book review

READ THE WORLD – Slovenia: Mere Chances by Veronika Simoniti

Translated by Nada Grošelj.

A collection of singular and strange stories about characters struggling to maintain their identities as they cross physical and linguistic borders.

The themes of the stories in Mere Chances where very interesting as they cover belonging, identity, and the difficulties in making yourself heard in a new place. However, the actual plots of a lot of the stories aren’t as compelling as their themes. It’s like a lot of them are trying to be bigger and more important than they are, with surprises that don’t feel earned and characters that aren’t developed enough. Obviously, short stories don’t have the same space to give characters a full backstory but a good short story can give you a good characterisation to be interested in, even in just a few pages.

There are a few stories that are truly great and powerful. “Portugal” is about a young woman with a terminal illness who decides to make the trip she’s always wanted to before having to deal with the reality of her health. The escapism is great as she makes her way to her destination, talking to locals and letting her thoughts wander.

A couple of the stories are about the war in the Balkans and trying to find where the bodies in the mass graves belong to return them to their families. Those stories are like a shock to the system after the stories that are bland and unaffecting.

Mere Chances is a short story collection that has a lot of good ideas and themes but unfortunately the majority of the stories don’t have good enough characters and plot to make them more than interesting in theory.

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READ THE WORLD – Finland: The Howling Miller by Arto Passilinna

When Gunnar Huttunen turns up in a small village to restore a dilapidated mill, its inhabitants are instinctively wary. He’s big. He’s a bit odd. And he’s a stranger. Everyone loves his brilliant animal impressions but these feelings soon sour when he starts to howl wildly at night. And once the mean-spirited, small-minded locals realise Gunnar won’t conform, they conclude he must be mad and hound him from his home. With the help of the love of his life, and the local drunk, he’ll try and find some semblance on peace.

The Howling Miller feels a bit whimsical like a fairy tale or a fable a lot of the time, especially towards the end when you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not. It definitely has that feel of Eastern European folklore, though obviously Finland wouldn’t necessarily be classified as a country in Eastern Europe. It’s the setting of the forests and rivers and the dark, cold nights, and having a solitary hero with weird quirks, and townspeople who are fine to put up with his eccentricities until they aren’t.

Gunnar is perhaps a simple character as he doesn’t really get social cues or see the boundaries people have. Or he is just an arsehole who just does what he wants. He’s not horrible or unnecessarily cruel, but he lashes out when people turn against him. This then brings about a seemingly endless cycle of Gunnar and the townsfolk getting on until one irritates the other, and then the other reacts negatively. Though Gunnar isn’t the only one at fault. The people of the town, while imitated by the look of him to begin with, enjoy his animal impressions to begin with and even do their own but when he joins in, they feel he is mocking them and don’t like it.

The main problem Gunnar and a lot of the characters have is they are terrible at communicating. Gunnar is very blunt but has his own ideas of what people are thinking, while a lot of the characters never say what they really mean. It’s frustrating and is what leads to a lot of the conflict. The romance between Gunnar and Sanelma feels very rushed and while it’s easy to see why Gunnar likes the her, (she’s kind, pretty and thoughtful) you never really see why she loves him when his actions often inadvertently hurt her.

The Howling Miller is an odd story. Most of the characters are unlikable and it seems like it’s trying to be a cautionary tale, but it isn’t clear what lesson it is trying to teach. The events in the story feel very repetitive as Gunnar scares/shuns the townspeople again and again though in slightly different ways, making it a story that’s a bit of a chore to get through as no one seems to learn from their actions. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Sri Lanka: Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

Narrated by Emily Woo Zeller.

Lucky is an unemployed millennial programmer. Her husband, Krishna, is an editor for a greeting card company. Both are secretly gay, presenting their conservative Sri Lankan-American families with a heterosexual front while dating on the side. When Lucky’s grandmother falls, Lucky returns to her mother’s home in Boston and unexpectedly reconnects with her childhood friend and first lover, Nisha. When the two rekindle old romantic feelings, Lucky tries to save Nisha from entering a marriage based on a lie and finds herself pushed to breaking point.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is an unflinching look at how someone who does not fit into their culture’s ideals can try and reconcile two sides of themselves. Lucky is in almost constant conflict with herself. She knows and accepts she’s a lesbian, she likes being a lesbian, but she doesn’t like how she has to hide that part of herself from her family. This struggle of being who she is but not wanting to lose or disappoint those who are closest to her is something that is almost constantly on Lucky’s mind as she tries to find the strength to be who she is.

Lucky’s mother wants her and Kris to have a baby and be just like all the other Sri Lankan families in their community. Lucky’s mother wants Lucky to fit in as she knows what it’s like to be shunned by the community. Lucky’s parents are divorced but naturally her father and his new wife (a close family friend) are treated just the same by everyone, it’s her mother that is seen as an outsider for being a divorcee.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is written in the first person from Lucky’s point of view but you never really get a handle of how she’s feeling about what is happening in her life. Lucky is so emotionally closed off from a lot of what is happening around her that she barely reacts to what those closest to her are saying or doing. It makes the emotional impact of some big, potentially life-changing moments, not feel that important at all.

While they are obviously pretending to be happily married for their families, often it seemed like Lucky didn’t even like Kris and resented him for being married to her even though it was something that she agreed to and it worked for the both of them. Their relationship was never satisfactorily explored.

Nisha was equal parts frustrating and understandable. She would often have these big ideas, saying to Lucky they should run away together, but when Lucky tries to take her up on that, she reverts back to being the doting daughter. She is just as scared as Lucky about potentially losing her family and community over who she loves but she is so torn that she keeps hurting Lucky with her indecisiveness and mixed signals.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a well-written and poignant story. It handles the complexities of sexuality, religion and culture well but having a distant protagonist made it difficult to connect with her and the story at times. Also, in its honesty Marriage of a Thousand Lies becomes a very sad story as you, and Lucky, realise there might not be a way that everyone finishes this story happy. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Austria: Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig

Translated by Tess Lewis.

A collection of nine short stories, each about loneliness and identity.

This was an engaging and eerie short story collection. Each story ranged from 3 pages to 15 pages long and the majority of them pulled you into the story no matter how short they were. The stories themselves were varied in terms of character and plot, but they all are rather unsettling.

Two stories really stood out to me. The first was “The Same Silence, the Same Noise” which is about someone who becomes almost obsessed with their neighbours. It’s weird because the neighbours keep to themselves, but it is their distance that the narrator finds so fascinating. The second was “Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut” which is about a man who meets an old lady who has created a doll that looks just like him. Dolls are pretty creepy anyway but the way the protagonist becomes enamoured with his lookalike doll is disturbing.

I’ve read a few short story collections for my Read the World Project, and Maybe This Time is probably my favourite (so far). The stories all had the same theme so even when the content was different, as I read each story, I got the same sense of uneasiness. Things just felt off in these stories. Characters were either alone and captivated by someone or something else, or they might even seem to start to lose themselves as they become enthralled by whatever or whoever has caught their attention.

Maybe This Time is a very weird and unnerving collection of stories, and it is a collection that has certainly left an impression on me. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A multigenerational family saga set in twentieth-century Portugal. Raised from the Ground follows the Mau Tempo family, a family of poor landless peasants, as they try and make a life for themselves as national and international events take place around them. But nothing really impinges on their grim reality until the first communist stirrings in the country.

The way Raised from the Ground is written took me a long time to get my head around. It’s like there’s an omniscient and omnipresent narrator, telling the lives of the different members of the family as each generation grows up. This style means there’s no speech marks when people talk and there often are very long sentences with many commas in them. The long sentences aren’t so bad, it’s the paragraphs that are anywhere between a page long and four-pages long that cause problems. It is very easy to get lost in those long paragraphs.

The story itself is not memorable and the characters, of which there are a lot, are not well developed. When the story shifts focus from one character or relationship to the other, it’s hard to remember or keep track of who is related to who. While the first 80 pages or so are engaging, the dreary existence of this peasant family becomes repetitive and dull as there is little chance for them to better themselves. No doubt this is the point of Raised from the Ground, but a novel can’t just make a point, it must also be interesting and unfortunately this one wasn’t.

Raised from the Ground pans around sixty years and the verbose narrator also talks about events that happened before the books beginning multiple times. Across those years different national and international events are referenced (including two World Wars) and the little footnotes that explained a reference to an important event in Portugal was appreciated. Though the way the book is written, focusing so closely on one family’s struggles, meant that the historical context was never fully explained so the impact of these events on the family and their community was never really felt.

I’ve read multigenerational family sagas before and on the whole I rather enjoy them. However, Raised from the Ground is not one of the ones I enjoyed. The combination of the writing style and the story meant I often felt my eyes glazing over. I did like the little titbits of Portuguese history speckled throughout the novel, though there wasn’t enough of that to keep me interested. 1/5.

REVIEW: Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Walker’s family and community have turned away from the world and closely follow the Lord’s words. Every part of Rachel’s life is controlled; what she wears, what she does, who she is meant to be. Her future is laid out for her; modesty, children and obedience to her future husband. But when Lauren, a girl who escaped the community five years earlier returns to Rachel’s small Texas town – her whole world is turned upside down as she allows herself to ask the questions that have been bubbling inside her.

Devoted was a very engrossing book. Rachel is a wonderfully complex character as she grapples with conflicting ideas of what it is to be faithful to God while still wanting to be loved by her family. Rachel loves to learn; she’s always got her head in books but her father doesn’t feel it’s appropriate as she is meant to be a wife and homemaker without any ideas above her station.

The idea of what abuse is in Devoted is only mentioned briefly but it is an important thing. When Rachel first learns of Lauren’s perspective after growing up in the same place but then leaving to move in to the big city, Rachel is surprised to hear Lauren call the environment abusive. To Rachel abuse means being hit or touched inappropriately, but what is clear to the reader, and slowly becomes clearer to her, is that she, like many of the young women in her community, is the victim of emotional and psychological abuse. That mental abuse can be as harmful as physical abuse is never outright said, but conversations between Lauren and Rachel showing how they both have lingering problems thanks to what they’ve experienced – even Lauren who has been out of that world for 5 years. The friendship and support between Rachel and Lauren is so important to both of them and even though Lauren is about five years older than Rachel with more worldly experience, as a character she is never pigeonholed as Rachel’s mother or sister figure. They both make mistakes as they learn to help and support one another and that’s OK.

The discussions of faith, praying and God were really interesting and tactful. Not all religion is “bad” but those who pick and choose what words to follow, especially if those words promote the subservience of women, aren’t necessarily nice people. It offers a more complex idea of religion and faith, and there are many ways to be faithful and there is no “right way” as it is all down to personal choice.

Rachel struggles with her faith when she’s at home with her family. The way her father and Pastor Garrett preach is often uncomfortable and Rachel often feels she’s making mistakes and is not good enough for God when she has questions or a desire to learn things. It’s when she can step away from them that she can connect to God in her own way, she doesn’t have to cut herself off from her faith just because she no longer believes or practices like her family has done, and how she has done her entire life.

Devoted is a book about a sensitive topic but it’s one that is always handled with care. While Pastor Garrett and the threat of the “brainwashing” camp Journey of Faith looms, members of Rachel’s family, and even other people in the community, aren’t demonised for what they believe. What Devoted manages to make clear, is that the way Rachel’s community follows religion is not healthy or the right way for everyone. Rachel’s older sister Faith appears very happy with her life, settling down with a husband and having a child in her early 20s, but that doesn’t mean that is the kind of life Rachel should be made to have if she doesn’t want it. 4/5.

REVIEW: A Girl Called Shameless by Laura Steven

It’s been two months since a leaked explicit photo got Izzy O’Neill involved in a political sex scandal that got national coverage. The Bitches Bite Back movement is gathering momentum online, and when a girl at school has a sex tape shared online, Izzy feels a fresh surge of anger and pain as she leads the charge against slut-shaming. Izzy and her best friends Ajita and Meg use comedy to fight back as they want to change the state law on revenge porn and get people to listen to them.

A read and reviewed The Exact Opposite of Okay at start of the year and I absolutely loved it. I’m very happy to say that A Girl Called Shameless is a more than worthy sequel.

A Girl Called Shameless is an enthralling book. It’s the sort of book you can read in a day because of how fast-paced it is, how layered and funny the characters are, and how it balances tough topics with levity and teenage-relatability.

In A Girl Called Shameless, Izzy and her friends start a movement to get the law changed as in her state revenge porn is legal. It was a great look at grassroots activism, how the pressure and desire for change can be almost suffocating, but also how there can be a lot of support out there. One thing that I thought worked really well is how through this book, the feelings Izzy felt when her explicit photos were shared online haven’t necessarily gone away. She might put on a front, but she is still hurt and angry and her confidence has taken a knock too.

Izzy has a lot going on in her life and it was good that it showed that not everything goes well all the time. Izzy finally gets a part-time job to help her grandmother pay the bills, she has an agent for her scriptwriting, she has school, and she also has this role of an activist. Izzy gets pushed to breaking point in this book, and sometimes she breaks, but she’s got a great support system around her and a strong sense of self so she keeps moving forward.

A Girl Called Shameless is even more inclusive with its message. Being against slut-shaming and fighting to get revenge porn made illegal is still the main focus of the novel, but it brings in other areas of oppression albeit sometimes briefly. There is a trans girl at Izzy’s school that gets involved with the Bitches Bite Back website, writing articles about how trans people can be affected by revenge porn. Izzy’s boyfriend Carson is black and the two of them talk about his fear of the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a sharp shock when Izzy realises that Carson might not feel comfortable or safe to join a protest with her, because the police mean a different thing to him.

A Girl Called Shameless is funny, thoughtful and empowering. Izzy’s friends and family are just as important and complex as in the first book, and the narrative style of being written in blog posts with interjections from future-Izzy was great too. 5/5.