Shadows of Asphodel by Karen Kincy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One of my Top Ten Books for IndiePrideDay 2016.
I purchased Shadows Of Asphodel during the Indie Steampunk Book Extravaganza 2 event on Facebook back in November. I have been rationing my steampunk reads so have only just got to Karen Kincy's novel now. Firstly, apparently, it isn't truly steampunk, but dieselpunk, as the setting is just ahead of The Great War when diesel engines existed in the real world. However, the novel contains the same blend of strong characters, especially female characters, that I have come to expect, interwoven with magical elements, incredible inventions and dastardly deeds!
I loved the characters in Shadows Of Asphodel. Our heroine, Ardis, is strong and independent, making her own decisions and dealing with their aftermath. Along the way, she picks up an emotionally damaged necromancer, Wendel, who is a great creation. I admit to being just a little in lust with Wendel! Despite and because of each other, Ardis and Wendel find their paths link together and their witty sparring dialogue is fun to read. I presume the people on the book's cover are meant to be Ardis and Wendel though. If so, I'm not sure that Ardis does look half-Chinese?
Kincy has cleverly woven her tale around the real momentous events of 1913 and I appreciated how magical fictions, such as the Hex, seemed to easily slot in alongside the truth. Making it feel so natural to the reader must take a lot of rewrites and research! Most settings are atmospherically described and I am now particularly drawn to visiting Vienna. The descriptive passages rarely slow the pace of the novel and I liked the inclusion of little details such as all the books in the way on Konstantin's bed.
Briefly chatting to Kincy on Twitter (@karenkincy), I learned of a second novel, Storms of Lazarus , which follows on from Shadows Of Asphodel. More Wendel!
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I received an Advanced Reader's Copy of Nowhere To Be Found from its publisher, Amazon Crossing, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I know I'm publishing this a couple days too early for it to count towards the NetGalley Challenge, but I just couldn't wait to shout about such a great book!
Nowhere To Be Found is a Korean novella that depicts a few events during one year of a young woman's life. As the book is small, so these events are small, yet through reading the heroine's descriptions I gained an uncomfortably graphic account of her poverty and her family's struggle to survive. Early on, Suah writes of her protagonist's temporary office job as being a minor cog in a machine, the cog eventually being worn down and becoming so embedded in its role that it cannot aim for any other. This theme is expanded by our never learning the young woman's name. We discover very intimate details of her life but, at the same time, she could be anybody.
I particularly liked the day when the woman takes chicken to her soldier boyfriend as this episode summed up a lot of the book for me. She treks many miles unsuitably dressed for the cold, is messed around by officials leading to more hours journeying, her boyfriend completely fails to acknowledge the efforts she has made, and yet her ultimate reaction is incredibly conservative considering the provocation. I found this almost-acceptance of her life very sad to read. The somewhat stark use of language reinforces the whole feel of the book for me - it is what it is.
I think I did miss out on some of the subtleties of Nowhere To Be Found by my not having a great knowledge of Korean culture and daily life. The speeches about anti-weapons demonstrations seemed awkward to me. However, the impersonal message that we cannot escape our predestination is an interesting one to ponder. The woman occasionally catches glimpses of herself passing by in a better life, but believes that reality cannot be hers. Her brother wants to try working in Japan but the travel costs seem insurmountable. Her mother is already resigned.
I enjoyed the opportunity to read this novella, actually reading it twice over two days. I think it could be taken very differently depending on the mood of the reader: a positive outlook seeing it as incentive to strive, a negative outlook seeing more of a reason why not to bother. Perhaps Nowhere To Be Found would make an interesting Book Club choice?
My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile by Isabel Allende
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I wasn't sure what to expect from My Invented Country as I'm pretty sure I've not yet read any of Isabel Allende's novels. What I got was gently nostalgic reminiscences of her childhood and adolescence, sprinkled with witty and sharp observations of not only Chile, but also Allende's adopted countries since the 1970s, primarily Venezuela and the USA, and the contrasts between them. I knew little, also, of Chile other than the name of Pinochet so was fascinated to learn insignificant details of daily life and the national culture, pre-Pinochet. Allende's love for the natural landscape comes across continually thoughout her memoir and she makes it sound like a fabulous country to tour. Could we get our caravan across the Atacama Desert do you think?
Allende's starting points for many of her reminiscences are members of her eccentric extended family, all of whom she admits are perfect fodder for a writer! I was irritated by abrupt stops where she would indicate that a tale had already been included in a novel so she 'wouldn't repeat it here'. Now I have to go and buy some of the novels too! I am very tempted by her first, The House Of The Spirits, now though, especially as I learned how it came about.
Allende's criticisms of present-day Chile, its rampant commercialism and ostentatious shows of personal wealth were disappointing to read as perhaps now it is just becoming like everywhere else. This sentence:
'Freedom consists of having many brand names to choose from when you go out to buy on credit' was striking and made me wonder if I have missed Chile as an individual country, perhaps it is more prevalent in Santiago. The divisions post-dictatorship are also saddening to read and I was interested by Allende's reasons for now living in the USA, a country which did so much to damage her beloved Chile.
Overall, My Invented Country is a diverting memoir, quite light overall and with a such meandering pace that sometimes I wondered where we were going to end up. However it has sparked an interest for me to discover both more of Allende's writing and more about Chile itself.
Buy the paperback from Waterstones.
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