Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Volumes of Silence

Shtum by Jem Lester


The best word to describe Ben and Emma Jewell's 11-year-old son Jonah is "shtum." That's Yiddish for silent, so in other words, Jonah doesn't speak. Mostly, Jonah lives in his own world. Of course, Jonah's diagnosis is obvious; Jonah is autistic. So far, the schools Jonah attended haven't helped him make any progress. Now, it is up to Ben and Emma to find a place where Jonah can be happy, maybe get him out of his nappies and who knows but perhaps one day, he'll even start to talk again. While this seems a daunting task, Ben has much more to deal with than just getting through the tribunal that would put Jonah into the best facility possible.

People on the Autism spectrum and with Asperger's Syndrome seem to be a highly popular, if not inspirational subject for writers. What we didn't have in our collective consciousness before Mark Haddon wrote "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time," has developed into a topic of fascination. Mind you, I'm not saying writers are taking advantage of this condition to use as fodder; from what I can see, these authors are writing about their own, firsthand experiences. Furthermore, the authenticity that these writers show in their books is truly heartwarming (not every writer is willing to put their true hearts on their sleeves so publicly). 

Of course, there's always the problem with overkill, which can exhaust readers, and turn them off to a book out of hand (the old 'not ANOTHER book about X' syndrome). However, there seems to be enough variety in these books to keep us coming back. This is probably because the many nuances of the condition, which can affect people at so many levels. For example, in "The Rosie Project," Don Tillman's Asperger's allows him a high level of functioning. On the other hand, in the novel "Its. Nice. Outside.," the afflicted boy Ethan communicates with some level of speech, he's totally continent, but otherwise he has so many other problems, he'll probably never lead anything near a normal life. In this case, Jonah seems to understand quite a bit and reacts to things going on around him to some extent, but that stops short of verbal communication, making his condition quite a severe one. 

It is important to note that all of these books have far more going for them than just a character with Autism or Asperger's. So too with Lester's novel, where the central protagonist is Ben, who has much more to deal with than just where the local council's tribunal will decide they send Jonah for the coming years. There's Ben's running of his father's business, which he doesn't like doing, so he also isn't doing much to make it prosper, so money is a problem (not for the tuition for the fancy special school, but rather to pay for the lawyer and experts so the tribunal will agree that the council should pay for Jonah to go there. That's how it works in the UK). Another problem is that Emma just threw Ben and Jonah out of the house because she seems to believe that single parents have a better chance of gaining the sympathy of the tribunal. With Ben back in his father's house, their tensions from the past return. This becomes more evident as Ben starts to realize that what his father withheld from him all his life, he's suddenly giving away freely to Jonah, including some family secrets. Of course, Ben's drinking isn't helping, at least not for more than a few hours at a time. 

What heightens this book is that Jonah isn't the whole story here and neither is his Autism, despite this being a prominent catalyst for the plot. In fact, the story is more about Ben than it is about Jonah, and centers on Ben's relationships with his wife and father, as well as his own assessment of his own life. In other words, it is somewhat of a coming-of-age story that takes place later in life than one would usually expect. Furthermore, just when you think that things can't get any worse, something happens to shake everything up, and from that point on, the whole story takes an even sharper turn away from Jonah than before. (Sorry, I can't say more or I'd be giving away a huge spoiler.) Lester handles this transition so artfully, I was truly impressed, particularly because this is Lester's debut novel!

Although all this might sound all heavy and dark, Lester's real talent is keeping this story light enough where you could even say it is funny in places, without ever appearing flippant. Rather, Lester brings the innocence of Jonah's worldview into his narrative, which softens much of the harsher events going on around him. With his straightforward and easy-going prose, Lester creates an atmosphere that feels very authentic and ultimately honest. Of course, where there is such a high level of sincerity, there is also the chance that a story can get maudlin, but Lester avoids this with true aplomb. This was exactly the type of balance that this story needed, and because of all this, I cannot give this book less than a full five stars, and recommend it very highly.


"Shtum" by Jem Lester is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (UK iBook, US iBookUK audiobook and US audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase helps fund literacy programs) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

PS: Anyone wishing to see a truly excellent TV series about a family with a child on the Autism spectrum, I highly recommend "The A Word," which is a BBC series based on the Israeli TV series "Yellow Peppers."

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Harsh Reality with a Sweet Dream


The White City by Karolina Ramqvist


Karin is having a hard time this frigid winter. To begin with, her deadbeat, criminal boyfriend left her with their newborn baby girl Dream. Add to this that she has almost no cash left, no job, practically no food in the house and must use the least amount of electricity she can, so they don't turn that off. The worst part is she's about to lose her home and her car. Karin must find a way out of this problem, and Karolina Ramqvist's novel is all about her search for an answer.

Let me begin by saying that Ramqvist's writing is very appealing, with a fluid style that borders on the impersonal, the chill of which perfectly mirrors the wintry setting of the story. Yet behind this, Ramqvist is equally able to evoke the sparks of heated emotions, running the gamut of adoration for Karin's little baby Dream, to her regrets for getting involved with a gang of criminals and falling for the man who got her pregnant, and her fears of becoming homeless. This play between anxiety and serenity underlies the story throughout, giving the narrative an ominous feel to it, where any potential relief feels like it is always just beyond the horizon and practically unreachable.

That said, despite how great this sounds, it is also one of the reasons I had a problem with this book. I'm willing to admit that this may just be me, but sometimes there are authors that put too much "atmosphere" into their novels. We can overlook this if there are other elements to the story that balance this out. For example, if the character development is such that our empathy for the protagonist increases throughout the story. Another way to temper an atmospheric narrative is if the pace of the novel builds from the setup towards climax, which creates tension in the action. I also have seen the inclusion of unexpected escapes from the narrative with things like snippets of humor, or diffused observances, also works well to alleviate too much of a heavy ambiance.

That last example is what Ramqvist attempted to use to break the darkness, but I found these to be too few and too subtle to succeed fully, despite the more hopeful twist at the end of the story. Because of this, I found this book to be overall too monotone for my liking, and the many references to white and cold and snow that should have suggested light and hope, just felt dark and gloomy. Of course, I know there's a whole genre called Scandinavian or Nordic Noir, and certainly, this book would fit well into that niche, but usually those books are more crime fiction novels, and despite the criminals included here, this book doesn't really fit well with that. 


All this just means that while I believe Ramqvist is a very talented writer, I found this book a bit too depressing for my taste. Thankfully, it isn't a very long work, and knowing that gave me enough patience to read it through (and to be honest, I might have given up on it before reaching the end if it was even a little bit longer). That said, although I'm sure that this book will still attract readers who like Noir genre novels, it just wasn't my style and I can't give it more than three stars out of five.




"The White City" by Karolina Ramqvist published by Grove Atlantic, Black Cat, released February 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Ice and Cracks

Beartown by Fredrik Backman


Except for hockey, there's almost nothing left in Beartown, and it is only going to get worse, unless something changes. That something could be coming this year, since their junior team is finally good enough. If they succeed, who knows what that fame could bring? Maybe even a new hockey academy. Unfortunately, after the junior team won the semi-finals, something happened that changed everything, for both the team and the town. Now they have to deal with the harder question, which is, did this change Beartown for the worse or for the better? 

I have absolutely no interest in most sports (well, except when the Cubs won the World Series), and novels surrounding sports are usually ones for me to avoid. However, I did read Backman's novel "Britt-Marie Was Here" despite the focus on soccer. Although I'm no more interested in soccer than I was before I read that book, as most of my readers know, I adored that book. This is because what Backman did when he wrote that story is similar to what he did here, he wrote about people who are passionate about something, and how that fills their lives. Through their enthusiasm, we quickly realize that it can sometimes help them focus to the point of obsession, while at the same time it can also blind them. In this way, even when Backman goes into the details of the team playing their all-important game, we realize that this story isn't only about hockey; it is a metaphor to investigate the flawed human condition. 

One quote from this novel that's already showing up in the PR is "Never trust people who don't have something in their lives that they love beyond reason." Of course, this is technically referring to hockey, but I'm thinking that it's practically the theme of this book. By this, I mean that the enormous love for the various things that Backman shows us in this novel (hockey, family, a town, etc.) don't always make them trustworthy, they can sometimes make them reckless, which can also be damaging. Despite this, when your love for something is beyond reason, that passion also gives you the type of inner strength that can help you survive any damage caused by reckless actions. The balancing act that Backman plays between the positive and negative results of such obsessions is what I found pervasive throughout this novel, and what made it so amazing. 

That's just one reason to love this book, but there are many more. Another reason is how Backman succeeds in portraying this unusually large group of characters so vividly, blemishes and all. This was particularly important to me since I often get confused when there are too many characters to keep track of. Yet here, Backman's deep and intimate understanding of the people he's placed in Beartown practically forced him to give every one of them a distinctive tenor and cadence to their voices. This will lead readers to care for these characters as deeply as Backman obviously does, which in turn will lead to some laughter as well as no small amount of tears. There's also Backman's deceptively simple literary style of writing, within which he strews sparks of wisdom, traces of poetry and as already noted, flashes of humor.

However, one of the most artistic reasons to admire this book is Backman's pacing. Consider this - the opening line of this book is "Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there." You cannot deny how incredible that opening line is, and then he immediately begins to slide carefully upwards towards the climax, using a very subtle incline. Then, when he gets to the climax, it's like watching a small explosion go off. From then on, his narrative takes on a somewhat blurry, disconnected, almost remote quality, which colors the book's whole atmosphere from that point. To me, it felt like he went from a conventional solid narrative, to one that you could compare to describing shattered glass (or shards of ice, if you will). That felt like yet another metaphor for how the climactic event traumatized the whole town as well as the individuals involved. One mechanic that Backman employed to emphasize this was in how instead of using the characters' names, he referred to them using general nouns (a boy, the girl, a woman, the man, etc.). That could have confused me, but by the time Backman made this switch, I knew these characters so well that I instinctively knew whom he was talking about; which I think was pure genius.

As you can tell, I absolutely adored this book. However, some readers might be less than thrilled with the detailed descriptions of the hockey games in the first part of this book. I would understand if they felt this slows down the story, and I have to admit that I too rushed through some of those parts. Despite that, once I got to the climax and the rest of the story fanned out in front of me, I understood the importance of those parts of the story to the overall novel. In other words, Backman proved to me yet again, what an astonishingly wonderful master storyteller he is (as if I didn't know that already)! Obviously, I can't give it less than a full five stars. 


"Beartown" by Fredrik Backman published by Atria Books, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books* (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for inviting me to read an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. 

* NOTE: this book is also marketed under the title "The Scandal," which will be available  in August 2017. 

You can find my reviews of Fredrik Backman's other works here: