Saturday, September 24, 2016

Books for October

This month I am proud to announce that we have selected our very first Non-Fiction title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I have heard so much praise for this hybrid of science fact and biography, and so many people have recommended it to me, that I am pleased that it is one of our choices this month. The other is another offering from the amazing Neil Gaiman and I am sure that his Coraline will put us all in the mood for Halloween.

The books are now available on the Nook accounts and are ready for download.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline's often wondered what's behind the locked door in the drawing room. It reveals only a brick wall when she finally opens it, but when she tries again later, a passageway mysteriously appears. She is surprised to find a flat decorated exactly like her own, but strangely different. And when she finds her "other" parents in this alternate world, they are much more interesting despite their creepy black button eyes. When they make it clear, however, that they want to make her theirs forever, she begins a nightmarish game to rescue her real parents and three children imprisoned in a mirror. With only a bored-through stone and an aloof cat to help, Coraline confronts the harrowing task of escaping these monstrous creatures.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

In a frighteningly possible future, the members of the United States government have all been assassinated and the constitution over turned. In its place there has arisen the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian Theocracy that ruthlessly imposes Old Testament ideals upon its entire population. The world is suffering from a sharp decrease in fertility and an equally worrying increase in non-viable babies being born. In response to this, a woman’s place in Gilead’s society is dictated by her ability to reproduce or fulfill another useful role in the production of viable offspring. All women are categorized and forced to wear clothing of a certain color to advertise their role in life. They must not stray from their roles, they must not question those in authority, they are forbidden to read and are encouraged to think as little as possible: they must simply accept the role that God has prescribed for them. This is especially true for the Handmaids who have proven that they are capable of producing healthy babies.

If a high-ranking official, like the Commander, has the misfortune to have an infertile Wife he can be assigned a Handmaid. She is a non-person, a receptacle for carrying his baby and nothing more. She is known only by the word ‘of’ plus his name. She must do nothing other than receive the gift of his seed once a month and then carry his child. If she fails in this task than she will be passed to a different man, but if she has not had a child after the third man she will be discarded and sent to the work camps cleaning up the toxic zones: for the law states that no men are sterile and so the fault must lie with her.

Offred has already failed to become pregnant with two men and we follow her thoughts as she settles into life with The Commander. She remembers her marriage to Luke, who had divorced his first wife to marry her. This made their union illegal under the new regime and allowed the state to annul it and separate them by force. She also remembers her daughter who was stolen away and given to an influential infertile couple. Then there is her mother, the raging feminist, who became an enemy of the state for believing that women had the right to do things other than reproduce. She also remembers her friend Moira, the lesbian, who escapes from their Handmaid 'training' camp in search of the resistance movement and a way to reach the utopia of Canada.

* * * 

The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that I had been recommended many times and I remember watching the film version many years ago, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it with the Book Group. Although the book is thirty years old, I was surprised by how depressingly relevant it is to modern America, with its debates about access to birth control and abortion and the rape culture that commiserates about the sentencing of young men who make a ‘mistake’ while the victims are vilified for all the ways that they were ‘asking for it’. 

I have always considered myself a feminist in that I believe that men and women should hold equal value and that a person’s gender should never be the factor that determines their role in life. As a biologist, I am aware that total equality will never be possible because of the very unequal method by which we reproduce, but other than making allowances for this fundamental difference in physiology, I firmly believe that neither sex has an intrinsic superiority to the other. These beliefs made it very difficult for me to read about a society where women are either walking wombs or solely concerned with making babies or looking after men. The later revelations about the men who go against their own rules to visit prostitutes, whilst condemning any form of female sexuality, was all too predictable to raise much more than sadness from me.

The fear of the female ability to reproduce lies like a stink over Gilead, and it is a stink that also wafts through some aspects of modern American politics, so I found it all too plausible that a democracy based upon personal freedom could be replaced by a misogynistic theocracy. When I hear absurd statements about a rape victim’s body “shutting that whole thing down”, only “sluts” wanting contraception and masturbating male fetuses (that last from a pediatrician, no less) I truly wonder if I have been transported back in time or to an alternative universe. We are bombarded by so much moral criticism aimed at the female of the species that you would think that men had nothing at all to do with the reproductive process. It is not as if contraception is a modern invention: papyri from ancient Egypt outline recipes for contraceptive plugs whilst the Greeks used an extract from the plant silphium so much that it was harvested to extinction and I will not even begin to relate the number of things that have been used to make condoms. Yet some people still think that abstinence is a viable alternative even though history has proven that humans often prefer to have sex without the chance of conception. 

Women are not the only victims of the Republic of Gilead. The Sons of Jacob are given the opportunity to emigrate to Israel shortly after the democratic government is overthrown, although it seems that some enterprising captains would dump them into the sea after receiving payment and to increase the number of ‘passengers’ that they could carry. We also know that many Jews remain in Gilead but have to worship in secret because the Theocracy is exclusively Christian. The fate of the Children of Ham is far more disturbing. It seems that many of these African-Americans are considered suitable as the infertile Marthas who run the houses of their wealthy, white superiors. However, most are resettled into Homelands, mimicking the Reservations used to isolate and control the Native American population by the European invaders. No doubt these Homelands allow the people to live in the idle luxury that you would expect for those forcibly removed from a society. Again, this mirrors the continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism that still pervades some sectors of US society.

I imagine that when Ms Atwood wrote this novel in 1985, she saw it as a commentary on the US of the time or the very recent past. We know that the feminism of the 1960s provoked a conservative backlash from the Christian right, and I am quite sure that she was inspired by seeing this during her studies at Harvard. I can appreciate how her Canadian upbringing would have made her very aware of the power that religious groups wield in the US, which was a shock to me when I first arrived. I find it frightening to think that many in the States would actually like to make the country into something so scarily similar to Gilead, and that it seems like a real possibility to me.

As a footnote, I was surprised and delighted that a revelation is made at the end of the book that shows that the grand state of Maine was a hotbed of moderates and people willing to help women escape to free Canada. It was particularly gratifying that Bangor itself was marked out as a particular place of tolerance.  

This was not a pleasant book to read, but it was powerful in a visceral, thought-provoking way that makes me understand why so many people rate it as one of their favorite books of all time. I would recommend that every person should read it, man or woman, because it shows us what could happen to the US if the right wing, religious conservatives ever get enough power to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Schedule for Fall

The meeting schedule will continue after the summer. 

The meetings will be at 6pm and I will post the meeting rooms once they have been finalized / finished.

22 September

20 October

17 November

15 December

Those of you who were at the May meeting will notice that I gave you the wrong date for September because I made a mistake predicting how the staff schedule would continue after the summer . . . doh!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Choices for September

As we have now reached the holiday season, the group will take a break over of the summer with the next meeting scheduled for September. To keep everyone occupied during this extended period we have three books to read. My husband has recently read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and he has been badgering me about it every since: fortunately the group voted to include it in our summer reading list! Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is a wonderful fantasy that ranks as one of my favorites, so I am pleased to have an excuse to re-read it. The Eyre Affair is a book that I have had recommended to me on several occasions and seems like a suitably literary choice to round out the selections.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë's novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide. 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North  

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now. As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Orphan Lyra Belacqua, lives a carefree life among the scholars at Oxford's Jordan College until her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called "Gobblers"—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

Have a fun summer!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to find a letter on her steps. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history.

While pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

* * *

Sometimes I struggle to find suggestions for our votes, and I often turn to Goodreads as a source of ideas. The website has a rather useful “Readers Also Enjoyed” link for every book, and that is how I found this title. It had won a few awards and sounded interesting, so it seemed like a good choice even though I was unfamiliar with both the title and the author. As an avid book reader, I was enthused by the prospect of reading a book about an insatiable reader who lives in a bookshop and gets to write the biography of a mysterious author. The added interest of a dark and mysterious past made this title fairly irresistible and I expected a suitably gothic tone to remind me of such classics as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. I was not disappointed. It proved to be as entertaining as I had hoped, although the group did have a few reservations about some of the plot points.

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

Ms Setterfield’s words are certainly true of her own writing. This tale grabbed me from the very beginning and kept me enraptured to the end. I do have a few minor criticisms about the believability of some of the plot points, but the standard of writing was excellent throughout. This truly was an ode to literature and the special magic of story-telling as a form of escape and also as a vehicle for exploring, and possibly redefining, the truth.

Ms Winter has made a career of creating multiple origin stories for herself, so that every single interview has a totally different set of personal information about her and she entices Margaret into writing her biography by simply offering to reveal ‘the truth’. However, it soon becomes clear that ‘the truth’ is not quite what we are receiving, and that Ms Winter is still struggling to be completely honest about the past. She has spent her entire life hiding her true identity and, although she now feels compelled to reveal everything before she dies, it is a very hard habit for her to break. She insists on presenting her life as a series of tales and refuses to allow questions from Margaret so that she can control the sequence in which her secrets are exposed. This manipulation of the audience could be seen as simply an extension of the tale-weaving skills that have made her a bestselling author, but it also allows Ms Winter to hint at secrets before she finally works up the courage to reveal them.

Interestingly, we have not one but two unreliable narrators. From the very beginning we know that Ms Winter has previously lied about her history, so we approach her stories with a certain amount of skepticism. However, Margaret begins the book as a character that bibliophiles can identify with very easily, so much so that she borders on being a Mary Sue because she lives a life that seems ideal in so many ways. But as we learn more about her past as the single conjoined twin who survived separation surgery, it becomes increasingly clear that Ms Winter is not the only one with a family history of mental issues. The apparently clear-headed, capable woman that we meet at the start of the book soon morphs into something of a Gothic heroine herself, one who eventually submits to a bout of Bronte-esque melancholy and is prescribed a rousing course of Sherlock Holmes by the local doctor. We begin to doubt her sanity and the ending definitely left the book group with the impression that she is not quite as normal as one would expect in a narrator.

A second link between these two characters is the issue of twins as Ms Winter reveals her true name to be Adeline March, twin to Emmeline. Unlike Margaret, Adeline grew up with her twin, but in a highly unhealthy and mentally unstable environment which had disturbing effects on both girls. Whilst the family was wealthy, owning a large house and estate, a heavy dose of insanity was passed down through the generations and the twins were raised in a chaotic and squalid environment. Resisting any attempt to normalize them, they finally reach adulthood as almost feral creatures that disappear from the area when the house burns down.

Whilst the descriptions of the twins and their immediate family are evocative and compelling they do present the reader with one giant problem. How can the highly articulate Vida Winter be the violent and apparently illiterate Adeline? How could this wild creature ever change so dramatically, even when the responsibility for running the house falls onto her bony shoulders? I will not spoil the explanation for this apparent impossibility, but it does undermine the reader’s belief in Ms Winter’s honesty to quite a considerable extent. The group found the explanation itself almost unbelievable and thought that it was the biggest problem with the entire book. I am not sure if a slight alteration in the depiction of the twins could have helped, but I suspect that it would have detracted from the slightly melodramatic, gothic atmosphere of the book. It was also necessary to justify the actions taken by Ms Winter. If we are to believe that Mrs Rochester is locked in the attic for a very good reason, then she needs to be truly and completely insane, not just a little bit ‘off’. So it is with Adeline: her story is horrifying and yet it is necessary to explain everything that has happened.

Despite these few quibbles, the group and I thoroughly recommend this title to anyone with a love of reading, books and libraries.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Books for May

This month we have a suggestion from Goodreads based on our previous choices and then one of my personal favorites from the realm of Fantasy.

Both are now on the Nooks.

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister has a favor to ask her hairdresser Dorrie Curtis. It's a big one. Isabelle wants Dorrie, a black single mom in her thirties, to drop everything to drive her from her home in Arlington, Texas, to a funeral in Cincinnati. With no clear explanation why. Tomorrow.

Dorrie, fleeing problems of her own and curious whether she can unlock the secrets of Isabelle's guarded past, scarcely hesitates before agreeing, not knowing it will be a journey that changes both their lives.

Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams

This is the story of the story of Fritti Tailchaser, a courageous tom cat in a world of whiskery heroes and villains, of feline gods and strange, furless creatures called M'an. When his best friend, Hushpad, vanishes, Fritti embarks on a quest to find her, and is captured by several large cat-like creatures and forced into slavery in a subterranean world. This feline epic culminates in a decisive battle with an evil cat god.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Books for April

At long last, I have persuaded the group to try a book by one of my favorite authors: Brandon Sanderson. Warbreaker uses a magical system based upon color, which I think is unique in the Fantasy genre. It also features a reanimated zombie squirrel and a sword with a burning desire to kill things. Our second read is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, set in the world of writing.

They are now both on the Nooks.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to find a letter on her steps. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history.

While pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Since she was born, Vivenna has been raised to marry the God-King Susebron who rules the city of Hallandren. Siri has always been surplus to requirements and has been able to do as she wanted.

Lightsong is uneasy, not knowing why he is a God or what he is really meant to do with his powers. Vasher is a gruff man with his own goals, condemned to carry Nightblood, an evil sword that can talk and really, really enjoys killing people. Vasher is also adept at manipulating Breath, the magical currency of this world where color, magic and life are intrinsically linked together.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the Colonial Defense Force. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You'll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

* * *

I am ashamed to admit that I was not aware of Mr Scalzi’s writing until the publication of Redshirts a few years ago. It sounded like great fun and I added it to my enormous ‘To Be Read’ list in the hopes of finding time to read it eventually. I suggested it to my husband, who thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook, so it seemed like a good choice for maintaining my sanity during the highly repetitive tagging of the Great Closedown. I have to admit that my colleagues got rather annoyed with me chortling away to myself, but I thought it was hilarious and moved on to various other titles in his back catalog. Whilst I have not come across one that I did not enjoy, Old Man’s War seemed perfect for the NYOBG ladies: funny and action-packed but full of thought-provoking premises and interesting ethical dilemmas.

I know that Sci-Fi can be a little geeky and overburdened by scientific sounding mumbo-jumbo as it tries to justify faster than light travel and the other necessities of interplanetary colonization. Mr Scalzi turns this on its head by pointedly not explaining any of the advanced technology that we see in anything other than the broadest of terms. He even suggests that much of it is beyond humanity’s level of scientific development and has been ‘borrowed’ from alien species and then reverse engineered. This allows us to simply go along with the story and not worry too much about how John and his fellow soldiers do what they do or go where they go.

Speaking of whom, John is a rather likeable narrator. He has a streak of sarcasm and is often quite flippant, which reminded me a great deal of my paternal grandfather. He was an old guy who always had a twinkle in his eye and a surprisingly wicked sense of humor, even after losing his wife quite suddenly. He was lost in his grief for several years, but, just like John, he gradually came through it and lived almost ten years on his own after her death. I am fairly certain that he would have seriously considered joining the CDF and I am quite sure that he would have enjoyed the prospect of a body without knee pain and an enlarged prostate!

We do meet a variety of other characters, although many of them only make brief appearances before their faces are eaten off by one alien or another. John’s initial clique from his first few weeks in the CDF designate themselves ‘The Old Farts’ and we follow their careers to a certain extent as John hears about their adventures, but we are mostly concerned with John and his experiences. The other characters that really distinguish themselves are Master Sergeant Ruiz, who prides himself on despising all of the new recruits when they start basic training, and Jane Sagan, who I will not discuss because she is a major spoiler if you want to read the book.

In fact the only thing about John that I found a little annoying was his prodigious ability to outperform his colleagues, even when he is working with Special Forces. He is amazingly lucky and unbelievably successful as a soldier. This is especially intriguing because of his previous life as a writer of tag-lines for an advertizing company: not what I would imagine is the ideal preparation for becoming a super soldier. I am not sure if this is unconscious Mary-Sueism, or a deliberate attempt to highlight how immortal most lead characters are in these types of stories. John certainly is the perfect CDF recruit, but I guess that the book would be a lot less interesting if he died on his first mission or did nothing more exciting than working in the CDF version of the mail room.

Of course, we have no real way of knowing if John’s experience is massively extraordinary. During basic training, the recruits are told that most of them will not survive their minimum two year term of service and that certainly seems to be true for many of the characters that John encounters. Perhaps most of those who finish their minimum term are as skilled or lucky as he seems to be. In many ways it seems that luck is the most important factor at play as we see plenty of excellent people die through no particular fault of their own. Some even die because they simply do not identify the potential danger of the alien life that they encounter.

We do meet some interesting, and believable, aliens. Mr Scalzi goes beyond the highly unlikely humans with bumpy foreheads and there is certainly no suggestion of inter-species romance. Indeed, the most human race that we encounter are only 1 inch high, which seems like an insurmountable height difference, no matter how much a pair might love each other! As well as alien bodies, we are shown totally alien psychologies, religions and spiritual beliefs. This is especially evident with the Consu, who engage in ritualized battles to consecrate planets. They are highly xenophobic and consider themselves contaminated once they have been in contact with an alien species. This causes them to conduct meetings with aliens using only convicted criminals, who are killed after the contact, incinerated and then the ashes are shot into a black hole. As I said, they are very sensitive about staying ‘pure’ . . .

All of this is fun and entertaining, but I do not want to leave you with the impression that this title has no commentary on the human condition. The CDF’s decision to use geriatrics to fight the good fight is certainly very interesting. Firstly, it makes us wonder about our own choice in that situation. Would we choose an extended period of old age, with failing health, or would we be tempted to have a second chance? I do not want to discuss how the CDF overcomes the physical failings of its recruits, but the Old Farts certainly have quite a lot of fun when the process is over. Secondly, it goes against our assumption that it is the young who sacrifice their lives for the good of society. The CDF claims that old recruits are more psychological stable and also have more understanding of what precisely they are fighting to protect. Whilst most of the colonials are actually from the overpopulated countries on Earth, like India and Norway (for some reason that I cannot understand), the CDF recruits that we follow are all from the US. However, they have all experienced family, friends and love: all the things that they know will be destroyed if they allow the aggressive alien species to run free through the galaxy. I am not sure that this is true, but it certainly a very thought-provoking idea.

In short, I can thoroughly recommend this as a witty and interesting journey into Sci-Fi. It is action-packed and mercifully light on scientific explanations whilst using possible advances in technology to explore some interesting ethical dilemmas. Plus it has a scene with soldiers stomping on inch-high aliens!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Books for March

After our excursion into military fiction last month, we chose something a little different this time around. I have been trying to get the group to read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for quite some time now and I finally convinced them to give it a go. I am not normally susceptible to cover art, but River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay caught my eye when it was first published and I hope that it lives up to our expectations.

Both books are now on the Nooks.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Lin Shan is the beloved only child of a scholar, educated by him in ways young women never are, , she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later circling towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart - he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm, she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them. 

* * *

I remember being struck by the austere beauty of the cover art when this book was first published. I added it to my stupidly huge ‘To Read’ list with no clear idea of when, or if, I would ever find time to discover if the book was as good as its cover. So, when I was trying to gather a list of suggestions that were suitably wintery, I jumped at the chance to include this Pulitzer Prize nominee.

It may have been the snow gently falling past my living room window, but I found that the author painted a wonderfully vivid picture of life in the Alaskan wilderness. Living in Maine gives me some appreciation of snow and ice, cold and darkness, but at least we are not as removed from civilization as the characters in this book. Indeed the bitter remoteness of their existence had me shivering along with them. It is difficult to imagine living in such a desolate situation, although I know that some people still choose such a lifestyle. Whilst I can understand their desire to be independent and self-sufficient, I would not be happy at the thought of moonshine as the main medical treatment available in the local area!

Strangely, the remoteness of the setting gave this title a rather timeless quality. With the possible exception of communications, I am quite sure that life in some areas of Alaska is very similar to that depicted here. Even in the 1920s, Jack and Mabel were turning their backs on many of the comforts of modern living when they moved from ‘back East’. Personally, I could probably live without electricity, but I would struggle with an outhouse in the middle of the Alaskan winter: I definitely approve of indoor plumbing!

Of course, remoteness was precisely what Mabel wanted when she suggested the move to the distant North West. I found her experience of miscarriage and family expectation very understandable. As a childless woman myself, I know how difficult it can be to continually have your differentness highlighted. It is awkward enough in the present day, so I can only imagine how much worse it was then. I was particularly aggrieved for her because the family knew about the miscarriage and should have shown more understanding that she simply could not have a child. However, I am aware that in this regard Mabel is a very unreliable narrator: the tactlessness and hints that she perceives may have been purely in her imagination and a creation of her own depression. That she is clinically depressed at the beginning of the story is shown quite explicitly when she walks out on to the frozen river: she has tried to make a new start and it has not solved her problems.

Needless to say, the beginning of the book is very dark in tone as both she and Jack spiral down into their own private wells of despair.   Perhaps most depressing of all, at the beginning, is their isolation from each other. Each has retreated behind a barrier into a world of self-imposed expectations. They are both painfully lonely, even when sleeping together in the same bed. Their days have become an eternity of monotonous drudgery and self-sacrifice that seems to be leading them into exhaustion and, ultimately, failure. Both fear that they will be forced to abandon their dream and return to their old lives. However, neither of them is willing to share their fears with the other and so each is suffering without the vital support of their spouse.

Fortunately, all this changes when they are moved to make a snowgirl one evening. It is a testament to their lack of communication that neither of them mentions the apparent disappearance of the snowgirl next day. They are both so far withdrawn inside themselves that neither wants to reveal their thoughts about what seems to have happened. Of course, the girl soon returns to them and begins to transform them from tormented individuals into the loving couple that they once were. The process is slow and not without setbacks, but they gradually heal and transform into happy, productive people with an extended support system of friends and adopted family. In many ways, their journey is the real focus of the book and the mysterious Faina is simply the agent that causes this change.

However, the book seems to be Faina’s story as well sometimes, which does lead to my only issue with it. At first, it seems that she is a purely magical being. There are no footprints leading to the snowgirl, only ones going away from it, which suggests that she was somehow created from it. Also, her connection to the natural world certainly seems supernatural. She makes no real indentation in snow when she walks across it and seems impervious to the intense cold. She also has an uncanny ability to find, or perhaps direct, the local wildlife and appears to create snow and ice at will. The author even chooses to report her speech without the use of quotation marks, suggesting that it is telepathic rather than truly spoken. Of course, all of this is reinforced by Mabel’s repeated references to the Russian fairy tale contained in her book.

The author then makes what I believe is a misstep by providing an all too real backstory for the magical child. Whilst this allows her to then grow older and finally fall in love, it was very jarring to the original, magical, portrayal of the girl. One book group member suggested that perhaps an earlier repetition of the present circumstance: Faina being summoned by another person grieving a lost child. Whilst that fits some of the story, I felt as if that might be going a little beyond what the author intended. She seemed to make a definite attempt to convince us of Faina’s ‘realness’. I find such uncertainty rather unsettling, so I would have preferred to have had a clear identity for the agent of change.

However, I suppose that Faina’s nature is incidental to the transformation that she inspires, just as the beauty of a snowflake is not lessened by its ephemeral existence.