Vita Nostra

book-review-2One thing I’ve really enjoyed so far about Women in Translation month is that I’ve expanded my reading horizons. Not only that, but I’ve been able to find new books to love in genres I already enjoy. Vita Nostra has been on my shelf for a while and it was wonderful to finally start reading it. It’s a book written by a husband and wife team who have more than 30 published works – only a few of which have been translated into English so far.

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This was the most wildly bizarre fantasy novel I’ve ever read and I absolutely loved it. I devoured it whole, racing through pages deep into the night as if my life depended on it. As I came to the end of the novel, I breathed a sigh of relief, heart racing even as it shuddered for the end of such a brilliant experience.

This is the kind of book that you love or you hate.

It follows a young woman, Sasha Samokhina, as she meets a frightening stranger and is compelled to perform tasks that he requests of her. Even as she is rewarded for her efforts she loathes and fears what she doesn’t yet understand. Who is this man? Why does he ask these things of her? This is somewhat answered upon Sasha’s admittance to the Institute of Special Technologies in Torpa, but things remain shrouded in mystery and uncertainty for a large part of the novel.

I saw another reviewer refer to this book as ‘phantasy’ – as in ‘philosophical fantasy’ and I really can’t disagree. If you enjoyed slogging through assigned novels in philosophy classes and trying to derive some sort of meaning from often repetitive and contradictory statements, this is the book for you. This is a repetitive novel that it would be easy to find pointless and boring if you’re not utterly fascinated by philosophy (or pseudo-philosophy). Beautiful prose often melts into scenes with strange interpersonal relationships and small epiphanies from the main character. Still, the bulk of the book is Sasha desperately studying incomprehensible concepts that hold no meaning for her at the beginning of her school career.

I enjoyed the glimpses into the lives of Sasha’s fellows and love interests as you could tell they had their own lives and concerns happening beyond what Sasha was aware of. The glimpses into Sasha’s mother’s life help to keep things as grounded as they could be within this story. The Dyachenkos clearly have a solid grasp of the joys and struggles of personal relationships, and all of the dialogue between characters was solidly believable to me – even when they were discussing impossible metaphysical concepts.

If you’re looking for a strange read to lose yourself in, something more bleak than joyful but still engrossing – this is the book for you. If vague concepts with the promise of some deeper meaning not yet meant to be understood doesn’t sound good, maybe give this one a miss for now.

As far as the translation goes, I thought that Julia Meitov Hersey did a wonderful job. This was honestly the most readable Russian translation I’ve ever encountered. I know that she and the authors did have to compromise for the English version and change most (all?) of the quoted text. Not knowing what the originals were I can’t say if this was better or worse, only that I enjoyed it without reservation.

This is the first of “an associative cycle of novels about people finding their life and understanding of the World had to be changed,” according to the authors’ English website. Although the books in the ‘Metamorphosis Cycle’ aren’t connected by characters or plot I’m eager to see just what the next one holds! Unfortunately for readers there aren’t any announced plans to translate the next two from Russian just yet.

Have you read Vita Nostra of any of the Dyachenkos other works? Do you have any other bizarre fantasy or ‘phantasy’ to recommend? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

What Should Be Wild

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Before Women in Translation month began, I resolved to read more of the books I already have at home on my shelves. What Should Be Wild has been with me for ages  – through several job changes and a major move. It has definitely waited long enough to be read, and I’m sorry it took such a length of time!

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Maisie Cothay is born with the ability to kill and resurrect with a touch, her first casualty being her mother while she is still growing in the womb. Maisie’s father Peter raises her in almost total isolation on Urizon, his wife’s family estate. A man of science, Peter uses Maisie’s childhood as an opportunity to conduct controlled experiments testing his daughter’s capabilities and limits. As Maisie grows, so too does her longing for companionship and it isn’t to be sated until an unexpected event sends her out into the world for the first time.

Conceptually, I loved this book. The narrative certainly had a fairy-tale quality that I enjoyed, and the prose was often beautiful. This is the kind of book that it would be a pleasure to read aloud to oneself. Maisie’s narration from childhood to young adulthood was interesting, clearly unreliable but all the better for it. I did wish that she had stayed younger for more of the novel, but then I suppose it would have been more of a candidate for a duology instead.

Maisie’s perspective is interspersed with that of the ‘lost women’ of the Blakely family (her mother’s family), women who throughout the ages have sought refuge of different sorts in the woods surrounding the estate.

These two perspectives played well off each other and were probably my favourite part of the book outside of the concept itself. The ‘origin’ chapters of each woman were the parts I liked the most.

The lost women are all interesting in their vices and faults, and I would have gladly read more about them all. Maisie is exactly as you’d expect someone so isolated to be: naïve, eager to make friends, and foolish as heck. Peter (her father) was a flawed man, whose character arc I found excellent as he learned and grew during his short presence in the narrative. The two male side characters were both quite forgettable and firstly seemed to be shoehorned in as possible love interests. When one is revealed to be something else, it was a rather stale twist that didn’t quite make the impact it should have.

There were some pretty gruesome scenes in the book, but I expected that considering the subject matter.

Ultimately, the problems I have with this book are the same ones I always seem to find in magical realism or literary fiction that feels like dabbling in the fantastical: it just didn’t follow through. The author spent so much time laying the groundwork of Maisie’s (and the other women’s) circumstances, but then ignored them in favour of tying a neat little bow around the boring ending of the book. Maisie’s powers and the intrigue of the woods are the central focus of the story, but it isn’t enough to keep them the focus at the end.

While I did enjoy reading this, I was disappointed that I read through so urgently to the end only for it to be such a letdown. There was so much potential here for the story to say more about women’s bodies and agency (which I did feel it attempted) but it really let itself down at the end if that’s what it was trying for. Previous events and interactions were glossed over to the detriment of the story.

There was the possibility for the narrative to come full circle, which was entirely ignored to my dismay. Though the book does try to focus on morality and the importance of one’s actions and choices, it failed by believing the fantasy elements it introduced couldn’t further an ending with any impact – and in doing so robbed readers of any satisfying conclusion.

Still, if you’re in the mood for a book with lovely prose, and don’t mind the complete disregard laid by the fantasy groundwork in the beginning, you might be well served by giving this one a try.

Have you read What Should Be Wild? Do you have any similar recommendations? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Moshi Moshi

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August has arrived, and with it Women in Translation month. While there are several different events this month, I’m participating in Tamsien’s (Babbling Books) photography and reading challenge which you can find on her instagram.

I went through my bookshelves to find translated titles, but didn’t turn up many as I generally avoid translated works on purpose. (More on that in a later post.) I headed to my local library branch to browse and turned up quite a few likely titles. The first one I’ve finished is Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from Japanese to English by Asa Yoneda.

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Moshi Moshi follows main character Yoshie as she moves into a new apartment and forges a life for herself in the wake of her father’s death. Her father was killed in a suicide-pact with an unknown woman, and Yoshie and her mother are left to come to terms with not only his loss but also the manner of his death.

This meandering novel was easy to sink into, the narration clear, and the dialogue clean (if a bit dense at times). The characters often monologue aloud to each other in a way I haven’t encountered before, expressing thoughts and feelings that can range from nebulously philosophical, to intellectual, to seemingly inconsequential.

Small every day actions and moments make up the bulk of the narrative, to it’s benefit. As I was reading I thought rather fondly back to more melancholy times in my own life and how much things have changed for me. Though the focus is on normal life, things often seemed very dreamlike as they occurred, the passage of time taking center stage in a way that worked well to highlight Yoshie’s emotions and mental state.

I really enjoyed Yoshie’s mother as a character. She’s also trying to deal with her grief in the best way she can, and it was interesting to see how her process differed from her daughter’s. The side characters throughout the book were never delved into deeply but despite that it was clear that they had their own lives and motives beyond those known to Yoshie. Their interactions with her (and her mother) really furthered the narrative.

While the loss of Yoshie’s father is the main ‘conflict’ of this book, it also focuses well on other types of grief and the changeable nature of life itself. While this book wasn’t plot-driven, I enjoyed it all the same.

If you’re going through a life change filled with uncertainty, or are in need of some kind of literary catharsis, you need look no further than this lovely little novel.

Have you read any of  Yoshimoto’s work? Are you participating in Women in Translation month? If you have any thoughts to share, let me know in the comments below!

 

 

Mini-Reviews

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It’s been a while, folks! It’s true that things have gotten a bit away from me this year. Still, I have been reading despite being busy with other things, and I’m back to share my thoughts on some titles.

You know when you’re looking forward to reading something and then begin it and realise rather quickly that it isn’t what you thought it would be? Yeah, that was The End We Start From in a nutshell.

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I received an e-arc of this earlier this year and it took me a while to start it. When I finally did, I wasn’t as wowed as I expected to be. The cover is undeniably beautiful but the content wasn’t to my liking. I was expecting a book centered more around a dystopian society or a world-shattering event. The book is narrated by a woman navigating her way through what appears to be society-altering flooding. It’s quite fragmented, taking place over a large period of time. Despite that, I really wouldn’t shelve this as science fiction or dystopian.

The book focuses a lot on the protagonist’s sense of new motherhood. The story meanders and there isn’t really a plot. This wasn’t my favourite read, but if you’re looking for something sparse and contemplative to read during the winter this may be for you.

Next up: Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend.

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That’s right, this is a real book. I was egged into reading this by a co-worker after she told me that Bearllionnaire was a thing. (Review of that to come in the new year, fear not.) Thinking it might be the exact kind of weird and hilarious read I would enjoy, I caved to the peer pressure and went for it.

Sadly, it was not good. Not the kind of not good that you can enjoy and read because it’s still fun, but just the didn’t finish kind. The protagonist was unlikeable, and while that isn’t usually a deal-breaker for me, if I’m 50 pages in and still haven’t had very many scenes with the aforementioned Pterodactlyl Boyfriend, I call foul on the whole thing.

Next, Ask Baba Yaga.

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I’ve been dipping in and out of this gem since I picked it up a few months ago. I read a couple pages before bed every night and I’m super sad for the impending end of the book. Formatted as an advice column, regular mortals seek answers to every day problems from the well-known oracle/witch Baba Yaga. Beautifully formatted with thick, glossy pages and intricate illustrations, I highly recommend this.

While Baba Yaga’s advice is obviously strange, sometimes violent, and often cryptic, it reads well and is always rather solid stuff. Just great on all fronts. If you like weird, you’ll love this.

Another good read was The Witch Boy.

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I read this back in spooky season, on the recommendation of a co-worker (not the same as above). Bless her heart she knows me well, I did indeed love this. The story revolves around a boy born into a magical family where boys become shapeshifters and girls become witches. His entire life however, he’s felt no pull to shapeshift, only a desire to learn the spells taught to his female kin.

This graphic novel was wonderfully illustrated, and the story, while straightforward was really lovely and absolutely something I would recommend, especially to younger readers. I’m sad that this is a standalone and I hope the author revisits this ‘verse in her future work.

That’s all for now. Have you read these titles? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Books to Read Sans Synopsis

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Top 5 Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Sam @ Thoughts on Tomes and created by Lainey @ Ginger Reads Lainey. You can check out the group’s Goodreads page for this month’s topics!

This week’s theme is books that it’s best to go into blindly. Those few titles you want to recommend without spoiling anything, and just end up describing as vaguely as possible. “No trust me, don’t google it – just read it! You’ll love it, I swear.” These books are usually fantastic if you can read them unspoiled, but even their own back covers can sometimes mar the story within. (How do publishers let that happen?)

Here are five books that I think you should read without a synopsis. Either they spoil the content a little too much or they misrepresent the story enough to make you unhappy with it. Just trust me.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

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Cathy’s Book, by Jordan Wiseman

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Genesis, by Bernard Beckett

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Deathless, By Catherynne M. Valente

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There you have it! Some of these are genre fiction, and some are not. I’ll not be telling you which is which, because that would spoil the whole point of this post. Have you read any of my choices? Do they coincide with the books you would recommend someone read without a synopsis?

Let me know in the comments below!

So You’re In A Reading Slump

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Hello folks, it’s been a while – too long, in fact. What’s been keeping me away, you ask? Well, I was in a reading slump. Considering a large part of my content consists of book reviews, the reading slump all too quickly evolved into a writing slump. And here we are.

The slump can quickly spread to various activities, and you’ll find yourself angrily eyeing your bookshelves as if they’ve personally offended you. That just isn’t a healthy attitude for a bibliophile to have for a long period of time.

My slump began when I started reading two rather daunting books at the same time. Unlike my usual simultaneous reads, both of these were books I felt I had to read with no background noise or distractions. This severely limited my reading time as well as the joy I usually find in stories I don’t have to take too seriously.

To top it off, I got a lot of my ‘wished for’ and requested books on NetGalley and Edelweiss all within the same week. Factor in the two hard reads, along with the mounting list of ARC’s I had to review, and I was getting more and more stuck.

So, you’re stuck. What do you do?

There are a few different things that may work for you, but I’ll be sharing the things that have worked for me now and in the past.

– First, stop reading the books that have you stopped up, if that’s part of your problem.

– Do a book detox – watch some episodes of a new tv show or grab a new cd to listen to. Put reading out of your mind for a little while.

– Try to re-read a favourite, preferably a short stand-alone title.

– Head to your local library to browse. Pick the first title that speaks to you and read as much as you can in the library. Sometimes a change of location helps more than you think! Try heading to a park or to the beach to read if it’s nice out.

– Read some short stories – either collections, or online tales. I’m a fan of the shorts found on Tor.com, as well as short fanfiction.

– Check out some alternative format literature: comics, plays, or audiobooks. Kickstart your love of a good story with something a little different from your usual. Try listening to some narrative podcasts.

– If there’s a list of books you have to read for review purposes, pick the one with the absolute furthest deadline. Doing something ‘wrong’ by temporarily neglecting the read coming up soonest might make the one you pick up more thrilling to finish.

So those are the different things I’ve used in the past to get out of reading slumps. This time around, I set aside my two difficult reads. I then caught up on some procedural crime dramas for a while, before picking up a book I don’t have to have reviewed until June. I’m now more than halfway through it and going strong.

Back to effortless and enjoyable reading!

Does my list include things you do? What techniques do you use to get out of a reading slump? Let me know in the comments below!

Choosing Books for Kids & Teens

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I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend among adults who come into the store to buy books for kids and teens in their lives. Whether it be for their own kids, their nieces and nephews, or the kids of their friends, there seems to be a strange laisser-faire attitude when it comes to picking out books.

I’ll ask them about the person they’re buying for, and what they’ll tell me is the person’s age and gender.

Cool.

That tells me absolutely nothing about them. Guess what? Kids are people. Tell me if they like animals, or planes, or if they talk so fast they don’t seem to have time to slow down and read. Tell me if they’re already lifelong readers, and if you know their current favourite reads. Tell me if they only read comic books, of if they’re too busy watching TV to make time for a book.

A person’s age and gender does not determine what they will enjoy reading. 

Even then, when I know their likes and dislikes, when you tell me if they like to read and I make the best recommendations possible – even then they may hate my choice. They might look at the book you bought for them and know that it will spend its life gathering dust under their bed.

So here’s what you do: get kids and teens excited about reading.

Want to get them a book for their birthday? Give them one of your favourites from when you were a kid or teen. Sit them down and talk about how this book changed your life, or how it was so fun it helped you keep your mind off your parents’ divorce or your failing grades. Give them something that they’ll connect to you and attribute meaning to. And just maybe they’ll love it too.

If you’re a parent or someone who is often there at bedtime, make bedtime stories a thing. Graduate from picture books with beautiful illustrations, to fun school-time tales, to family friendly epics like Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Pierce’s Tortall books, and His Dark Materials. Instill a sense of love and wonder, and eagerness in reading.

Get them a gift card to your favourite bookstore. Whether it be a big box store, your local used store, or the small indie store halfway across town, get them a gift card.

Now – don’t just give them this gift card and leave it at that. Make it an event. Take them out on a fun bonding day – take them to the movies, and then to lunch, and then to the bookstore. Take them for a window shopping walk with the bookstore halfway through. Let them take their time in browsing.

Let them make their own reading choices, even if it’s something you think is too complex or too simple for their reading level. Let them choose comics, or poetry, or early readers books. Let them read books aimed at girls or at boys. Let them choose audiobooks, or e-books if they have access to a tablet.

Set up a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly library date with them. Most libraries have really interesting programming for kids and teens. Again, give them time to choose what they want to read. Let them just pick one, or pick several. Don’t malign or make fun of their reading choices, or suggest that they’ve chosen something too easy or too silly.

Let them learn to love reading. Let them choose to love reading.

What are your strategies to get the kids in your life to enjoy reading? What do you think makes a lifelong reader? Let me know in the comments below!