Monday, February 23, 2015

"The Snow Child": She comes from the land of ice and snow

I read seasonably.

In the summers, I enjoy romantic stories without heavy handed writing, books that I can get through quickly, but that still have substance.  In the winter, I enjoy the sad, hearty historical fiction books, books that are a challenge and can take me weeks to finish.  Because we took a break from our Chicagoland harsh winter and went south to Florida to feel some sunshine, I was torn on what to read.  Do I go with my more summery books, or should I stay with a heavy winter book? I opted to take one of each and see how much reading I could accomplish in the week I was away.  My wintery book, "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey, made me feel warmer than the book I chose as my summer read (Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins).

Although I was reading about Jack and Mabel, a couple who moves from Pennsylvania to the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s to begin a homestead after suffering the birth of a stillborn child, I felt warm due to the "Little House on the Prairie"-esque vibe of their lives.  It's quiet and a bit lonely inside of a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness.  They need to live off of moose meat - all winter long (talk about getting tired of leftovers) - in order to survive.  Mabel continues to suffer under the crushing weight of the Alaskan winter with it's darkness and hostile environment that leads her to thoughts of loneliness and lack.  For Jack to succeed in potato farming, he needs to do countless hours of back breaking physical labor that is both hard and dangerous on his aging body.  But the warmth of their love in their small, tidy cabin in the woods gives comfort and hope.  This book paid reverence to the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, but made no mistake about the dangers of this wintry world where ice can swallow people whole, and humans cannot survive without a struggle against loneliness, darkness and isolation.

As the story unfolds, the couple who have longed their whole lives together for a child but are now too old to have one, uncharacteristically become playful during a snowstorm.  They build a snow child, and Jack even carves a beautiful face for it.  Mabel puts a hat and gloves on it, and in the morning when they wake up, the snow child sculpture they created is gone.  Mabel soon witnesses a little girl who cautiously approaches their home (almost like a wild animal seeking shelter) wearing the hat and gloves that she placed on the snow creation.  Is this the child that they have always longed to have? Or are they imagining this girl because they are suffering from loneliness and they've always wished to have a child with them?

In Eowyn Ivey's debut novel, she shows amazing prowess as a magical realism writer.  She creates quiet ambiguity with her storyline, and she crafts characters who are believable and likable.  The characters and the readers know about the fairy tale that tells the story of an old couple who want a child and fashion one out of ice and snow.  The fairy tale never ends happily, though.  The child melts or leaves forever in the spring.  Mabel truly believes that she and Jack have created a child, just like in the fairy tale she remembers from her childhood.  The girl that comes into their world, who goes by the name of Faina and travels with a loyal red fox, seems magical enough - with her hair in tangles of the Alaskan wilderness and the smell of the herbs and nature. She leaves blizzards in her wake, holds single snowflakes in her palm, and most of all she can survive the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Alaskan winter unscathed.  Ivey divulges nothing and even leads the reader to question Faina's existence by never using quotation marks when she talks to anyone.  Is she real? Is she imagined? Is she magical? It's hard to know even by the end what's real and what's imagined not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel as well.  Mabel swears that Faina is magical and even warns against getting her too warm out of fear that she will melt just like in the fairytale.  "You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them, and in fact Mabel had come to suspect the opposite. To believe, perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped like water between your fingers." Jack, however, knows something about Faina's past that he promises never to tell anyone even if it's the right thing to do.

What is clear, though, is the magical charm of this simple story of a couple who longed to be parents and find themselves in the role asking themselves the same questions parents everywhere ask.  What decisions do you leave to your child? How do you allow your child freedom without losing them forever? How do you hold onto someone who only wants to be free? When do you push and when do you let go? What is done out of protective love and what is done out of the fear of loss? What role does fate play in our lives and do we have the power to change our fate or are we powerless in the face of it? Do you believe in miracles?

Many questions come up throughout this novel, but the mysterious world of Faina will keep the reader interested, regardless of the season that he or she chooses to read this book.  "The Snow Child" is an impressive debut novel that will allow you to love the winter a bit more and see the beauty in the snow and ice and harsh extremes.  It will show you how strong every individual is even when they believe they are weak, and it will make you question the notion of "good parenting" without lectures or research.  It's just good, magical storytelling in any season.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"The Girl on the Train": Get Me Off Of This Ride

I know that "The Girl on the Train" is the "IT" book right now.  Everyone is comparing it to "Gone Girl" because of the mystery, the intensity of it, and the thrill ride and pace of the plot.  I couldn't wait to read it, and was bummed when we went on vacation and it had not arrived at the library yet for me to take with me.

When I saw it at the airport bookstore, I bought it even with the hefty hardcover price. Having a good book with me makes any vacation feel complete.  I started to read it and was immediately sucked into the story of Rachel, a depressed, jilted, obsessive, alcoholic who is pretty much a train wreck.  She spends her mornings and early evenings on the London bound commuter train staring out the window and making story lines about one stop in particular and one couple in particular.  She's basically stalking the couple from the train until one day she sees something that disturbs her and that sets even more disturbing events into motion.

I can't reveal too much more about the plot or the characters because it will spoil the book which many of you will read even if I tell you not to.  Because that's what I'm going to do - tell you not to read this book, which will then make you want to read it even more.

Why should you stay away from Paula Hawkins' thriller that is gracing the Bestseller list and flying off the shelves (even at the airport bookstore)? The characters are all so unlikeable that it didn't really matter to me what happened to them after I read the first 100 pages (which I did read very quickly).  I get it.  We all have a dark side, but when ALL the women are depressed and co-dependent in some way or another (a door mat, a stalker alcoholic, a stay at home narcissistic brat, and a liar and cheater), and all the men are abusive tyrants, it makes for an unlikeable cast of characters that might even deserve the tragedies that befall them.  This is a VERY harsh statement, too because what happens to them isn't really all that pleasant. But I know that you know the feeling in a horror movie when the dumb girl leaves by herself to take a midnight walk in the woods because she is depressed about her ex-boyfriend and she doesn't listen to the advice of all of her friends to stay close and then the guy with the chainsaw comes up behind her and she just stands there crying before she even hears the chainsaw, and then you think "you had it coming to you because you are a ridiculous human being" . . . well, that's what I felt pretty much the whole way through this book.

It also feels much like being on a commuter train - monotonous, repetitive, and dreary.

The writing was okay, but nothing too bold or beautiful.  Getting the multiple perspectives from the different, broken women was nice, but may have revealed too much.  It would have been an interesting twist to just stick with Rachel's perspective the entire novel.  With such an unreliable narrator, the book could have created more edginess or even more intensity.  It certainly would have lead to a more dramatic and original unfolding.  It's no good when the reader can figure out the mystery with over 100 pages yet to read.

I wanted to like this book, but it wasn't what I thought it would be.  I regret spending the money on it at the airport bookstore and regret even more that now I own it.  This isn't a book I will be loaning to others unless they insist that they must read it, which I know that even after I tell them not to, they will anyway.

Monday, February 2, 2015

'The Girl You Left Behind': Jojo Moyes Knows How to Play Me Like a Fiddle

After a hefty book like "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr, I thought I would reward myself with a light Jojo Moyes book, so when I saw "The Girl You Left Behind" actually on the library shelf (Jojo Moyes books are perpetually checked out), I did a happy dance right in the M aisle.     What I didn't realize was that the story line in "The Girl You Left Behind" revolves around WWI and art reparations due to German soldiers' fine arts confiscations during WWI and WWII.  Another war time book wasn't really what I wanted, but Moyes knows totally how to play with my heart and make me plow through her fiction.  Although her writing isn't anything like Doerr's lyrical writing that feels more like poetry than prose, Moyes gives a straightforward narrative of two strong female characters, Sophie Lefevre (from the WWI storyline), and Liv Halston (from the current day storyline).

I was instantly captivated by the 1916, small town, France storyline centered around Sophie Lefevre and her passionate artist husband. Eduoard intoxicates her with his bear-like, rowdy presence and asks to paint her.  After a failed attempt to truly capture her on the canvas, she returns to his studio determined to sit for him.  The result is a stunning painting which shows the inner light of Sophie - erotic, honest, and absolutely beautiful.  They also end up falling deeply in love and getting married.

When Eduoard is sent to the front line of WWI, Sophie and her sister are forced to entertain German soldiers after their small French time is occupied, and the German Kommandant becomes obsessed with both the painting and with Sophie.  Sophie uses his affections to her advantage to help others in her town, and even further to try and reunite with her husband.

In the midst of Sophie's treacherous wartime story, Moyes introduces the modern day storyline of Liv Halston, a recent young widow whose husband acquired Sophie's painting while helping a woman on their honeymoon.  Her brilliant architect husband's death has left Liv devastated, lonely and lifeless and her only happiness seems to come from her painting of Sophie.  When she meets the handsome and overly helpful, ex-police officer, Paul McCafferty, it seems as if she can love again until she finds out that Paul is an art recovery officer who is actually seeking to return Sophie's painting with members of the Lefevre family who know it's worth a fortune.

Even though I loved the piecing together of the entire history of the painting (much like the storyline in the book "The Girl in Hyacinth Blue"), I must admit that I wasn't as captivated with the Liv Halston storyline as I was with Sophie's.  There were times where I actually rolled my eyes at Liv and her tirades about her beloved painting.  When she started to push Paul away, I am pretty sure my eye rolling increased, BUT . . . JoJo Moyes brought me back into her emotional tug of war by the end of the book where I most definitely cried as both story lines wrapped up - both with trials (Sophie's didn't take place in the courtroom like Liv's) for their female protagonists.  I cheered, openly wept and read with rigorous speed to see how everything turned out.

Moyes knows how to play with her readers, and just like her books "One Plus One" and "Me Before You", the emotional upheaval will leave you a bit breathless and wanting another helping of her writing after you read the last page.  Be forewarned.  You will get addicted to JoJo Moyes; her books are too good not to, though, so just enjoy being played like a fiddle.