The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden

I got this book from Thura when I left the Netherlands for Kenya. Which is ironic because this story is set in deep winter Russia and narrates about terrible winters and frosts without end. In Kenya, it was hot most of the time. It helps though, to read a book about ice in a hot country to cool down – I just imagined myself in this winter tale and I felt cold again. Now that I am back in the Netherlands and I am colder than ever, I’m missing the warmth of the country where I read this book. It seems fitting to write the review of this book in the cold here in the Netherlands. This book is the first part of a trilogy, but The Bear and the Nightingale stands on its own as well.

The setting of this book is some kind of fantastical medieval winter at the edge of the wilderness in Russia. It is set in a village and in this place, winter lasts most of the year. The households of the people are protected by spirits which are appeased by offerings of food. Also, people are devout Christians. There is a danger lurking in the forests which grows in the winter. This danger has the shape of Medved, or the Bear, who is the winter demon. He feeds off the fear of people to strengthen him to release himself from his shackles to spread death and destruction everywhere. Only the spirits can protect the people from Medved.

This story starts when Marina announces she is pregnant to her husband Pyotr in the midst of winter. Pyotr fears for her life because Marina has grown weak and might not survive the pregnancy. Marina tells Pyotr to take care of the daughter she is carrying because this one will carry the magical abilities inherent in her family connected to the spirits. And indeed, when Vasya is born Marina dies. Contrary to her calm sister Olga, Vasya grows up to be a spirited little girl always running around in the forest and with the horses. Her father and wet-nurse, Dunya, have great difficulty containing her and raising her as all girls are raised: to be a wife or for the convent. Vasya has too much a mind of her own to settle for those expectations.

A big part of her struggle in the book is to find a way to break from those expectations and to find a life of her own. Part of Vasya’s magical gifts is that she can see the household spirits. Examples of those are the Dvorovoi, who is the spirit of the stables and with whom she forms a friendship, and the Domovoy, who protects the household. However, they can only protect when they get offerings of food. There are good spirits who protect the household, but there are also more maleficent ones who kill.

Life goes on for years in peace until one day Pyotr decides he must find a new wife, so his children have a mother. That wife is Anna, a very pious but troubled woman. She sees the spirts as well, but thinks they are demons. From the moment of her arrival in Pyotr’s household, she and Vasya don’t see eye to eye. Things escalate when Konstantin, an ambitious priest, arrives. In the village of Pyotr’s family and starts a campaign against the spirits whom he believes to be demons. The tool he uses for that is fear where he blames the spirits for everything that goes wrong in the village. This is a dangerous exploit though because the people have been making offerings to the spirits for generations, which has kept them safe from Medved in the woods. Vasya is the only one who keeps offering because they are her friends. Because of the neglect of the villagers, the spirits get ill and weak and cannot protect the people anymore.

Vasya has a difficult role in this story and the village, and will also be an inspiration to all the women who have ever felt they cannot be themselves. I personally also really loved her because of that. Vasya is the only one who can help the spirits, however, it is also dangerous for her to show that power because of people’s fear. At one point she is even pursued as a witch. Also, as a woman, people expect her to stay at home and take care of the household and not to ride horses and run around in the woods. Vasya does not settle for the idea to either become a wife or nun. I will illustrate her thoughts by one of Vasya’s quotes:

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

This urge for freedom also explains her bond with horses which has a key role in the book. Horses are often associated with a sense of freedom, but they are also controlled by their owner. Maybe the horses and Vasya recognize each other’s struggle to be free, but also the fear where that freedom will take them. Can you be happy if your freedom alienates you from everyone who ever cared for you?  Is there a way for Vasya to be free and happy? Eventually, she has to choose freedom to save everyone she ever cared for. I am really looking forward to part two, The Girl in the Tower, to see where this decision will take her.

The biggest critique I have on this book is on the writing style. It’s told like a story you’ve already heard a lot of times, and thus not everything is explained. This gives the book a feeling of familiarity like your grandmother or great friend is narrating it. However, it also makes the book at times difficult to follow because I did not get what was going on. It took me about two months before I got into the book and after that, I could not put it away anymore. The thing Arden did really well is the whole atmosphere of the book which is one of magic and a sense of potential danger lurking behind every corner or tree. The atmosphere is written so well that I found myself wishing with the whole household winter would end soon. It is interesting Katherine Arden managed to write such a dark winter atmosphere because she went to Hawaii for six months to write this book.

All things said, I really recommend this book to everyone who loves stories with a mysterious setting where you’re never sure what’s going to happen and where the danger will come from. Is the biggest danger the evil spirit that lurks in the woods or does the greatest danger come from the people in your own village who are closest to you? But besides a scary story, this is also a beautiful story about a woman who tries to find her own path in this world and succeeds. Maybe not to find ultimate happiness, but for freedom and sometimes that is even better.

Breaking the shackles award for breaking the bonds of people’s expectations  

 

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (New York, 2017)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

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The Signalman: A Ghost Story by Charles Dickens

When on our trip to London, the bookshops were still full of Christmas books, even though it was January. They hadn’t lost their appeal though. I always find that books that fall in the Christmas category are very fitting for days when the weather is terrible and your house full of candlelight. So I bought this booklet and as it has been storming here for days, now seems as good a time as ever to review it. Although its title is The Signalman, that’s actually only one of the three parts this book consists of. The first is a wonderful introduction about Dickens’ later life, the second the title story, and the third a comedy that takes place in the same fictional place as The Signalman. If you want to know more about that last one you can always ask me (or just read it, it’s only twenty pages) but for this review I will limit myself to the ghost story and its origin.

A nameless narrator tells us how he once visited a signalman beside the railroad. The man’s cabin had caught his intention. It looked so lonely that it made the narrator curious as to who would spend their long hours there day after day. The signalman’s post is next to a tunnel, where he must keep in contact with the other railway workers via telegraph, man the track changes and signal the train operators with a light, a flag or by waving and shouting. It’s a job that carries a lot of responsibility, asks for continuous vigilance and could (and did) go wrong in a thousand ways.

This signalman’s frayed nerves, however, have to endure something more, as he tells our narrator. Some kind of vision has been warning him in the past. Every time he sees it, something terrible happens on the tracks not long afterwards. There has been a train crash and the death of a young lady traveler and now, the signalman says, the vision has returned. Not knowing where the danger lies, he can do nothing to prevent it. The narrator is intrigued by the signalman’s story, but rather skeptical. However, soon something happens that makes him question his disbelief. A spooky detail in the ending elevates the story from good to great.

Charles Dickens is exceptionally good at writing characters and creating an atmosphere. Because this is a short story and we don’t have time to get to know the characters very well, a lot comes down to atmosphere. It doesn’t disappoint. In the description of the bleak, damp railway post, the glaring red light at the mouth of the tunnel, the gruff cadence of the signalman’s words, the story almost exclusively consists of a wary feeling. You know that feeling, when it’s dark and raining and you’re waiting for the train and realise how easy it is to fall on the tracks? Something like that, but darker. Apparently, it’s not a coincidence that Dickens chose to write about trains in a horror story. He had lived through an actual horror story himself.

Historian Simon Bradley (author of The Railways: Nation, Network and People, which I now want to read as well) has written an introduction to this story. His essay explains a lot about how The Signalman came to be. Bradley tells how Dickens used the then fairly new train network often, for his reading tours all over the country, for travelling between London and his house in Kent and to see his mistress. Since 1858, Dickens and his wife had been legally separated and he was seeing a young woman called Nelly Ternan. He had provided a house for her and her mother in the north of France, to stay discreet, and visited by train and steamship.

On 9 June 1865, he travelled with Nelly and her mother through Kent when a repairman’s mistake caused the express train to steam right over a bridge from which the tracks were removed. Dickens’ carriage was held in place because it was directly behind the locomotive, but the rest of the train fell off the bridge and into the valley. Ten people died and many were wounded. Dickens tried to help, using brandy and his hat, filled with river water, to treat the wounded. He worked some hours between dazed and dying people and the experience had a profound impact on him. Although it’s always tricky to diagnose a historical person retroactively, if he had lived today we would probably say he had post-traumatic stress disorder. The Victorians just noticed that he was more nervous afterwards, especially when he had to travel by train, sometimes suffering from flashbacks.

Trains, then, played a big role in Dickens’ later life. They were the modern invention that brought him swiftly to anywhere he wanted to be, a marvel of innovation. They were also full of accidents and traumatic memories and on top of that a feature that drastically changed the English landscape. No wonder he was fascinated by them. One and a half years after the accident, he published a group of stories in his weekly magazine All the Year Round. The title was ‘Mugby Junction’, the fictional railway station where the stories take place. One of these stories is The Signalman, another is called The Boy at Mugby, a hilarious satire of British railway restrooms, also included in the booklet I bought. My copy has only 52 pages in total and fits in a coat pocket. This makes it, ironically, rather perfect for public transport. Let’s hope Charles Dickens hasn’t put you off trains forever.

Lumière Brothers Award for providing us with a glimpse of what railway transport was like before radio communication

Charles Dickens, The Signalman: A Ghost Story (originally London, 1866 but in this form London, 2015)

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Jo Robin

Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

A lot has changed in the world in the last couple of decades: some things good, others bad. For example, when I was a little girl, about fifteen years ago, there were hardly any books or films around with female characters loving other females. And that’s just the lesbian representation, don’t even get me started on bisexual representation. This made me feel lonely and isolated. I lived for and through books and the lack of characters that were like me hurt me. Especially, it made me feel like there was something wrong with me, because I found my validations in books because of the lack of adult guidance in my life. So, you can only imagine the joy I felt when I found this little book: an LGBTQ+ fairytale for young children. The child in me jumped for joy and, to be fair, so did I in the bookshop. This book is so funny, sweet and one princess falling for another princess is just normal here! I cannot wait to read this books to my now still non-existent children.

The fairytale starts off with a princess in the tower, like every good fairytale does. Princess Sadie has been there for a while apparently, because when another rescuer appears she is quite sceptical. But Princess Amira is different from all the other saviours, because, first off, she is a woman and, secondly, she comes armed with a grappling hook. It doesn’t all go according to plan, because the tower has to be knocked down by a unicorn named Celeste with a special fondness for cookies. But Princess Sadie and her dragon are rescued from the tower.

But that’s not where the story ends. As it turns out, Princess Sadie used to prefer the tower to being rescued and that’s why she has sabotaged the princes who came to her rescue. But she trusts Princess Amira and did want to go with her. On their way, they rescue a prince, who doesn’t think he needs rescuing by the way, and he tells the two princesses of an ogre, terrorising the village. Princess Amira, as the hero she is, decides to help, but eventually it is Princess Sadie who saves the day by teaching the ogre how to dance without destroying things.

Unfortunately, that’s when a big black monster attacks Princess Amira and he takes her away. Princess Sadie soon figures out that behind all this is her sister, a mean and jealous queen, who was the one who locked Princess Sadie in the tower. But, as expected, her sister just turns out to be jealous of Sadie, because the people love her just the way she is. Eventually, Princess Sadie’s ‘big boned’ dragon saves the day and the evil sister is turned into a pig. Sadie then becomes queen and the story ends with a royal wedding, with now Queen Amira telling Queen Sadie how much she admires her and how there are different kinds of courage, as well as heroes!

One of the great things about this book is that it touches on social and current issues in a humoristic manner along the way. In this way, it’s not only a fairytale, but awareness is spread about problems as well. One example is the fact that Princess Sadie is, just like her dragon, ‘big boned’, as she puts it. Her mean sister often calls her fat and you can see in the flashbacks that this has damaged her self-esteem quite a bit. At one point her sister calls her ‘a fat, silly crybaby’ and Princess Sadie speaks the wonderful words: ‘That may be true… but I’ll never let you make me feel like it’s a bad thing ever again!!’ Another is the mention that parental pressure can be extremely crippling, something that both Princess Amira and Princess Sadie have experienced. Lastly, one of my favourites, gender roles are being broken down, when Princess Amira tells of her desire to be a hero and when the prince they meet confesses that he actually doesn’t want to be brave all the time, but feels the pressure to do so anyways. All of these are not heavily accentuated, just mentioned casually throughout. This works really well in my opinion, because it’s still first and foremost a fairytale, but O’Neill still takes the time to mention some of these subjects and problems that many can relate to.

Katie O’Neill is an illustrator from New Zealand and this book is a graphic novel. Usually on this site, Bella is the one who reviews graphic novels, but I do read them on occasion. I’m always very much aware that the artwork is the most important thing in this genre and the story comes second, or, better said, they are so interwoven that you can’t really separate them. So, let me show you some examples of what I mentioned before through the artwork.
Firstly, the first time we meet princess Amira, who is an absolutely badass hero, a woman of colour and has, as O’Neill aptly puts it, ‘kick-butt’ hair.

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Secondly, the expressions of the characters are wonderfully done, the story is often very funny, but some of the drawings are really gorgeous as well.

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And lastly, seeing the love grow between Princess Amira and Princess Sadie is adorable and you can really see it on their faces throughout the story.

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I found this little book in a wonderful bookshop in London called ‘Gay’s the Word’ and I’ve written a post here, where I explain a bit more about this magical place. I was very happy to find this book, because I fell in love at once. It’s just amazing to have a fairytale with people in it like me! And I’m sure many more will feel like this, because I remember very much what it was like growing up with very little representation. I would absolutely love for books like these to become normal and available everywhere. Now we are still in the situation that we have to teach our children about LGBTQ+ culture, but imagine a world where they simply know about it because heterosexuality isn’t the norm any longer. Imagine children being read books like this one and just knowing from the start that women can be with women, and that they can be tough and are also allowed to cry, and they’ll no longer have to worry that something is wrong with them. I can’t wait until the time that this book is no longer a LGBTQ+ fairytale, but just a fairytale, one on the shelf of every bookshop with many, many others.

A Brighter World Award: for normalising LGBTQ+ relationships in all books and creating a world where all children can identify with the books they read

Katie O’Neill, Princess Princess Ever After (Portland, 2016)

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Thura Nightingale 

Meet me in the moon room by Ray Vukcevich

Sometimes I enjoy reading a book that makes me close the book, stare into the distance and think ‘what the actual fuck did I just read!?’. Meet Me In The Moon Room by Ray Vukcevich is one of those books. It is a collection of 33 surreal short science-fiction stories. An example of why I describe the stories as surreal is the story where a man uses a turtle as a toupee and a snake as a moustache and thinks nobody will notice. Also, there is the story where people turn into bicycles or where a couple visits a planet where they are forced to carry a fishbowl with a barking goldfish. Even though all those stories sound ridiculous, Jay Vukcevich has the amazing talent to make them sound logical while you are reading them.

Each of the 33 stories has those creative outlandish elements. Vukcevich’ mind must be a very interesting place. I enjoyed reading this book because with each story my mind got new ideas to think about. Most of the joy I got from reading this book was picturing all the things he described, such as the barking goldfish. This makes this a very good book for people who love daydreaming and want some fantastical inspiration to do so. Who has ever thought of a story where somebody put a paper bag over his head and got lost before? However, despite the fact that I loved the images in this book, it still took me over a year to finish it and it’s only 250 pages. This is not necessarily a problem, but sometimes it felt as if Vukcevich was so proud of the outlandish ideas he had for his stories that he forgot to write a plot. Some stories are not more than a surreal idea and those stories left me confused. I don’t mind if people write bizarre stories, but in my opinion, originality is not enough to make a good story. It should also have a point to make or an interesting plot. Especially in short stories, a strong plot is important. It does not help that there is no overall theme to this collection to pull the book together. Each story stands on its own and tells its own bizarre story. I will discuss three stories to give you an idea of what to expect in this book.

The first story is Mom’s Little Friend. This story is about two children saving their mother from a nanobot invasion in her body and mind. Nanobots are super small robots and in the story, they are used to keep the body safe and healthy. However, their way to keep the body save is to not allow it to do anything. The best way to stay safe and alive after all is to stay indoors and move as little as possible. In the story, the children find a high bridge and force their mother to bungee jump to scare the nanobots out of her body. The theory is that exposing their mom to a high enough risk will create an adrenaline surge which will chase the nanobots out of their mother’s body. This story got me hooked on the book because I loved the outcome of the story. It was interesting to read that the solution in the story for over-protective nanobots is over-exposure to danger. Also, the build-up of this story is very good. It takes a few times throwing their mother off a bridge before the nanobots give up. While doing that, the nanobots and the children argue with the nanobots. In that way, you learn more about their origin, their motives and how they work.

The second story I want to discuss had me screaming and is called Home Remedy. This story is about a man who has an imaginary bug infestation in his nose. Perry, the unhappy victim, tries to rid himself of the bugs in his bathroom while his girlfriend demands to get in to use the washroom. While his desperation to get the bugs out of his nose grows, his girlfriend gets more and more demanding. Perry starts to use heavier and heavier tools and methods to rid himself of the bugs. That is where my screaming started because he starts poking things up his nose and I could image that vividly. It starts relatively innocently by spraying bug spray in his nose which makes ‘a fire rage through his nose and into his head’ as Perry describes it himself. Later there are tweezers and ice picks involved to kill the bugs in his head. I was worried about the life and sanity of Perry. What I liked about this story is that it is a horror story in a very domestic setting. I expect stories about ghosts, murderers and evil ghouls to scare the living daylight out of me, but in this story, I was terrified by a guy in a bathroom trying to remove a bug from his nose. This shows good storytelling in my opinion. Also, this story had a very good build-up where things escalated quickly.

The last story I will discuss is A Holliday Junket because this story is so very very strange. This is the story where people are required to carry a fishbowl with a barking goldfish in it all the time. The barking goldfish eats kamikaze spiders which are as big as a basketball and attack your face to suck out your eyes. When you’re attacked the only thing you can do is put your face in the fishbowl for the goldfish to eat it. The protagonist and his girlfriend visit the planet for a holiday, but upon hearing about the spiders and the fishbowls they want to leave as soon as possible – the need to carry the fishbowls was not in the brochure. Escape is not easy though, because they must touch heads to communicate (don’t ask me why) and the heavy fishbowls make it hard to connect because they are super large. However, I did not really get why they were struggling to meet heads so much because it did not sound like a big problem. This made me think whether the story was meant as some sort of slapstick because of the futile and clumsy attempts to connect. Or maybe it has a deeper meaning about human connection. In this story, carrying the fishbowl leaves people isolated because they are too big and heavy to manoeuvre around freely. The only way the couple could reconnect was to drop the fishbowls in danger of their own lives. The bliss they experience at that moment made this story a romantic one as well. This story is a good example that Vukcevich’ stories are interesting, but do not always make much sense.

Many of Vukcevich’ stories in this collection made me wonder whether there was some deeper meaning behind the stories I was missing, or that there was no point to them at all. The answer is probably a bit of both of them. That makes this a very hard book to judge because, on the one hand, I loved some of the stories, but also some I did not get. The stories that were good were brilliant because they gave me images in my mind even Hollywood cannot think of. Also, they often were funny or revolting, such as the bug story, which made me wonder again what’s going on in Vukcevick’ mind. Although he did not manage to execute all of his ideas well because some stories felt he just threw a strange idea on paper and left it at that. The ideas still make the book worth reading, especially if you look science-fiction and the strange and fantastical. Don’t rush reading this book though, because it is better to take time to make a movie in your mind out of every idea in this book. In that way, even if you didn’t like the story it will give you plenty to think about whenever you’re bored.

Trying to speak French drunk and other confusing things award for being a fun, but very bewildering book to read

 

Ray Vukcevich, meet me in the moon room (Easthampton, 2001)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

The Prince of Mist (El principe de la niebla) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

‘The Prince of Mist’ sounds so stately to me. It calls to mind an image of a mysterious, wistful, tall figure of a certain benevolence. The Prince in this book is nothing like that. He is the threatening creature from your nightmares: an evil clown who plays a grim game with children in a seaside town, manipulating even the laws of nature. He is a prince only in the sense that he is powerful and his elusive presence creeps through the story like a tentacle of fog.

Before telling you what the story is about, I feel like I have to make a disclaimer: from what I have heard and seen from the story It by Stephen King, this story is nothing like that. You might find this a relief or a disappointment but in any case, I encourage you to plough on, because this book is worth reading in its own right. It’s about a boy, Max Carver, who is told on his thirteenth birthday that his family will move from the city where they currently live to the seaside, to escape the war (it’s 1943, in an unspecified European country). Max is not happy at all with his father’s decision, and neither his eldest sister, Alicia. When they arrive on the platform in the village, Max notices that the station clock is slow just as his other sister, Irina, picks up a stray cat. She begs to keep it, and her parents agree.

The Carver family’s new house was built by a surgeon, Dr Richard Fleischmann, who lived there with his wife Eva and their young boy, until the child drowned while playing on the beach when he was seven. Only a year later Dr Fleischmann died and his widow moved, but for years no-one wanted to buy her house until Maximilian Carver, Max’s father, the eccentric watchmaker came upon it. Max and his family start to warm to their new surroundings quickly, as the house is beautiful and the village welcoming. But soon, Max starts to notice strange things around him: Irina’s cat seems to watch him with an expression of malice and the clock at the train station is not slow but goes backwards. Strangest of all, there is the walled garden near the house that is filled with statues of circus figures: a lion tamer, a contortionist, a fakir and many others, all circled around a clown. And that clown doesn’t always seem to hold the same position.

Max befriends a boy in the village, who is a few years older than he is: Roland, the son of the lighthouse keeper. Roland tells him that his grandfather, who cares for him as his parents have died, is the only survivor of a shipwreck near the coast where they live. The two go diving at the place where the remains of the ship still are. Max discovers to his horror that the symbol of a six-pointed star, that was all over the circus garden, is on the tattered flag of the wrecked Orpheusas well. Max, Roland and Alicia, tired of incomplete stories about the past, start to investigate the mysteries of the shipwreck and the house, and uncover the truth bit by bit.

If you know this author from The Shadow of the Wind, you know how beautiful his writing style is. He can do anything with it, make you feel anything with it. Carlos Ruiz Zafón has his own light magic that makes you dream away with his books until you are completely in their grip. This is lovely when he tells about love and warm, lazy summer afternoons, but terrible when he describes grief or the creeping feeling that someone you care about is in danger and you can do nothing about it. This short novel, his debut, has already perfected that feeling of impending doom. Information is revealed bit by bit via different characters or by foreshadowing by the author, meaning that you often know more as a reader than the individual characters do. At the point when Max starts to piece together all the facts, the reader is already overcome by a feeling of panic because danger is so clearly nearby. The books speeds up until the frantic ending, which had me gasping for breath.

That the clown in the garden is the antagonist of the story is no big spoiler. He is (or at least was, years ago) called ‘Cain’ and is an evil character that harks back to ancient stories of tricksters and fae like we know them from mythology and fairy tales. He has a dark magic, no pity, endless patience and many ways of manifesting himself. Like Rumplestiltskin, he grants wishes in turn for terrible payments. His victims don’t always know what they owe them and if they do, they don’t realise how dearly the payment will cost them. These trickster characters defy the rules of our world and use their cleverness for mischief – often in the persona of a joker or clown. Reading the story, you get a feeling like Ruiz Zafón hasn’t written Cain. He’s an evil spirit that belongs in many of mankind’s stories and has now resurfaced in this one. The sea fits with him perfectly. What could be scarier than an evil clown and the sea – also known for being treacherous?

The story is not just scary, though. Despite the inexplicable threat that hangs over them, the teenagers still enjoy a fairly normal summer for a long time. They swim, bike around, buy pastry from the baker’s and build bonfires. Max is thirteen, the age when you turn from child into a teenager. He revels in hanging out with an older boy and discovering the world apart from his parents. When Roland and Alicia fall in love, Max is both delighted and jealous for his friend’s attention. He looks up to Roland, but has to learn to trust his own strengths as well. As it turns out, he is quite clever and brave, qualities he very much needs with Cain around.

The book is only 200 pages long, but so intense that you can read it many times without it losing its fascination. You end up discovering new, clever details, because everything in this short novel has meaning. Cain is called after the first ever murderer, the sunken ship after a mythical figure who tried to make a deal with Hades to bring his wife back from the dead. Everything is intertwined and nothing accidental. I’m convinced that Ruiz Zafón has skill, but also tremendous talent and quite a bit of magic. So this is where I have to stop writing, because the magic you can only discover by reading it yourself.

White Rabbit Award for clocks that don’t behave as they should

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El principe de la niebla (Barcelona, 1993)

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Jo Robin

The Glass of Lead and Gold by Cornelia Funke

When I hear the name Cornelia Funke, I think of magical worlds that allow you to just drift off and pretend that all is well… somewhere else. She is the queen of fantasy for children and if you haven’t read her books growing up, you’ve missed out. But fear not: there’s still time! I’m an adult now (or I’m supposed to be) and I came across this little booklet and it took me right back to those sleepless summer nights I had as a child, curled up with a book in my bed. So here it is: a short review of a short but sweet Funke, to reminds us all of our too short childhoods.

Tabetha is a 15-year-old girl who lives in the city of Londra, a sort of mirror version of our London. Her mother died when she was very young and ever since she’s had to make her own way in the harsh world she lives in. On the one hand, Londra is a magical place where Will-‘o-Whisps brighten up fancy frocks and Fire Elves blow beautiful glass ornaments, but on the other hand Londra is a harsh Dickensian place, where poor people die of cold and hunger. This means that Tabetha, after the death of her mother, had no choice but to hide the fact that she’s a girl and become a ‘mudlark’. Now, a mudlark is someone who walks the riverbanks of the Themse, the Thames in our world, all day and tries to find something, anything to sell. Usually she only finds buttons, rope and the occasional coin, but on the snow-filled days leading up to Christmas, Tabetha finds a treasure.

When a rich but dodgy looking man asks her to find that particular object, she decides to pretend she has no idea and that she would never be able to find that in the river anyways. The truth is that she already has: she has found a shard of glass, and not just any glass, but a shard from the magical Glass of Lead and Gold. When she doesn’t quite know what to do with her newfound treasure, she luckily receives help, though unwanted at first. Help comes from Ofelia, a girl with only one arm, from the soup kitchen and the troll-woman who works at the same kitchen. Together they convince the most famous glassblower to restore the Glass of Lead and Gold, a glass that can turn sad tears into golden drops. Unfortunately, Tabetha isn’t the only one after the glass and when it gets stolen from her, all seems lost. But it’s almost Christmas, so anything could happen!

Now, as you may have guessed, this booklet is a classic Christmas tale. It has London, or Londra, snowy streets and, yes, a happy ending! Christmas tales are always best when they start off with the downtrodden and poorest of people, because Christmas, more than any holiday, favours them most of all. Also, there’s the brilliant seasonal element of fearing someone based off of their looks: trolls, in this case, who turn out to be very nice. I’m not quite willing to give away the end of the story, but it’s a brilliant solution and a triumph over the greedy rich gentlemen of this world. All in all, this book puts you in a wonderful Christmassy mood, because I’ve started counting the weeks, and it’s only February!

Cornelia Funke has a wonderful writing style and this book is no exception, however short it may be. Many know her Inkworld trilogy, of which I have reviewed the first book here, and that’s a great example of the way she is able to take you on a journey through magical realms of her imagination. She does this through the stories she comes up with, but also her page-turning style of writing. Interestingly enough, this book she wrote in English straight away. Cornelia Funke is German so most of her books are translated into other languages, but this one isn’t. I thought that was quite impressive.

I think what I liked best about this story is that it is both magical in a Christmassy sort of way, and at the same time all the characters and elements in the story are flawed like in real life. Tabetha is often harsh in her judgement, which comes from her years of fending for herself, but she often says things that she regrets later on. Ofelia has the same problem and she has trouble sharing her plans and trusting others. Trolls turn out to be nice, but a bit blunt and brutish. Mermaids and the river monsters are more likely to drown you than help the mudlarks. Fire Elves sound lovely, but they could burn you alive once they get angry. It’s still a tough world, so somehow that made Tabetha’s discovery of the glass still an exiting one. There may be magic in Londra, but life is still hard for the poor. Again, this review is just another ode to Cornelia Funke, who manages to make the magical ordinary in her mirror-version of London and the filthy mudlark, who just wants enough money to buy dry shoes, the one we’re rooting for.

Fairy Dance Award: For a little bit of Fantasy brightness in an otherwise gloomy world

Cornelia Funke, The Glass of Lead and Gold (London, 2018)

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Thura Nightingale

Barrel Fever by David Sedaris

We all have, or should have, that one friend who seems to find herself in strange situations more often than other people. Or that one friend who meets the strangest people on a daily basis. I am always a bit jealous of those people because their life sounds a bit confusing, but also very interesting. To make up for my lack of strange encounters, I read books and listen to the stories of those kinds of people. David Sedaris is one of them. All his books are short story collections, both fictional and stories based on his own life. Barrel Fever is his first book and in this book, there are twelve fictional stories and four autobiographical essays. The title Barrel Fever comes from one of those stories.

David Sedaris is a cynical middle-aged man. His job is to write stories about his life and to tour the world to read his stories out loud. Before his writing made him enough money to live off, he had a lot of strange and shitty jobs. Also, the way he talks about it, he comes from a bizarre family with story-worthy characters such as an ever-shouting and smoking mother. His sister is Amy Sedaris, the actress and comedian. All his odd jobs and the antics of his family serve as inspiration for his stories. In Barrel Fever most of the stories are fiction, but in his later works, he uses more and more experiences from his own life. Barrel Fever is inspired by a love for the strange with a massive dose of dark humour, which I suspect is inspired by his youth. This I will explain by discussing two stories of the collection.

I call David Sedaris a cynical middle-aged man because a lot of his stories seem to be based on his frustrations towards the foolishness of other people. In many of the stories in this book, the main character is a person who looks down on other people and who think the world of themselves. The way he writes the stories the characters usually end up making a fool out of themselves. Sedaris likes to make fun of other people and his aim is not to be liked but to entertain. In his newer work, he also makes fun of himself which makes those stories better. It makes us readers take his frustration less serious because he is as big an idiot at times as the people he writes about. It also helps to have more cohesion to include more stories about his own life. In this book, the first 12 fictional stories felt disjointed from each other. There was no common theme, except that they were all outsiders with some kind of grudge to the wider society. Each story on its own had fascinating characters, from soccer moms to scorned wives to a person fed up with the anti-smoking brigade, but overall the book lacked impact because of the lack of cohesion. In my opinion, short story collections are better with a central theme or an overlap in characters.

Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!! is one of the fictional stories. This story takes the form of those seasonal family newsletters some people write detailing everything that happened in their family in the past year. In the story, the newsletter is written by some kind of soccer mom high on pep pills, which is clear by the number of exclamation marks in the title. The letter starts relatively normal about her perfect son in college, but it soon escalates when her husband’s Vietnamese teenage daughter appears and starts living with them. She does not speak English and doesn’t show a willingness to participate in family life. At least, that is what pep pill soccer mom tells us. It becomes clear that pep pill mom is one of those people who think life has one big grudge against them, and that they are solely managing everything and are to be blamed for nothing. She wants her new daughter to listen to her wishes, but she refuses. The power of this story is in the slow escalation of events. It starts sounding like a normal dysfunctional family with a mother over-compensating to hide that fact, and it ends in murder.

Santaland Diaries is the last autobiographical essay in this collection and it’s about Sedaris’ time as an elf. The role of Santa’s elf is one of the odd jobs he was forced to take before his writing made him enough money. As an elf, he is Santa’s help in a big shopping mall where people go to take their picture with Santa and to tell him their wishes. All the elves must work together to make sure this process goes smoothly, especially because there can be hundreds of people eager to have their moment with Santa in one day. The elves first get a rigorous training and they are assigned a role, such as a cashier elf, the elf who brings people to Santa and the elf who ushers people to leave as quickly as possible once the photo is made. What makes this story great is the deadpan way in which Sedaris talks about the different people who come to visit Santa and about the particular challenges of each job the elves have. This is one of the stories that made Sedaris famous and it is easy to see why. The story is a satire on the pretence of happiness some families force themselves into during the holiday season and how capitalism has made a joyful encounter with Santa into a well-organized money-making machine (a print of the photo is 17 dollars). Sedaris himself has resigned himself with his job as an elf and tries to make the best of it by observing his colleagues and all the people who visit Santa. Maybe it is during this job where his love for analysing people’s behaviour manifested into writing.

It is hard to judge the general writing style of this book because it changes in each individual story depending on the characters. This is in itself an amazing achievement. For example, the second story about the soccer mom uses an exaggerated writing style and an abundance of exclamation marks. Every English student or writer would be ashamed to hand it in or publish it. It works for that story though, because we are not only told that the woman is unhinged, but it is also clear in her writing. It takes bravery to be a deliberately bad writer, which turned this story from average into one of my favourites. Sedaris changes writing style in the other stories as well. Something that is present in all his stories is wit. Sedaris can turn the most banal situation into a humorous one by exaggeration. His style makes me wonder if he himself experienced so many strange things or whether he manages to turn everything he experiences into a great story by exaggeration. The answer is probably a bit of both, and in the end, it doesn’t matter whether a story is true or not if it’s a great story.

All the stories in this book are oriented around dysfunctional or bizarre people. It is clear Sedaris gets a kick out of writing about this kind of characters and meeting them in real life. It reads as if through his stories Sedaris wants to understand all the directions the human mind can take to its extremes. This is true to a greater extent in Sedaris’ later work than in Barrel Fever though, because it has only four autobiographical stories. In his later work, it also becomes clearer how much an oddball David Sedaris himself is. For example, he has an obsession for taxidermy and doesn’t rest until he forces his boyfriend Hugh into buying some specimens for his birthday instead of just buying it for himself. Other reviews of Barrel Fever tend to be critical and I think that is because in his later books he does not only make fun of other people but also of himself. This makes him a more sympathetic author. Writing about oddballs leads to an endless collection of fascinating stories, but it also makes those people vulnerable. Weirdness is not always accepted in this world, and by only focusing on other people’s antics and hiding his own the stories lack sincerity. Including his own stories creates sympathy and trust that we, David Sedaris, his characters and us as readers are all one in our delicious weirdness. Together we make this world a more interesting place to live in.

In the end, this is not my favourite book by David Sedaris. Either Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day is my favourite. There were some great stories in this book, but overall, they are not as polished and funny as the other books. Also, his own perspective is lacking too much for me. It is true that there are four autobiographical essays, but they don’t go much into Sedaris as a person. Maybe Sedaris was still discovering his style when he wrote this book or maybe he did not have the confidence to explore his own strangeness. This is his debut novel after all. Therefore, I am not sure if I would recommend this book, especially for people who haven’t read David Sedaris’ work before. David Sedaris is a sure recommendation but start with the other two books I mentioned. If you like those you can always come back to Barrel Fever.

Perfection comes with practice award for a debut that shows promise but isn’t very good just yet.

David Sedaris, Barrel Fever (Coronado, 1994)

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Bella G. Bear