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

Shouty Doris Interjects during…The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (plus Recommend Your Favourite Bookstore and Win Stuff!)

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Shouty Doris interjects

It’s Shouty Doris’s first outing of the  year and boy is she champing at the bit to interject on today’s book!  If you love books that feature books and/or bookstores then you’ll definitely want to prick up your ears for The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald, which we received from Sourcebooks Landmark via Netgalley.  We are part of the official blog tour, part of which is a sweepstakes asking readers to name their favourite bookstore and win prizes!  If you’d like to participate, just read on to the end of this post, where the information will be waiting for you.

Now let’s get into it. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Once you let a book into your life, the most unexpected things can happen…


Broken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds that Amy’s funeral has just ended. Luckily, the townspeople are happy to look after their bewildered tourist—even if they don’t understand her peculiar need for books. Marooned in a farm town that’s almost beyond repair, Sara starts a bookstore in honor of her friend’s memory. All she wants is to share the books she loves with the citizens of Broken Wheel and to convince them that reading is one of the great joys of life. But she makes some unconventional choices that could force a lot of secrets into the open and change things for everyone in town.

Reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is a warm, witty book about friendship, stories, and love.the readers of broken wheel recommend

The first thing you need to know about this book is that it is a translation from the original Swedish.  Translations, in my experience, can be a bit iffy if not done well, but I don’t think the typical reader would even notice that English wasn’t the original language of the story if it wasn’t pointed out to them.

Shouty Doris interjects

I’m just glad the book came fully assembled and not in a flatpack.

I wouldn’t have minded, honestly.  Okay, I promise that’s the last Sweden = Ikea reference for the rest of this review.

Shouty Doris interjectsI make no such promise.

The second thing you should know about this one is that while it is definitely and unequivocally a book about books (and bookstores) it can just as unequivocally be labelled “chick-lit” with all the positive and negative associations that such a label might entail.  I was thoroughly drawn in by the concept of travelling across the world to meet up with someone who has just-this-minute kicked the bucket.  Oddly though, the loss of Amy (Sara’s penpal) was only explored obliquely, through Sara’s decision to open the bookstore using Amy’s vast personal library as a starting point.  Amy’s letters to Sara were also used throughout the book to give a bit of background information on the folk who populate Broken Wheel, which was a nifty touch.

Shouty Doris interjects

I would have preferred more Sweden and less Broken Wheel, if you want my opinion.  I’ve never come across such a depressing bunch of sadsacks as that Broken Wheel lot.  If I was in charge of the universe, I would have taken a tyre jack and replaced the whole town long before they could make it into a novel.

I’m trying not to think about the state the universe would be in if you were in charge of it, Doris, but be that as it may, you do raise a good point.  At the beginning of the tale, Broken Wheel and its inhabitants are a pretty morose lot, given that the economic future of the town doesn’t look so good.  As the story goes on, Sara’s activities in the town rally the residents to start some new projects and adopt some civic pride, but for the first third of the book, forming a bond with the Broken Wheel lot is a bit of a slog.

I loved the description of Sara setting up the bookshop, as it sounds like just the kind of place any self-respecting bookworm would love to inhabit.

Shouty Doris interjectsI’m surprised she didn’t use the Kallax square shelving system complimented with Tisdag lighting selections and the rounded, cosy couches of the Ektorp series.  It would have given the shop a chic, European feel.

Enough with the IKEA references now.

Shouty Doris interjectsSpoilsport.

Although for most of the book, I found it completely inexplicable that people – any people, anywhere – would be ambivalent, or openly hostile towards, the opening of a bookshop.  This was another reason it took me a while to warm to the inhabitants of Broken Wheel – I could honestly not fathom that a person exists in the world who would not be positively disposed to the sudden appearance of a bookshop in their midst.

Shouty Doris interjectsParticularly when their town is so depressing and lacklustre to begin with.

Yes, I think we’ve covered that.

There is a romance subplot here that fervent readers of chick-lit will just adore, between Sara and Amy’s nephew, neither of whom are willing participants to begin with.  Sara’s voice also generates a some fine moments of dry (and not so dry) observation that were quite amusing.

Shouty Doris interjectsI quite liked the bit about the gay erotica shelf.

Yes, that was a highlight for me too.

Bivald has peppered the story with references to all sorts of books, from classics to biographies to Bridget Jones, and I’m sure some readers will savour the chance of using these references to add more books to their TBR lists.

Overall, while I found the story a bit slow-going at times, I think this is going to be warmly received by those who are looking for a comfort read, or would like their faith in the power of reading to solve all of society’s ills bolstered.

Now, onto the sweepstakes!

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The “Readers, Recommend Your Bookstore Campaign” is inspired by the phenomenal support booksellers have given The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald, which was selected as the #1 Indie Next Great Read for January 2016

Anyone can nominate their favorite bookstore at http://books.sourcebooks.com/readers-recommend-your-bookstore-sweepstakes/. Sourcebooks will award the winning bookstore with a $3,000 prize; two additional bookstores will each receive a $637 prize (the population of Bivald’s fictional Broken Wheel, Iowa). In addition to bookstores receiving prizes, weekly giveaways for those who nominate will be held throughout the campaign. Voting began January 4, and runs until February 19, when the winning bookstores will be announced.

Until next time,

Bruce (and Doris)