Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Author: Hannah Kent 
Title: Burial Rites 
Format/Source: eBook/Library
Published: September 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Length: 314 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Why I Read: Swayed solely by the reviews
Read If You’re: Looking for something atmospheric, a fan of The Enchanted or historical fiction
Quote: “Did she look at my scrunched face, hoping I would die, or did she silently urge me to stick to life like a burr?” (34%)
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
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Here is another book that the blogosphere convinced me to try. I read many glowing reviews of Burial Rites before I made up my mind. The premise did not intrigue me, but after reading  enough about the prose I decided it might be worth my time. Thank goodness I was finally swayed! My younger self would be amazed that I enjoyed this novel. A book with no fantastic or mysterious elements?! I am actually still surprised to find I can love stories like this, stories that fall solidly into the realm of literary fiction. I’m growing up ;-; (which is not a jab at other genres – I mean that when I was younger I thought books about everyday lives and characters could only be dull…now I know better.)

I loved the atmosphere Kent conjures through her prose. For a long time, that was the only sentence in this paragraph. I’ve struggled to come up with any comment that sufficiently describes what I’d like to say about Kent’s writing. I think it’s best for me to just leave you with one of my favourite passages. You really need to read a few pages to get a proper sense of the mood (and the novel is split between first and third person, so this is just a piece of it), but I hope this gives you an idea: 

I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circle by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there. (10%).

I also enjoyed reading about the characters (mostly). Agnes has a captivating voice, and I liked reading about Margret, Laura, and Steina. The young priest I also found much more interesting than the one from The Enchanted, perhaps because he plays a more integral role. I didn’t like any of the characters from Agnes’ past who were connected to the murder, though I don’t think they’re meant to be likeable. Poor Agnes, there’s something really not quite right about her and Natan’s relationship. I felt uncomfortable whenever her love for him became noticeable. He’s not a great person in any way, but she loves him. Although I didn’t like Natan, I liked how Kent gives the readers bits and pieces of his character throughout the book, which eventually creates a full view of him. The back story behind the murders is less exciting than one might expect, but it’s still interesting to read due to Kent’s prose. Even though every reader knows how the story will end, the ending may still hit you like the swift fall of an axe. I hadn’t thought I was emotionally invested in the story until the last few pages broke my heart.

I mentioned The Enchanted above. When I started Burial Rites, I thought of the similarities between the two novels. Both describe people condemned to die and those who try to help them, and both have a similar prose style that invokes a specific mood. Though The Enchanted is more dark and discomforting, the feeling was the same for me. If I was still in university, I’d be looking for a way to write an essay comparing the two! Certainly if you enjoyed one, I think you will enjoy the other.

I was surprised when I found out Kent is a relatively young author and not Icelandic. I’m fascinated by the novel’s basis in reality. The incorporation of real documents (letters between officials involved in the case) works seamlessly. I didn’t realize at first that they were real documents! One of the letters inquires about what to do afterwards with the axe especially commissioned for the executions (27%). I love that Kent came up with a more sympathetic story about Agnes than what is more commonly ‘known’. It’s always interesting to remember when looking back in history that we can only have some of the facts, if any, and that there can be many ways to interpret the past. I’d like to know what scholars think of Kent’s interpretation and how plausible it is (not that it really matters, though).

I read in an interview Kent’s next book will be set in a similar time period, in County Kerry, Ireland. I spent some weeks there last summer – it’s an amazingly beautiful place where you can feel the history in the landscape. I’m excited to see what sort of tale Kent comes up with.

God has had His chance to free me, and for reasons know to Him alone, He has pinned me to ill fortune, and although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate. (18%)

The Bottom Line: I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan of historical fiction’, but I’m sure such fans will love Burial Rites. Even if the plot doesn’t intrigue you, please give this book a go if you love a moody atmosphere, striking prose and engaging characters.

Elsewhere:

Quick Review: I Am Malala and Life After Life

These two books are about living, about life, about living your life to make a change.

  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • Gives a lot of background and historical context to Malala’s father and her fight for the right to education.
    • I suppose somewhere in the cynical side of the world, people accuse Malala’s father of using her as a prop and they would dismiss this book as furthering her role of mouthpiece? But, I think if you read this you’ll realize she’s just a girl who wants to go to school. There’s nothing terrible about that. 
    •  It’s hard to put my finger on what, but I felt something was missing from the story. I think I wanted to read even more about Malala and her opinions on education. There is a lot of history and ‘this is what happened’, which is very informative and interesting to read, but I thought I would get more of a ‘Malala manifesto’. That being said, still give this book a go if you’re interested in the topic or Malala herself!
    • A good introduction to the struggles girls face in pursuing education in Pakistan.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
    • Rating: ★★ [ratings guide]
    • I kept reading at the start because, even though it felt slow to me, I thought I liked Sylvie (hahaha, Silly Reno).
    • I liked the earlier part of the book much more than anything else. There were some poignant parts – for example, when Ursula falls out of the window trying to fetch her doll. That part really hit home for me.
    • The whole does she or doesn’t she remember her pasts lives was a bit weird for me. It seems she has some vague feelings about what happened before? The flu scenario starts to show this (I liked how getting past the flu proved difficult). 
    • Every now and then the story skips ahead to Ursula’s life in Germany. Most of them these ‘flashfowrds’ felt abrupt and disconnected (123, 206).
    • The one tragic lifetime that Ursula experiences, where she wants to die but doesn’t (and ooh, here’s where I realized Sylvie’s quite terrible [209]) was very sad, as you realize many women have found themselves in her position. When she finally broke out of that loop I felt immensely relieved (232).
      • This is where I felt the book should have ended…I felt very disheartened when I realized I was only halfway. 
    • I became bored after 250 pages and skimmed the last 200 (although a certain character’s death did, okay, make me pretty sad).
    • Around 355, my stream of consciousness was: okay what why Germany then why hanging around how did you get here in the first place again. The Germany parts of the story just felt so disjointed to me. It’s supposed to be the main part, I think, but it felt like excess to me.
    • Overall , Life After Life was a disappointing and uninteresting read. The main plot is woven in strangely and doesn’t seem very important, or integral, or clear.

Review: Undivided by Neal Shusterman

Author: Neal Shusterman
Title: Undivided
Series: Unwind Dystology #4
Format/Source: eBook/Amazon
Published: October 2014
Publisher: Simon & Shuster
Length: 432 pages
Genre:Young adult dystopia
Why I Read: Loves the series
Read If You’re: Already invested in the story
Quote: “Measure F allows the Juvenile Authority to identify and track incorrigible children for the purpose of unwinding them as soon as they turn thirteen – which will be legal once the Parental Override bill becomes law.” (7%)
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
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Please note: This is a review of the final book of a series. Contains spoilers!

I first read Unwind back in 2007. I was pleasantly shocked when I learned there would be a sequel, followed by two more books. Unwind was a fantastic self-contained story, but its world could definitely be explored further. Unwind’s progeny don’t (and perhaps coudn’t) live up to the greatness of their parent, though they still pack an engaging story. This final volume is perhaps the weakest in the series. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad book – it’s definitely ‘enjoyable, worth your time’ if you liked the previous books. But for me it doesn’t live up to the expectations created by book one and two. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to give a balanced review of this book independent from the others in the series. This post is less of a review and more of a reaction. 

I felt like very little happened until about 75% of the way into the book. Everything felt like set up, set up, set up. The suddenly, close to the end – BAM HOLY CRAP AHHHH WHOA WHAT’S GOING ON I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, oh it’s over now…? I blazed through the ending far too quickly, but how can you not? The narrative suddenly accelerates at such a pace that I couldn’t help but be pulled along. I loved Unwind because the plot was intense and rapid, yet character-driven. This book, however, was largely not intense and quickly paced, so when it suddenly became so I felt like the story gave me whiplash. Being the final book in the series, I suppose there isn’t a lot of room for new characters or development in the ones we already know, as they’re at the point they need to be to finish the story. But that development and those side characters were part of what I love so much about the Unwind books, so it was too bad they didn’t really fit in the concluding book.

Even so, there are plenty of emotions to be felt while reading, most driven by the three main characters but also due to the creepy social developments and tactics that come into play. I allowed myself to get worked up about Connor even though I knew he couldn’t be dead (I didn’t guess at his rewinding until a couple chapters later, though, once I was certain he had been unwound). Sometimes you just have to let the story do its work. I had tears in my eyes! Lev’s journey – wow, just wow, Lev. It’ll be incredible to follow his journey from start to finish in a reread of the dystology. What a character. In one way I’m happy of course that he survived, but what an impact it would have made had he died. On the other hand, Risa. What happened to her since the first book!? Her character became little more than a prize for Connor. She was great in the first book but in the last two she’s just a helpless pawn for the bad guys 🙁 Huge disappointment.

The Bottom Line: I have a lot of mixed emotions about this book. Although I feel it’s the weakest in the series, Shusterman delivers an acceptable conclusion to the main storylines, if not a spectacular one. It has some of the distinguishing fiery action I came to love in the series, but overall the story is lacking in character development and plot excitement.

Elsewhere:

Review: The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Author: Rene Denfeld 
Title: The Enchanted
Format/Source: eBook/Library
Published: March 2014
Publisher: Harper
Length: 261 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Why I Read: Intriguing premise, easily accessible through Overdrive
Read If You’re: Looking for something literary but different; interested in death row or the prison system
Quote: “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.” (1)
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
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Coming in under 270 pages, The Enchanted is a short read, telling a story easy to blaze through but not easy to digest. Consequently, I’m also finding it difficult to write about even though I have lots of thoughts and feelings on the book. Please bear with me.

When I first encountered the online marketing campaign, I thought The Enchanted was going to be a great new innovative fantasy. I was very surprised and a little bit confused about how wrong that impression was. Even after reading the description, I thought, “So… this is a prison in a fantasy world?” I cannot recall what prompted me to add it to the TBR pile once the fantasy illusion was broken. Some readers label this book as magical realism, but I don’t think it contains any magical elements. The ‘magical’ elements are just a part of that character’s viewpoint. It’s not actually a magical world. I would categorize this book as nitty gritty realism, presented from an enchanted perspective.

The narrator’s voice and the style of prose (they are the same thing in this story, perhaps) also create the magical feel, in the following manner: I could barely accept some of the things that happen in the story. I felt like they couldn’t really happen in my world. The people in the story live such different lives, they must be some far distance away in a magical land where all the rules are different (which is indeed one way to look at the prison system). They create their own rules, their own methods of survival, their own magic. The prose contributes to that mystical, distant feeling. The words are simultaneously heavy and light, beautiful yet horrific. It’s like the words of the story open a small door at the end of a long dark tunnel to allow you to peak into this world. The feeling I had while reading this book is proving very difficult to describe. It doesn’t feel like a story grounded in our world. It feels like a story floating away behind a distant fog. I felt distanced from the story, but only in the manner that I didn’t feel like it was in my world. The Enchanted is a brutally realistic story presented in stunning wrapping.

A large focus of this book is the failings of the prison system, the awful things that happen inside, enabled by a vast network of corruption. The story also explores the tragic events that can lead a person to commit terrible acts. The Enchanted could be a difficult read for many people. I appreciated the book’s length once I finished reading. If the story was much longer, it may have become too overwhelming. (The book’s shortness was another thing that surprised me. I’d not seen a physical copy, so I had no idea how long it was. I was anticipating something heftier.) I anticipated prisoners being portrayed too sypathetically (ex. only focusing on the terrible conditions in the prison and not on their terrible deeds), but actually I think the issue (whether criminals deserve prison, as it is now) is well balanced. Denfeld demonstrates how broken a prison system can be – how much more damage than healing it inflicts – while also conveying that many people caught inside are dangerous people who have done terrible things (even if they’re only that way because they had a terrible childhood). Of course, the story promotes prevention as the best solution (obviously, herpderp) and of course, it’s not so cut and dry to say all prisoners deserve some punishment. The young boy character in particular illustrates some of the massive failings of the prison system. Anyway, I don’t really want to get into social commentary here, but The Enchanted definitely provides a good starting point for an important discussion.

From the book’s description, you might think the lady and the priest have equal page time. But, the lady is definitely the primary character while the priest is secondary. I’m not sure the priest really contributed a lot to the story. I would have either liked to see him as an equal role with the prisoners (i.e., a lesser role, one of many stories)  or a fuller role equal to the lady’s. I really appreciated the warden. Too often such authority figures are portrayed as bad guys. As mentioned above, the narrator has a strong voice. Reading the ‘side stories’ about the interplay between guards and inmates, and inmates and inmates, was the most difficult, as Denfeld certainly knows how to make them feel like real people. I think if it weren’t for the ‘magical’ prose this story would be too close to real crime fiction for reading comfort.

The Bottom Line: I find books difficult to write about tend to be books difficult to read. Oh boy, is The Enchanted a tough exploration of prison and death row, but it’s a well-written and balanced one. A unique read certainly worth a go if you’re up for it.

Elsewhere:

Quick Review: A Snicker of Magic and Escape from Camp 14

When I do a quick review post, there’s usually two books and I’m able to connect them somehow, as indicated in the post title. But with these two I can’t manage a connection!

  • A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
    • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]
    • A very sweet and comforting story, about family and friendship and belonging and magic. I like that adult struggles were included alongside Felicity’s (the narrator) own.
    • I don’t think I’ve ever read a story where the only conflict was overcoming personal challenges. There’s no antagonist to be found here. This is part of the reason why I think this story is very sweet. No one is the bad guy, no one is against anyone else. 
    • I liked Felicity’s word collecting and her little sister Frannie Jo (can Frannie Jo have a spin-off book, please?)
    • Jonah, one of the main characters, has a physical disability. I think how Lloyd incorporates that disability into the story should serve as an example to anyone looking to do the same. His disability is not the story, but nor is it an invisibility. The references to Jonah’s wheelchair take up no more space than if he didn’t have a wheelchair. For example, where one might read “He ran ahead”, you’ll find “He rolled ahead”. This is how easy it is to include a diverse character. They really can be just like any other character.
  • Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]  
    • An extremely illuminating and significant read 
    • Brutal and real in order to give readers an understanding of how life in the camp impacted Shin (could be difficult for some to read)
      • A saddening exploration of how a bad environment (nurture) affects a person. Shin’s only frame of references is life in the camp, under what he learns from the guards and his teachers, and so he buys into that completely, because he doesn’t know any different. The book does go on to explore the difficulties he has adjusting to life outside of the camp and how he comes to realize that he did not ‘learn’ to feel the right emotions (ex. didn’t care at all about his mother, now feels guilty about it).
    • Although Shin’s experiences are contextualized by what was happening in North Korea at the same time, the book doesn’t give a full picture of the situation in North Korea (and it doesn’t purport to; it’s primarily Shin’s story). Further reading is necessary if you wish to learn about North Korean history or the overall quality of life for general citizens (not those born and raised in a political prisoners like Shin)