Literature and War Readalong October 31 2014: Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey

Phoenix and Ashes

Admittedly, this was a bit of an experimental choice for the Literature and War Readalong, but since this year is mostly dedicated to WWI, I thought some diversity would be nice. So why not read a fantasy novel dealing with the aftermath of the war?

Mercedes Lackey is one of the most prolific fantasy writers and has a huge following. Phoenix and Ashes is part of the Elemental Masters series. The books in the series are all fairy tale retellings, set in the early 1900s. Phoenix and Ashes is based on Cinderella. There are ten volumes in the series so far. If you’d like to find out more about Mercedes Lackey— here’s the link to her website.

Here are the first sentences

Her eyes were so sore and swollen from weeping that she thought she should have no tears left at all. She was so tired that she couldn’t keep her mind focused on anything; it flitted from one thought to another, no matter how she tried to concentrate.

One kept recurring, in a  never-ending refrain of lament. What am I doing here? I should be at Oxford.

Eleanor Robinson rested her aching head against the cold, wet glass of the tiny window in the twilight gloom of her attic bedroom. With an effort, she closed her sore, tired eyes, as her shoulders hunched inside an old woollen shawl. The bleak December weather had turned rotten and rainy, utterly un-Christmas-like. Not that she cared about Christmas.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey (US 2004) WWI, Fantasy, 468 pages

In this dark and atmospheric rendition of the Cinderella fairy tale, an intelligent young Englishwoman is made into a virtual slave by her evil stepmother. Her only hope of rescue comes in the shape of a scarred World War I pilot of noble blood, whose own powers over the elements are about to be needed more than ever.

“A dark tale full of the pain and devastation of war…and a couple of wounded protagonists worth routing for.”

 

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The discussion starts on Friday, 31 October 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Wednesday is Wunderbar – German Literature Month – Giveaways

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Thanks to the generosity of different publishers, Lizzy and I are able to give away a number of wonderful books.

I’m particularly pleased to give away a copy of the e-book of Anna Katharina Hahn’s novel Shorter Days. I’ve often thought that it was sad that her novel hadn’t been translated because I loved it so much. I’ve read it when it came out in Germany, in 2009, at a time when I read far more German than English books. Since then it’s among my top 5 German books of the last decade. I was really happy when I saw that Frisch & Co, an e-book publisher, was going to publish the novel in October.

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Here’s the publisher’s blurb

It’s fall in Stuttgart, just before Halloween, and thirty-something mothers Judith and Leonie are safely ensconced in their upscale apartments in one of the city’s best neighborhoods. Judith has squeezed her life into the straitjackets of stay-at-home Waldorf motherhood—no TV, no sweets, nature hikes, and, above all, routine—and marriage to staid university professor Klaus. Leonie is proud of her work at a bank and her husband Simon’s career, though she worries that she’s neglecting her young daughters, and that Simon’s work distracts him from his family. Over the course of a few days, Judith and Leonie’s apparently stable, successful lives are thrown into turmoil by the secrets they keep, the pressures they’ve been keeping at bay, and the waves of change lapping at the peaceful shores of their existence.

Shorter Days is a heartrending exploration of the joys, challenges, and dangers of modern family life.

The second book I am giving away is a nonfiction book, published by Pushkin Press, Maxim Leo’s Red Love: The Story of an East German Family. I haven’t read it but it sounds very interesting.

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Here’s the blurb

Growing up in East Berlin, Maxim Leo knew not to ask questions. All he knew was that his rebellious parents, Wolf and Anne, with their dyed hair, leather jackets and insistence he call them by their first names, were a bit embarrassing. That there were some places you couldn’t play; certain things you didn’t say.

Now, married with two children and the Wall a distant memory, Maxim decides to find the answers to the questions he couldn’t ask. Why did his parents, once passionately in love, grow apart? Why did his father become so angry, and his mother quit her career in journalism? And why did his grandfather Gerhard, the Socialist war hero, turn into a stranger?

The story he unearths is, like his country’s past, one of hopes, lies, cruelties, betrayals but also love. In Red Love he captures, with warmth and unflinching honesty, why so many dreamed the GDR would be a new world and why, in the end, it fell apart.

“Tender, acute and utterly absorbing. In fine portraits of his family members Leo takes us through three generations of his family, showing how they adopt, reject and survive the fierce, uplifting and ultimately catastrophic ideologies of 20th-century Europe. We are taken on an intimate journey from the exhilaration and extreme courage of the French Resistance to the uncomfortable moral accommodations of passive resistance in the GDR.

“He describes these ‘ordinary lies’ and contradictions, and the way human beings have to negotiate their way through them, with great clarity, humour and truthfulness, for which the jury of the European Book Prize is delighted to honour Red Love. His personal memoir serves as an unofficial history of a country that no longer exists… He is a wry and unheroic witness to the distorting impact – sometimes frightening, sometimes merely absurd – that ideology has upon the daily life of the individual: citizens only allowed to dance in couples, journalists unable to mention car tyres or washing machines for reasons of state.” Julian Barnes, European Book Prize

With wonderful insight Leo shows how the human need to believe and to belong to a cause greater than ourselves can inspire a person to acts of heroism, but can then ossify into loyalty to a cause that long ago betrayed its people.” Anna Funder, author of Stasiland

 

I’d like to thank Frisch & Co. and Pushkin Press for their generosity.

If you’d like to enter the giveaway, leave a comment, indicating for which book you’d like to enter. You can enter for both, of course.

Don’t miss visiting Lizzy’s site as she’s giving away titles from other publishers.

The giveaway is open internationally. The winners will be announced on Sunday, 5th October 2014. 

THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED: THE WINNERS HAVE BEEN ANNOUNCED.

Louisa Young: My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You (2011) Literature and War Readalong September 2014

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You

Louisa Young’s novel My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You is one of the most surprising reads for me this year. After having been disappointed in Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room and Helen Dunmore’s The Lie, I was a little worried this would be the third in a series of underwhelming contemporary WWI novels. Well, it wasn’t. I loved this book and could hardly put it down. Not only because the story was so engaging and the characters so likable but because Louisa Young is a skillful storyteller with a very unique style. It’s not easy to tell a WWI story, including all the common themes, and manage to do that in a fresh and original way, but that’s just what Louisa Young did.

Riley Purefoy and Nadine Waveney meet when they are still small children. Although from very different backgrounds – he’s a poor working-class boy, she’s from a rich upper-class family – they become friends and their friendship turns into love eventually. They both share a passion for art and both want to become artists. Just before the war breaks out, Riley works as an assistant to an artist. He sees Nadine regularly and they know they are in love. However, when her parents find out, they are not thrilled and make Riley understand that he isn’t welcome in the Waveney’s home anymore. Feeling hurt and insulted, Riley impulsively joins the army and within a few weeks is sent to the trenches. Nadine on her side, becomes a nurse. They keep in contact and write to each other regularly, even meet during one of Riley’s leaves.

Thanks to influential people at home and thanks to Peter Locke, Riley’s commanding officer, who understands that Riley is very cultured and intelligent, Riley becomes an officer in spite of his background.

Peter Locke and his wife, Julia, are the second important couple in this novel. The book moves back and forth between these four characters.

The first half of the book is intense and beautiful and drew me in so much that when tragedy strikes it made me gasp. What followed wasn’t an easy read. It was tragic but so well done. There are numerous ways to write about facial mutilation and the way Louisa Young did it was outstanding. She combines the themes of body image, art, and beauty, and weaves them together in way that I found extremely thought-provoking. Peter’s wife, Julia, is obsessed with her beauty. She thinks she has nothing else to offer and, although not yet 30, already wants to undergo plastic surgery. Her thoughts and her anguish mirror the thoughts and the anguish of the mutilated men. I also liked that Louisa Young set the book in an artists’ milieu at the beginning because it underlines that we humans are extremely visual beings and while we might not all feel the same about beauty, we all feel the same about looks and mutilation. Making beauty, even more than mutilation, a main theme was a unique choice and even daring. Daring, because Louisa Young doesn’t spare us. She shows us what those mutilations looked like, what they did to a soldier. And how the society reacted. Even mothers screamed and fled at the sight of their disfigured sons.

The second part of the novel focusses almost entirely on the surgeries and the despair of the mutilated men and on the toll the war takes on the minds of those who survive intact.

One of the strengths of the book is its accuracy, another one is that Louisa Young makes us care about her characters. Not only about the main characters but about the minor characters as well. She captures a society and an event, and thus achieves what the best historical fiction should achieve— make us we feel we’ve been there too.

Although My Dear I Wanted to Tell You tells a horrific story, it’s an amazingly beautiful book, full of sentiment and rich descriptions. Louisa Young has already published the sequel (The Heroe’s Welcome) and more books centering on the same characters are still to come. As she said in an interview: “I think I may be writing the twentieth century, through these characters.” I’m eager to read more of her novels.

Other reviews

 Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

My Book Strings

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My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You is the ninth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the Fantasy novel Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey. Discussion starts on Friday 31 October, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Announcing German Literature Month IV – November 2014

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Good morning/afternoon/evening, German(-language) literature lovers.  It’s time to look through your TBR piles and hunt out all the German literature you can find.  #germanlitmonth is returning for year four!

In years past Lizzy and I have structured the whole month for guidance, but now that a wealth of ideas and reviews exists in the blogosphere (see footnote), we no longer think that’s necessary.  This year we’re each going to host a themed week, leaving the rest of the month for you to read as you please. However, to make things more playful, we’re incorporating an optional pick and mix!

The overall structure of the month looks like this.

Nov 1-2      Introductions and reading plans

Nov 3-9      Award Winners Week (hosted by Lizzy)

Nov 10-23  Read as You Please

Nov 24-30 Joseph Roth Week (hosted by Caroline, with the Literature and War group read, Flight Without End, on the 29th)

Joseph Roth

At any time during the month you can pick and mix by reading and posting about any of the categories listed below, Each review will receive at least one entry into a prize draw. If the review fits multiple categories, you will earn multiple entries.  For example if you participate in my Literature and War read, you will get two entries: 1 for category 5 and another for category 6.

Pick and Mix Categories

1) Read and review an award winner.

2) Read and review a work that is not a novel.

3) Read and review a recommendation from German Literature Months 1-3. (See footnote)

4)To commemorate the 25th anniversary of The Fall of the Wall, read and review a work relating to the GDR or the Berlin Wall.

5) To commemorate armistice day, read and review a work relating to the First World War

6) Read and review a work written by or relating to Joseph Roth

7) Read a work published in German original or in translation during 2014

For the purposes of clarity, all reviews must relate to works originally written in German, regardless of the author’s nationality.  The winner of the pick and mix prize will be announced during the first week of December.

Apart from that, there are no other rules.  You can participate in the themed weeks and the pick and mix as much or as little as you wish. You can do your own thing too, if you so chose.  If you don’t have a blog, you are welcome to review on librarything or goodreads or similar or even write a guest post for one of the host blogs.

The main focus of the month is to share and enjoy German-language literature.  We hope you  decide to join us.

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Footnote – Indices of reviews from previous years

German Literature Month 2011 (http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/german-literature-month-2011-author-index/)

German Literature Month 2012 (http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/german-literature-month-2012-author-index/)

German Literature Month 2013

(http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/german-literature-month-iii-author-index/)

Megan Abbott: The End of Everything (2011)

Megan Abbott

To set the mood, let me start this post with a quote from the early pages of Megan Abbott’s unusual crime novel The End of Everything:

These are all the good things, and there were such good things. But then there were the other things, and they seemed to come later, but what if they didn’t? What if everything was there all along, creeping soundlessly from corner to corner, shuddering fast from Evie’s nighttime whispers, from the dark hollows of that sunny-shingled house, and I didn’t hear it? Didn’t see it?

This is a book full of nighttime encounters, people whispering in the dark, sitting on porches, in front of houses or lounging in basements. It’s a hot summer and Lizzie, the narrator is a 13-year-old girl, discovering attraction, sexual feelings and unsettling uncertainty for the first time. Lizzie and Evie are best friends, they are like one body, as Lizzie tells us. They share everything, or so Lizzie believes, until the day Evie disappears. The police and her parents give up quickly. They think that Evie must be dead and buried somewhere, abducted by a pervert, abused and killed. Only Lizzie is sure that Evie is still alive. She saw Mr Shaw drive by in a car twice, just before Evie went missing and points the police in his direction.

The police seem to turn in circles. Mr Shaw has disappeared as well but that might just be a coincidence. Finally Lizzie takes matters into her own hands and starts to investigate. Telling you more would spoil the book.

Megan Abboott writes incredibly well. This is a novel rich in mood and atmosphere but it’s also a deeply disturbing novel. Everyone in this book is sneaking and creeping around. Although there’s a child abduction and possible abuse, the creepiest character for me was Mr Verver, Evie’s father. Lizzie has a major crush on him and so does Dusty, the older of the two Verver girls. That in itself is disturbing but what is far more disturbing is how Mr Verver encourages the girls, especially his own daughter. He never really does anything inappropriate but he balances dangerously close to the abyss. At first I thought he sounded like a wonderful father because he spends so much time with his daughters but the more I read about him, the creepier he sounded. And that’s just one layer of this darkly rich novel, which brilliantly depicts the dark side of suburbia.

What was certainly interesting was how Megan Abbott combined a crime and a coming of age novel. The book reminded me of the movie the Virgin Suicides  (I’ve still not read the book but I’m pretty sure there are similarities). I never felt The End of Everything was an entirely realistic depiction of teenage girls, I found it rather surreal. I’m not even sure when this is set. At times it felt like the 80s, at times even like early 60s.

If you like your crime unusual and are fond of coming of age stories, dreamlike atmosphere and lovely writing, you shouldn’t miss this.

After I bought this novel, I discovered that Max reviewed it not too long ago. As usual, his review is well-worth reading.

Anna Gavalda: L’échappée belle – Breaking Away/French Leave (2009)

Breaking Away

When you look for something light but still profound, Anna Gavalda is an ideal choice. Her writing is airy but not fluffy. Her characters struggle but they make it eventually. Her slim novel, L’échappée belle, which has been published under two different names in English— Breaking Away and French Leave— was just like that. Entertaining, yet thoughtful. Amusing but a bit sad as well. The only problem I had was the structure. Breaking Away is divided in two parts. In both parts the book is told from Garance’s point of view but in the first part she’s the first person narrator, while the story is told in the third person in the later chapters. I wasn’t entirely sure why Anna Gavalda chose this approach. It gave the book a disjointed feel.

Garance, her older sister, Lola, her older brother, Simon, and her sister-in-law, Carine are on the way to a marriage. The scenes in the car are priceless. Carine is quite stuck up and the two sisters tease her mercilessly. They make her feel excluded, shock her, and push all of her buttons. Especially Garance, whose life style is wild and disorganized, antagonizes her constantly.

When they arrive at their destination the three siblings realize they are not in the mood for marriage malarkey, for family and hypocrisy. They would rather spend a day on their own and decide to pay a visit to their younger brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a Château.

Once there, they spend a wonderful time together. The siblings are very close and you get the feeling that whoever joins them, will always stay outside. This cannot be easy for a spouse or a girlfriend/boyfriend.

The siblings all seem at a turning point— newly divorced, just starting or ending a relationship. Garance is the one who will undergo the biggest change adn she has a new friend: a dog she adopted on the road trip. While the first part is like a road movie, the second shows us Garance on her own, in Paris.

Although the book is flawed and I didn’t understand the author’s choice to change from 1st to 3rd person, I did enjoy this. I have no siblings, so I always idealize the relationships between brothers and sister, even though most siblings I’ve met in real life never had such an intense, harmonious relationship.

A lot of Breaking Away is written in spoken language, using different types of accents and vernacular. I wonder how the translator handled this. It can’t  have been easy. In my opinion this gives the book added meaning, more depth. There’s a North African shop owner, for example, who speaks with a very strong accent. Reading it, I could hear it and was at first a bit shocked because it seemed racist but then we find out that Rachid speaks a perfect, accent free French, and only uses this accent to make fun of people who expect every North African to talk like this.

I’m glad that I still own another book by Anna Gavalda which I haven’t read yet – Hunting and Gathering – Ensemble c’est tout. It has been made into a movie and so has Someone I Loved. Her books make excellent choices for movies as her writing is heavy on dialogue.

For another take on the book, here’s Guy’s (His Futile Preoccupations) review.

Echappee belle

Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard (2013)

Apple Tree Yard

I wanted to read Apple Tree Yard as soon as it was out last year because I’d enjoyed Louise Doughty’s earlier novel Whatever You Love so much. I didn’t really know what to expect, didn’t read any reviews, and so I was glad to find out that not only is the book very different from her earlier novel, but just as good, maybe even better.

Apple Tree Yard tells the story of an affair that goes terribly wrong. Yvonne Carmichael is in her fifties, married with two grown-up kids. She’s a scientist and very successful in her work. Her marriage could be better but yshe and her husband do get along fine. What it is that makes her follow a man and start an affair with him? Boredom? Love—or rather lust— at first sight? Maybe a bit of both.

The book opens with a prologue that gives away a lot. We know Yvonne Carmichael and her lover have been arrested and are being tried and we also know that the prosecution has found out something that could be fatal for Yvonne. I think it’s quite impressive that Louise Doughty managed to give away this much in the prologue and still was able to write a page-turner that held my interest until the last page.

What worked particularly well for me was that large parts of the story were written as if Yvonne was talking to her lover, which was intimate and eerie at the same time.

Apple Tree Yard is the third crime novel with a London setting that I’ve read this year and, once again, the setting is almost a character.

The book is a crime novel but it explores a lot of themes in a very arresting way. Unfortunately mentioning some of them would really spoil the book. One theme I can mention, which is important, is the exploration of a marriage. Yvonne and her husband still share a lot but they are clearly not in love.

Apple Tree Yard is part thriller, part court-room drama, nicely paced, intricately plotted and infused with a bitter-sweet, melancholy mood that is quite rare in crime novels. A very gripping and intense novel.