YAhoo! It’s a (Nordic Noir) YA Review: October is the Coldest Month…

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If you like your YA peppy, romantic and with a good dose of teen angst, you are going to be sorely disappointed (and possibly traumatised) by October is the Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson, which we received for review from Scribe Publications.  Certainly one of the grittiest novels categorised as YA that I’ve ever read, the book takes the reader into the dark underbelly of a town in remote Sweden.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Vega Gillberg is 16 years old when the police come knocking on the door looking for her older brother, Jakob.

Vega hasn’t heard from him in days, but she has to find him before the police do. Jakob was involved in a terrible crime. What no one knows is that Vega was there, too.

In the rural Swedish community where the Gillbergs live, life is tough, the people are even tougher, and old feuds never die. As Vega sets out to find her brother, she must survive a series of threatening encounters in a deadly landscape. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s dealing with the longing she feels for a boy that she has sworn to forget, and the mixed-up feelings she has for her brother’s best friend.

During a damp, raw week in October, the door to the adult world swings open, and Vega realises that once she has crossed the threshold there is no turning back.

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Fittingly, given that the setting is a cold, outlying town in Sweden, the atmosphere of this book is bleak from the get-go and held me in an icy sense of fatalism throughout.  Vega is a teen in a predicament.  Her brother Jakob is missing, she knows why (although the reader isn’t privy to this information until partway through the book) and her stark existence seems like it’s about to become considerably more wintry should the police find Jakob before she does.  The narrative style has a distinct sense of detachment throughout, which is typical of noir I suppose, although I don’t read much of it, which actually made it a bit easier for me to keep reading through the bits that made my stomach churn.

The book features sex, violence and general criminal activity, so if any of those things turn you off, I would recommend you place this one back on the shelf and find yourself something more comforting.  Although this is a YA book in that the protagonist is a middle teen, the other characters, bar one – Vega’s love interest – are adults and careworn, to put it mildly, at that.  It very much feels throughout the book that Vega is well and truly out of her depth, trying to protect her brother while the significant adults in her life are involved in everything from black market hustling to murder.

Towards the end, the story feels a bit like a traditional murder mystery in that Vega starts to unravel the truth and various characters admit to playing various parts in the act in which Jakob was caught up.  I quite enjoyed this part of the story because things finally started making sense and the action ramped up in tandem with the pace of the story.

Overall, since this was quite a quick read, I found this quite absorbing and easy to fall into.  Noir is certainly not a genre I read often, given that I don’t necessarily love grittiness for the sake of it, but this was a good example of the genre and not overwhelming, given the shortish length of the story.  I would recommend this if you are a YA reader looking for something completely out there, or if you are a fan of edgy crime novels and need a quick fix.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal (and a giveaway!): Little Mouse…

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Today’s picture book is a celebration of the vagaries of parenthood, kindly provided to us by new children’s imprint Scribble Publications for review. There’s also a giveaway for Aussie residents at the end of our review, so don’t forget to enter!  Little Mouse by Riika Jantti takes the reader gently by the paw and leads them through a typical day in the life of a parent-caregiver and pre-school aged tot. Here’s the blurb from Scribble:

A day in the life of a toddler is a busy one — as all parents know — and Little Mouse’s day is no exception. Between getting dressed, going to childcare, eating dinner, and making time for splashing in puddles, Little Mouse has a lot to do … and a lot to say ‘no’ to!

This warm and humorous picture book from well-loved Finnish author/illustrator Riikka Jäntti introduces Little Mouse — a small kid with a big personality — who parents and childen will relate to instantly. In Little Mouse, everyday life combines with the wonder of early childhood to produce a captivating story that’s sure to become a read-aloud favourite.

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There is a quiet charm in this book, which springs entirely from the fact that it will be so  completely familiar to anyone who has ever had to look after a small child for any length of time.  Nothing particularly exciting or unexpected happens in the story – the plot merely follows the events of a typical day for a mother and child – but the cheeky illustrations and many inflections on the word “No!” provide a giggle.  This image from one of the page spreads has to get the prize for summing up the perpetual state of exasperation in which many care-givers find themselves when having to repeatedly ask a young child to complete perfectly reasonable tasks, such as putting on clothes and eating food:
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Did you get that?  Here it is in close up:
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See, you’re already feeling for Mummy Mouse, aren’t you?
Aside from the exasperation, there are also many moments of simple joy throughout the book, as when Little Mouse gets to play with his friends, jump in a puddle or (blissfully) fall into bed at the end of the busy day.  The book has an old-fashioned appeal to it, with a simple story and multiple illustrations on each page that will help little ones to follow the events.
We would recommend Little Mouse for when you and your mini-fleshling need a story that is entirely free from modern trappings and revels in the simple pleasure of sharing everyday happenings with each other.

Scribble are generously offering TWO readers the chance to own their very own copies of Little Mouse.  To enter, just click on the rafflecopter link below.

*This giveaway is for Australian residents only*  

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck!

Until next time,

Bruce

Devilishly Thought-Provoking Adult Fiction: The Summer that Melted Everything

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Today’s book is that most elusive of creatures – literary fiction that is eminently readable and skilfully demonstrates how reality and our perceptions of reality can merge in ways that result in unexpected personal consequences.  The Summer That Melted Everything is Tiffany McDaniel’s debut novel and an impressive little number it is.  We received a copy from Scribe Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.

Sal seems to appear out of nowhere – a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings him home where he’s welcomed into the Bliss family, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town.

When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome this self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperatures as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, riled by the feverish heat, some in the town start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While the Bliss family wrestles with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.

While this is by no means a book that’s going to leave you strolling away whistling once you put it down, there is something to be said for storytelling that explores the baser aspects of human existence without casting any particular person as “the monster”.  McDaniel has produced an extremely well-crafted novel for a first-timer, and if you are prepared to delve into a world in which nobody’s flaws are glossed over, then I would highly recommend you take a look at The Summer That Melted Everything.

The book is narrated by Fielding Bliss and alternates between a particularly memorable summer of 1984 and Fielding’s moribund situation in the present.  The story begins with a style that borders on magical realism, with larger-than-life, quirky characters and the unexpected arrival of a young boy whose other-wordliness seems to seep from his very pores.  As the book goes on, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems, although the “truth” of the matter does turn out to be at least as strange as the fiction.  Sal, as a thirteen year old boy, isn’t a particularly authentic character, being too wise for words in some instances, yet remains incredibly endearing and vulnerable in spite of his apparently redoubtable exterior.  Fielding is a much more genuine portrayal of a young boy, although his narration as an elderly man is quite harrowing at times.  The story is rounded out with Grand, Fielding’s older brother and golden boy of the town, his agoraphobic mother, criminal lawyer father, diminutive, angry and zealous neighbour (named, interestingly enough, Elohim), and a collection of small-town folk whose secrets and personal shames are variously brought to light throughout the story.

By the end of the novel, most of the “magic” of the story has fallen away and the reader is left with the stark and disturbing aftermath of unimaginable actions driven by a town’s collective imaginings.  As I mentioned earlier, the book won’t leave you with an uplifted spirit and the desire to prance along the street, but neither does it employ gratuitous shock tactics simply to provide an action-packed finale. While the content toward the end is reasonably challenging, it certainly leaves the reader with plenty to ponder over and this pondering is aided by the treacle-slow pace of the writing, which brilliantly reflects the apparent stopping of time that occurs during a prolonged heatwave.

The only problem I had with the book is that although it is set mostly in 1984, the characters and dialogue had me more in mind of the 1950s.  This may have been deliberate on the part of the author, and to be honest, it doesn’t make that much of a difference to the story, but it was an interesting side-effect nonetheless.

We highly recommend The Summer That Melted Everything to readers who are looking for realistic literary fiction with a masterfully constructed fantastical streak.

Until next time,

Bruce