Heidi by Johanna Spyri — Reread Review

Heidi is another of those girlish children’s classics that I still love, perhaps a little more than Pollyanna but less than What Katy Did. Even though I can see that they’re a little preachy — and Heidi, in particular, is specifically God-related in its moralising — I still enjoy the simple stories of a special child who comes to make such a difference in everybody’s life.

Grandfather carries the bulk of the character development, everybody else stays more or less the same in terms of personality, though both Clara and Heidi learn new skills. The characters don’t necessarily feel that deep, but I do enjoy the little glimpses that we get of them. Only Dete and Miss Rottenmeier come off badly, and as an adult, I have at least some sympathy for both of them.

Soon the uncle appeared with the steaming milk, the toasted cheese, and the finely-sliced, rosy meat that had been dried in the pure air.

Heidi, Johanna Spyri

It’s the little things that stand out to me: Grandfather making Heidi her own stool once he realises that the ones he has are too big for her, the Doctor enjoying his outdoor meal of cheese and bread and meat more than anything else he’s eaten, Heidi and Clara sharing their hay bed when she comes to visit and, of course, the soft white rolls for Peter’s grandmother.

“Oh, Heidi!” Clara exclaimed, “I can see so many glittering stars, and I feel as if we were driving in a high carriage straight into the sky.”

Heidi, Johanna Spyri

Reading this now, the way Clara’s family come in and fix everything by giving everybody money is a little problematic. They mean well, but it feels a little too perfect too quickly. It doesn’t take away from the story as a whole, but it did make me wince.

Overall, the descriptions and the emotional impact definitely make this a book worth revisiting every few years!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

While Heidi and her grandfather were on their homeward path, the peaceful sound of evening bells accompanied them. At last, they reached the cottage which seemed to glow in the evening light.

Heidi, Johanna Spyri

The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Never trust a language that has no future tense and twenty words for ‘drunk’.

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston

The beginning of The Year of Our War was a real struggle. I felt bombarded with long, long lists of unfamiliar words, at least some of which are specific to this book and thus couldn’t be looked up in the dictionary. Perhaps this was intentional, because the opening scene(s) are a battlefield on which the POV character, Jant, and his comrades fights against an endless tide of Insects with a capital I. That part of the book was actually one of the most effective for me. I hate ants anyway, especially the way they swarm over things in their hundreds, so Jant’s eagle-eye perspective of the battlefield evoked that same shivering horror.

Unfortunately, that’s about where my patience with Jant’s perspective ran out. Even though it was deliberate, I very quickly tired of being given every female character’s physical stats in the context of how attractive they are to Jant. This happened several times within the first 60 pages, culminating in the introduction of Swallow who, despite being one of the most interesting characters, was primarily introduced as being plump but not big-breasted, as if that information would be remotely important.

Swallow was starting to use those callous efficient words which allow one to deal with the world without thinking about it. She knows how to say ‘I’m sorry’ when hearing news of a death. In that context, what the fuck does ‘I’m sorry’ mean? She knows how to say ‘hard luck’, ‘good day’, ‘I’m fine’, ‘see you next year’ — how daring it is for a mortal to anticipate that! The shell is growing, and it hides her. In a few years she won’t be thinking or feeling deeply at all, and I am afraid that then her music will cease.

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston

Zooming out for a moment, I struggled throughout the book with not having a clear idea of what I was supposed to care about, or why. Characters and relationships were introduced, but without any sense of how they would be important to the plot. Or even, really, what the plot was. Caroline, at book club, described The Year of Our War as being about the small stories of the immortal characters, the ‘office politics’ between them and questions of what professions are considered valuable enough to earn a place in the circle. If I’d known that going in, I might have had a better time of it.

The middle and end of The Year of Our War were definitely better than the beginning. And if you’re someone who specifically values the weird in fiction, then there’s a whole lot here for you! It’s just that I appreciate weird as an added extra, not my main motivation for reading. If the sequels were written from anyone’s perspective other than Jant’s, I’d give them a go, I think. As they’re not, however, this will probably be the last of this series that I read.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson — Reread Review

The Sky is Everywhere is a physically beautiful book, at least my version of it. Every chapter has at least one photograph of a poem written on everything from discarded coffee cups to clarinet sheet music. I don’t think describing them quite does them justice, because they feel like they ought to be a cringe-worthy gimmick, but within the context of the story they never are.

All her knowledge is gone now. Everything she ever learned, or heard, or saw. Her particular way of looking at Hamlet or daisies or thinking about love, all her private intricate thoughts, her inconsequential secret musings — they’re gone too. I heard this expression once: Each time someone dies, a library burns.

The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

I cried almost every time I picked the book up, and sometimes more than once in a single reading session. And yet, the overall experience of the book wasn’t as raw or as overwhelming as that make make it sound. There’s a wonderful contrast between Lennie’s grief and Lennie’s lust for life, not to mention the guilt she feels over having any zeal at all when she ‘should’ still be in mourning.

The truck blasts through the trees and I stick my hand out the window, trying to catch the wind in my palm like Bails used to, missing her, missing the girl I used to be around her, missing who we all used to be. We will never be those people again. She took them all with her.

The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

The characters are eccentric but believable, certainly in the way that Lennie relates to them. Only Bailey, despite being dying before the book even begins, truly matches the main character for depth, but Uncle Big, Joe, Toby, Sarah and Lennie’s grandmother make a very creditable supporting cast. I don’t feel the need to run out and read more stories about them, but only because this one came to such a satisfactory end. (And, thinking about it, I certainly wouldn’t say no to reading more in this universe!)

The Sky is Everywhere reminds me of Melina Marchetta’s YA Australian fiction and also of Sonya Sones’ YA narrative poetry collections. The language is descriptive without being overwrought and I’ve added a number of the quotations about grief to my commonplace book because they ring so true.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Life Class by Pat Barker — Reread Review

My first introduction to Pat Barker was during a mock exam, where I was presented with a portion of The Ghost Road and asked to analyse it. All I remember is that there was a tree, and maybe a body hanging from the tree, and I think some birds. It wasn’t a particularly compelling introduction to an author, I was mostly confused and stressed. Despite that, when I saw Life Class in a bookshop a few years later, I was intrigued enough to pick it up.

Then she walked rapidly back along the little side street she’d discovered, reaching the house just as the white bowl of the street began to fill with darkness, from the pavement upwards, like somebody pouring tea into a cup.

Life Class, Pat Barker

There are definitely things to like, starting with the descriptions. I haven’t read enough of Pat Barker’s work to know if she always uses artistic metaphors in her descriptions or whether its done in Life Class because all the perspective characters are artists. Either way, I enjoyed them. My feelings towards the characters themselves are more ambivalent. Elinor and Neville were mostly, but not unreservedly, sympathetic. Paul, the main character, had much greater lows, though not necessarily higher highs. I found his obsession with Teresa particularly annoying in this reread.

He’d have liked to know her, that secret person, but the mirror was also a shield and she’d be in no hurry to put it down.

Life Class, Pat Barker

That said, the characters were still the best bit of Life Class, as far as I’m concerned. I honestly couldn’t tell you what the plot was, there was no strong sense of forward movement, and none of the characters develop particularly, despite being thrown into such dramatic circumstances as the First World War. I hadn’t realised until I went looking for an image of the cover that this was the beginning of a trilogy. Perhaps I should have, because the ending certainly failed to resolve much of anything.

Overall, there was enough in Life Class to intrigue me and make me want to read more of Pat Barker’s writing, but it wasn’t, in an of itself, an unqualified success.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.