Review of ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey

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Over the last few weeks, the long, dark midwinter evenings have given me the perfect excuse to sit by the fire and make a start on the pile of new books waiting to be read. It has been snowing on and off all week in our part of the country, making Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child seem like an appropriate story to start with.

Set in 1920, The Snow Child centres around Jack and Mabel, a married couple in their mid-forties from Pennsylvania grieving the stillbirth of their baby, and attempting to make a new life for themselves on a homestead in Alaska. Both lost in their own grief, Jack and Mabel hope it will be a fresh start away from all the reminders of their loss, but the reality proves quite different from their expectations as Alaska turns out to be a beautiful but harsh and unforgiving landscape.

One winter night, caught up in the magic of the first snowfall, they build a child in the snow – a little girl – but the very next day they find their snow child smashed and foot prints leading away from it. Not long after, they begin to see a little girl around their homestead and wandering in the wilderness. As the seasons and years pass, the reader is left wondering whether the snow child is just a feral orphan left to fend for herself or a fairy-tale brought to life by the couple’s desperate longing.

The Snow Child is split into three parts, and I found the final part – which jumps ahead several years – the weakest section as it seemed disjointed as it rushed towards the end. Despite this, I loved the descriptions of life on the homestead and the struggle to cultivate the land, making friends with their coarse-mannered but kind-hearted neighbours, the beautiful Alaskan winters and the mysterious snow child who seemed to haunt the land. The Snow Child is an ideal story to read under a cosy blanket with a cup of hot chocolate while the wind howls and the snowflakes fall outside.

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Review of ‘The World According to Bob’ by James Bowen

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A Street Cat Named Bob was the first book I reviewed this year, and it seems fitting that the sequel The World According to Bob should be the last. This picks up where the first book finished, James is a recovering addict, struggling to make ends meet by selling the Big Issue magazine and living in a London tower-block with Bob, the stray cat he adopted in the previous book.

Both books really capture the unconditional love, trust, loyalty and affection that can exist between people and animals, and how healing and transformative those bonds can be. Taking care of Bob gives James a sense of purpose, routine and responsibility, it’s his reason to get out of bed in the morning, to work hard and stay sober.

James isn’t proud of his past, and although he describes his difficult childhood shuttling between divorced parents in England and Australia, and his failed attempts to become a musician that ultimately resulted in him becoming homeless and addicted to heroin in London, he doesn’t blame anyone else for his choices.

James’ humanity comes across throughout the book as he understands the desperation that leads people in a similar situation to his own resorting to intimidation, violence, theft and addiction to numb their pain and shame. When his own fortunes start to change, James sees it as part of his duty and purpose to raise awareness of the harsh realities of those rough-sleeping, battling addictions and trying to eke out a living working on the streets.

James doesn’t have much by most people’s standards, and yet he is grateful for everything he does have, and his gratitude extends to all the people that believed in him and helped him when he needed it most from the Blue Cross vets who treated Bob whenever he was sick or injured to the Big Issue organisation, his parents, friends and the publishers who gave him the opportunity to share his story. Above all, James is grateful to the little cat that changed his life and inspired him to become the very best version of himself. I don’t usually read autobiographies but I found both of James Bowen’s books thoroughly heart-warming and inspiring. Have a lovely week. X

Review of ‘Silence’ by Thich Nhat Hanh

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In Silence, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that many of us are sleepwalking through life barely aware of the world around us because we are so lost in our own thoughts and distracted by the constant stream of information drip-fed to us by our phones, computers, TV and radio everyday.

Having said that, Silence does not read like it was written by someone out of touch with the modern world and living in a monastery in rural France, but by someone who understands just how busy, stressful and distracting modern life can be. Thich Nhat Hanh argues that there is no need to lock ourselves away in a quiet room or move to a monastery to spend our days meditating, but that everyone can achieve a sense of calm and inner peace whatever their circumstances by practising mindfulness during their daily activities.

In many ways, Silence is not dissimilar to Peace Is Every Step published in 1991, yet the message Thich Nhat Hanh delivered then seems even more relevant for readers today.

Although written by a Buddhist monk, Silence is not a religious text and is aimed at readers of all faiths and none. The tone of Silence is patient and understanding, and the mindfulness exercises in the book are simple to follow.

Winter seemed to arrive a little early this year with the last day of a frosty November bringing a light snowfall to our part of the country, and with our calendar rapidly filling up with festive fun, this short book is a timely reminder that we can still make time for silence and mindfulness regardless of what else is going on in our lives or the world around us.

Review of ‘Temeraire’ by Naomi Novik

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Temeraire is set during the Napoleonic Wars, but in a slightly alternative history where dragons exist. The story begins just after Captain Will Laurence of the HMS Reliant has taken command of a French ship carrying a dragon egg. Soon after, the egg hatches and the dragon chooses Laurence to be his rider, a role he is at first reluctant to accept as being bound to a dragon means giving up his naval career, plans to marry his childhood sweetheart and his position in polite society as (despite their vital contribution to the war) dragon riders are largely shunned by the rest of society. However, a bond quickly develops between Laurence and the dragon he names Temeraire, and their relationship is at the heart of this story.

Once they have joined the British Aerial Corps, both Temeraire and Laurence feel like misfits as Temeraire discovers he is a rare breed but lacks the fire-breathing or acid-spitting abilities of the other dragons, while Laurence struggles with the informality of the Aerial Corps and the inclusion of female dragon riders. The dragons themselves are all wonderful characters, and the plight of one particularly loyal and brave dragon brought tears to my eyes.

This an engaging story, but there are some pacing issues as Laurence and Temeraire don’t see any combat until the last third of the story. Having said that, the aerial battles are thrilling and capture the danger and savagery of combat for the dragons and their crews.

I’m a bit apprehensive about committing to a nine-book-long series, yet I found Temeraire quick to read and a little twist at the end left me eager to find out what happens next. Have a lovely weekend. X

Review of ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’ by Haruki Murakami

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I sometimes hesitate to recommend Haruki Murakami to other readers as his novels are often strange and surreal, and I often find it hard to describe what they’re about and even harder to explain why I enjoyed them.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is easily one of Murakami’s most accessible novels and probably the one I’d recommend to anyone who’d never read anything by him before. However, Murakami is not for everyone, there are awkward sex scenes, some strands of the plot are frustratingly unresolved by the end and there is still a slightly surreal element to this novel with actions that occur in Tsukuru’s dreams seeming to have consequences in reality.

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The story follows Tsukuru Tazaki who had four best friends at high school but was the only member of the group without a colour in his name leading him to view himself as colourless and empty; then one day Tsukuru was rejected by the group suddenly and without any explanation. For the next sixteen years, Tsukuru drifts through life unable to form deep or meaningful relationships with others until he meets Sara, his would-be girlfriend, who pushes him to find out why his friends ostracised him all those years ago, sensing that until he heals those wounds he’ll never be able to connect with anyone else. Tsukuru’s quest takes him from Tokyo back to his hometown of Nagoya and all the way to Finland in search of answers to the questions that have haunted him for so long.

This is a story about friendship and belonging, rejection, loneliness, death and rebirth that allows Murakami to explore the difference between how we see ourselves and how others perceive us, the choices that define us and the ripple effects they create. Bittersweet, slightly surreal and even humorous in places, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is laced with a sense of regret about lost time and the ways things could have been, yet it very much ends with hope.

Review of ‘The Wolf Wilder’ by Katherine Rundell

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The cover of this book caught my eye in a bookshop a few months ago, but I held off reading it over the summer until the stormy weather in our part of the country last weekend gave me the perfect opportunity to settle down in front of the fire to read as the wind howled and the rain pattered against the windows.

The Wolf Wilder has something of a fairy tale quality and the story is beautifully illustrated throughout by Gelrev Ongbico. Set in Russia before the revolution, this is the tale of twelve-year-old Feo, who like her mother is a wolf-wilder, teaching wolves that were kept as pets by the aristocracy how to howl, hunt and live in the wilderness once their masters have bored of them. When her home is burned to the ground and her mother is arrested by the tyrannical and cruel General Rakov, Feo embarks on a quest to rescue her mother.

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At times, Feo is hard to relate to, she can be reckless and coarse, and she much prefers the company of her wolves (simply named White, Grey and Black) to people. Yet over the course of the story, Feo softens as she makes friends with members of her own kind who offer her food, shelter and help when she needs it most. There is almost a sense of reversal as the wolf-wilder girl is not exactly tamed by the end of the story but regains some of her own humanity along the way.

The Wolf Wilder is a story that doesn’t shy away from describing cruelty, injustice and death, but also one that reminds us that sometimes we have to be braver than we feel, that challenges can be overcome and bullies can be defeated. This is a thrilling adventure ideal for dark and stormy nights. Have a lovely weekend.

Review of ‘Umami’ by Laia Jufresa

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Umami is a novel set in Mexico City that follows the residents of five houses (named after the flavours sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami) all of whom are experiencing some form of loss or grief. The story has five narrators, there is twelve-year-old Ana trying to make sense of the death of her little sister, Luz; Marina, an artist recovering from anorexia who creates colours to describe emotions; Alfonso, an anthropologist mourning the death of his vivacious wife, Noelia (who was in life grieving her own childlessness); Pina, Ana’s friend and neighbour, trying to understand her mother’s unexplained departure from the family, and finally, Luz, describing the events leading up to her death.

Umami has an unusual and non-linear structure, each chapter focuses on one character during a particular year starting with Ana in 2004, switching to Marina in 2003, then Alfonso in 2002, Luz in 2001 and Pina in 2000, before returning to Ana and working backwards again. The time and character shifts can seem disorientating at first but it allows the story to unfurl gradually and shows how seemingly ordinary interactions between the characters can take on greater meaning and significance once the consequences are fully revealed.

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Umami is a short novel that tackles some big themes such as loss, grief and identity. As Ana and Pina take their first awkward steps towards adolescence, Alfonso is adjusting to his own transition from husband to widower and also describes Noelia’s struggle with her own identity as a wife and respected cardiologist but “only a daughter” because of her childlessness, while Marina attempts to overcome anorexia, an abusive childhood and work out who she is.

The sense of loss that permeates through the novel isn’t the tidal waves of sorrow, anger and shock that wash over us when grief is fresh, but the dull ache of missing someone that never really goes away no matter how many years pass, and of slowly trying to find a new purpose in life.

The slow and thoughtful pace of Umami has been a pleasant contrast to the busy-ness at work and home in my own life over the last few weeks, and Umami is a poignant but hopeful novel that lingers long after the story ends.