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

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YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Wonderful Feels Like This…

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Now if you’re one of those people who roll their eyes when they hear YA slapped in front of a contemporary novel, you can happily give your eyes a rest today because Wonderful Feels Like This by Swedish author Sara Lovestam could quite easily be classed as adult fiction given the fact that one of the main characters is an octogenarian.  Also, it’s about historical jazz music.  And World War II.

We received a copy of Wonderful Feels Like This from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A celebration of being a little bit odd, finding your people and the power of music to connect us.

For Steffi, going to school everyday is an exercise in survival. She’s never fit in with any of the groups at school, and she’s viciously teased by the other girls in her class. The only way she escapes is through her music–especially jazz music.

When Steffi hears her favourite jazz song playing through an open window of a retirement home on her walk home from school, she decides to go in and introduce herself. The old man playing her favorite song is Alvar. When Alvar was a teenager in World War II Sweden, he dreamed of being in a real jazz band. Then and now, Alvar’s escape is music–especially jazz music.

Through their unconventional friendship, Steffi comes to realise that she won’t always feel alone. She can go to music school in Stockholm. She can be a real musician. She can be a jitterbug, just like Alvar.

But how can Steffi convince her parents to let her go to Stockholm to audition? And how is it that Steffi’s school, the retirement home, the music and even Steffi’s worst bully are somehow all connected to Alvar? Can it be that the people least like us are the ones we need to help us tell our own stories?

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Wonderful Feels Like This is a delightful blend of historical fiction and contemporary coming of age story.  Steffi, in grade nine at the local school, is bullied relentlessly by her peers and has no friends to speak of.  Alvar, an octogenarian in an old folk’s home located on the route of Steffi’s walk home, is a musician whose body may be frail but whose heart and mind have never lost their passion for jazz.  When Steffi stops to chat to Alvar after hearing 1940s jazz music wafting out his window, it is the beginning of a friendship that will change both their lives and cement the bond that began with a few bars of swing.

What an intriguing read this book is!  Firstly, it’s set in Sweden – a country that I know very little about, barring IKEA and…IKEA. Oh, and ABBA.  Secondly, it’s told from alternating historical perspectives – Steffi and Alvar in the present and Alvar as a young man in 1940s Stockholm, overshadowed by the war.  I loved the information that was woven in about the political situation of Sweden and its neighbours during World War II because (a) I’m a big nerd and (b) I’ve never encountered a WWII story told from this perspective before so it was great to add to my general knowledge here.  Finally, the characters are beautifully authentic and the author hasn’t resorted to YA tropes in Steffi’s sections of the story, as could so easily have been the case given the theme of bullying.  Steffi is given equal footing with Alvar as a rounded, developed person, rather than reduced to a teen girl with certain musical hobbies and a low social standing.

Steffi’s biggest tormentors, Karro and Sanja, are merciless in their harassment, never shying away from an opportunity – be it in person or online – to denigrate Steffi and spit vitriol and humiliation in her general direction. Steffi’s lack of friends her own age lends a certain sadness to the atmosphere of her parts of the story, although it is obvious that she is determined to remain faithful to her passions and dreams for her future, in spite of the unprovoked persecution that is constantly heaped upon her.

Alvar, appearing to the reader simultaneously as a bright light of the rest home and a nervous, uncertain young man making his way in a big city in a time of social upheaval, provides the anchor for Steffi’s unsettled school experiences.  Through Alvar’s narration of his youth, Steffi begins to draw strength and confidence and understands that the path to success rarely runs smooth.

I loved that the author left the bullying element of Steffi’s story fairly unresolved.  This felt particularly authentic to me because in many people’s experience, there is no intervention or specific incident that causes the bullying to stop, rather circumstances, or physical distance mean that access to the victim by the bully is somehow cut off. This seems to be the case at the end of the book and although it’s possible – likely even – that Steffi’s tormentors may have continued their harassment after the end of the story that we see here, there is hope for Steffi and the promise of new and true friends.

In fact, one of my favourite parts of the book comes in the last paragraph of the author’s acknowledgements, where Lovestam writes:

Thank you, children and teenagers, sitting in schools all over the world, thinking about chords, shading, pi, medieval aesthetics, adverbs, metaphysics, Neanderthals, lace-making, chromatics,  and making flambes, instead of letting schoolyard pecking orders get to you.  Your time will come.

That is essentially what this story is about: having one’s time and following one’s passion – the precursor to it, the attainment of it, the living through it and the satisfied reflection on it after a life well-lived.

I’ll be submitting this book for the Popsugar Challenge under category #26: a book by an author from a country you’ve never visited.  Sweden (and Scandinavia generally, you’re on the bucket list).  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges for 2017 here.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Eye of the Reindeer: Snow, Sanity and the Search for Self…

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We readers know that it is super important to make sure you have the right book for the holiday season.  Something that won’t be over too quickly, that will take you on a journey (even if you have to stay at home) and will plunge you right into a new and unexpected world.  Today’s book does all of those things and more in an epic journey toward freedom of body and self, spanning more than 30 years.  We received The Eye of the Reindeer by Eva Weaver from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Shortly after her thirteenth birthday, Ritva is sent away to Seili, an island in the far north of Finland. A former leper colony, Seili is now home to ‘hopeless cases’ – to women the doctors call mad. But Ritva knows she doesn’t belong there. As biting winter follows biting winter, she longs to be near to her sister, and wonders why her father ever allowed her to be taken to this desolate place.

Hope arrives in the form of Martta, a headstrong girl who becomes Ritva’s only friend. Martta is a Sami, from the north. All through her childhood, Ritva’s mother told her wonderful Sami legends and tales – of Vaja the reindeer, the stolen sealskin, of a sacred drum hidden long ago. When Ritva and Martta decide to make their escape, this is where they will head.

So begins an odyssey over frozen sea and land towards a place where healing and forgiveness can grow. This is a story about friendship, about seeing the world through a different perspective, and the stories and tales that can make up a life.

Wowsers, what an epic!  I had absolutely no idea when I started reading this book that it would span such a long time period and feature an unbelievable journey, both in foot miles and in growth of characters.  Ritva is a young woman in 1913 when she is shipped off to Seili, an asylum set on an island in the freezing north, and home to women that have been deemed (correctly or incorrectly) difficult cases.  The daughter of a pastor, Ritva has long experienced strange dreams and visions, and it is only when she meets Martta, a young Sami woman imprisoned with her, that she discovers that her dreams may be related to legends of the Northern Sami people.  After a daring escape, Ritva and Martta are caught up in a journey toward physical freedom from Seili, and the emotional journey of dealing with family history, sexuality and who they really want to be.

The book is broken into a number of parts that correspond with certain legs of the journeys that the girls – and then later on, women – take.  The story begins with Ritva’s time on Seili and we are given certain glimpses into her past and the reasons why her father may have had her committed in the first place.  This family mystery continues throughout much of the book until it is brought to a shocking, yet satisfying conclusion about two-thirds of the way through.    After this, Ritva tries to carve out a place for herself to belong and untangle the pressures of expectation and desire that have weighed her down.

I haven’t read a book like this in quite a long time, if ever.  The Eye of the Reindeer is totally focused on Ritva as she faces incredible challenges throughout her life.  The pace is quite slow, despite the fact that the story begins in Ritva’s adolescence and ends after her middle age, and yet I found each section totally absorbing while I was reading it.  I think my favourite part of the book was Ritva and Martta’s escape from Seili, their unconventional modes of transport and the suspense of potential recapture set against such a hostile environment.  The setting in Scandinavia and the lands at the top of the world was so well described as to almost be a character in itself and I was fascinated by the details relating to the indigenous people of this region – the Sami – and their way of life.  The author leaves some notes after the story is finished about the Sami and their current predicament for those who wish to find out more.

This book certainly won’t be for everyone, given the depth in which it explores difficult subjects like abuse, abandonment and betrayal, and the slow unfolding of the narrative, and certainly isn’t one that, had I known in advance how hefty the story would feel, I would probably have ever picked up.  The atmosphere is quite tense in some parts and particularly gloomy in others, but for the most part there is an undercurrent of hope and determination that spurred me on to find out how Ritva’s story might end.  Overall though, I am so happy to have read Ritva’s story and was completely absorbed in her life as it unfolded.

If you have a space in your schedule in the next few months which could be filled with a vast, sprawling landscape and a young woman slowly picking her way towards truth over the course of an incredible life, then I would definitely recommend you have a go at The Eye of the Reindeer.

Plus, the author has a rhyming first and surname.

That’s always a bonus.

Until next time,

Bruce