The wonder by Emma Donoghue

Imagine yourself arriving in a forlorn village, right at the heart of Ireland, that barely survived the great famine in the second halve of the 19th century. To really settle the mood, the driver of the horse cart you’re in speaks in an unintelligible accent and it drizzles. You are not there to feed the hungry, but you are there to make sure Anna, a girl of eleven years, does not eat for two weeks. It is true that the girl has not been eating for four months already, but still, as a nurse this goes right against all your principles.

This is the situation Mrs. Wright, or Lib later in the book, finds herself in at the start of the book. She is hired by a group of men from the village to watch Anna, who believes she is fed manna from heaven and therefore does not have to eat. This is proclaimed a wonder by many people who visit to worship with her. It is Lib’s job to confirm whether Anna’s fast is truly a wonder or a fraud. She watches over Anna 24/7, alternating shifts with an Irish nun. The rest of the book consist of Lib warding of curious visitors and trying to figure out how the girl is fed, because she is not a believer. Her investigation is thwarted by almost everyone from the village, but especially by the men who hired her. Her investigations become desperate when Lib starts to believe Anna really is in danger.

This is a book about people and why they do the things they do. There are many themes, such as religion, superstition, feminism, nursing and grief, and Donoghue weaves them together nicely. This is a difficult book to talk about without giving too much away, because motifs and mysteries are unfolded very slowly, which allows the reader to figure them out for herself while reading. I do not want to ruin that experience for anyone. This is the first book from Donoghue I’ve read. I am not sure if I will read another one though, because it took me quite a while to get into it. It did help with this book that I really liked the subject matter.

For me this felt like a very strange book in the beginning. It took me quite a while to get into it, because of Emma’s writing style. She does not explain that much at the beginning, which makes it difficult to grasp the kind of book you’re reading. I expected an easier book, so I probably did not pick up on all the hints immediately, which did not improve my enjoyment for about the first fifty pages. Once I was fully engrossed in the book that style of writing became commendable, because all events unfold at a natural pace. Another nice thing about the book it that it is written from a single character’s point of view. This causes that what happens is as much a mystery for you as the reader as for Lib, the protagonist. The story unfolds itself as a combination between a psychological drama and a thriller while Lib attempts to find out who is feeding Anna. The development of Lib’s psyche is really fascinating to read because she goes from sceptical, to almost believer to advocate regarding Anna’s health. As a bonus in this book the reader is also a witness of Irish religious life in the latter half of the 19th century.

The thing that fascinated me the most in this book where the characters and how they behaved towards each other, especially the dynamics between Lib and a visiting journalist, William Byrne. William Bryne visits the small village to report about the alleged wonder. They come from completely different lives, and still they manage to somehow form a friendship. Also Rosaleen, Anna’s mother her cold attitude towards Anna makes a lot of sense when later events unfold. In general Lib is very much a stranger in the Irish village, something she notices daily when interacting with everyone she meets. All these nuances between character’s connections make me believe Donoghue thought about it a lot, which is important for a book so strongly driver by the interaction between the people in it.

The one thing I want to applaud Emma Donoghue the most for in this book was her handling of religion. Usually, religion is used as a quirk for bad guys who frown upon sex, or it is portrayed as something inherently backwards and illogical and as something no logical character could led herself in with. In this book Donoghue found an excellent way to talk about the different ways in which people can believe. There is Lib the heretic; the pragmatic, no-nonsense journalist; Rosaleen, Anna’s mother, who is pragmatic and action oriented; the nun is above all obedient; the maid is superstitious and as last Anna, who is pious and sincere. The diversity of characters, and the fact that people’s religious actions are only discredited from a character’s point of view, makes this one of the sincerest portrayals of religion in pop culture I have read. I am very curious what people with the religious catholic upbringing, as is portrayed in the book, would think about it.

The only thing I can not talk about unfortunately is the ending. But be assured that the mystery will keep you engrossed until almost the end. Fortunately, by then you’ll have other more important worries to keep yourself occupied with the book. I guess I just want to conclude that the ending of this book was totally bad-ass and even if you are not liking the book, makes it worth the read.

Maria award for a fair portrayal of religion, making this a religion inspired suspense novel

Emma Donoghue, the wonder (New York, 2016)

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Bella G. Bear

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1) by Genevieve Cogman

If a book was called ‘The Invisible Library’, you would buy it just for the title, right? I would, and I did. It turned out to be a pleasant read, though mildly dissappointing. I might try the next books in the series, just to see if the author manages to tie together the cool elements of this story to an actual story.

Imagine a reality wherein important decisions in history create two parallel worlds: one for each choice. This gives us an endless amount of slightly different versions of the universe. To us this might seem a purely theoretical interpretation of quantum mechanics, but for our protagonist, Irene, it’s reality. She is from a different world than our own and an agent of a noble institute: the Library, which exists between the alternate worlds and collects works of literature from all of them. The purpose of the Library is to preserve and study the books that make the worlds what they are, while its existence remains a secret to ordinary people.

Agents like Irene are sent on missions to acquire books that their superiors want to consult or preserve. Sometimes this means quietly buying a copy, other times it means stealing a valuable volume from a heavily guarded vault. In this book, it means Irene has to enter Victorian London in a chaotic steampunk world, with a young apprentice-librarian, Kai, under her supervision. Cue the zeppelins, robots, mysterious Fae, masked balls and a cat burglar, all in the search for a first edition copy of Grimm’s fairy tales that has been stolen by someone else before Irene got a chance to. There’s many stories out there which employ some version of the ‘wise older man with sexy, young, female assistent’-trope. In this book the roles are reversed and this works out fine, especially as Irene is professional enough to to recognise that she’s attracted to Kai but not let that distract her from the mission.

I think the central idea of studying books for intrinsic merit is satisfying, even if there’s remarkably little mention of books in this book about books. The bulk of the book is about the main characters trying to escape from dangerous situations, which is fun, but the story suffers from it. Most characters seem a bit two-dimensional, though the author tries to make them profound and interesting. Take for example the apprentice, Kai: he’s supposed to be beautiful, charming and enigmatic. The way he appeared to me while reading, he certainly was beautiful, but somehow unattractive and frankly, annoying. He seemed just a whiny, pretty boy.

To be honest, I could deal with how annoying Kai is, if only the author would have followed the old adage of ‘show, don’t tell’. Instead, she explains everything to death, leaving nothing to be figured out for yourself. It would be much more exciting to encounter characters who have something to hide, if you didn’t have to read over and over again that they have something to hide. The art of suggestion is a power the writer has yet to discover. Maybe she does in the other three installments of the series – I haven’t yet read those. Additionally, the explanation often happens through comparing alternate worlds to our own – the reader’s world, that is. This bothered me because the story is told through Irene’s eyes, and she’s not from our world. Our reality is not the norm by which she would logically measure what she sees around her.

Fortunately, just as I felt quite bored with the book, something delightfully disgusting happened, and my attention was drawn again. There’s enough adventure in this book to keep you entertained. Combine that with whirring monsters and different kinds of magic, and you have a sort of action film in book form. Don’t expect too much depth from the characters and forgive the author for some predictable plot twists: what remains is a reasonably enjoyable fantasy adventure.

Tardis award for an alternative Victorian London

Genevieve Cogman, The Invisible Library (London, 2015)

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Jo Robin

The invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

This is not a book like any other I’ve ever read. And the main reason for this is the combination of exquisite artwork and a wonderful story. Yes, I repeat: a combination of these two. At first I was a bit worried that this book would be one of those mostly famous for its artwork, which is amazing to be sure. But the story is equally as magical and it all fits together wonderfully. Like clockwork, one might even say.

This book is a fantastical historical novel, set in 1930’s Paris. Hugo Cabret is a little boy, an orphan, who lives inside the walls and ceiling of a Paris railway station, where he tends to the clocks, though no one ever sees him. But we get to know him as a thief, when he steels a toy mouse from a toy booth, in order to finish his automaton with the little gears from the toy. The automaton is a sort of robot that his father, a horologist, once found in the museum and became his life’s work to get it to work again. After his father’s death, Hugo has been trying to finish the automaton on his own. Hugo is caught however at the toy booth and made to hand over his father’s notebook with the drawing of the automaton. Without this book he won’t be able to finish it. But this is where he meets Isabelle, a little girl determined to help Hugo in finishing the automaton. In the second part of the book they succeed and the automaton starts writing something quite unexpected. I won’t spoil what happens next, but Hugo meets new friends, has a completely different future all of a sudden and Isabelle is finally allowed to go to the cinema, where the unveiling of the plot will take place.

Now the first thing you notice about this book is that it’s 530 pages long, but you’ll be able to finish it in just a couple of hours or less even… How, you might ask? About half of the pages are drawings, so part of the book feels almost like a graphic novel. These are not illustrations; they don’t illustrate, they tell a part of the story. For example, you have about 20 pages of pictures and then another 20 with text, quite ingenious! And these drawing are not only in great detail, but they convey such emotion as well, which is just lovely. Not only are these images such a nifty part of the plot, but it also gives the story a very magical feel. Let me just show you a couple of the drawings in the book, just to give you a sense of it.

hugo 4hugo 3hugo 1hugo 2hugo 5

Pretty cool, right?

Of course the drawings make the story quite unique, but as I hinted at before, the story fits like clockwork. Which is pretty cool, because it’s all about clocks and gears and tiny details! I read this book in one sitting because you start off with this mystery and you just want answers. Yes, at first the book may seem a little gloomy and slow, but that lasted only for about five minutes for me. Apart from the mystery, I very much enjoy old cinema, clockwork robots and the 30’s setting. Dare I hint at a little bit of steampunk here? I just appreciated the setting of this story greatly and I think everyone will.

The characters are very lovable, though not boring, which may sound easy, but most writers don’t manage to pull off. However, if you’re looking for a book with a psychological plunge into the human spirit with each character: this is not it. Remember, it is a children’s book and everyone does have a background story and a specific personality. I very much enjoyed Isabelle of course, who’s a little ladylike in her ways, but mostly very headstrong. Hugo is adorable as well as independent, brilliant and inventive. But again, the drawings of the characters really help you create an image of them in your mind, with a personality and all.

A little thieving boy, living inside the clocks of a train station in 1930’s Paris, tries to solve the mystery of a clockwork robot, but gets caught stealing and is forced to accept help from a stubborn little girl. Need I say more? What a brilliant book this was, absolutely loved it. Not a very challenging book or one filled with life lessons, but a great book to dive right in and dream of gears and levers performing magic, just for a while.

Horologists Award: Anyone with a love of gears and levers will swoon over this book

Brian Selznick, The invention of Hugo Cabret (New York, 2007)

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Thura Nightingale 

The trees by Ali Shaw

Let us first take a moment to appreciate the cover of this book, because isn’t it gorgeous! You do not see it because computers screens are 2d, but there is even relief on it! Take your time to feast your eyes and I’ll be stroking the book in the meantime.

Done? Then I’ll proceed.

This was a difficult review for me to write, because I both loved this book and, at the same time, am convinced it is not particularly good. Hopefully this review explains why I think that

This book has one of the scariest first chapters I have ever read. This was very surprising because the first few pages are not scary at all. Those pages tell about a down-on-his luck guy who is kind of a wimp, named Adrien, who gets home from the take-out place in the rain. He then proceeds to watch old western movies and to drink beer to lament his loneliness. His wife, Michelle, is on a business trip and he strongly fears the marriage is falling apart due to his mistakes. In the early morning, when every sane person is still sleeping, without a warning trees pop out everywhere out of the ground impaling everything they find on their way, including floors, ceilings and, sadly, the neighbour. The trees are indiscriminate. This is all written in a haunting style giving the first chapter the feel of a horror book, which it not really is for the remainder of the book. After the coming of the trees Adrien manages to get out of his house and goes to the streets to see the stretch of the disaster where he meets Hannah, a nature lover. Adrien, Hannah and her son Seb decide to go on a road trip to find Hannah’s brother and Adrien’s wife.

One of the best things in this book are the characters, which are interesting and well-executed. There is the self-conscious Adrien, who has trouble to see good in the world. He pretends to go along with Hannah and Seb to find his wife, but is actually too scared to be alone. There is Hannah, the nature lover, who in the beginning is happy with the trees and sees them as some kind of blessing, until something nasty happens which changes her view of nature. There is Seb, her son the wiz kid, who during his ‘normal’ life stayed as far away from nature as possible. He naturally has a complex relationship with his mother. Later they are joined by a ninja-like Japanese girl, Hiroko, who fled to England, where this book starts, because she had a fight with her father. She used to go camping with him until he found a new wife. Now the trees have come she is stuck and she can not make amends with her father. Later she adopts a fox as pet and then the troop of adventures is complete.

The character building in this book happens with a realistic pace. A big part of the book talks about how the characters deal with their issues, but no one has sudden superhuman capacities to deal with life. Personally I like that a lot because it is more realistic. Life is hard and dealing with the mess of it takes time, but also at the end of the day life will always remain difficult. Take Adrien for example: he is nihilistic, passive and actually kind of an asshole. It never really becomes clear why, but it appears some kind of miracle his wife stayed with him. Every effort she made to make his life easier seemed to pull him further into his conviction that life is basically a sad pile of futility going nowhere. Throughout the book Adrien does become stronger and less passive, but in the end, when he has a major decision to make, it is still based on the basic characteristics he had in the beginning of the book.

With all this talk about the characters I almost forgot to talk about the mystery in this book! And that is actually exactly what I imagine the author thought when he wrote this book. For the largest part this book it is a semi-friendly road trip with the mismatched band of mountaineers with an occasional sighting of little tree-like creatures and mysterious hippo like unicorns (yes you read that correctly). It is clear from the beginning there is a mystery behind the trees, but hints of what that might be are only slowly dropped.  This is a shame, because what becomes clear of the nature of the trees is very cool. One thing the tree-creatures allow is for people to ‘become’ the forest and experience life from the viewpoint of its inhabitants. The writer drops some hints of where the trees and creatures possibly came from, but now I think of it, does not always follow up on those hints. For example there is a church somewhere indicating the creatures have always been there, but that is all that’s said about it. Loose threats like this happen more often, until the end of the book where suddenly something unexpected happens, which I won’t tell. I think the mystery part of this book could have been developed more extensively and also I would have liked to have more answers at the end of the book, because now I still have no clue what actually happened in the end.

In the end, this is the kind of book I would recommend everybody to read, but only once. It is a very special book and the human stories makes it a comforting read because you really get to know and like everybody. Even Adrien has my sympathy, because he is so understandable beneath his flaws. Also I personally loved the atmosphere with the planet-wide forest, because I like apocalyptic books. However, a lot in this book felt unfinished and rushed. It’s a shame because the book really shows potential with all the themes it talks about. So read this book to make the characters in this mysterious tree-world part of your own world. I only fear by reading it more often the flaws will become more noticeable which could alter the good impression it leaves you with the first reading.

Tree hugging award for a book in which trees are everywhere, literally!

Ali Shaw, The trees (London, 2016)

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Bella G. Bear

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Some time ago, when I was a mere ten years old, my parents took my siblings and me to the seaside in the summer. Of course, I had stocked up on library books beforehand and managed to read through a bunch of them in the early morning hours. One of them was Little Women, by Louisa Alcott, and it stuck. I didn’t know then that it was an American classic, I didn’t know whether it was considered good or bad, but from that time on the world of these little women became my world. A world to hide away in.

The novel tells the modest story of the four teenage March sisters, growing up under the care of their mother (the Dutch title is ‘Onder moeders vleugels’ which translates to ‘Under mother’s wings’). In the meantime their father is an army chaplain in the American Civil War. In a Romantic, nineteenth century trope, the family is of high social standing but has little financial means, their father having lost their fortune in a past effort to help a friend. Despite financial hardship, the family celebrates togetherness, domesticity and kindness above riches and material comfort. That sounds virtuous, and it is. Mother and Father March portray the ideal parents, leading their daughters to adulthood in model fashion. The daughters themselves are naturally not that perfect (yet): the novel is the story of their struggles and coming of age. I’ll introduce them to you:

Amy, twelve years old at the beginning of the book, is a right little lady who fancies herself almost a princess. She misuses difficult words in an effort to impress her sisters and she loves pretty clothes. At the girls’ school she attends she gets bullied by the other children, because her father is not rich and she can’t afford the lovely dresses and trinkets her classmates own.

Beth is an incredibly shy fourteen-year-old, kept at home because school terrifies her. She’s a little angel, cleaning around the house, playing piano and keeping the peace between her sisters. She is sweet, but very frail (you know the type from most Romantic era novels, but that’s a matter for a different article). I think many people have said that Beth is too saintly to be likeable, and perhaps she is. But she’s also genuinely sweet and seriously debilitated by her timidity, which makes her more relatable.

The eldest sister is Meg. She’s beautiful and smart and quite vain. At sixteen years old she’s romantic, aching to join older and richer girls in their dances and flirting. Unfortunately she has to see what money can buy everyday, as she is gouverness to the children of a very wealthy family. Meg is prone to complaining and lecturing her siblings in a futile attempt to make them behave, but also determined and hopeful.

Finally, there’s Jo, fifteen years old and modelled on Louisa Alcott’s own childhood memories of herself. Jo is a bookworm and a writer, curious and outspoken. She can be harsh: sometimes deliberately mean but mostly accidentally rude through poor social skills. She is continually described as a tomboy (“…examining the heels of her shoes in a gentlemanly manner…”?) which she is, in the context of the 1860’s, although a funny boy she would make.

I imagine many people would be bored to death by the simple storylines and moralistic asides, but not me. Especially not teenage-me. I was (still am) not very aware of how the world works, and how you’re supposed to behave. I desperately tried to be a good girl, a devout girl. In this book I found the comfort and direction that weren’t to be had elsewhere and, more importantly: the appreciation of kindness and honesty above all else.

This brings us to the currently much-discussed gender roles. Obviously we are talking about a time before First Wave Feminism, with markedly different social directives and values than our own. But let us gently put aside the notion that this book prescribes women how to behave ladylike, and ponder the possibilities of thinking about womens’ rights and femininity this story opens up. The female characters have distinctive personalities, brains and emotions. They are encouraged to talk about their feelings, to develop their views and to demand respect from men and women alike. Although men and women have clearly differentiated tasks in the book, they are valued equally for their efforts. This message of mutual respect and appreciation is still relevant today, because too often it is not heeded. Nowadays we additionally demand education and control over our fates and bodies, something Jo would emphatically applaud. Louisa May Alcott herself never married and was an abolitionist and feminist.

Now we have the profound part covered: this is also an entertaining book. The sisters act out Jo’s plays with homemade props and admirable seriousness, Amy gets harrassed by a parrot, Meg courted by several young gentlemen and not-so-gentle men. There is comedy, there is drama, there is romance, there are rich neighbours and a friendly Frenchwoman. You will encounter phrases like ‘alas, alas!’, ‘niminy-piminy chits’, ‘what ho!’ and ‘don’t give me wine again, it makes me act so!’. Appealing, isn’t it?

All in all I can heartily recommend this book and its sequels, of wich it has three. If this plea in favour of Little Women doesn’t have you convinced, may I remind you of the episode of Friends wherein Joey is challenged by Rachel to read this book and he loves it? You can’t argue with that endorsement. Go and read it!

Gilmore Award for family love and strong women doing their thing

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Boston, 1868/1869)

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Jo Robin