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review 2017-08-14 13:19
"History Of Wolves" by Emily Fridlund (on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist)
History of Wolves - Emily Fridlund

"History of Wolves" is easy to read but harder to understand.

 

I know how I feel about this book but I'm not sure what to think about it.

 

It's a beautiful piece of writing that uses language with relentless precision to climb inside the head of the main character.

 

Each page is watermarked with a profound sense of loneliness that the main character, our narrator, struggles with, denies, rails against, imagines gone and sometimes gives in to.

 

I felt fully present in each of the moments described in this book. So much so that, as we drifted between past, present, imagination, dream, memory and action, I found myself accepting what was going on rather than trying to make sense of it, much in the same way that the main character does.

 

Novels amplify my desire for a narrative that makes sense, that tells me something, that gives me meaning. "History of Wolves" frustrates that expectation. Rather than leading me to a conclusion or a judgement and "making sense" of the main character's life for me, this novel invites me to reach my own conclusions and then to challenge them and then to wonder if conclusions are devised to be a source of spurious comfort in an ambiguous world.

 

The story is told by Madeline, now thirty-seven, revisiting the events of a summer when she was fourteen and the things that led up to it and followed on from it.

 

Madeline, who also goes by the name Linda at school and with the family she babysits for, is both the most unreliable of narrators and the most honest of narrators. She shares who she is by showing what she has done and what she was thinking and feeling at the time but she gives no direct lectures, even to herself, on what this means.

 

Her narrative is not linear. It follows her reflections, making connections between past and present and starting from different "nows" as she tells her tale.

 

Madeline/Linda both accepts and rejects the idea that she is broken, that her childhood made her into someone with one foot always reaching out into space at the edge of the cliff. She sees herself, or perhaps her idealised self, not as someone human but as a wild thing, at home in the woods and on the lake but who still sometimes succumb to the pull of a hearth and food and a pat behind the ear, like a wolf playing at being a domestic dog.

 

The book cover carries a Jodi Picoult style "How far would you go to belong?" tag line on the cover that seems to me to miss the meaning of this book entirely.

 

I don't think it's belonging that Madeline's looking for, or even love. I think she wants someone who needs her and depends on her and supports her in an identity she approves of.

 

Madeline can be cruel and fickle. She is aware of the power she has over others. She is also aware of her own insignificance. She seems to be trying to find people and a place where she can be what she is and still be needed by someone who sees her clearly.  Except that is too glib. It may be what she wants but  she would probably resist anyone who tried to give it to her.

 

"History of Wolves" walks around two ways of establishing identity: "We are what we do" and "We are what we think". Madeline, at least the thirty-seven year old Madeline, doesn't seem to find either argument persuasive. The way she reviews her own life suggests that she believes that we are who we are and it doesn't change much.  At one point she goes further and suggest that evil enters the world when we let our actions be driven by belief, a personal narrative that tells us what we want to be true and absolves us from dealing with reality.

 

I need to think about "History of Wolves" some more. I probably need to read it again. Not because it's a puzzle I haven't solved or because the writer's intention escapes me but because I think it has more to show me.

 

The book often refers to the difficulty of recognition, of seeing clearly, either through fog, or through the loss of light at dusk or the emerging glow at dawn, or even the struggle to recognise objects identified on the journey out but which look unfamiliar on the way home and can only be recognised in retrospect. I think there is something here that says we need to let our eyes adjust to shape our world and that we need a point of reference. In this book, I think I saw each moment clearly but I have not yet been able to map the journey. Which makes it feel pretty much like real life to me.

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review 2017-08-13 18:36
"Renegade: Spiral Wars, Book 1" by Joel Shepherd
Renegade (The Spiral Wars) (Volume 1) - Joel Shepherd

I finally reached the point where I'd read all six of Joel Shepherd's excellent Cassandra Kresnov books and I found that I missed his widing ranging imagination, his sharp-edged politics and his characters: strong, passionate, sometimes flawed but always believable.

 

So I went looking to see what else he'd written and found the Spiral Wars series (four books so far)

 

When I read the blurb, I hesitated:

"A thousand years after Earth was destroyed in an unprovoked attack, humanity has emerged victorious from a series of terrible wars to assure its place in the galaxy. But during celebrations on humanity’s new Homeworld, the legendary Captain Pantillo of the battle carrier Phoenix is court-martialed then killed, and his deputy, Lieutenant Commander Erik Debogande, the heir to humanity’s most powerful industrial family, is framed with his murder. Assisted by Phoenix’s marine commander Trace Thakur, Erik and Phoenix are forced to go on the run, as they seek to unravel the conspiracy behind their Captain’s demise, pursued to the death by their own Fleet. "

Long timescales like this often make it hard for me to connect with the action. The politics sounded triumphalist and the the interstellar distances involved are huge. I wondered how Joel Shepherd would keep the intimacy and intensity that was a strength of the Cassandra Kresnov series in an undertaking like this.

 

The answer, of course, was through the strength of his character development. It turned out that "Renegade", the first Spiral Wars book, was just as intense as his Kresnov books but it was also refreshingly different in scale and in focus.

 

So what's good about it?

 

This is a great example of what Space Opera can be when the author has really thought through the worlds, the species and the history involved and yet never resorts to info-dumps but has the confidence and the control to reveal the intricacies of this universe a little at a time, through the experiences of the characters, as needed to make sense of the action. Every good space opera needs lots of action, lots of technology, lots of weapons, lots of culture clashes and complex political intrigue and lots of desperate, how-can-they-possibly-get-out-of-this? moments. Joel Shepherd delivers on all these things with flair and originality and at a pace the made the 400+ pages fly by.

 

The intensity of the book comes mainly from the characters. There are a lot of them but they are presented clearly and without confusion. They're also not static. They come with backstories that are artfully revealed. They have distinct personalities and ethics and goals. They are changed by the decisions they make and the experiences they have. This increases the emotional impact of the book. It makes you care who lives and dies. It goes beyond the "only you can save the galaxy" hero quest into something personal and therefore much more real.

 

Two characters in particular made the book for me. The first is Trace Thakur. She leads the Marines on the Pheonix but she is a legend throughout the Corps. She comes from a warrior cult with strong ethics around service. She is strong, experienced, lethal and much loved by her people. There is more to her than just being a warrior. Her mission is driven by her personal interpretation of honour and justice rather than by her instructions from her superiors. She is the second in command, yet she has far more leadership and combat experience than Erik Debogande, until recently a newly minted Lieutenant Commander who many believed was appointed because of his family connections and who is now acting-Captain. The dynamic between Thakur and Debogande is tense and plausible. Watching Erik struggling to rise to the challenge of being in command of the Pheonix is one of the best things in the book.

 

Of course, I also loved the depressingly plausible politics, the diversity of the races involved and the hints of important things being hidden by the powerful that need to be uncovered by the brave.

 

I'm hooked now. I'm already looking forward to the rest of the series.

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review 2017-08-11 16:24
"The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag - Flavia de Luce #2" by Alan Bradley
The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag - Alan Bradley

This is the second book about eleven year old Flavia De Luce, who was first introduced in "The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie", where she put her considerable talents to work in solving a murder her father had been accused of.

 

In this installment, Flavia becomes involved with a traveling puppeteer who has a show on the BBC, a shocking murder and ripples from the death of young boy, alone in the woods.

 

It's a decent mystery in its own right, steeped in the atmosphere of rural England after the Second World War, but what makes it exceptional is Flavia De Luce herself.

She is a wonderfully wrought character: dauntless, clever, manipulative, and eccentric in the great English aristo tradition. She is fascinated by and skilled in making poisons. She knows how to get people to tell things they would never otherwise reveal and she is relentless in her quest to find out who did what and why.

 

All this makes her rather intimidating. Flavia knows this of course. At one point, when she shows too much insight into the affairs of a young woman she is helping, the young woman points it out to her:

“You are terrifying,” Nialla said. “You really are. Do you know that?” We were sitting on a slab tomb in the churchyard as I waited for the sun to dry my feverish face. Nialla put away her lipstick and rummaged in her bag for a comb. “Yes,” I said, matter-of-factly. It was true—and there was no use denying it.'

During the denouement, Flavia reveals a crucial piece of information to the Detective Inspector debriefing her. When he turns to his team, demanding to know why they didn't know this,  the response is:

"With respect, sir." Sergeant Woolmer ventured, "it could be because we're not Miss De Luce

For all her ferocious intellect and startling precocity,  she is still an eleven year old girl. She is observant enough to uncover an affair but innocent enough not to be entirely sure exactly what is involved in such an undertaking.

 

She is also a lonely girl without enough love in her life. Her elder sisters treat her badly. Her father is distant, repressed and as obsessed with stamps as Falvia is with poisons. Her mother is dead and her only connection to her is to sit in the Rolls she owned or to ride the bike she used, which she has rechristened Gladys and sometimes treats as if it were sentient.

 

Flavia is not a girl who is trying to be older. Above all she seems to be trying just to be herself which she does with great self-assurance. When she turns up late (again) and her father describes her as "Utterly unreliable:" she thinks to herself

Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself. Eleven-year-olds are supposed to be unreliable.

 

Flavia knows that she is willing to overstep the bounds of politeness and perhaps even decency, to get the infomation she wants but she's reconciled to that aspect of herself. She says:

Sometimes I hated myself. But not for long.

This was a delightful read and a pleasing sequel. I will be back for more.

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review 2017-08-05 18:33
Decisions and readings of the Supreme Court
Landmark Decisions of the Supreme Court: Select Cases Pertaining to Abortion, Birth Control, and Reproductive Rights - Open Book Audio,Christopher Lee Philips,Kim Tuvin,Open Book Audio

I listened to the audio book and while it is interesting it is at times hard to follow because the actual briefs and dissenting opinions or confirming opinions of the Justices themselves are being read and use some legal jargon.

 

I will not comment or offer any opinions about the subject matter due to the subject matter itself and that all three subjects are lightning rods.

 

I will say this was a very interesting listen and I highly recommend everyone listen to or read this and other works from the Supreme Court.  

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review 2017-08-01 17:09
“Idaho” by Emily Ruskovich
Idaho: A Novel - Emily Ruskovich

The title says, "Idaho - A Novel". I think the last bit is an assertion of intent meant to guide people like me who reach the end of the book knowing that I'd read something wonderful but not really being able to label it.

 

Each chapter in "Idaho" is a work of art. Emily Ruskovich can write in a way that makes you fully aware of how a particular person is experiencing something that is vivid and immediate but also ladened with context and possibility.

 

At one point she even helped me see inside the head of a blood hound on a search, head down, ears and folds of skin dampening all other stimuli except the hundreds of scents that contain the one scent I am looking for.

 

It seemed to me, that for much of the novel, I had become that blood hound and that each chapter was a scrap of fabric, soaked in sorrow, confusion, regret, guilt, love and, occasionally hope, that I would bend over and sniff at until I had extracted every scent of emotion and traced the trails of circumstance, intent, memory and consequence that connect the chapters and the people in them.

 

It is an intense, absorbing experience that speaks to my senses and my emotions but, by itself, does not satisfy my need for a narrative leading to some form of release. The non-linear nature of this narrative, the emphasis on moments of being and intense but bounded insights into a person, meant that reading "Idaho" felt more like experiencing other people's lives than it did reading a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end. I was given lots of hard, emotionally taxing questions but I was offered only the inference of answers, much as I am in real life.

 

There is a narrative. It is triggered by an act of violence that changes the lives of almost all of the characters in the book. Revealing this narrative in a non-linear way is not done to enhance the tension or to build to a great reveal, but to show that we are not the events that we live through. They can harm us or help us but the self we bring to each moment is what shapes the outcome of an event.

 

I'm sorry if that sounds obscure. Emily Ruskovich would never say anything so clumsily as that. It is merely me, trying to find meaning in what I was reading.

 

In "Idaho" I spent time seeing the world through the eyes of many people: May, a six year old girl living an isolated rural life in which her most intense relationship is with June, her older sister, whom she simultaneously loves and resents; Elizabeth, spending her life in prison for murder and trying to allow herself friendship and perhaps even love; Jenny, a woman who is trying to abnegate her right to anything she desires but who cannot stop herself from offering something of herself to others; Wade, a man who has survived tragedy and guilt and love but who is losing himself with each memory that slips out of reach; and Anne, who falls lives a life of sorrow-filled love that she does not feel entitled to cut herself free from.

 

I will remember these people for a long time. I will remember their joys and their pain and their ability to survive as long as they are remembered by someone, even if it is only themselves. I will remember the mountain they lived on and how its wildness and isolation and unforgiving winters shaped them like wind eroding sandstone.

 

Yet I still struggle with "Idaho" as "a novel". Probably this says more about my expectations than about Emily Ruskovich's writing but it changed my experience of the book. If "Idaho" had been a collection of short stories, I'd have gone, "How wonderful. This is like reading Alice Munro" but it was labelled a novel so I found myself expecting more connection.

 

The best example of what I mean is a character in this book, a young man who loses his leg through an accident in high school, who's experiences and thoughts are beautifully described but who seems to have only the most tangential connection to the other people in the book. I invested my imagination in him. I didn't like him but I began to understand him. Yet I couldn't make him fit and my inability to do so distracted and annoyed me.

 

I strongly recommend this book, novel or not. The writing is simply wonderful. The experiences are harrowing but in a way that made me more empathetic than horrified.

I am astonished that this is Emily Ruskovich's debut novel. I look forward to reading everything else that she writes.

 

I listened to the audiobook version of "Idaho" which is read with consummate skill by Justine Eyre. She helped my hound dog follow the scent trails in the this book much more easily and with more passion than I had only read the text.

 

I've included below an extract of her performance and a short interview where she talks about her experience in narrating "Idaho"

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/307854062"

params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtXenrTg_MY&w=560&h=315]

 

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