Sunday, 25 January 2015

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback / Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas / Indian Tales by Rudyard Kipling

I am going to submit these three reviews as my first for Sophie and Suze's Review Challenge. It runs from the 23rd of January until the 2nd of February and the idea is to catch up with all those as yet unwritten reviews. I think I'm pretty up to date with my current reads so am going to use the opportunity to post some pre-blog reviews. For this post, Wolf Winter and Indian Tales are recent reads. Under Milk Wood is from a couple of years ago.

Wolf WinterWolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from Sweden
One of my Top Ten Books of 2015

I received a copy of Wolf Winter from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

I absolutely loved Wolf Winter! Set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, the novel tells of a tiny settler community's struggle to survive during a particularly harsh and bitter winter. Adding to their fear is the knowledge that one amongst them is a murderer. Recent Finnish immigrant, Maija, is determined to discover who was responsible for a violent murder that occurred pretty much as her family arrived, however Wolf Winter is not a standard whodunnit thriller. Instead, the story is a thoughtful and measured exploration of living in an incredibly inhospitable environment and of how, when even basic survival is not guaranteed, fear can become a significant enemy.

I loved Ekback's wonderfully real descriptions of Blackasen mountain and the settler homesteads dotted around its base. Her writing allowed me to picture every aspect of the place and also to understand the eerie isolation of Maija and her children. Knowing that other people are not especially far away, but that your chances of reaching them mean they might as well be on the moon, is a terrifying prospect. Ekback never overdoes the threats to her characters so their predicaments are thoroughly believable throughout the novel, yet she continues to weave in extra strands until fear itself becomes one of their greatest challenges. Wolf Winter is not a fast moving novel. Instead its cleverly varying pace acts more like a pressure cooker and, once engrossed in the story, I found it difficult to tear myself away from the pages. A device I particularly liked was illustrating the passing of time with a series of spaced descriptive paragraphs with little or no action. The contrast then to fast-moving violent incidents was very effective.

Every character is a very real person, convincing in their actions. Maija's immigrant Finn family are used to snowy winters, but their outsiders' view of Blackasen life and responses to it is expertly portrayed. The particular difficulties of women to be heard in a strongly patriarchal society is an important theme, as is that of the Church and its failure to understand the settlers lives. I had no idea that the temporary trading and taxation towns existed so was fascinated by this detail.

I think Wolf Winter will appeal to readers who enjoy character driven novels and especially the creeping dread style of Nordic Noir. Perhaps parallels can be drawn with the recently successful Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which I also thought was brilliant(!), although I think Wolf Winter is a more magically mysterious tale. A wonderful novel and I will eagerly await Ekback's next work.

Buy the hardback from Waterstones.

Under Milk Wood (BBC Radio Collection)Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Under Milk Wood is deservedly famous as a piece of writing and although I had not heard this audio recording before I downloaded it from Audible a couple of years ago, I had heard of it. Richard Burton's narration is wonderfully atmospheric throughout and I love the way the character voices are integrated into the whole work, especially where they speak over each other. Each person is recognisable, inflated and exaggerated no doubt, but not so much as to make them grotesque. The children's singing is a great touch. From the initial idea of a quaint Welsh village, Under Milk Wood gets darker and more poignant and I think this vintage BBC radio programme is probably the definitive recording. Even having seen an outstanding theatre production since my first listen to the radio version, I still believe the audio twinned with imagination is the best way to experience Under Milk Wood. Audio doesn't get much better than this.

Buy the audio CD from Waterstones.

Indian Tales: 36 Short Stories by Rudyard Kipling (Annotated)Indian Tales: 36 Short Stories by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I've given up! After repeatedly returning to this ForgottenBooks short story collection for over a month, I just don't want to try any more. I know that Indian Tales is probably very much 'of its time' but the attitudes then are so different to today and I don't even think that the writing is up to Kipling's standard elsewhere. Too much gung ho militarism, racism and male chauvinism, and very little actually about India which was what I wanted to read in the first place.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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