Saturday, September 19, 2015

"Wolf Winter," by Cecilia Ekback

I have "Netgalley" to thank for scoring a review copy of "Wolf Winter" by Cecilia Ekback. I was intrigued by the title and setting: Swedish Lapland of 1717-1718. Also there are wolves (always a plus for me)!

A family of immigrants from Ostrobothnia in Finland have arrived as settlers in the Swedish countryside. They've barely arrived before the older of two daughters, Fredericka, discovers the remains of murdered neighbor. Soon the family is confronted with an especially harsh winter -- the "Wolf Winter" of the title -- and finds their own troubled past has not been entirely left behind.

Review of "Wolf Winter" by Cecelia Ekback. Historical photo, 1920s Finnish farm.
Historical photo, 1920s Finnish farm*
The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of three characters**:
  • Maija, the mother of the immigrant family
  • Frederika, at 14 years of age, the older of Maija's two daughters
  • The priest from the nearby town who ministers to the settlers scattered over Blackasan mountain
There are magical-realism elements to the story, which I won't elaborate on to avoid spoilers. I will note that the story takes place a generation after a time historically famous for witch hysteria in the region. In particular, Ostrobothnia was home to the executions of twenty women and two men as witches between 1674 and 1678. How do I know this? Because reading "Wolf Winter" made me curious and I dug around a bit -- a quality I definitely like in a book!
In the course of "Wolf Winter," we also encounter members of the native, nomadic Lapp community. While a level of interdependence between the Lapps and farming settlers is necessitated by isolation and harsh conditions, there is also a fair amount of friction and mistrust. Maija and Frederika both try to bridge this gap, with only limited success. Maija in particular can't seem to stop herself from making assumptions and getting caught in cultural misunderstandings.

Review of "Wolf Winter" by Cecelia Ekback. Historical photo, Lapp family
Historical photo, undated. Lapp family*

Nonetheless, Maija is an interesting, intelligent and resourceful character. She is also very bad at taking even the bluntest of hints, and so puts herself as well as her family into danger. Her lack of the social graces shows in her interactions with her own teenage daughter, the Lapp leader she would like to befriend, and the other settlers who generally find her curiosity annoying and her manner too demanding -- "for a woman."

For her part, Frederika is smart and stubborn, and just beginning to understand and apply her own personal gifts. Women and children are especially vulnerable in this harsh, unforgiving world, and Frederika has to rise to confront problems the adults around her have evaded.

Even the priest has a secret past he can't entirely escape. His responsibility is to obey the bishop and keep his parishioners obedient to the orders of the king. He sets his mind to do this, even when he finds those orders destructive and worse than pointless.

Review of "Wolf Winter" by Cecelia Ekback. Historical photo, 1903. Manual labor in the Swedish countryside.
Historical photo, 1903. Manual labor in the Swedish countryside*
"Wolf Winter" has some lovely writing, evoking and animating the beauty of the landscape: 

"...her eyes were light, brown or green -- seawater through the slats of a dock."

"Late autumn this year had violence in her hair, angry crimson, orange, and yellow. The trees wrestled to free themselves of their cloaks, crumpled up their old leaves and threw them straight out into the strong wind rather than just let them fall to the ground."

"At first Gustav's eyes were blue. A sea. the rings from a jumping fish."

I don't know why I'm drawn to stories about people surviving in extreme cold conditions. I hate being cold and despise icy ground, and am not fond of snow (unless I'm inside a cozy and well-stocked house looking out at it through a window). Reading a book like this is as close as I ever care to come to blizzard conditions and frostbite, but I do enjoy the reading!

In fact, I ended up reading this book twice in quick succession -- I picked it up and finished it in the days preceding a total hip replacement. Once I got home and had recovered a bit, I felt that in a fog of anxious anticipation and pain, my brain just hadn't been able to give the book a fair first read. So once I was finally feeling a bit better, I decided to read it again.

On the whole I quite liked "Wolf Winter" and would recommend to readers who like historical mysteries, or who just find the setting intriguing.

*I normally use my own photographs for this blog, but although I've (very briefly) visited Finland, I don't have digitized versions of my photographs to share. So I checked the Wikimedia Commons site for historical photographs to use, and came up with a few really interesting shots. These are old enough to be out of copyright, though they also also lack attribution and much in the way of context.
**"Wolf Winter" is now available on Amazon, and from reading the publisher's description, I realized that some edits have been made subsequent to the version I have:

Swedish Lapland, 1717. Maj, her husband Jan-Erik and her daughters Frederika and Marit arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow.
Notably, the names of several characters have been altered from the version I read. It's possible other edits have been made as well, which might or might not supersede some of my comments.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"The Bookaholics Guide to Book Blogs," by Rebecca Gillieron & Catheryn Kilgarriff

"The Bookaholics Guide to Book Blogs" was published in 2007, which makes it somewhat outdated in attitude as well as specific details. Perhaps even more of a disadvantage is that it's not available in e-book form, which would facilitate clicking through the links.
Review of "The Bookaholics Guide to Book Blogs
Library copy of "The Bookaholics Guide to Book Blogs"

Available at $15.00 from Amazon, I was reluctant to buy it until I could be sure I'd find it useful. Thanks to inter-library loan, I was able to get my hands on a copy to work with for a few weeks. 

Despite being outdated, "The Bookaholics Guide" does contain information that would be useful to those who write (or want to write) a book blog, or who enjoy reading book blogs, or those who are just generally interested in keeping up with books and the publishing industry.

Types of Book Blogs

"The Guide" categorizes book blogs in a way that didn't entirely work for me, but did make me think about the concept of categorizing blogs. I realized that the book blogs I enjoy and like to follow do fall naturally into different categories, and it may be useful to consider how they group together -- in the sense of helping me identify additional blogs and columns I would enjoy reading.

 Categories of Book Blogs From "The Bookaholics Guide to Book Blogs":

  • Book shop's and bookseller's blogs
  • Publisher's blogs
  • Fan blogs - fans of specific authors, genres, and/or of reading in general
  • Literary establishment blogs
  • Avant garde publisher's and literary group's blogs
  • Writer's blogs
  • Book club blogs

My Scheme for Categorizing Book Blogs

Thinking about how I would categorize the book blogs I read, I came up with a scheme more like this:
  • Book review blogs
  • Personal blogs with an emphasis on books and reading
  • Writer's blogs
  • Publisher's blogs (mainstream and indie)
  • Blogs affiliated with news sites (e.g. Salon, NPR, The Guardian)

 Why Blog About Books? 

An early chapter of "The Bookaholics Guide" speculates about bloggers' reasons for blogging. Overall, the ideas seem unnecessary these days, when blogging is a pretty common activity and means of expression. Once again though, some interesting points are raised and provide food for thought. 

Motivations for Blogging About Books

  • To fill a perceived gap in available information
  • As a way of facilitating direct dialog with fans (for writers) or with other readers who have similar interests
  • Personal fulfillment in the public space
And of course these are not mutually-exclusive reasons for blogging. Reasons not mentioned include blogging for money and/or to receive free review copies of books -- reasons which are not exclusive of the others.

"The Bookaholics Guide to Book Blogs" also has some interesting thoughts on bloggers' choices for blog names and handles. "Dovegreyreader," for example, provides a much different mental picture of what sort of books would be covered than "Bookgasm."  

My Favorite Book Blogs

Current Blogs Covered by "The Bookaholics Guide to Book Blogs"

The book includes a glossary with descriptions, titles, and URLs for a large number of book blogs. Sadly only a few of these still seem to be active. Of those I would highlight:

  1. "Dovegreyreader" is a blog praised early on in "The Bookaholics Guide." Dovegreyreader is still a very active blog, and has become one of my favorites. Dovegreyreader lives and writes from her home the Devonshire countryside of England. Her blog is where, for example, I first learned about "H is for Hawk," as well as about the Wainwright Prize  (which ignorant me had never heard of before). 
  2. "Bookgasm" is another active blog, which covers genres I'm partial to, like horror and mystery.   
  3. -- Collection of articles about books, mostly nonfiction and interviews with authors of fiction and non fiction. Part of the the news site.


More of My Favorite Book Blogs

Beth Fish Reads -  Beth Fish is a freelance editor, reviewer, journalist and blogger. She reviews a variety of book types from literary fiction to cookbooks, and is also a fine photographer. Special features include "Wordless Wednesday" (a weekly photo post) and "Weekend Cooking." Naturally enough, "Weekend Cooking" features cook books and other books about food. Fellow bloggers are encouraged to share links to food-related posts. I have had a nice bump in views from a couple of posts I shared, and make a point to get out there and return the favor by reading links shared by other bloggers. [book review blog]

Chrisbookarama -  Chris is a book (and more) blogger living in Nova Scotia, Canada. If I'm remembering correctly, I found her blog through Beth Fish's "Weekend Cooking" feature. Since her reading tastes seemed similar to mine, I added her to my Feedly blog list. [personal blog with an emphasis on books and reading]

Book Riot -  Book Riot is managed by a core team, with a large number of contributors. The result is a variety of book types covered as well as a variety of opinion. The Book Riot team also has active Tumblr and Instagram accounts, which feature rather delightful pictures of books, readers, what to eat and drink while reading, and book-related art. [book review blog]

Brain Pickings -  Maria Popova's wonderful blog on books, thinking, and creativity. [personal blog with an emphasis on books and reading]

Book View Cafe Blog - The Book View Cafe Blog is associated with the Book View Cafe publishing co-op. Contributors to the blog include authors such as Sherwood Smith, Judith Tarr, and Ursula K. LeGuin. [writers' and co-op publisher's blog]

NPR Books - National Public Radio's web column of book review podcasts and articles. [blog affiliated with a news outlet]

The Guardian Books Blog - Book news, thoughts, and reviews from Britain's "Guardian" newspaper online. [blog affiliated with a news outlet]

If anyone has favorite book blogs to recommend, please share in a comment -- I would love to have more to check out!

Overall Conclusions About "The Bookaholics Guide"

I would only recommend "The Bookaholics' Guide to Book Blogs" with reservations -- to a niche audience with an interest in book blogging and the history of the Internet's impact on publishing, bookselling, writing, and reviewing. Book bloggers, those thinking about starting a book blog, as well as readers with an interest in trends in online writing about books would be likely to find it of interest.

I'd suggest doing what I did and seeking a library copy, or finding it second hand. There just isn't enough up to date information to make it a recommended purchase.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Poldark" Returns to Print and TV

Like many fans, I was introduced to "Poldark" by Masterpiece Theater, which aired the original BBC TV version in the late 1970s. Made me want to read the books as well as visit Cornwall -- and over the the succeeding years I have done both. Much more recently I was able to re-watch the first season of the original series.

Cornish countryside: Review of "Poldark" and "Demelza" by Winston Graham
My photo of the Cornish countryside, taken in the mid-1980s

Re-watching made me want to re-read the books as well, so I dug out my old collection of yellowing paperbacks -- yes, also dating from the late 1970s. To be honest, these days I much prefer reading e-books to paperback books. The contrast is better, and I can adjust the font and size of the print to suit. Much to my disappointment, at time I was looking (about a year and a half ago or so) the Poldark books weren't available in e-book form, and were apparently out of print even as paperbacks -- 2d hand books were selling for pretty steep prices.

Cornish coast: Review of "Poldark" and "Demelza" by Winston Graham
Cornish coast

Fast forward to 2015, and the BBC has remade the books into a new TV series. In the U.S., we'll be able to watch the new "Poldark" on Masterpiece Theater, starting next Sunday, June 21, 2015. In company with the show, special editions of author Graham Winston's first two books in the series, "Poldark" and "Demelza" are being re-released in a number of forms, including (yay!) Kindle e-books.

If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read "Poldark" for free. If you do, be forewarned that there is a total of 12 books in the series -- all of which have been re-released. Once hooked, you'll be there for the entire investment in books (whether e or paper) and reading time.

Falmouth Harbor: Review of "Poldark" and "Demelza" by Winston Graham
Falmouth harbor
The basic story of the initial books is that Captain Ross Poldark has been away from his home in Cornwall -- fighting for the British Army in the American Revolution. He's been out of touch with family and friends for so long that many presumed him dead. In 1783 he returns home to find his father has died, his property has been neglected into ruin, and the woman he'd planned to marry is engaged to his cousin.

I think these books will appeal to a wide variety of readers. The character of Ross Poldark is dark and impetuous, as well as kindly and fiercely loyal to those who have earned his regard -- in other words, he's a classic romantic hero. Demelza is every bit his match in intelligence and nobility of character, with the added pleasure that we get to watch her grow and bloom over the course of the stories.

As a re-reader, I'm finding myself much more interested in the politics and historical setting than the romantic content. Ross is not alone in wondering what the point was in fighting a lost war against the Colonials' desire for independence from the crown. Ross, however, soon becomes much more concerned with economic and social conditions at home. He sips a drink at a local market fair, and ponders the state of the working people passing by:

For the most part they were weakly, stinking, rachitic, pockmarked, in rags -- far less well found than the farm animals that were being bought and sold. Was it surprising that the upper classes looked on themselves as a race apart? Yet the signs he had seen of a new way of life in America made him impatient of those distinctions.
Tin and copper mining were long time mainstays of Cornwall's economy, but in the post-war period price-fixing by smelting interests had crashed the value of ore. Banking monopolies further worked to concentrate wealth into the hands of a new monied class, undermining the traditional relationships between land/mine owners and working people. It all starts to sound disturbingly familiar.

A miner contracts lung disease as a result of his hazardous work. Unable to work, he resorts to crimes such as poaching and smuggling in order to feed his family. Arrest results in lengthy incarceration, if not transportation to Australia or hanging.

A member of the minor landed gentry, Ross is the owner of a couple of out-of-production mines. With mixed success, Ross takes a leadership role in organizing his peers against the undue influence of big money -- trying to restore the balance that has sustained the area for generations. His efforts have mixed success, while earning him powerful and vindictive enemies.

It's worth remembering that author Winston Graham started writing the series at the end of WWII. "Poldark" and "Demelza" were first published in 1945 and 1946, respectively. One wonders what connections he might have felt between changes and conditions in Britain at the end of that war, as compared to the times he was writing about.

Cornish countryside: Review of "Poldark" and "Demelza" by Winston Graham
Farm in Cornwall

I was able to score review copies of "Poldark" and "Demelza" courtesy of NetGalley; NetGalley asks, but does not require, a review in return for copies of books. The program provides honest feedback for publishers -- that is, there is no expectation that reviews must be positive.