Review: The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey)

“She had thought often of Ada’s words about inventing new endings to stories and choosing joy over sorrow. In recent years she had decided her sister had been in part wrong. Suffering and death and loss were inescapable. And yet, what Ada had written about joy was entirely true. When she stands before you with her long, naked limbs and her mysterious smile, you must embrace her while you can.”

Quick Review

I gave The Snow Child a hugely deserved ★★★

Why you should read this book: It’s rare that a modern novel captures the magic and escapism that an old fairy tale can provide, but Eowyn Ivey presents us with a story that delivers this in spades. There is something here for both older children who are more recently acquainted with fairy tales, and adults who haven’t quite forgotten them. Regardless of location or fairy tale occurrence, readers of The Snow Child can find characters to relate to in Mabel and Jack, and will be inevitably sucked into their relationship, their struggles, and their joys. An Alaskan backdrop shivers off the page, and is lovingly illustrated by an author who knows her setting and her characters well.

Full review

I was fortunate enough to be gifted a copy of this book by Waterstones as a read and review copy. I am shamefully, shamefully late in reviewing it, but better late than never. Right? To briefly fill you in, I finally broke the ranks of unemployed graduate in March, and got a much-wanted job in publishing, which meant returning to Oxford. It’s been a hectic few months, but this marks my return.

If anything, the lateness of my review says nothing about the quality of the book, because I loved every moment of it.  It has taken a little while to sink in, I suppose, but months later, I’m still thinking about it

By writing about what she knows, Eoywn Ivey has done a wonderful job of setting the scene. She lays out a vivid and palpable landscape for the reader; the arctic beauty and loneliness of the Alaskan frontier. I read a large portion of this book whilst travelling between Glasgow and Wigan on the train, and despite the relative warmth of my carriage, I certainly felt a shiver or two. Ivey’s biggest success in the setting of her novel, I felt, was the affection and awe for the Alaskan backdrop which glided off the page, even throughout the difficulty reality it often presents for the protagonists.  There is no doubt that Ivey is in a prime position to convey the experience of living in Alaska to her readers. A simple visit to her website tells you that she resides there, living quite the interesting life. She has a firsthand (if slightly more modern) knowledge of many of the activities that are described in The Snow Child, for example, cultivating her family’s own crops and hunting for meat. This knowledge is certainly what lends such a realistic air to this first novel and is a clear example of what many novelists preach: Write What You Know.

However, realism isn’t the only thing that seeps through the pages of The Snow Child. The struggle of our central characters, Mabel and Jack, to survive in the wilds of Alaska, is entwined with an old fairy tale. You may have read some variant of it before. I vaguely remember a story of a woman who swallows a snowflake and conceives a child. Her husband returns home after being away for a few years, to find he has a son. He pretends to believe the story, but later sells the boy as a slave, telling his wife that the child of snow melted. Heart-warming stuff. Ivey’s The Snow Child originates from a somewhat gentler story, a Russian fairy tale, known as Snegurochka (or, The Snow Maiden). She has described coming across an illustrated version of the story, and realising what an excellent backdrop her homeland of Alaska would make for a retelling of the tale. As in The Snow Child, Snegurochka usually tells the story of a child made from snow who comes to a childless couple, bringing them joy. Within my UK edition of this book, the original story is provided as both a point of reference, and for the reader’s continued enjoyment.

Ivey’s characters remain vivid and compelling throughout the book, and you feel their individual struggles keenly. However, she does ensure that they keep a certain distance from the reader in their emotions which was quite relieving for me. Usually, retellings of traditional stories are difficult to keep in check when re-imagined as novels. The pain of a childless couple, suddenly embracing the impossibility of a child made of snow, come to life, could easily lapse into a blancmange of sentimentality and emotion. I strongly dislike this in a book. I recently read Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, which started out well, but I came out detesting the manipulation of the reader’s emotions. A successful author, I feel, is one who can paint the suffering of her characters so clearly, but still keep them just out of reach. A reader can relate to a character without drowning in sentiment. Ivey achieves this beautifully.

I highly recommend wearing a scarf and keeping a hot pot of tea nearby when you delve into this book. Embrace hibernation; you won’t want to leave The Snow Child until you’ve got to the last page. This is a story that you will want to thrust into the hands of friends and family, and I thank Waterstones for bringing it to my attention. (I also want to add that this review will appear on the Waterstones website as a customer review, as a condition of my receiving a free copy).

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Review: The Girl with Glass Feet (Ali Shaw)

Before I launch into today’s review, I should explain the long gap in posting. I have been quite the busy bee lately, finally netting a much-wanted job in the publishing industry. I start next week and have been understandably rushing about trying to find a place to live before I move back to Oxford. However, I am returning and will be back soon with reviews of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child and (yes, I’m jumping on a bandwagon, and very enthusiastically so!) The Hunger Games trilogy. So please look out for that, and in the meantime, please also follow me on Twitter!

“There were more layers to a person than an analogy of vests and anoraks could sustain, and she suspected that while you were peeling the outer layers away, new ones were being stitched together on the outside.”

Quick Review

I gave The Girl with Glass Feet ★★★

Why you should read this book: This book isn’t going to grab you at the first page, but it will slowly draw you in with each paragraph. It’s an unwinding of a tale, with many different elements. You probably won’t like the characters, but you will want to understand and piece their connections together. This is a highly imaginative first novel from Ali Shaw and only speaks of greater things to come. The middling rating is because this is a book that requires a second read – it isn’t a novel that you can connect to on a first meeting.

Full Review

Another intriguing Kindle Daily Deal purchase. I rarely read Amazon reviews because I find them invariably misleading when it comes to books, and often awash with spoilers. However, I read the reviews for this offering by Ali Shaw, and noticed that it was rather a mixed bag amongst the top reviews.

This is a difficult one for me to review myself because even two weeks after finishing it, I’m still unsure of my feelings towards it. In some ways, The Girl with Glass Feet was succinct and insightful, and in others, it came across as unsure and unfocused. This is just one reviewer’s point of view, but I don’t always find myself on such a rollercoaster of opinion about a book. Unless it has a terribly written ending, I’m generally clued up about halfway in as to whether I like it or not.

At this point, you’re probably going to be sceptical when I tell you to give this one a read. Yes, there were elements I didn’t enjoy, but there is plenty to feast on for a reader looking for something a bit different.

Let’s first look at the plot. We have Midas Crook, a young photographer who shares brief, but frequent glimpses into his childhood and the lives his parents led, whilst seeming determined to keep everyone, including the reader, at a distance. Then there is Ida McLaird. A young woman touched by a bizarre and frightening affliction; she is slowly but surely turning into glass. This initially appears to be the central plot, but it frequently fades into the background as we learn more about Ida and Midas’s parents and the characters around them, and how they fit into a much wider story.

My favourite characters were certainly not the central ones, and I think that’s a good thing. Midas and Ida are not likeable people – as readers, we are held at a distance and allowed to examine their flaws with literary magnifying glasses. In fact, everybody in this tale is flawed and Shaw ensures his reader notices it. Often, we can grow to love characters despite their flaws, but this is usually achieved through a sense of closeness to the character and their motivations. A Mary-Sue-style character can rarely be successful because there is little true humanity in such a depiction – we cannot relate to someone who is perfect. Shaw draws this out to an extreme and as a result, although I appreciated the drive of each character, I could not grow to like them because I was constantly reminded of their faults. I haven’t quite made my mind up about this yet.

Putting aside my indecision on those matters, I cannot fault Shaw for his approach to prose. Every character, every scene, every emotion is written delicately and with great insight. Even if I had trouble connecting to the people within, his portrayal of scenery and situation is wonderful. In particular, pay attention to his description of anatomy and expression – this is an author whose observation skills are top-notch.

Overall, I left The Girl with Glass Feet feeling both inspired and bemused. I knew that I liked the work, but wasn’t exactly sure what I liked about it. I suppose that both the freedom and the captive nature of love tries to weave its way into the message of plotline, but it doesn’t focus prominently in my mind as a central theme. Character development, at least for me, is the winning formula here. Despite being a little frustrated with the deliberate distance of the characters and the often inscrutable nature of their decisions, the last notes of this work made me genuinely sad, but hopeful. This is important – I dislike stories that close on the impression that the central character has not really moved from the person he was on the first page.

I know that Ali Shaw has published again since The Girl with Glass Feet, and I will be following up on his most recent work. I was suitably impressed to read that he is only in his twenties, which changed my attitude to the book minutely. For a much older, more experienced (and perhaps jaded) author, this work would sing of a beautiful imagination which sometimes lacks focus. But for a first published novel, this is fantastic. I absolutely want to get inside Shaw’s head, because this author can only improve with age – his novels will be something to keep up with.

If this review hasn’t yet convinced you, read this book for the flying miniature cows. I’m not going to explain that, and neither does the author. But you will continue to think about it at odd moments weeks later.


Review: Tickling the English (Dara O Briain)

“You can’t imagine how much fun it is to present that fact to an English audience. It’s like when you throw a ball for a dog, but you don’t actually throw the ball and just palm it. And the dog stares in the direction the ball should have gone and looks confused, then looks back at you and then to where the ball should be. It’s a glorious piece of cognitive dissonance. An English crowd isn’t built to accept good news like that.”

 

 

Quick Review

I gave Tickling the English: ★★★

Why you should read this book: It is unexpectedly articulate and insightful, and does something most comedians don’t – it urges the English to put the apathy away and look at the good things their country has to offer, regardless of how baffling a place it might be at times. Although the editor could have been more elaborate with the pruning shears on certain bits, there’s a lot here for the casual reader, and for the budding comedian. If nothing else, this book will certainly provide a few moments of thought on topics you hadn’t really considered before, and the odd irrepressible snicker at reality.

Full Review

I received a copy of this book for Christmas after mentioning that I wouldn’t mind a casual read to dip into now and again. I’ll first say that I do enjoy his comedy work, so I may be a bit biased when it comes to his humour, but that’s certainly not the most winning point about this book. That’s also why you don’t need to be a fan nor have seen O Briain’s stand-up work or panel show hosting to read this. It isn’t autobiographical or a mish-mash of satire on topics designed to relate to a modern audience. It does depict the journey that a comedy tour takes, but it also attempts to tackle who the English are from an Irish perspective. Despite intending it as a non-serious read, I polished it off in a mere few days and enjoyed it more than I anticipated. I do have a few negative points regarding this title, but I’ve saved them til last, because there are quite a few gems in Tickling the English that should not be ignored because of them.

As promised on the jacket cover, Tickling the English is an exploration of the common themes that crop up when you examine the cultural identity of the English. (As a side note, in case you’re aware, this book is not an examination of the British. I’ve spent enough time abroad explaining the difference between the terms British and English that it’s started to become habit. English pertains to those people living in England, not the British Isles as a whole. And that’s enough patronisation for a side note).

As a student, I had plenty of time to discuss and pick apart different cultural identities and it is fascinating to hear how outlandish some of them are. When I was living in Japan, for example, I remember two particular conversations very well. One was with a girl who told me, in no uncertain terms, that all English men walk around with black bowler hats and umbrellas, no matter the weather or season. The other took place with a close German friend, and an acquaintance we met at university, a very intelligent and linguistically talented Chinese guy. He quite happily informed my friend that it is common practise in Germany for people to walk the streets naked, eat in ‘no nudity, no service’ restaurants and frequently engage in relationships with two or three people openly and simultaneously. To this day, I still don’t think he took my friend’s denial of this very seriously. I wonder if he ever made it to Germany in the end.

The point of my reminiscence is that I am so accustomed to analysing the cultural identity of nations further away, that I rarely stop to consider countries much closer to home. O Briain isn’t going to win awards for sociological observation here, but I found the crumbs of mystery that he points out between my nationality and his, surprising and entertaining. It isn’t patronising or insulting – sometimes it’s quite complimentary, and other times shrieking, ‘why do you people do this?!’ Most strikingly for me were his thoughts on the NHS. He points out our problem of apathy-blindness. We have a magnificent free healthcare system, despite it being an ‘organisational mess’. We have a fantastic, and increasing, life expectancy. We have access to some of the best medicine and doctors in the world.  Yet, we obsessively ignore the positives in favour of grasping for the negatives. Here’s a few snippets from that particular chapter which I enjoyed:

 
Americans and the NHS

“Britain is rightly proud of the NHS. It stands as an example to the world of how to socialise medical care. One of the intermittent pleasures of living here is seeing an injured American after treatment, waiting for a bill, until you explain to them how it works. Honestly, it gives you quite the glow. It’s almost worth injuring an American just to see their bewildered and happy face at the end of the process.”

The English inability to accept good news

“Life expectancy in Britain is about seventy-nine years. This is bang on the average for industrialised countries. It’s a little lower than some, obviously, like Finland, or Macau, or Jersey but, here’s the real stunner: it’s forty years higher than it was two centuries ago.

In two hundred years, medicine has double our time on the planet. For all the talk of childhood obesity, or MRSA, or cancer remission rates, this country has, demonstrably, never been healthier. NEVER BEEN HEALTHIER.

You can’t imagine how much fun it is to present that fact to an English audience. It’s like when you throw a ball for a dog, but you don’t actually throw the ball and just palm it. And the dog stares in the direction the ball should have gone and looks confused, then looks back at you and then to where the ball should be. It’s a glorious piece of cognitive dissonance. An English crowd isn’t built to accept good news like that.”

 

Paragraphs such as the one above, and many more, made me smile wryly and nod. It’s important to note that O Briain doesn’t write this book with antipathy or insult – he writes almost with affection about the idiosyncrasies that still make him scratch his head after many years. This is why, despite every lecturer at university telling me to view the observations of non-natives with healthy scepticism, I couldn’t offer much of it when reading this. This is not a anthropological book explaining the English – it is a book which offers small portraits of behaviour that baffles others. In all fairness, he also describes Irish traits and behaviour which equally confuse the English. The Tayto crisps joke is a prime example which he uses to illustrate this barrier of understanding.

Tickling the English is not a book I could read at length for a number of hours, but one from which I could take chunks at a time from. O Briain is not an anthropologist, but his light-hearted approach to examining the English cultural identity achieves what ethnographies generally don’t; the opportunity and encouragement to laugh at ourselves. His trademark humour is splayed across the pages and the jokes are evenly threaded through his insights. Even if you don’t particularly enjoy the notes on English national behaviour, you will absolutely get a good chuckle from the unexpected characters sitting in his audience in Nottingham, or the uncomfortable humour derived from the ever joke-stimulating question: ‘have you ever witnessed a crime?’

In short, if you like Dara O Briain’s comedy, there’s a decent chance you’ll get a kick out of Tickling the English. You won’t catch me reviewing many books of this type here, but somehow this one made it through. If you’re English or have a particular connection to the English in some way, there’s a lot to relate to and recognise here.

I give Tickling the English three stars for its readability and entertainment value. It was a surprisingly good read and by far the most fruitful of my stocking fillers. However, it can ramble a bit in parts – which is fine if you want to read quite a bit about homeopathy. O Briain is one of the best stand-ups the British Isles has to offer, but his humour on stage relies on quick wit and responses to audience stimuli. This is not easily translated to a book. He overcomes this in some part by being an amusing and articulate writer, but it did reinforce my wish to see more of his comedy on stage than on pages. Read this book, enjoy it, but don’t expect to laugh out loud the way you would at one of his DVDs.