Review: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Author: Cecelia Ekbäck
Title: Wolf Winter
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: January 2015
Publisher: Weinstein Books
Length: 376 pages
Genre: Historical suspense
Why I Read: Recommended for fans of The Snow Child, description brought to mind Burial Rites
Read If You’re: Looking for an ominous winter tale 
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I came across the term ‘Nordic noir’ a few days ago. When I googled it, I discovered it’s an actual term for Scandinavian mysteries, but I think it’s just the phrase I’ve been looking for to describe books such as Burial Rites, The Snow Child and now, Wolf Winter. Books where winter features as a key character, an atmospheric and sombre (but not necessarily dreary) mood drives the prose, a historical setting strips away modern distractions, and characters’ daily struggles for survival have just a kiss of the supernatural about them (if only due dark and romanticized nature of their situations). The setting doesn’t necessarily have to be Nordic, but it works especially well. All of these components I love are present in Wolf Winter, Celia Ekbäck’s debut novel.

The prose holds many stark moments. I won’t give them away! But there were places I had to pause and shut my eyes for a moment, because the impression in my mind was so vivid. I’m wowed by writing that can truly startle you, when all you’re doing is reading words on a page. It’s such a different experience from watching a movie, and yet a talented writer can draw out just the same emotions. Those specific moments aside, the prose is what you might expect from such a tale – vivid and succinct, atmospheric and bold.

This novel features many great characters. I like the ghosts, and their questionable physicality. I enjoy reading about settlers. Even without winter majesty or supernatural happenings, I would still be happy to read about settlers. I didn’t think I would find myself reading another book featuring a priest so soon! In The Enchanted you have the disgraced priest, in Burial Rites you have the young priest, in Wolf Winter you have both in one. (Maybe I should do a list – “great books featuring non-traditional priests”?). Though I’m not sure how I feel about the priest, I adored Maija! She’s a great mother, sincere in her love for her children,  She loves her children and this shows through (twice I noted passages I thought particularly sweet) but she doesn’t coddle them too closely or have an unbelievable relationship with either daughter. I felt for her as she came to realize she didn’t know Frederika like she used. The mother-daughter relationship becomes prominent as the story progresses. Maija is a role-model for me beyond her role as a mother. I found myself admiring some of the decisions she made and the opinions she voiced, and how she remained down to earth, even if she wasn’t always correct. I sympathized when she worried about her family. She’s not too perfect or too flawed. Maija is the most well-drawn character of the bunch, I think (of course, she is the main character). Some of the settlers could have been expounded on more, considering they’re all meant to be suspects in the murder. I would have liked to have gotten to know some of them better.

Two small comments I’m not sure where to stick: It’s not so often now that I come across words I’m totally unfamiliar with…so it was with excitement I highlighted the word haulm near the beginning of the story. I like the slow creeping fear that pervades through the settlement as the story progresses, heigtened, of course, by the experience of a brutal winter.

Please note: The next paragraph contains minor spoilers regarding the conclusion of the story. Skip to avoid.

I haven’t commented much on the plot yet. There’s a lot going on in the story, but I didn’t really notice it until afterward. Everything fits snug together – women’s place in society, the role/relationship between the church and state, new vs. old religious beliefs, settling in a harsh landscape, handling sexual abuse, etc. For me, though, the story-line was the weakest aspect of the novel, mainly because of the conclusion. First, I wanted to know more about Maija and her family’s background. There’s something like an info dump towards the end of the novel, but that wasn’t really what I was hoping for. The conclusion wasn’t really for me. I thought it too political. I initially liked the inclusion of nameless politics, but I wasn’t expecting it to play such a big role in the storyline. Politics aren’t to my taste. The mysteries are solved quickly and wrapped up almost too neatly. There was a lack of suspense as everything came together. Lastly, I’m not sure about Paavo’s role in the story. I didn’t know whether to put my comments about him in the character paragraph or in the plot paragraph. I decided here because he felt mostly like a plot device, though when he was present in the novel I thought he had a lot of potential. I was sad to see him depart the story early on.  (I feel like there should be a companion novel about what he was doing and why he wasn’t writing and what happens when/if he comes back). I suppose he had to leave so Maija could come into her own? But then why have him there in the first place? I enjoyed Wolf Winter, but the conclusion didn’t meet my expectations.

Wolf Winter is an enjoyable read and a strong debut. I’d recommend it to people who like this kind of story. But, it’s not a ground-breaking book I’ll be pushing to everyone. And that’s okay! One doesn’t always need to be reading amazing books. Sometimes you just need a good read and not something that’s going to transform your world and turn you obsessive…

The Bottom Line: If you like moody winter stories or historical settler tales (or just need a book to snuggle up with during a blizzard), by all means give this a read. It’s a good debut and I already look forward to Ekbäck  ‘loose sequel’ (see the Shelf Awareness link below).

Further Reading: 

    Extra! Here is a song that came on the radio while I was writing this review. It perfectly matches the tone of this novel.

    Review: Tolkien by Devin Brown

    Author: Devin Brown
    Title: Tolkien
    Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
    Published: October 2014
    Publisher: Abingdon Press
    Length: 145 pages
    Genre: Biography
    Why I Read: New Tolkien book supposedly about The Hobbit
    Read If You’re: New to Tolkien and want to know about his life
    Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
    GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
     I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

    The subheading of Tolkien implies it’s about how The Hobbit was published (I suppose to draw in new fans of The Hobbit films), but Tolkien is actually just a very succinct general biography. I was about 60% in before The Hobbit came up. When I checked my progress, I was surprised to see I was that far into the book* and had only been reading basic biographical information about Tolkien one can find repeated in many places. There is nothing new to be found here. So, why would one read this instead of anything else that touches upon Tolkien’s life? I suppose this book fills a gap in Tolkien literature for those are newly introduced to Tolkien and just want learn a bit about his life. It’s a fine enough book if you come at it from that perspective – a good introduction to Professor Tolkien for those who have little knowledge about him (and perhaps this is a growing audience now again due to the films), but pass by if you’ve ever read anything about the Professor.

    Brown attempts to distinguish his narrative by pointing out “If this one person didn’t do this one thing…” many times to show the unlikeliness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth being introduced to the public. Once or twice is a nice reminder of how everything really must fall in place, but after reading it numerous times I got a bit weary and started thinking “Well, isn’t that the case with everything in life? One tiny change and everything could be different”.

    There isn’t anything wrong or bad about this book beyond the minor note above; I’m just not the target audience. I still intend to check out Brown’s The Christian World of the Hobbit. I hear a lot about Christianity and The Lord of the Rings but not so much about The Hobbit, so the subject caught my attention.

    The Bottom Line: Nothing about this book makes it stand out, but it’s still a solid if brief introduction that could be a good read for those with no knowledge of Tolkien.

    *This is both the trouble and delight with ebooks – it’s easy not to notice how far in you are or aren’t. Although I find it’s usually trouble – “Oh what, that’s the end already?” “Oh what, I’m already that far in?” “Oh wait, the book is THAT long?”


    Review: The Swallow by Charis Cotter

    Author: Charis Cotter
    Title: The Swallow: A Ghost Story
    Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
    Published: September 2014
    Publisher: Tundra Books
    Length: 320 pages
    Genre: Middle grade ghost story
    Why I Read: Intriguing premise, cute cover
    Read If You’re: Looking for a good ghost story, or a story about friendship
    Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
    I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

    Publisher’s description: In 1960s Toronto, two girls retreat to their attics to escape the loneliness and isolation of their lives. Polly lives in a house bursting at the seams with people, while Rose is often left alone by her busy parents. Polly is a down-to-earth dreamer with a wild imagination and an obsession with ghosts; Rose is a quiet, ethereal waif with a sharp tongue. Despite their differences, both girls spend their days feeling invisible and seek solace in books and the cozy confines of their respective attics. But soon they discover they aren’t alone–they’re actually neighbors, sharing a wall. They develop an unlikely friendship, and Polly is ecstatic to learn that Rose can actually see and talk to ghosts. Maybe she will finally see one too! But is there more to Rose than it seems? Why does no one ever talk to her? And why does she look so… ghostly? When the girls find a tombstone with Rose’s name on it in the cemetery and encounter an angry spirit in her house who seems intent on hurting Polly, they have to unravel the mystery of Rose and her strange family… before it’s too late.

    Recently, I read Doll Bones. I was most looking forward to the creepy aspect of that book, but the ghost story line seemed to fall by the side in favour of the friendship/growing up story line. Happily, The Swallow satisfied my desire for an eerie middle grade read, striking just the right balance between belonging and friendship, and ghostly terror. A handful of frightening scenes made me anxious while reading this book in the dark before bed! But the fright is not prolonged or overwhelming. There are humorous scenes that do not detract from the creepy of the story, but add to the realistic portrayal of a budding friendship between two young girls. The scene in which they meet for the first time is a particularly good example of this. I enjoyed the focus on the relationships between the two girls and their respective families. I liked that the ghost story is integral to their own lives, and not part of some outside adventure like in Doll Bones. I was surprised to find some emotional parts in this book well – I actually teared up! The story of searching for belonging at that age is one I think many children might relate to.

    The story is written in first person, with chapters alternating between Polly and Rose. Some may find such a narration confusing, especially given the short chapters, but I thought the transitions felt seamless and comfortable. I appreciate this sort of narrative because I think it gives you a better understanding of a character than if you learn about them solely through a third or first person perspective. In The Swallow particularly, this style keeps the reader on their toes about whether Rose is a ghost.

    Please Note: The next paragraph discusses the conclusion of The Swallow. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

    The twist!! There is a twist, and I didn’t expect it at all. I assumed the setting of the 1960s was for atmospheric purposes, so when the timing became significant to the plot I thought “Doh!” I was totally prepared for the main drive of the story being the conclusion of whether Polly is a ghost. So, when a twist came, I was very pleased that it was not over the top (i.e., preceding by heavy foreshadowing and anticipation that something was going to happen), and that it really came as a surprise to me. It was hinted at shortly before the reveal, so I did guess, but I believe you were meant to – it wasn’t dragged out for very long and while the actual revelation was still a surprise, I was excited to read it and I exclaimed “OH OH YES VERY GOOD!!” Well done, Ms. Cotter. I do have one criticism about the conclusion, however. There is no resolution between Penny and her brothers. There’s a moment where they mention they feel like her death was their fault, drawing a clear parallel between how Willie felt about Winnie. I think some sort of farewell between the three of them before Penny moved on would have been appropriate.

    The Bottom Line: A great debut novel that will grab your attention from the start, The Swallow provides equal enjoyment for those looking for a good tale about belonging and friendship, or for those looking for a spooky ghost story.

    Further Reading: 

    Review: Light of the Andes by J.E. Williams

    Author: J.E. Williams
    Title: Light of the Andes
    Format/Source: eBook/ARC
    Published: June 2012 (new edition released June 2014, I think)
    Publisher: Irie Books
    Length: 200 pages
    Genre: Spiritual non-fiction
    Why I Read: Browsing ‘religion and spirituality’ on NetGalley; mountain caught my eye
    Read If You’re: A mountain lover or interested in Indigenous spirituality, esp. of Peru’s Q’ero people
    Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
    Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters 

    In university I took a few courses about Indigenous spirituality, particularly that of the Cree and Inuit. I know very little about Indigenous cultures outside of Canada, so I thought this book would be a good choice to learn more about a people who live far away. The Andean setting also attracted me because I love mountains, though I live on the prairies so unfortunately mountains do not play a large role in my life. The highlight of my younger years was heading out West to camp in the Rockies. I’ve never seen any mountains as huge as those to be found in South America. That’s what I liked most about this book – how Williams captures the majesty of these grand mountains and conveys how deeply moving they can be, even for someone who has never seen them before (the photos and glossary are welcome inclusions). I loved reading about his journey up Apu Ausangate, “the spiritual ruler of [the Andes]” (preface). Williams balances a spiritual perspective and a scholarly perspective, blending his roles as immersed participant and outside scholar. These two perspectives are naturally merged in the book. While the book is about his spiritual journey up Ausangate, he also draws parallels to other religious traditions and ponders about the place of the Q’ero in the world-at-large.

    The book begins with long sentences with too many words. For example:

    A small, solid man with reddish brown sun-darkened, chestnut-colored skin, Sebastian stands on the corner of the busy city street wearing traditional Q’ero short charcoal apalaca pants and black tunic, the unku, hand wove by his wife, Filipa, from the wool sheered from his own alapacas, over which he wears a natural-colored beige poncho and on his head a multicolored knitted cap called a chu/ulhu, intricately beaded with designs representing Inti, the sun.

    I didn’t really mind this, though, because I was interested in all the information  given. I found the style manageable because I felt there was a good story caught inside all the words. If this is not your style, no worries – the prose settles into a more natural, rhythmic style about 1/4 of the way in. Here is a short excerpt from a larger passage I particularly enjoyed, as Sebastian, Williams’ friend and spiritual mentor, and Williams have reached their destination near the top of Ausangate: 

    In the shadow of the mountain, memory is intangible. Most of my experiences escape; the process of forgetting is already begun. Whatever I am is being erased by the wind, lost in clouds and snow. Where lies the prefect empty mirror? Where falls the condor feather? How silent is the snow and ice? How thin is the blue canopy of sky? Sebastian is already at work. He has chosen a place for the ceremony near the shoreline.
    A more cynical reader could easily approach this work with a heavy does of skepticism, dismissing Williams’ involvement in the Q’ero community as self-righteous or exploitative, as he is a white man publishing a book about his experiences. I can be such a reader at times, but I honestly did not feel that sort of vibe from this book. It truly seems like Willliams is doing good work with the Q’ero and is personally invested beyond getting a good story to publish. Sebastian’s role is not diminished in the book, and Williams has included a note from Sebastian at the end. Williams founded the non-profit Ayniglobal “to further his mission and honour the commitment he made with Sebastian”. The mission of Ayniglobal is to “protect and preserve traditional indigenous cultures and ancestral lands including people, animals, plants and water systems”. Williams and Sebastian are currently on a tour to share the teachings of the Q’ero. Williams does offer “sacred journey” tours, but these appear to be in  cooperation with the Q’ero and in line with Sebastian’s desire to spread the Q’ero teachings.
    The Light of the Andes is something of a sequel to The Andean Codex, which I have not yet read. I don’t think it’s necessary to read The Andean Codex first, but I think doing so would give one better background knowledge of the issues discussed in The Light of the Andes. I’ve added The Andean Codex to my TBR pile.

    The Bottom Line:  Another reader might have a more cynical attitude towards William’s involvement with the Q’ero, but he comes across as sincere in this book. A good story if you want to learn more about the Indigenous Q’ero spirituality that has grown over centuries around the Andes in Peru, or if you have a deep love of mountains.

    Further Reading: 

    Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

    Author: Genevieve Valentine
    Title: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
    Format/Source: eBook/ARC
    Published: June 2014
    Publisher: Atria Books
    Length: 288 pages
    Genre: Fairy tale reworking/fiction
    Why I Read: 12 Dancing Princesses +Roaring Twenties!
    Read If You’re: Interested in fairy tales or sister relationships
    Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
    I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
    GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Book Depository

    In The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine sets the fairy tale of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” in New York during the 1920s. The titular girls are twelve daughters of an awful man who wishes only to rise up in New York society. He keeps the girls locked up in the house, hiding the reminders of his wife’s failure to produce a son. He communicates only rarely with Jo, the eldest daughter, who is in charge of her sisters and organizes the nightly dancing. Her sisters call her the General for her controlling, cold behaviour. The father decides it’s the time the girls were married off, and this is where the story kicks off. The narrative is told in third-person, primarily from the perspective of Jo.

    I was initially apprehensive towards the style, as it’s not the kind I’m used to. It felt odd to me – choppy, sparse description, lots of parentheses – but I came to appreciate it once I settled into the rhythm. I do like the use of bracketed asides. At first I thought there were too many, but they level out and Valentine nearly always uses them to strong effect (to convey character, share a snippy piece of dialogue, etc.). The prose is very bare, focusing on the characters and their actions, their thoughts conveyed as part of their behaviour. In this manner the book feels like a fairy tale, which often just relay the action of the story. This is not a criticism – I liked that the story, despite being a novel and a modern reworking, still felt like a fairy tale due to its style and plot. There were lots of bits of prose where I thought “That’s a great line!”, and I enjoyed reading about the sisters’ interactions (how they act with each other, how they act with the men with whom they dance).

    However, the bare prose was cause for disappointment in another area. I was expecting a story where the era was as much of a character as the girls. This is not the case. It felt like the twenties were used as a setting just to give the girls a reason to go out dancing every night, although the decade is crucial to the plot beyond this. For me, the story didn’t truly feel as though it was set in the twenties, despite the use of keywords such as bob-haired, Charleston, and feather headbands. Perhaps the sense of being set in the twenties conflicts with the sense of the story being a fairy tale. I just didn’t feel it.

    I was prepared to embrace this book, as it has all the elements of a story I love. But something kept me from becoming completely enthralled. I didn’t feel pulled towards the story, though I didn’t ever feel like I should stop reading. Perhaps it’s the focalization of the story through Jo, who I never felt connected with, though I understood and sympathized with her actions. Or maybe it’s that the prose style, which I admired from a technical point of view, didn’t resonate with me emotionally. It could be that I never felt the twenties vibe which I was looking forward to. Whatever it was, something prevented this story from resonating with me. But, I liked reading this book. I don’t think it’s a bad book. Perhaps another reader might be able to connect with it.

    The Bottom Line: Something prevented me from deeply enjoying this book, though I can’t quite pinpoint why. However, it was an enjoyable read. Don’t read it because it’s set in the Roaring Twenties or because you’re looking for a deep story to connect with – read it because you love a fairy tale.