We’ve got lots of snow over here right now, which is the perfect weather for Rachel Joyce’s short story collection A Snow Garden & other stories.
A Snow Garden features a woman having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit, two parents deconstructing their marriage on Christmas Eve, as well as a young woman giving birth at a crowded airport. There is a chance encounter at a Boxing Day Ball, two little boys spending the Christmas holidays with their divorced father, a superstar coming home for a belated Christmas party and an elderly father asking his son to plant trees on New Year’s Eve.
In seven loosely connected short stories, Rachel Joyce reintroduces well-known characters as well as new ones and shows us how they experience the time between Christmas and the New Year. Each story deals with interpersonal relationships on different levels and they all teach us that the time we spend with our loved ones is precious.
I guess which stories we find more memorable than others depends on our own experience in life. My personal favorites were the last two – “A Snow Garden” and “Trees”. Rachel Joyce did a great job depicting the difficult father-son relationships in these stories.
Overall, A Snow Garden & other stories is quick read for a cold, snowy winter weekend. I enjoyed this book much more than Perfect and Queenie.
In The Spinning Heart, twenty-one inhabitants of a rural Irish town tell us about their lives after Ireland’s financial collapse.
First to tell his story is Bobby Mahon. He was foreman at the local construction firm, its unexpected closing-down having effects on the whole town. Bobby links the twenty other people who follow, but the more stories we get to read, the harder it gets to remember who is who. There are just too many characters and the Irish names I have never heard before make it a guessing game to find out a character’s gender.
The plot is like a puzzle. In the beginning it seems a bit loose, but the further you read, the more the pieces start to fit together. The individual chapters are like short stories that are just connected enough to make The Spinning Heart a novel. This lack of connection makes the book a bit slow to read. Nevertheless, some of the stories make you want to know more and it is a pity that you have to part ways with the characters so soon. Overall, The Spinning Heart is a nice debut, but if you have to choose, I’d recommend you read The Thing About December.
Odran Yates has always felt comfortable in his role as a priest. He likes teaching the boys at Terenure College and he loves taking care of the school library. When one day the Archbishop tells him that he has to move to another parish to fill in for his old friend Tom, Odran only accepts reluctantly and he starts to notice that the Catholic church isn’t the same institution he once thought it to be.
In A History of Loneliness, we follow Odran and the Catholic church through a crisis. In the course of the book, Odran reflects on his difficult past that influenced his becoming a priest. We meet lots of different characters, many with their own crosses to bear. Even though we only get to know them through Odran’s eyes, some of these characters are crafted so vividly you can almost see through them.
I never thought that a book about a priest could actually be that gripping and emotional. Unfortunately, the ending wraps up too neatly for my taste. If you can stomach a literary punch in the gut that will broaden your horizon in regard to the Catholic church, I recommend you read A History of Loneliness.
Today I’d like to introduce you to Donal Ryan’s novel The Thing About December. I have the hardcover edition, but there’s a new, very beautiful paperback edition that was released last week. Donal Ryan’s first book The Spinning Heart was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and won the Guardian First Book Award in the same year.
Also, thank you Iris from Leseerlebnis for this wonderful gift!
‘He heard Daddy one time saying he was a grand quiet boy to Mother when he thought Johnsey couldn’t hear them talking. Mother must have been giving out about him being a gom and Daddy was defending him. He heard the fondness in Daddy’s voice. But you’d have fondness for an auld eejit of a crossbred pup that should have been drowned at birth.’
While the Celtic Tiger rages, and greed becomes the norm, Johnsey Cunliffe desperately tries to hold on to the familiar, even as he loses those who all his life have protected him from a harsh world. Village bullies and scheming land-grabbers stand in his way, no matter where he turns.
Set over the course of one year of Johnsey’s life, The Thing About December breathes with his grief, bewilderment, humour and agonizing self-doubt. This is a heart-twisting tale of a lonely man struggling to make sense of a world moving faster than he is.
Donal Ryan set his novel in a village in contemporary Ireland. Large parts of the story take place on Johnsey Cunliffe’s farm which is so lonely it sometimes resembles a still life.
In The Thing About December, we follow one year in the life of the main character Johnsey Cunliffe. Johnsey is a lonely young man with a job he doesn’t like, less than a handful of people he can count on and a lot of problems coming his way. I was instantly able to connect to Johnsey. He is a very sweet man who knows much more than people seem to notice.
Donal Ryan doesn’t use standard English to tell Johnsey’s tale, so some passages might be hard to read for those who aren’t native speakers of English. The language however, reduces our distance to Johnsey to a minimum and helps us to empathize with him. Throughout one year, we get to know the intimate thoughts of a man whom we would probably just pass on the street. The Thing About December will leave you thinking about all the lonely people spending day after day within their four walls and it will make you cherish your friends and family even more. A wonderful novel for everyone.
You’ll notice a different structure on this and some of my upcoming reviews as I’m practicing for an exam that includes writing reviews and I’ll just stick to the structure that is expected at university. If you like it better than my usual review structure, you can tell me that. If you like the other structure better, you can also tell me. I’m planning on switching back after the exam, but if you are all in favor of this new structure, I can also stick to it.
The Book Thief is about nine-year-old Liesel Meminger who is sent to live with the Hubermanns, a foster family living in a fictional town called Molching. She soon warms up to her foster-father Hans and her new best friend Rudy. Her foster-mother Rosa takes some getting used to. Liesel settles in, learns to read and takes up stealing books. One day, a young man enters the Hubermanns’ kitchen. His name is Max and he is a Jew hiding from the Nazis.
Zusak’s visual description of the setting and his vivid writing style make you believe you were a character in his novel. Walking the town of Molching with its little stores and shabby houses feels very real. Just like Liesel holding a burning book to her chest. Markus Zusak knows how to show the reader what he imagines.
The Book Thief features mainly well-crafted characters. Liesel is depicted realistically, as she turns from the shy and hesitant young girl to a brave rascal with a big heart. Like every child, she doesn’t always think about the consequences of her actions. I enjoyed the well-rounded characterization of Liesel’s loving foster-father Hans and I wish Rosa would have gotten similar treatment. As Rosa is a very reserved person, it could also be that Markus Zusak didn’t want us to know too much about Rosa. She should be as much a mystery to us as she is to Liesel. The Book Thief is narrated by Death and Markus Zusak couldn’t have chosen a better narrator. Death has a good sense of humor and keeps you glued to the pages.
So what is the overall reading experience? While The Book Thief instantly sucks you in, it slows down in the middle mainly because day-to-day events are recounted and nothing happens that stays in your mind. I couldn’t find a real climax throughout the book. Not even the scene near the end has that much impact. The ending itself, however, is satisfying. What I particularly liked was that the book features many Bavarian words and expressions which worked very well and added to the sarcastic tone the narrator created. As a person living near Bavaria, I can tell you that Markus Zusak did his research. What did not work were the printed illustrated pages of a book within this edition of the novel. They were very hard to read and quickly became annoying. The Book Thief is a solid novel that is suitable for very young readers as it leaves out many of the horrors of the time. For adults and young adults who know that millions of people died a cruel death during the Nazi regime, the book might turn out be a bit too soft.
Last week I received a review copy of Perfect by Rachel Joyce. Lovelybooks and RandomHouse UK (Doubleday) had another great cooperation (oh how I love them for these, I can’t say it enough) and I received the copy to participate in a Lovelybooks book discussion.
Summer, 1972: In the claustrophobic heat, eleven-year-old Byron and his friend begin ‘Operation Perfect’, a hapless mission to rescue Byron’s mother from impending crisis.
Winter, present day: As frost creeps across the moor, Jim cleans tables in the local café, a solitary figure struggling with OCD. His job is a relief from the rituals that govern his nights.
Little would seem to connect them except that two seconds can change everything.
And if your world can be shattered in an instant, can time also put it right?
Perfect is set in England in the 1970s and in the present. I really enjoyed how Rachel Joyce described different processes. Like for example the process of sugar cubes being dropped into cups of tea. She does that brilliantly.
The main characters are a boy called Byron and a man called Jim. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to connect that well with Byron. Maybe it also has to do with the storytelling. I’ll talk about that later on. I was however perfectly able to empathize with Jim. I was able to feel every single emotion he felt. And many of them weren’t that pleasant. So be aware that this book is only for people who aren’t depressed, because it will most probably make you feel depressed.
As I already mentioned above, Perfect features two main characters. There are two strings of storyline – one set in the 1970s and wrapping around Byron’s life, and one set in the present, telling us more about Jim. In my opinion Byron’s story, which seems to be the main plot, is really slow-paced. This might also have to do with it being written in past tense. More than once, I caught myself looking forward to another chapter about Jim. To me, Jim’s story seems much more lively, probably because it written in present tense and because it really is much more lively. There are things happening in Jim’s storyline, whereas a lot of Byron’s storyline is spent planning and waiting. I also missed a real climax in the book. As I mentioned before, I really liked how Ms. Joyce described processes. This is fine writing. Still, I was a little disappointed after all the praise I’ve read about Perfect. I’d recommend it to people who don’t mind a slow and depressing read.