Like a 7.5, which is not doable on this 5-star scale.
The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkel is one of those novels where I wasn't quite sure what I'd just re...moreLike a 7.5, which is not doable on this 5-star scale.
The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkel is one of those novels where I wasn't quite sure what I'd just read after I finished it. I can absolutely guarantee that it's different from pretty much anything I've ever read. It took me a few days to think about it before even attempting to write anything, and only after I'd whirled it around in my head for a while did I come to appreciate this story.
I'll post only a brief look here; for something longer which goes more into plot, you can click through to my reading journal.
Set in 1939, the novel looks at the people and goings-on in the imaginary village of Odolechka in the imaginary European country of Scalvusia at a time when these people lived very simple but full lives. Sadly, their rather carefree existence is about to bump up against modern history, beginning with the invasion of the Nazis. The thing is though that Ms. Zyzak takes a different path than what you'd normally expect: she doesn't write about about how all of the villagers fared after the Nazis took over their homeland and the regime that followed which, in 1945 brought about the "country's final destruction;" instead, she focuses on the last bastion of simpler times in Odolechka. The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, the "pigboy," is related by a "self-effacing bureaucrat" from this fictional country during the Communist era, who'd traveled to the country, went through the archives, and interviewed "the survivors" to produce a work that had been "copied out between the lines of a copy of Concepts for Screw-Cutting Lathe Operators," and smuggled out of the country via a Polish friend.
In many ways, you can look at this novel as absurdity with a purpose. Or at least, this is my interpretation. The fictional Odalechka may be representative of villages throughout Europe, where people lived traditional lives, shared bawdy jokes, farmed, went to church, and just generally lead simple lifestyles. However, what is absurd will soon turn to the grotesque with the coming of the Nazis and then eventually the Communists. Yet here, the author keeps things focused on the villagers and their uncomplicated, apolitical and much simpler way of living up until then.
Now here's the thing: I didn't get a lot of the humor, and the whole thing at first seemed wholly farcical to me, up until I got to the arrival of a German stranger. Then it sort of clicked, but it was really only after I'd finished the novel and spent time ruminating that I had my idea of what this book was about. In the end, I decided that I liked this book -- different though it may be, there is a point to all of the silliness that goes on here. My only niggle about this book is that while the author spends so much time on village life, the book seems to ramble for a while until it turns, and then it's pretty much over, so I wondered whether or not even she knew where she was going with this story. But in the long run, I ended up enjoying the book and would definitely try anything she writes in the future.(less)
First: if you're thinking a) that this is a book about a group like TAPS or some other paranormal investigation group, or b) that it's a full-on ghost...moreFirst: if you're thinking a) that this is a book about a group like TAPS or some other paranormal investigation group, or b) that it's a full-on ghost story, you may be a little disappointed. However, if you can get past those two obstacles, and you don't mind a little melodrama here and there, you may enjoy it. I absolutely hate giving ratings, but I'll give a 3.8 rounded up to a 4.
The Ghost Hunters is really several stories meshed into one -- first, there is the story of Sarah Grey, a young woman living with her mother who in this book became confidential secretary to Harry Price, the subject of the second story, a "psychical researcher" and debunker of fake mediums during a time when spiritualism was at its heyday. The third story focuses on the "most haunted house in England," Borley Rectory. When I first bought this book I thought I was getting a horror story, and even though it didn't completely turn out that way, I was totally amazed at just how good this book is. While there is a bit of overdo on some parts of the drama, the novel as a whole is highly atmospheric,and there are definitely parts that will send shivers up your spine here and there, and parts that will satisfy any ghost-story lover's craving for a solid ghostly tale.
The narrative is related mainly by Sarah Grey, looking back over her life and career from 1955. Her story begins in 1926, two weeks before she turned 22. Her widowed mother, having lost her husband during the war, is very much into spiritualism, and on this particular day in January, Sarah is reluctantly accompanying her to the gala opening of Harry Price's new laboratory. Sarah disapproves of her mother's interest in mediums and seances, thinking spiritualism to be in "poor taste," and also believing that instead of focusing on the dead, people should be thinking about moving on. The laboratory is paid for by funds from the Society for Psychical Research, "equipped with the necessary scientific equipment," and is a place where "men and women with open minds can test the mediums unhindered by preconceived prejudices." On this night, the two women witness the testing of a medium whose powers seem so real, only to be followed by Price's denunciation of her work as a trick. Price also announces that he does not believe in ghosts, and notes that his "science, psychical research," will leave behind the "cheap mummery of the seance rooms." His comments are objected to by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, famous for his belief in spiritualism, making for an exciting evening. Harry himself is rather at odds with the Society, and makes no bones about his stance on their methods. Eventually, this gala opening turns into a position for Sarah as Price's confidential secretary, as well as his eventual assistant in his debunking activities. It isn't long until Sarah comes across a letter from a Dr. David Chipp, who also attended Harry's lab opening, and who finds that his own experiences are "at odds" with what Harry had to say. The letter goes on to tell about several eerie things that happened to him during a visit at the family home of a colleague and friend, Borley Rectory. Chipp tells Harry that perhaps he should investigate the place for himself. Sarah alerts Price, who is not at all interested, and the matter drops until sometime later when a story is written in the newspaper about Borley Rectory and the experiences of the new tenants of the place. As it turns out, the reporter who wrote the piece, Vernon Wall, is eager for Harry to visit, because he himself had traveled there and witnessed some things that "confounded all reason." With Sarah in tow, Harry meets Wall at the rectory, and what happens during this investigation will have an impact on the remainder of Sarah's life.
While, as I noted earlier, this isn't a horror story per se, there are some spine-tingling moments in this book that aficionados of ghost stories and haunted house stories would love. Mr. Spring details each and every event so well that I got totally immersed in the Borley scenes and didn't want them to end. The author incorporates actual sources into Sarah's account; in fact, to be really honest, since this was the first time I'd ever heard of Borley Rectory, I thought they were all fake until my post-read curiosity got the better of me and I discovered that there really is a place called Borley Rectory, and that there really was a person named Harry Price. The book also provides an atmospheric quality that gets under your skin as you read; whether or not you are in the Rectory, you can't help but wait for that next little jolt of fear to hit. On top of all of this, the author also sets up a running theme of deception and its costs.
When all is said and done, Harry Price turns out to be a character loaded with irony, and the author sets things up so that it isn't up to the last that we discover exactly what that irony entails. The "secret" Sarah carries around with her isn't so earth shattering when revealed, but even with this little bit of drama (a tad bit overdone, imho), she is also an interesting person both with and without Harry Price. There are many side characters who also come to life here -- most notably, the tenants of Borley Rectory, past and present.
Overall, considering I went into this book with the wrong expectations, I really enjoyed it ... just the perfect thing for a windy/stormy night's read. (less)
My thanks to LT early reviewers and to the publisher for my copy.
On June 10, 1967, a thirty-five foot boat named "The Rambler" left the island of Angu...moreMy thanks to LT early reviewers and to the publisher for my copy.
On June 10, 1967, a thirty-five foot boat named "The Rambler" left the island of Anguilla for St. Kitts carrying 16 passengers (including three American mercenaries), a minimum of provisions, and 500 pounds of guns and ammunition. The group was going to be part of an effort to establish a coup to get rid of Robert L. Bradshaw, the premier of the new "state" of St. Kitts/Nevis/Anguilla. Only his ouster, did the Anguillans involved in the operation believe, would call international attention to Bradshaw's neglect of Anguilla and its people. The mission failed and failed badly, but oddly enough, the results of that day actually led the way toward Anguilla's independence. Night of the Rambler reimagines the events leading up to that night and what drove a mere handful of people to make such a gutsy move. While there are a couple of issues that nagged at me while reading, overall, the author tells a really good fictional story behind some real events that I never knew took place.
One of the things that strikes me as some of the best work here is the author's focus on his two main characters Alwyn Cooke and Rude Thompson. While it may not be easy at first to fathom why the author seems to jump around in time and place, he's actually setting up the backstories of these characters, which reveal much about their present lives. Thompson was working in Aruba during the time of the protests against Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez and learned a great deal from a young anti-Perez-Jimenez engineer fresh from university as well as a kind of patriotism where you "step back, see things from a distance, and ask what can be done ..." He comes to realize that sometimes violence might be necessary when peaceful solutions don't work. Alwyn Cooke, who lucked out and received part of a prosperous estate as an inheritance, loves Anguilla and its people, but unlike Thompson, hopes for a nonviolent solution for the sake of the island's future. When they finally come together, Cooke and Thompson are what the author calls "two of the most important ingredients necessary for change blended into one," and as the story progresses, he clearly reveals how these two people with very different responses to their collective predicament finally realize there's much more at stake than individual personalities. Another important character, Solomon Carter, has an interesting backstory as well: he was a sugar-cane worker in the Dominican Republic who saw firsthand the attacks on Haitian and other black immigrants during Trujillo's "Parsley Massacre," and saw the blood of thousands of victims run like a river. Since then, he's sworn that he would do everything in his power to see that nothing like that could ever happen in Anguilla, taking a stance against the use of extreme violence.
Another positive: the author sets the action of his story within the context of the British-speaking Caribbean of the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, when the area was a "hotbed of insurrections and revolts," and carefully sets out why the Anguillans would reach the point of aiding a coup on St. Kitts. By 1966, when the individual countries wanted internal self-governance, they first became "associated states" of the UK, and plans for the full "statehood" for St. Kitts/Nevis/Anguilla were in the works -- but the Anguillans wanted no part of it. They were neglected by their nominal leader, Bradshaw of St. Kitts, who didn't even bother to help after Hurricane Donna of 1960 decimated houses, buildings, & livestock. There was no hospital on Anguilla, no running water, no telephone service and not even a harbor. It was like these people were stuck there to fend for themselves -- you can sense the Anguillans' frustration throughout the book.
What I didn't care for so much was the narrator's interjection into a story where he played no role except as omniscient observer -- sometimes the smart-alecky remarks were annoying, or once he even notes that it's "well past" his bedtime. It totally interrupts the flow and pulls the reader right out of the historical setting. However, the story is so good, and in the long run well told, so I can sort of overlook this annoyance. I would most certainly recommend Night of the Rambler, especially to people who are interested in the Caribbean islands and their histories.(less)
I pre-purchased this novel before its UK publication date; when searching out new books last year I took one look at the blurb and...moreread December, 2013
I pre-purchased this novel before its UK publication date; when searching out new books last year I took one look at the blurb and instantly fell in love with the premise. Once I cracked open this massive tome, I fell into one of the most intriguing reads ever and I remember thinking at the outset that it reminded me quite a bit of the work of Wilkie Collins by way of Charles Dickens, two writers whose works I continue to read over and over. However, the more I got into it, the more I realized that this was something very different. Two things stood out for me here: first, the novel's originality; second, the author's incredible storytelling ability.
There is absolutely no very good way of describing the plot, so I will offer only a brief look. Arriving by ship in a small goldrush town in New Zealand in 1866, young Walter Moody has seen something that shakes him to his core. He takes up residence in one of the town's hotels, and one night wanders into a group of twelve men who have the strangest stories to tell. At first all but one are reluctant; as time goes on, however, a startling tale emerges that has to do with a hermit who dies leaving an estate being contested by a previously-unknown wife; a missing man, an opium-addicted prostitute who has, it seems, tried to kill herself, and a sea captain with a habit of taking on other people's identities. As their respective stories capture Moody's attention, he realizes that his own shipboard experience may have a connection to this fantastic collage of stories. But wait -- as soon as the reader thinks he or she has some or most of this crazy puzzle figured out, things have a way of transforming into something completely different. Like the era, the goldfields and the people who inhabit this novel, your sense of stability while reading this book often finds itself in a bit of turmoil.
I noticed in particular one major theme running throughout this novel: fortune. While there are others as well, this one for me was the most visible. It's here in gold mining, chance, and fate; here fortunes are won, fortunes are lost, and fortune works as an agent of transformation. There's so much in this book, none the least of which is a fine old-fashioned, Victorian-style mystery and adventure story at the novel's heart; there's also a look at a volatile, wild-westish period in New Zealand's history. The sense of time and place that accompanies this peek into the gold-rush era is well crafted, starting with the first page. And along with the story, there's the innovative structure: it took me a while to figure out what was going on, but once I figured it out, I was absolutely delighted with the author's innovation and originality. You can read other reviews if you want to know ahead of time; my suggestion would be to pay close attention to all of the little charts at the beginning of each section. Part of the fun, I think, is in realizing exactly how clever the author is here. And that's clever in a good way, unlike some books where sometimes clever is a turn off.
I loved, absolutely LOVED this book -- it's probably one of the few times in my reading life that after the end of the last page, instead of breathing a sigh of relief that an 800+ page novel had finally come to an end, I wanted more. Reader responses have been from "best book I've ever read," to "snoozefest, couldn't get past the first chapter," so they vary. It is the perfect book, even for the casual reader -- here, the story itself will sweep you up and take you along for an incredible and rollicking ride. (less)
The dustjacket description of this lovely novel of historical fiction doesn't quite do it justice. Burial Rites is based on true events that happened...moreThe dustjacket description of this lovely novel of historical fiction doesn't quite do it justice. Burial Rites is based on true events that happened in Iceland in 1828, when Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jónsson were both murdered at Ketilsson's farm in North Iceland. Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson were charged with the crimes and sentenced to be executed by Ketilsson's brother. There was a third person involved, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, who was also arrested, sentenced to death but then had her sentence commuted to life in prison. Agnes was first held at Stóra-Borg, and then the authorities moved her to Kornsá, where she stayed with a family until she was taken to be executed in January of 1830. According to the author's note, some of the historical accounts of Agnes Magnúsdóttir view her as "an inhumane witch, stirring up murder," but in Burial Rites, Kent sets out to provide Agnes with a more "ambiguous portrayal." While the blurb inside the cover gives you a taste of the story to come, it doesn't begin to cover just how good a writer Hannah Kent really is. She has filled this book with so much more than the story of a murder. Through her excellent use of language, she brings out how nature, the seasons, and the Icelandic landscape not only defined the way that people lived and survived in this time and in this place, but also how people were often left helpless, stranded and in the dark when nature was less than cooperative. Above all, her writing brings out the psychological damage caused by isolation, loneliness and abandonment in an unforgiving environment. If I had to describe this book in one word it would be this one: haunting.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir, abandoned at an early age, spent most of her life moving farm to farm, working as a servant. As the novel opens, she has been sentenced to die along with two others for her part in killing two men at a farm along the sea in Northern Iceland. She'd been kept in irons and chains at the first place after her trial, but then the District Commissioner decided she should be moved to the farm of Kornsá to spend her last days, and the family will be compensated for taking her in. The family at Kornsá is shaken by the news; Margrét, the farmer's wife, protests that she does not want to share her home with "the Devil's children." As Agnes comes to her final home, it upsets the family dynamic, but Margrét puts her foot down, telling Agnes that she will be put to work, and if there is any "violence, lazing, cheek, idleness" or theft, Agnes is gone. A young assistant reverend, Thorvardur Jónsson nicknamed Tóti, also receives official word -- he will be Agnes' spiritual advisor during her final days of life, and is urged to get Agnes to repent and confess before she dies.Tóti, who is inexperienced and counseled by his father not to take Agnes on, becomes the vehicle through which Agnes first starts to unspool her tale, and the rest of the book takes the reader through Agnes' story from her childhood through the fateful day at the farm of Illugastadir, and on to Agnes' last day of life. Each chapter begins with some form of real official document, or a poem, or in one case, an Icelandic saga, all of which have relevance to what's happening in that particular section.
Alternating voices, dreams and portents, superstitions, haunting imagery, and seasonal routines also help to shape this story. It is filled with descriptions of the rhythms of farm life, from communal harvesting and slaughter to living in cramped quarters in a turf-walled croft. But standing above everything that the author writes about is the way she writes it. It's a book that didn't let go of me until the very end, and even then I wasn't finished thinking about what I'd just read. You may be tempted to zip through it for the murder story, but don't. Definitely recommended. Considering that Burial Rites is the author's first novel, it is highly intelligent, sophisticated, and a novel that readers across the spectrum will enjoy. (less)
before I post a review (coming soon), I am giving away my copy of this novel. US only, find the details here. NOT a contest -- whoever claims it firs...morebefore I post a review (coming soon), I am giving away my copy of this novel. US only, find the details here. NOT a contest -- whoever claims it first gets it! (less)
In the acknowledgments section of his novel, the author notes that
"The discovery that her master Cornelis Brink was a brother of one of my own direct...moreIn the acknowledgments section of his novel, the author notes that
"The discovery that her master Cornelis Brink was a brother of one of my own direct ancestors, and that he sold her at auction after his son Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink had made four children with her..."
was the catalyst for his story. This re-imagined Philida is no ordinary slave; as the novel opens she's on her way to lodge a complaint against Francois who, after fathering four children with her, had promised to buy her freedom. He, of course, has no power to free her, since Philida is the property of his father. She makes the trek to see the Slave Protector to air her grievances, a journey that will ultimately have consequences not only for Philida, but for others in her life as well. You'll find a longer version of this discussion here; otherwise, read on.
The book makes for compelling reading, and while the horrors of slavery are certainly included in the narrative, they are there without the sensationalism that is usually present. And while this may sound a little weird, while I had absolutely zero sympathy for the key players in the Brink family (Cornelis, Francois and especially Mrs. Brink), the use of changing points of view helps to provide perspective from their side -- not just in terms of a lack of humanity but also in the bigger economic and cultural picture of an uncertain future. The story also focuses on the power of stories, as well as connections to the land. Sometimes I'll admit that Philida's philosophizing got tiring, and I also found that in some spots the way she spoke was more eloquent and refined than it probably should have been. For me, the knitting analogy was just a wee bit overdone and a bit obvious, although I get that from Philida's point of view, it was a way for her to express herself. However, I liked this book. This is not your usual novel about slavery, by any means, and I'd definitely urge you to give it a try. (less)
Let's get that number thing out of the way right at the start: I would rate it at about 3.75, rounded up to a 4. If you bear with me for a minute, you...moreLet's get that number thing out of the way right at the start: I would rate it at about 3.75, rounded up to a 4. If you bear with me for a minute, you'll see why.
First and foremost, my thanks to the folks behind the Early Reviewers' program at LibraryThing and to the publisher for offering this book for review. I was completely wrapped up in this story of this Jewish barber who flees Albania for the USSR, hoping for "a better world." Through family connections to the government, the barber eventually gets a post as barber to Stalin, where he gains a close-up look at the inner workings of this horrific regime. Eventually, many of his family members also come to serve the Kremlin in different capacities, and through their eyes the author exposes the day-to-day terrors faced by normal people and even those who seem to be ardent supporters of the state, all due to the changing whims of the leader and the thugs supporting him. Thematically, among other things, the book focuses largely on the idea of allegiance and loyalty -- both to the state and to family, and the choice between the two that one is often forced to make.
This is a novel that held my attention up to the last few chapters. It's very obvious that Mr. Levitt has done an extraordinary amount of research, and there is hardly a facet of this regime that is left untouched here. The gulag system is well covered, with terrifying descriptions of how things were in a representative prison; he covers the program to starve the Kulaks; there are great sequences where Stalin's minions could be called up at any time of day or night to serve his personal caprices; he also captures the paranoid atmosphere surrounding one's neighbors or co-workers who might turn out to be informers and how one innocent statement might mean another person's disappearance -- all of these facets of this terrible time period are very well described here. Where it gets kind of crazy for me is the way in which the author manipulates his main characters into certain situations that sometimes don't ring true, especially toward the end, which seemed to come very quickly and felt a bit hollow after such a rich buildup in historical fact made fiction.
Would I recommend it? Certainly -- it's well worth putting up with the end chapters for the amazing amount of detail and claustrophobic atmosphere the author manages to impart through his writing. On the whole, I very much liked it and had the ending been a bit stronger, it would have been a most excellent novel.(less)
The historical fiction part of this novel absolutely makes this book -- an amazing story. There is a longer version here; read on for the shorter ver...moreThe historical fiction part of this novel absolutely makes this book -- an amazing story. There is a longer version here; read on for the shorter version.
A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar follows two very different narratives, and several journeys taken by a number of characters who populate this novel. One storyline is composed of journal entries from 1923 and the other set in modern-day London. The journal entries come from Evangeline English, who along with sister Lizzie and a woman named Millicent, the representative of the Missionary Order of the Steadfast Face, have arrived in Kashgar, a predominantly Muslim area in East Turkestan governed by the Chinese. The second narrative follows a young woman, Frieda, who, while trying to sort things out with herself, inherits the contents of a stranger's flat and meets up with a Yemeni man who has come to England, has a steady job and friends until his security is threatened and he has to go on the run. While I enjoyed the book as a whole, the 1923-based narrative was much more engaging. When I'd move back into the present-day action, I had the same sort of residual "cliffhanger" feeling I get when a favorite TV show ends with the promise of answers the next week, and couldn't wait to get back to find out what was happening with the three women in Kashgar. I read this book in one sitting, unable to move until the outcome of the historical narrative was revealed.
The author does an incredible job with the past, and honestly, if the entire book had just focused on the story of Eva, Lizzie and Millicent, I wouldn't have minded at all. There's obviously quite a bit of research that's gone into the making of this novel and in capturing the upheaval of a time and place. Unlike some authors who tend toward information/detail overload in establishing and sustaining a sense of place and time, Ms. Joinson avoids that pitfall so that these sections flow naturally. I was less in love with Frieda's story, although the scenes of her childhood were compelling, as was the reunion between mother and daughter which for me, maybe more than anything else, brought home some of the parallels between the past and present, although in a kind of roundabout way I'm still thinking about. I also enjoyed her writing style and the wide use of bird imagery throughout. On the flip side, I figured out the big "wow" moment out long before it was revealed, and much like when I read crime fiction and can guess what's going on, it was a bit disappointing.
Overall, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar is a good book for casual readers; there is a lot of bird imagery which is not too tough to ponder, and while the past narrative is much more engaging than the present, both come together quite well. Recommended -- especially because of the 1923 narrative that is so very well done. (less)