Breathing Into Marble by Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite

  Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Translated from the Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute 

Winner of 2009 EU Prize for Literature

Five words from the blurb: adopt, troubled, trauma, unsettles, family

Breathing Into Marble is probably the first Lithuanian book to be translated into English, and it is for this reason that I agreed to accept a review copy from its publishers, Noir Press.

The book follows Isabel as she adopts Ilya, a boy with a troubled past. The way he disrupts life in his new family is beautifully described, skillfully showing how trauma from past events affects people as they try to proceed with their lives.

The problem was that I was too aware of the writing. Brilliant prose flows so well that you barely notice it, but the writing in this book was strangely jarring. There was an overuse of metaphor that often made me cringe, in what would otherwise be a great paragraph:

The sky above the woods shone like a pearl, a reproach to the heavy darkness of the earth. The painfully empty space attracted her. At night, half sleeping in bed, as heavy as a bag of gravel, her body would grow lighter and soon Isabel would feel that if she just rid herself of one last small stone she would rise up into the air.

In copying out the above passage I realised that it was quite beautiful in isolation. The problem was that there were so many metaphors throughout the book that I quickly became irritated by them.

I also found reading the book to be hard work. So much of what happens isn’t described explicitly – the reader has to deduce it by reading between the lines. This meant I sometimes missed important events and, confused, had to back-track to see where I had failed to spot the action.

The above criticism makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book, but this isn’t strictly true – I appreciated its literary quality, and the emotion of individual scenes, but found it wasn’t compelling as a whole. I’m pleased I read it – particularly as it’s the first Lithuanian book I’ve tried, but I prefer reading to be less hard work.

If you enjoy literary fiction that works the mind, then you’ll find a lot to like in this book. It is beautifully observed and captures many profound moments in the relationship between family members.

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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Columbine, grief, tragedy, honesty, compassion

In 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve students and a teacher in, what was at the time, the worst High School shooting on American soil. Sue Klebold has spent the last fifteen years of her life coming to terms with the horrific acts that her son carried out in Columbine High School. This book explains the guilt she felt for failing to spot the tiny signs her son was plotting this atrocity, and how she has gone on to promote mental health awareness in order to prevent similar attacks in the future.

A Mother’s Reckoning is an outstanding book. It is written with incredible honesty – showing the conflicting thoughts of a family caught between grieving for their son and trying to understand what could have motivated him to kill innocent people in cold blood. The book managed to capture these emotions without ever becoming sentimental or self-indulgent. I was especially impressed by the dignity shown throughout and the way it respected the families of those killed.

The book detailed Dylan’s life – describing how he went from a happy child, to a teenager plagued by bullies. It explained how his family were unaware of the extent of his problems and their horror at discovering these details after his death. The structure of this book was impressive. It reminded me of People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, my favourite true-crime book, in that everything was laid out perfectly. New details were added at exactly the right point to enable the reader to engage with each aspect of the narrative.

It’s hard to imagine we slept at all that first night home, but the mind eventually shows mercy and shuts down. As it would be for years, waking was the cruelest moment of the day – the split second where it was possible to believe it had all been a nightmare, the worst dream a person could have.

I think this book should be read by all parents, as it shows how easily things can go wrong. It highlights the importance of understanding teenage mental health and shows what can be done to reduce problems. I admire Sue Klebold for her bravery in publishing this book and hope she gains some closure from the positive work she’s done for society in the last decade.

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The Castle of Inside Out by David Henry Wilson

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: starving, fumes, selfish, resources, save

The Castle of Inside Out is a children’s book that deals with issues of greed, inequality and pollution. I read it to my two boys (aged 9 and 11) and was impressed by the way it got them to think about the complexity of these issues. It made them realise that some people (and businesses) benefit from creating lots of pollution and it isn’t easy to get them to change their ways.

The book begins with Lorina, a school girl, following a black rabbit into a magical land; where she discovers a population of starving green people. She befriends them and discovers they are used as slaves by the rich society, who live in a large castle nearby. Appalled by the conditions they are forced to live in, she decides to head to the castle in order to negotiate a better life for the green people.

The book lacked the subtlety required for a entertaining adult book. It was packed with heavy metaphors and the character names (His Porkship, The Piggident, and the bureaurat) were often eye-rollingly cringe-worthy, but my boys found them hilarious. The chatty tone engaged them throughout and they loved the vivid imagery of each scene:

“Help them? Help them? Because, my dear little girl,” said the pig, “it’s none of my business. Whether they starve or don’t starve is their concern, not mine. My concern is money. The cashiest, coiniest, notiest concern in the world. Now pass me my bathrabbit, will you?”
He pointed towards the door, and there, hanging on a hook, was a large white rabbit.

The Castle of Inside Out is a very important book and I think it would be especially useful for schools looking for material to discuss climate change. Children probably won’t grasp all the concepts without explanation, so I recommend reading this aloud with them – that way you’ll also benefit from seeing them laugh at the bizarre scenes.

Recommended to children between the ages of 8 and 12.

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Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: truth, friendship, island, murder, memory

Lie With Me is the best thriller I’ve read in years! It was so compelling and clever that I’ll be pushing it into the hands of every friend who asks me for a book recommendation this year.

The story begins with Paul, a struggling author, meeting an old friend in a bookshop. They arrange to meet at a party and Paul decides to re-integrate himself with this successful friendship group in order to gain enough favours to solve his spiralling financial problems. Paul lies about his success to impress everyone at the party, embellishing details about his life. His plan appears to work when he finds himself being invited on a holiday to a small Greek island, but unfortunately everything goes wrong when the group gets caught up in the investigation of a murder that took place on the island many years ago.

Paul was a fantastic character. He was cruel and manipulative, but it was easy to see why he acted in this way. By the end of the book I even had some sympathy for him – I love books that can make me feel that way about such an evil character.

‘It’s hard, isn’t it, living with privilege? She gestured to the flat, the art work, the items of mid-century furniture, the shelves of books. ‘Do you ever feel guilty at how easy it all is, how much people like us have been given on a plate by our parents?’
I felt another tight spasm in my chest, a need to tell her how it wasn’t, what a struggle it had been not to lead the life of my parents, how I had always hated the smallness of their ambition, their willingness to settle with meekness and mediocrity.

The plot was very well structured. It was a bit slow in the beginning, but I was impressed by the layers of detail and way everything escalated. By the last third I was so engrossed I couldn’t put it down, finishing it in one late night sitting.

This book isn’t perfect, but the clever plotting and beautifully flawed characters make up for any deficiencies. I’ll be thinking about the issues raised in this book for a long time.

If you’re after a gripping thriller to read on holiday this year, I highly recommend Lie With Me.

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The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker

 Source: Personal copy

Five words from the blurb: chickens, memoir, Deep South, fruit, experience

The Color Purple is an outstanding book and I currently have an obsession with chickens, so there was no way I could resist buying The Chicken Chronicles when I spotted it in a bookshop. I hadn’t heard of it before, but sadly there is good reason this book is never mentioned. I doubt it would have been published if it hadn’t been written by a literary legend.

The Chicken Chronicles is a slim book in which Alice Walker writes about what happens to her chickens each day. Unfortunately chickens lead a dull life and I was quickly bored by the repetitive descriptions of them walking round her yard looking for food.

I also found the overly sentimental tone annoying. The continual “Mommy loves you” aspect of the text felt weird and managed to turn even the most beautifully written sentence into a cloying sentiment:

Mommy has always thought chickens have a look of erudition; but by now you have a look that is practically professorial. Fleeting, I admit, because usually you are on your way to devouring something: greens, grains, or bugs. But it is there, that look of high intelligence, and Mommy appreciates it.

The additional problem was that Alice Walker’s life during this period of time seemed fascinating, but she left out everything that was interesting. There would be one sentence about returning from visiting the Dalai Lama and then it would go straight back into a description of how shiny corn is. I wanted to know all about her journeys, not how many eggs she ate each day. It’s a shame because she is such an amazing writer and chickens can be entertaining subjects.

I recommend avoiding this one and reading The Color Purple instead.

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I notice that Alice Walker has written a lot of books. Are any of her others worth reading?

 

Mr Eternity by Aaron Thier

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Defoe, climate, change, exploration, absurdities

Mr Eternity is a bizarre book following the life of an immortal Daniel Defoe. It is set in 1560, 2016 and 2500 and shows how climate change destroys life as we know it.

I initially loved this book – its messages on climate change were powerful and having a single person live through these 1000 tumultuous years highlighted the differences/problems with society at each time point. Defoe’s mis-remembering of history also provided many opportunities for amusement and this brought up thought provoking questions about the way we recall past events.

The three eras each had their own specific dialect, which seemed convincing. Some readers may struggle to adapt to the changing tone, but I thought it worked really well. I especially liked the way that the people in the future highlighted how selfishly we treat the Earth’s resources and how good we have it now:

Tell me of New York I said it were a great city once that were plain. He said yes okay well there was Hurricane Devaun and the later the sea come up also there was drought everywhere too many people too many factors everyone in New York starved it were beyond belief. I said he did not understand me I did not mean stories like that but stories of the very good days when every man were a king with air condition Ferrari electronic lights ice cream toothpaste footballs steamy media.

In many ways Mr Eternity reminded me of books by David Mitchell – especially Ghostwritten. They share the same writing quality and insightful observations of humanity. The only real difference is that Thier’s books don’t contain any Japanese influence, concentrating instead on Western mythology.

Unfortunately the book failed to carry it’s impressive power through to the second half. It seemed to repeat itself and it had no plot to pull all the threads together. I longed for something to make me care about Defoe, or any of the other characters. Instead the reader remains a passive observer of the destruction, feeling no emotion at the terrible things happening everywhere.

Overall this book has much to recommend it. I’m sure that many people will love it, especially those who don’t need a strong plot, and I hope that the messages about our current abuse of the world are heard by a wide audience.

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