Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enríquez

Rating: 3 of 5

Coming soon! February 21, 2017 Available to pre-order now.

A collection of short stories set in Argentina, filled with macabre imagery and abhorrent behavior, none of which will leave you feeling all that happy. “Horror” stories in the sense that an examined look beneath the surface at a reality the majority choose to overlook or blatantly ignore — poverty, child abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, police corruption — will horrify readers.

There are a few supernatural stories, but, even in those, there’s a residual impression that while ghosts may exist, there’s likely a more dangerous monster, in the guise of a human, lurking, waiting for you to pass by as you walk down the street to your house, in your “safe” neighborhood.

Argentine author Mariana Enríquez is an excellent storyteller who, based on this collection, doesn’t like to write stories with many, if any, answers; her comfort zone exists in ambiguity it seems, endings-wise anyway. However, the social commentary in several stories – like the women’s reactions to domestic abuse and societal definitions of beauty in the titular story, “Things We Lost in the Fire” – is nothing if not straightforward.

My personal favorites are “Adela’s House” (three kids and a house that tells its own stories) and “End of Term” (an outcast who self-harms may be under the influence of something else) — both of which I rated four stars.

I gave one star to “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” because of Elly (that’s my biggest trigger in dark fiction), but it’s superbly written — we question the protagonist’s sanity right until the end — and worth the read if you’re not as sensitive as I am.

Recommended to those looking for literary fiction in which the journey through dark, disturbing territories is very much the point. Not for anyone who doesn’t appreciate ambiguous endings. Not for readers sensitive to triggers like graphic violence involving children and animals.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Received ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Rating: 4.5 of 5

Okay, I gave it a couple weeks, to allow the emotional effects time to dissipate, before I wrote my review. No change, though. I am still head-over-heels for A Man Called Ove. I didn’t think it possible but I loved Ove just as much as Elsa and her Grandma (characters from Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry); all three of them are simply endearing, so how could I not.

The book opens with 59-year-old Ove’s attempt to buy an “O-Pad.” If you’re not laughing out loud by the time you finish that first chapter, chances are this isn’t the book for you. Me? I couldn’t wait to spend the next four to five hours with Ove. One of those books where I loathed having to sit it aside for mundane tasks like eating or sleep.

Ove’s grumpy, he’s borderline antisocial, he’s stuck in his ways. But he has a story – don’t we all? – and his story has shaped the man he is, for better or worse. He’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but he’s beautifully flawed with the kind of character we don’t see a whole lot of in the real world anymore. The plot itself isn’t anything mind-blowing, but if you care at all about Ove, you’ll be curious as to how exactly it will all play out.

Ove didn’t dislike this cat in particular. It’s just that he didn’t much like cats in general. He’d always perceived them as untrustworthy…It was actually quite difficult to determine whether [Ernest] was just an unusually large cat or an outstandingly small lion. And you should never befriend something if there’s a possibility it may take a fancy to eating you in your sleep.

The book is filled to the brim with Ove’s “perfectly sensible observations” like the one above. From the lazy work ethic of today’s youth who are more interested in their lunch break than doing their job to people who ignore the obvious signs posted about where to park their bicycles and where not to drive their cars to a clown in a hospital ward who doesn’t do real magic. Some of his thinking will have you shaking with giggles while at the same time saying to yourself, “But he’s right!” And of course many of his beliefs are contradicted by his behavior, which makes him even more comical.

A story that shows just when you think you’re all alone, with nothing left to live for, there’s always hope for another chance to reconnect with life, with other people, with love. I laughed and cried throughout A Man Called Ove, and by its end I was a blubbering mess.

Highly recommended to anyone struggling with grief or loneliness.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

The Weaver by Emmi Itäranta

Rating: 3.5 of 5

Synopsis: “[A]n innocent young woman becomes entangled in a web of ancient secrets and deadly lies that lie at the dark center of her prosperous island world. Eliana is a model citizen of the island, a weaver in the prestigious House of Webs. She also harbors a dangerous secret—she can dream, an ability forbidden by the island’s elusive council of elders. No one talks about the dreamers, the undesirables ostracized from society.

Joining a band of brave rebels determined to expose the island’s dark secrets, Eliana becomes a target of ruthless forces determined to destroy her. To save herself and those she loves, she must call on the power within her she thought was her greatest weakness: her dreams.” (source)

My thoughts: I would prepare those readers expecting the stark, post-apocalyptic reality from Memory of Water; The Weaver is much more fantastical, mythical, dream-like. Its story a little denser, a little unfocused.

I loved the use of water in The Weaver — in this case it is something to be feared, the potential ender of life instead of the giver as in Memory. I loved that Eliana has brown skin[spoiler]; her girlfriend is pale-skinned, which, I assume, is who the publisher chose to feature on the book’s US cover. Booooo to them for whitewashing[/spoiler].

Emmi Itäranta writes such evocative prose! The entire waterwold felt alive – wet, cold, salt buildup – as if lying in wait to devour the island’s inhabitants. This island’s dystopia hinges on misinformation and control of information. Something I’m sure some of us can relate to.

I look forward to Itäranta’s next book.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Rating: 4.5 of 5

Every seven-year-old deserves a superhero. That’s just how it is.

A touching story about the power of second chances and the special relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren.

Elsa is an obstinate, precocious almost-eight-year-old whose only friend is her seventy-seven-year-old Granny. I loved them both immediately!

Every human being deserves to have (at least) one person who sees them for exactly who they are and accepts them for everything they are. These two are exactly that for each other. So beautiful!

Granny goes to battle for Elsa every time Elsa needs her to. They have their own secret language and their own world of fairy tales. Granny is Elsa’s best friend, so when Granny dies, Elsa is broken. But just before she dies, Granny gives Elsa an envelope with a key and asks her to deliver it to The Monster in their building. The adventure to deliver the envelope leads Elsa on the greatest treasure hunt of her life, and one that will not only mend her broken heart but maybe help fix a few other broken people as well.

Elsa carries a red felt-tip pen at all times, so she can right the grammar wrongs of the world as she encounters them. She reads only “quality literature” some of which includes Spider-Man comics and the Harry Potter series. She refers to her unborn sibling as Halfie because 1) her mum and stepdad don’t want to know the sex before birth and 2) she/he will be her step-sibling. She fact-checks almost everything using Wikipedia. She gets bullied at school, both physically and emotionally, but she has her Granny and that’s enough for her.

I loved Granny’s fairy tales. I loved how Granny was completely mad but in a good way. I loved the way Granny refused to let anyone mistreat Elsa. I loved that Granny was a female surgeon during an era when that was unheard of. I loved that she went all over the world to help children. I laughed at her antics over and over again, and I cried at her posthumous atonement.

Every character in this book is their own person and it was easy to remember them and tell them apart. Mother-daughter relationships, jealousy, regret, bullying, aging, sexism, war…

Highly recommended if you enjoy reading from a “very grown-up for her age,” almost-eight-year-old’s perspective including the way she blurs reality with fantasy.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

The words that resonated most with me:

In response to the teachers at Elsa’s school saying she has concentration issues. “So the teachers are wrong. Elsa has no problems concentrating. She just concentrates on the right things.” (p. 47)

In response to why she gets bullied. “People who have never been hunted always seem to think there’s a reason for it. ‘They wouldn’t do it without a cause, would they? You must have done something to provoke them.’ As if that’s how oppression works.” (p. 80)

“All fairy stories take their life from the fact of being different. ‘Only different people change the world,’ Granny used to say. ‘No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.'” (p. 89)

“Elsa remembers how Granny said that ‘the best stories are never completely realistic and never entirely made-up.’ That was what Granny meant when she called certain things ‘reality-challenged.’ To Granny, there was nothing that was entirely one thing or another. Stories were completely for real and at the same time not.” (p.171)

“It’s snowing again, and Elsa decides that even if people she likes have been shits on earlier occasions, she has to learn to carry on liking them. You’d quickly run out of people if you had to disqualify all those who at some point have been shits.” (p. 315)

“She goes silent. Ashamed of herself as mothers are when they realize they have passed that point in life when they want more from their daughters than their daughters want from them.” (p. 352)

My biggest complaint, [spoiler]and the thing that stressed me out whilst reading, was that they kept feeding all those sweets to the wurse (a dog). I sure hope the author doesn’t actually feed his pets chocolate and ice cream and sponge cake mix![/spoiler]