant combination of two of my favourite things! Then there was the subtitle: ‘New Orleans, 1919. As music fills the city, a serial killer strikes…’ Now I was getting really enthusiastic, as 1919 was a wonderful and shady time, especially in New Orleans. And lastly, a skull with a top hat decorated the cover. I was sold. Though I do have some points of critique, I was not disappointed.

Based on actual crimes, the story starts off in the gritty surroundings of New Orleans. In 1919 the city was filled with a variety of shady people: cops on the mafia’s payroll, prostitutes from the former Storyville red-light district and their pimps, governors and paupers, creoles and voodoo doctors, and other colourful people. Through these streets wanders a terrifying killer, who has killed many already, leaving them with their heads cleaved open and a tarot card at their side. The Axeman invokes fear into the hearts of every citizen by posting a letter in the newspaper, saying that he will spare those who play jazz music on a specific night, because he is a great fan of jazz music apparently. Everyone seems to have a different theory on this serial killer’s identity, but the three main characters of this book, each searching for him in their own way, are the only ones getting any closer.

First there is Michael Talbot, a police detective and one the few honest men on the force, or so it seems. The rest of the squad actually dislikes him for his honesty and for being a ‘rat’. He is a rather introverted man and carries a great secret of the home he makes with a black woman. During his investigation into the Axeman however, some unorthodox routes seem inevitable, and he must take great care not to put his family in danger.
Ida is a young girl, who has filled her free time with reading Sherlock Holmes and now works as a secretary at Pinkerton Detective Agency. She has the great advantage of being black, but also being so light-skinned that she doesn’t seem out of place with both black and white groups of people. This gives her the opportunity to poke around unnoticed, which she does, when she decides to go after the Axeman all by herself. Her boss, the great Lefebvre, is always drunk anyways. With her she drags along her childhood friend ‘little’ Lewie Armstong.
And then there’s Luca d’Andrea, who is the former protégé of Michael Talbot, but ended up in jail after Michael exposed his corrupt behaviour on the force. Now, just released from Angola Prison after doing six years, Luca once again ends up with the mafia, who have their own urgent reasons for solving the Axeman mystery.

This book will take you through the streets of New Orleans and the swamps just outside of the city. As the story focuses on the outskirts of the city, you’ll actually be able to smell the rotten stink of the swamps and the feel the filth on your skin of the red-light district. This is the city where everyone is an outsider and, at the same time, no one is. The writing is absolutely superbly done. There is just one downside to this intricate way of writing and that is that you do get lost while reading. There’s just too much going on. While following the individual investigation processes into the Axeman, they follow every little lead and you’re constantly wondering: why was this important again? And to top it off, with the mafia involved, there are all these minor characters with Italian names and keeping them separated is difficult: Amanzo, De Luca, d’Andrea, Lombardi, Sandoval, Carlo etc.

As an avid crime enthusiast, I did very much enjoy this novel. It’s dark, unpredictable and really well set up. The ending was brilliant in my opinion, simply because not all your questions are answered in the end, and that is in fact what happens in most investigations. All three investigations look into different aspects of the mystery and they tie in nicely at the end. The reader knows the full story, though the characters do not. As I mentioned, it is very important to keep your head in the game while reading, because of the complexity of the story, but it will definitely keep you on your toes. Also, keep in mind that this was Ray Celestin’s debut and an exceptionally well-written fictional account of an actual murder.

My favourite character by far was Ida. She is a strong young black woman and absolutely fearless. She dives into this investigation head first, defying her boss by doing so, and places herself in extreme danger. She’s not afraid to spy on the most lethal people and even break into their homes. She gets beat up, almost raped and even kidnapped at some point, but does this stop her? No, of course not! She is not only courageous, but also highly intelligent and independent. Her sidekick is Lewie Armstrong, who comes from the same poor background as she does. And yes, this is the later famous Louis Armstrong, playing for his money, trying to support his son Clarence and with a dubious background. It was pretty cool to incorporate his background into the story, but I felt that it got in the way of Ida’s story. We learn very little about her upbringing, while we learn a lot about Lewis’, though he is only her sidekick. I would have liked Ida to be a bit more centred and her character more explored. Because, have I mentioned yet how much I love Ida?

The best thing about this book is the historical accuracy mixed in with the fiction. Because the facts do match up. The story of the Axeman fascinated me long before reading this book. The Axeman was a serial killer active in New Orleans from 1918 to 1919, though some say he started killing in 1911 already. Most of his victims were of Italian descent, just as in the book, which suggested some sort of connection to the mob. However, the historical Axeman was never caught or identified. He did cause public panic, when a letter attributed to the killer appeared in a newspaper saying he would spare those who played jazz music. Some even said he killed in an attempt to promote jazz music. And here we come to my last point of critique: apart from the letter, unfortunately this book seriously lacks jazz music.

Horrible Historian Award: historians with a macabre taste will love both the historical accuracy, as well as the fiction of this book

Ray Celestin, The Axeman’s Jazz (London, 2014)

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Thura Nightingale

Warm bodies (warm bodies #1) by Isaac Marion

This book is many different things: it tells how humankind alienated from each other to such an extent that it zombificated the human race. It is a love story about two people who start a life together in a world that is rapidly disintegrating around them. It is a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. And lastly it is a great adventure story. And everything within 300 pages! Let me tell you how successful Isaac Marion was.

The story in this book is told by a zombie, R, who is slowly turning human again. In the beginning of the book he lives with many other zombies in an airport where they shuffle around and grunt to each other as their way of conversing. Once in a while, they group together and go to the abandoned city to look for people to eat.  In this story the human enclave hides out in a stadium, but once in a while they have to get out to scavenge for medicine and other useful stuff. During those scavenger hunts they frequently end up as food for the zombies. The other protagonist in this story, Julie, is a member of one of those scavenger teams, together with her friend Nora and her boyfriend Perry. R and Julie are the couple in this book, so you can probably guess who is not going to survive the next trip into the city…

Indeed Perry ends up dead. R kills him and takes his brains to snack on later. Also he saves Julie by taking her with him to his aircraft home at the airport. Somehow Nora also gets away, because we meet her again later. Once Julie is safe in R’s aircraft she is not allowed to leave again, because the other zombies in the airport would kill her. So there she is, terrified, trapped in a confined space with a zombie who only stares at her and plays records. I do not know how R did it, but somehow he managed to make Julie fall in love with him. Maybe it was his great taste in music.  The part where this story gets weird, beside the zombies of course, is that by eating Julie’s ex-boyfriend’s brains he also experiences his memories, especially memories of Perry’s relationship with Julie. The fact that R falls in love with Julie, while he gets to know her better through Perry’s memories of her, makes this certainly an original love story. It helps to accept their relationship because R is an awkward geekhead of whom it is hard to imagine horrible things. I was more puzzled that after some initial difficulties Julie seemed to accept it so easily.

This book is part of a bigger series, and therefore only gives some general ideas of the world it is set in. There are hints of a bigger context and reason behind the zombie apocalypse, but because the characters in the book know little of it, you as reader know little as well. There is a prequel to this book, the new hunger, which talks about the first few months of the zombie outbreak and how the world starts to fall apart. The sequel, the burning world, which follows events in warm bodies, shows how the rest of the world is coping with the zombies (not well) and it reveals more of the cause, which makes that one a very haunting read. In warm bodies it is therefore not really explained where the zombies came from, and why some zombies turn human again. There are only theories that it is because people somehow lost contact with each other and turned into zombies. Consequently, the remedy is to find that human connection again, as R did with Julie. This theory of zombification makes this book more interesting than stories using the conventional theory that zombies are nothing more than slow, brain eating corpses. In my opinion that makes this a book especially worth reading, because the best stories are not confined in genre boundaries.

The love story is inspired by Romeo and Juliet, although I never really saw this book as a true re-telling, because the love story is not the most important element in the book. It is true that the lovers both come from a background were they kill the other, Julie’s father is even the leader of the people trying to kill the zombies, but this story is more than a love story.  The zombies need brains to survive, and by eating them they substitute for the lack of human connection they have as zombies, because they have the memories. Therefore killing, and eating brains, is an aggressive way for the zombies to get the connection everyone needs, even the zombies. Love is used in this book as a strong example of that human connection.

The style Marion writes in is both funny, because it is sarcastic, and emotional. However sometimes he tends to be overly dramatic. This can be annoying, especially because he tends to repeat himself when he tries to argue a point. This is ideal if you are the kind of person who quickly misses the message in a book, but not really necessary in such a short book as this one. The redeeming part of the writing, which might come as a surprise after my previous point, is that the events in the story are fast-paced. There is a lot of running zombies, drunken zombies, fights, angry people and the narrowly saving of people. All these events follow each other rapidly and makes this a book you can read through quickly because you want to know what is going to happen next. This book takes you on a wonderful adventure, with a deeper meaning to be discovered with the second reading.

Grrrrrrhhh award for zombies who make you feel alive again.

Isaac Marion, warm bodies (London, 2010)

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Bella G. Bear

Around the World in Eighty Days (Le tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours) by Jules Verne

Since my friends and I are going on a hike in the French Ardennes this summer, I thought it wise to study a little French. After all, we all know what happens to school-French after you’ve been graduated for awhile. I read Around the World in Eighty Days in Dutch before, so I hoped I would be able to understand the story even when I didn’t know every word. I’m halfway through now and realise I’m not going to finish it before vacation and, also, that my French is terrible.

The story sets off with stoic gentleman Phileas Fogg going about his peaceful business. He is a rich London bachelor, whose daily routine is pegged down to the second. At the start of the book, on 1 October 1872, Fogg takes on a French manservant called Jean Passepartout. This young man hopes for a structured, calm life with the Englishman, after a chaotic past in France. Unfortunately, on Passepartout’s first day of employment, Fogg makes a bet with fellow members of his beloved Reform Club. He thinks that, with advancements in railwaytracks developing as they do, he can travel around the world in only eighty days and he intends to prove this. Departure: that same night.

Unbeknownst to them or the gentlemen who are striking bets on their endeavour, Fogg and Passepartout are followed almost immediately by a very determined detective of the Scotland Yard named Fix. A London bank was robbed by a thief looking like a gentleman and detective Fix’s infallible instinct tells him the culprit is Phileas Fogg, fleeing under the ruse of a ridiculous bet. The poor detective’s dogged determination is kept in check by bureaucracy: a warrant to arrest Fogg follows him around the world, always merely hours too late to be of use.

Meanwhile, Fogg calmly takes delays, obstacles and unexpected cries for help in his stride, while the passionate Passepartout despairs at every setback. Jules Verne created in Fogg the ultimate English gentleman as he saw (and admired) them: rational, generous, taciturn and bloody unstoppable. The thing is, not every obstacle can be removed by a bribe or a convenient elephant (her name is Kiouni). It remains to be seen if the group, joined by a young lady called Mrs. Aouda in India, can make it through three continents in time and without being apprehended by Fix. On their way, they make stupid mistakes like getting drugged in an opium den and pull far-fetched moves to ensure the success of their journey, like instigating mutiny.

Verne’s admiration for the English culture returns in the way he characterises the British Empire: the Europeans somehow bring order and civilisation wherever they go, while chaos and barbaric customs rule supreme in the places they have not yet reached. Descriptions of people or places rarely move beyond the superficial or the stereotypical either. This goes for faraway America and the Asian countries as much as for the main characters: English Phileas Fogg is ever unruffled, French Passepartout is always in a passion. Mrs. Aouda hardly has any dialogue or characteristics apart from being ladylike. These characters, almost caricatures, don’t seem to be the result of imcompetence on Verne’s part though. He uses enlarged versions of reality to poke fun at the slightly ridiculous sides of different cultures. It makes the characters hilarious, if not very realistic.

Verne excels at incredibly detailed description of the route, which runs through Europe, the then-very-new Suez Canal, a great part of Asia, and North America. It gets a little boring here and there but does add to a sense of travelling for the reader. Verne’s clear fascination for modern inventions shines through in the way he writes about different trains and steamers, but his account also contains a lot of good, oldfashioned adventure and intrigue. Perhaps even a love story? It must be a very worthy woman who can pierce the armoured heart of Phileas Fogg while he is busy proving a point.

Back to the superficial. My copy of this classic is not as pretty as many I’ve seen – it’s a battered paperback that my mother picked up in France or Morocco (so it’s not even actually mine). It has the original illustrations, though, which are gorgeous:

The history of Around the World is quite as interesting as the book itself. The story was initially published as a series in France, with its timeline the same as real time (October – December 1872). Some people didn’t realise it was fiction and placed actual bets with actual money on Fogg’s success or failure. How powerful Verne must have felt…

In the many years since its publication, the book has been adapted to film, television and on stage multiple times. Of those adaptations, the 1956 film Around the World in Eighty Days is very well known. It has the famous scene of the hot air balloon in it, which is not actually in the book. The idea is only suggested in the original story as a joke: an adventurous but unrealistic means of long distance travel.

Anyways, people all around the world were fascinated by the idea of travelling around the world. In 1889, excellent American journalist Nellie Bly decided to test Fogg’s theory by following in his footsteps. And guess what? It took her only 72 days AND she met Jules Verne while passing through France. She travelled alone, with very little cash, at twenty-five years old. It makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life. At least I have books; and luckily for most of us, this one is translated to many, many languages.

Top Hat Award for yet another crush on a fictional gentleman

Jules Verne, Le tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours (France, 1873)
Illustrations by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville and Léon Benett

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Jo Robin

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Rebel girls, good girls, ambitious girls, rebel boys, creative boys, nonconformist mothers and feminist fathers: this book is for all of them. It is one of those books I wish I’d owned when I was little. Actually, everyone should just read this inspirational book, because this is not just a book about women, but one hundred stories put together of people who have done amazing, and unbelievable things with their lives.

It is a compilation of one hundred life stories of women who succeeded at something unexpected. You will find stories of female artists, monarchs, teenage inventors, deaf motorcyclists and heroic soldiers. No two stories are alike and all women have their own field of excellence. Some are still alive nowadays and some have been dead for over centuries: apparently, the greatness of women is timeless. However, these are all women defying the odds, not just because they are women, but because they’ve achieved something no one has achieved before. From Cleopatra to Ashley Fiolek, from Florence Nightingale to Maya Angelou and from Nancy Wake to Mary Kom: a very diverse collection of women from all backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, disabilities and passions. Some are rebellious, some are intelligent, some are stubborn, some are loving and most are all of those qualities combined.

Now, I wanted to start off this review with making clear that these women are heroes, not just because of their womanhood, but because of their deeds. This is very important to me personally, for this book is not just a product of feminists for women only. But in loads of these stories, being a woman made life just a little bit harder for them and expectations just a bit lower: they conquered it all. These are the kinds of stories that all little girls need to read, because the truth simply is that we still live in a world where women often are at a disadvantage and are not expected to be able to do a ‘man’s job’. These are the kinds of stories all little boys should read to fuel a next generation where men and women can have equal opportunities. The message of this book is simply that women are amazing.

Each story is only a page long, but every one of them has a message. Often this is an inspirational or motivating message, which leaves you with a sense of hope that you can achieve anything! But what I liked best about these stories, is that they’re not only biographical, but also told as though they are fairytales. Very simplistic and with a sort of ‘once upon a time’-feel to it. It really does read like a good night story, but the princess doesn’t need saving in this one. She saves herself. And the best thing is, these fairytales actually all came true. What could provide better role-models?

Another cool thing about this book is the artwork. Each story comes with a portrait of the woman concerned and these are all made in different styles, each matching this woman perfectly, created by sixty extraordinary female artists. These portraits finish the book beautifully. Also, the idea for this book came from two women, who wanted to give little girls someone to look up to and motivate them in their own quests in life. As a movement, women of all countries joined them and helped finish this book. This really is a product by and for women.

One portrait in particular I’d like to talk about is that of Margaret Thatcher. Ofcourse, there’s been quite a lot of controversy surrounding her, but she was one tough lady, no one can deny that. Therefor I was very pleased that she was in this book, but I was even more pleased to read that the authors didn’t avoid the subject of controversy. As I mentioned, these stories are written as though they are fairytales, but they didn’t turn her into a hero, loved by all. That wouldn’t have done her justice, but more importantly, they don’t try to sugarcoat history, just because it’s a book for children. Let me illustrate this with a quote from the book:

‘When she took free milk away from primary school children, the people disliked her. When she won the war against Argentina in the Falkland Islands, people admired her strength and determination. (…) Sometimes people tried to pressure her into making decisions she did not agree with, but she never bowed. That’s why she became known as The Iron Lady.’

Through the stories of women, this book encourages all children to fight just a little bit harder, aim higher, believe in yourself, trust your own instincts, work harder and, most of all, believe you deserve everything you’ve worked for. So:

Here’s to the strong women.
May we know them.
May we be them.
May we raise them.

Newborn Necessity Award, because no child should grow up without being read this book to

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Italy, 2016)

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Thura Nightingale

 

A natural history of dragons (the memoirs of Lady Trent #1) by Marie Brennan

If you would sum up all the tropes that would make your ‘run of the mill’ fantasy uninteresting, this book will have many of those elements: there are dragons, the book is set in an alternative universe complete with different countries, cultures and languages and the main protagonist is a woman trying to be free from a society, which limits her potential because she is a woman. The only thing missing is a dark and mysterious evil power which threatens to destroy the world. However, when I read this book it turned out that it was much more than the average fantasy, and I’ll explain you why.

Instead as main objective to defeat a dark mysterious power, this book is about the scientific exploration of dragon kind by a female scientist named Lady Isabella Trent. In this book dragons are as common as lions in our world. They live in remote places and generally leave people alone. That, and because this book is set in an alternate Victorian time when scientific curiosity is just starting, caused the dragons to be more or less ignored until Lady Isabella Trent joins an expedition to study dragonkind in a country named Vystrana. Before the expedition, practically nothing is known about them and people actually only start to get interested in them when Isabella starts to write about them. This makes the book both an adventure story and the telling of the birth of a new branch of science into dragonkind.

The protagonist of this story is Isabella, who more than anything wants to study dragons, but expectations of society are against that dream. Those expectations are best compared with those out of a Jane Austen book, meaning that women are meant to sit at home, do embroidery and to attract a suitable husband. Instead of bluntly defying those expectations, as is often the case with ‘strong’ heroines in stories, she achieves her dreams cleverly by bending the rules and finding people who will allow her to be herself and pursue her dreams.  Isabella is undoubtedly a strong character, but she also acts within the boundaries of society, or at least in the beginning of this book. For example, before she and her husband decide to go on the expedition, they talk about the implications the trip would have on their position in society. The fact that the characters were seriously considering that, made the book more realistic, because people did find those things important. I really liked that in this book, because it made Isabella a strong female character, who is also believable for the time she lives in.

Since this is the first book in the series, the story starts with the narration of Isabella’s youth and how she happened to go on the expedition to Vystrana. The latter part of the books tells about the expedition itself and everything that happens there. Isabella has dreamt of studying dragons since she was a little girl, but dragons are not considered a fitting interest for young ladies and she is told by her mother that if she wants to find a husband, she has to bury those interests. With the help of her father she realises that the only solution to find happiness is to find a husband who will support her love of dragons. in Jacob, a young baronet, who is also interested in science, Isabella finds a man who accepts her. He marries Isabella because he wanted a woman he could have a decent conversation with and in that way the two are made for each other.  However, as most people in Victorian time, they do not marry for love, but because of acceptance and mutual respect, and love grows with time. In Jacob Isabella found the men who will support her love for dragons and will take her on her first expedition, which is Isabella’s first step to find freedom of mind in a world in which she otherwise would have been condemned to tea and ballroom parties.

The expedition is organized by an older gentleman, Lord Hilford, and his assistance Thomas Wilker. In Vystrana they soon discover people are attacked by dragons, which is something they normally would not do. They decide to figure out why and to possibly solve the problem. The rest of the book is about their efforts to find the dragons and to get help from the local people, both not as easy as it sounds. The dragons live in caves in large mountainous regions and the local people do not want to help, because they believe the expedition is partly to blame for the attacks.

This book is written as a memoir written by Isabella as an old lady. This was a smart move of the writer, because this allowed her to reflect on the actions of her younger self explaining why she did what she did and the meaning of that in society. It also allowed the book to be a bit more scandalous than proper for a young lady, because as Isabella put it in her own words: ‘one benefit of being an old woman now, and moreover one who has been called a “national treasure”, is that there are very few who can tell me what I may or may not write.”. One example of that is when she describes having sex with her husband as a perfectly natural thing. The quote is also a great example of the wit used in this book. This book is written in the style of Victorian novels with a lot of amazing new words I did not know the meaning of, such as crepuscular*. This was well-executed by the writer, as it felt as if she was comfortable with every word she used, instead of grabbing the thesaurus whenever an opportunity for a difficult word arose.

All in all this book is a good begin of the series, and I can’t wait to read the other books. I am especially curious to learn more about the dragons because so little is known about them yet. This book combines a realistic story about people, grounded in the time it is set in, and scientific exploration and the excitement of discovery. That combination works really well in this book and makes it so much more than the average fantasy book. This book proves that it is very well possible to combine fantasy elements with other genres, such as science, to make, in my opinion, a book with more depth. Life, after all, does not only have elements of one genre. It is quite an achievement of Marie Brennan to combine the genres by writing a book with heavy fantasy elements, which still feels as believable as this book did.

* Word for animals, such as dragons, who are mainly active during twilight

Fantasy award for proving that the fantasy genre can be more than an orphan fighting a mysterious curse.

Marie Brennan, A natural history of dragons (New York, 2013)

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Bella G. Bear

Seacrow Island (Vi på Saltkråkan) by Astrid Lindgren

I’m not sure how well known Astrid Lindgren’s books are in different countries, but you must at least have heard of Pippi Longstocking. This is another wonderful childrens’ book, one that I loved particularly. Interestingly enough, the book is based on a television series instead of the other way round. Astrid Lindgren wrote the screenplay, and when the series turned out to be immensely popular in Sweden, she wrote the actual book. I haven’t seen the series yet, so this review will be purely book-based! I hope the following will make you as wistful for the days when all you did was play outside as I felt when I wrote it.

Seacrow Island is the story of the family Melkerson and the people they meet. Father Melker Melkerson is a kind, scatterbrain of a writer, who impulsively acts on his romantic ideas. He rents a summer house on an island, on no other information than the name of its location, Seacrow Island (Saltkråkan), simply because he takes a fancy to that name. Since his wife passed years ago, he is kept in check by his eldest daughter, Malin. The sweet and pretty 19-year-old acts as a mother figure to her younger brothers: adventurous Johan and Niklas (13 and 12 years old) and animal-loving, 7-year-old Pelle.

The family arrives on the island, which is situated on the edge of the Stockholm archipelago, near the open sea. They find their summer house a bit more dilapidated than anticipated, but make the best of it. Soon they meet the few real islanders, who live on Seacrow Island all year round: the family Grankvist, whose children become fast friends with the Melkerson children, old man Söderman, whose little granddaughter stays with him every summer, and various other characters. The family spend happiest summer of their lives exploring the island, botching up house repairs, falling into water a lot and playing with the Grankvist family dog: a giant St. Bernard called Båtsman (‘Boatsman’). It’s no surprise that the family returns to the beautiful island at Christmas, and the following summer as well. The only thing that endangers their keeping the summer house forever is a real estate developer, who plans on buying the house and tearing it down to build a bungalow… But that is not something the Melkersons are going to let happen easily.

The Swedish Astrid Lindgren wrote many children’s books and had a unique gift for creating glorious worlds that are full of sun and flowers in the summer and snow and Christmas traditions in the winter. When I was little, I used to think that Sweden must be some kind of paradise. After having lived there I know that it is not, but I get the feeling that every Swede harbours the secret wish that Sweden were the Sweden of Astrid Lindgren’s books.

Ironically, Astrid Lindgren herself knew exactly how hard life could be. When she was only eighteen years old, she fell pregnant and had to leave her family home in southern Sweden for the big city: Stockholm. She was forced to work long hours to support herself and, later on, her little son. When she married, life became a little easier, but she stayed in Stockholm her whole life. In her stories she seems to try and recover some of her childhood, that was so abruptly cut short. Pippi Longstocking, the indestructible little girl who shakes up the hyper-organised Swedish society with her mischief, was born when Lindgren’s seven-year-old daughter was lying ill with pneumonia. Her first book was published during the Second World War-years, when Sweden was in nervous anticipation of Germany attacking. But every time Lindgren felt the weight of such sorrow, she took up her pen and wrote stories that were full of wonders.

That is not to say that there is no sorrow in her books. Once you realise it, some rather heavy themes drift to the foreground in almost all of her books: illness, death, fear of growing up, fear of losing people you love. But all these thing are dealt with playfully, as only a child can do. In Seacrow Island, Malin hides her romantic daydreams from her family, tending to the daily tasks and almost feeling guilty hoping for something more. The boys, in turn, jealously drive away their big sister’s suitors, scared that she might leave them to start her own family: making lovesick young men fall into the sea counts as one of their favourite games. Tjorven, the Grankvists’ youngest girl, comes home one day in the midst of winter to find nobody home: her sisters, who were supposed to babysit her, forgot and went out to play in their snow fort with Johan and Niklas. She spends four hours in the snow with her dog and it is reduced to tears, not because she is terribly cold, but because everbody has forgotten about her.

These examples prove to me a very important thing: that Astrid Lindgren has not forgotten what it was like to be a child. She remembers being four feet tall, she remembers the games she played, the clothes she muddied and the emotions she had. I know how I was afraid of big changes when I was small, because whether things are perfect or far from it, somehow how things are is how they are supposed to be. The children of the family Melkerson have already lost their mother, so it’s imperative that they not lose their big sister or their creaky, leaking, perfect summer house. Reading the book as an adult, you remember being a child yourself. Once you realise that you’ve grown up, you never want the book to end, but when it does, you can become a little bit like Melker Melkerson and make silly but wonderful decisions once in a while. Like renting a summer house because you like the name of an island.

Strawberry Award for staying up late on warm midsummer nights

Astrid Lindgren, Seacrow Island (Stockholm, 1964)

P1000840

Jo Robin