JACOB VON GUNTEN by Robert Walser, Christopher Middleton, Translator

Written in 1908, this German novel was a ground breaker.  It is basically soliloquy with introspection, written in the form of a diary by a 17 year old school boy.  It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old runaway from an old family who enrolls in a school for servants. The Institute, run by the domineering Herr Benjamenta and his beautiful but ailing sister, is a deeply mysterious place: the faculty lies asleep in a single room. The students though subject to fierce discipline, come and go at will. Jakob, an irrepressibly subversive presence, keeps a journal in which he records his quirky impressions of the school as well as his own quickly changing enthusiasms and uncertainties, deliberations and dreams. And in the end, as the Institute itself dissolves around him like a dream, he steps out boldly to explore still-unimagined worlds.

It was OK, but I did struggle to keep up my interest in it.  The plot was thin, and since I am all about the story, I had a little difficulty remaining engaged.

THE BELL by Iris Murdoch

This is my favorite Murdoch novel so far.

“A lay community of thoroughly mixed-up people is encamped outside Imber Abbey, home of an enclosed order of nuns. A new bell, legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered. Dora Greenfield, erring wife, returns to her husband. Michael Mead, leader of the community, is confronted by Nick Fawley, with whom he had disastrous homosexual relations, while the wise old Abbess watches and prays and exercises discreet authority. And everyone, or almost everyone, hopes to be saved, whatever that may mean….Iris Murdoch’s funny and sad novel has themes of religion, the fight between good and evil, and the terrible accidents of human frailty.”

The leader of the community is essentially a pedophile, having had an almost chaste affair 20 years ago with a 14 year old boy at the school where he was teaching.  The boy ridden with guilt, squeals to the headmaster, claiming he was pressured and that the affair was actually more than it was, ruining the man’s career.  That boy,  now a grown man, shows up at the lay community to be with his twin sister.  The leader of the community, after having managed to control himself all these years, is set up to be the mentor of an 18 year old boy who is coming to the community to work for a month before beginning university.  Our ped falls in love sort of with this kid, and falls off the wagon and kisses the kid.

Meanwhile, Dora has married some kind of controlling weird guy, and has left him, but he is doing some historical research at the grounds of this community, and she agrees to come and stay and see if they can reassemble their marriage.

It all revolves around a church bell.  Well, two, actually.  One was dumped in the lake centuries ago, and now finally a new one has been crafted to the cloistered nuns community and is to be delivered.  Dora and the young man scheme to raise the sunken bell, and secretly replace the new one for the unveiling.  On the big day, as the community hauls the new (old) bell over the wooden causeway to the nunnery, the causeway collapses, dumping the new (old) bell back into the drink.

It has a sort of all’s well that ends well finale, and it is all weird and strange, as are most of her books.  But I really liked it.  Full of nifty characters and odd situations.

DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES by Seanan McGuire

A strange little fairy tale, wierdness made flesh.  haha   “Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.”

What a dark tale, not anything like you might expect.  And I believe there are more in the series.  This is in fact the prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, but it is definitely a stand alone.  The ending is not exactly satisfactory, but it will do, especially when you know that it is about what happened before the first book.

 

ONLY FORWARD by

In Stark’s world, the country (presumably either England or Australia) has lost its separate cities, and they have all become one huge city with various and distinctive neighborhoods.  Stark, a single young man,  lives in Colour, a neighbourhood whose inhabitants like to be co-ordinated with their surroundings – a neighbourhood where spangly purple trousers are admired by the walls of buildings as you pass them. Close by is Sound, where you mustn’t make any, apart from one designated hour a day when you can scream your lungs raw. Then there’s Red – get off at Fuck Station Zero if you want to see a tactical nuclear battle recreated as a sales demonstration.

Stark has friends in Red, which is just as well because Something is about to happen. And when a Something happens it’s no good chanting ‘Duck and cover’ while cowering in a corner, because a Something is always from the past, Stark’s past, and it won’t go away until you face it full on.

This strange, surreal book was for me a mixed bag.  The first half was interesting and entertaining, a strange world, curious and cleverly drawn.  However, as the plot moved forward (see what I did there?), it turned into something less compelling, a dream world, where danger and peril lurked.  I don’t like dream worlds.  I don’t care about other people’s dreams in RL, so I have zero interest in the dreams of fictional characters.  I mean, really.

There was a surprising denouement to be found in that dreamworld, however, and I am not telling you what it is because that would totally spoil the book.

Well written, speculative fiction about identity, and how the past is never really over no matter how hard we try to move foward.

DON’T LOOK BACK by Karin Fossum, (Felicity David Translator)

So, anyhow, when was the last time you read a novel by a Norwegian author?  Never, I bet.  haha.  Well, Karin Fossum is a Norwegian author of crime fiction,often known there as the “Norwegian queen of crime”. She lives in Oslo. She is the author of the internationally successful Inspector Konrad Sejer series of crime novels, which have been translated into over 16 languages. She won the Glass key award for her novel “Don’t Look Back”, which also won the Riverton Prize, and she was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2005 for “Calling Out For You”.

This was my first Fossum novel, because I never heard of her.  But I am definitely going to search out more from this Inspector Sejer series.

A five year-old girl goes missing in a small Norwegian village and witnesses report seeing her get into a car with Raymond, a local recluse who has Down’s syndrome. Just when the police are about to publicly concede that she has been murdered, she walks out of the woods into her back yard. She is unharmed.

Later that same day, her mother calls the police with a strange story. Little Ragnhild says that when she and Raymond were up at a mountaintop lake near the village, they saw a woman with nothing on but a windbreaker, sleeping in the water near shore. The police are  baffled and flummoxed. The victim is a 15 year old girl whom everyone knows and loves, and Inspector Sejer persists in spite of no leads and no clues,  and by huge amounts of slog work and even more inordinately determined patience,  solves the case.  Of course.

 

REDEMPTION STREET by Reed Farrel Coleman

Walking the Perfect Square introduced Moe Prager—retired New York City cop-turned-wine shop owner—to much acclaim and an enthusiastic readership. Still possessed of his vintage police savvy, and perhaps the only Jewish licensed PI in the five boroughs, Moe wonders if he’s really meant to be a merchant and not a cop. Redemption Street finds him in 1981, lured into the mystery of a 1966 hotel fire—one that killed seventeen people, including his first love—by a long-grieving brother and Moe’s own restless determination to set things right.

Reed Farrel Coleman’s crisp, page-turning narrative has Moe trudging through his childhood summer vacation stomping grounds, the now-decaying Catskill resort scene. The borscht belt’s near-forgotten landscape of scarred lives, ambitious politicians, and corrupt cops is the minefield Moe must brave to find the truth. Was the fire really sparked by a negligent smoker or was it murder?”

This is the second Moe Prager novel I have read, because I started with the sixth volume in the series.  Oh well.  This was very interesting, dealing with the old Catskills resort area after its sad decline.

Good mystery, but I pretty much figured it out, which is a rarity for me.  But it is basically about cultural assimilation, Jewish self-hatred, anti-Semitism, and the idea that the past is never really past, and it is always personal.

 

STARFISH by Peter Watts

Boy, I love Peter Watts.  A foremost sci fi British writer, he gives us a story line that is a page turner, great style writing, and some pretty nifty science stuff.

Starfish is the first of a trilogy, and I accidentally read the second book  in the series already, Maelstrom,  which I talk about here.

Here is the basics of Starfish.

A huge international corporation has developed a facility along the Juan de Fuca Ridge at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to exploit geothermal power. They send a bio-engineered crew–people who have been altered to withstand the pressure and breathe the seawater–down to live and work in this weird, fertile undersea darkness.

Unfortunately the only people suitable for long-term employment in these experimental power stations are crazy, some of them in unpleasant ways. How many of them can survive, or will be allowed to survive, while worldwide disaster approaches from below?

Really fine, really really fine.