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One From the Archive: ‘Various Pets Alive and Dead’ by Marina Lewycka ****

Having greatly enjoyed Lewycka’s previous literary efforts – Two Caravans, We Are All Made of Glue and the bestselling A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – I was incredibly excited to read her fourth novel, the quirkily titled Various Pets Alive & Dead. 9780141044941

The novel begins on the 1st of September 2008.  Its opening focuses upon one of the book’s main protagonists, Serge Free, who is currently working in an office on the London Stock Exchange.  He is leading his parents, overprotective Doro and quiet Marcus, to believe that he is still finishing his abandoned Maths PhD at Cambridge, rather than letting them know that he actually has rather a high paid job in the capital.

Serge, along with his sisters Clara, a primary school teacher on a Doncaster estate, and Down’s Syndrome sufferer Oolie-Anna, were brought up in a commune in the south of Yorkshire ‘with a floating population of adults, children and various pets alive and dead’.  The Free siblings could not be less alike if they tried.  Serge is incredibly clever if a little naïve at times, Clara is strait-laced and sensible, and Oolie-Anna strives for the independence which her disability has taken away.

The characters themselves are all incredibly likeable.  They each have different quirks which immediately appeal to the reader.  Lewycka focuses upon the strengths and weaknesses of each of the Frees, and describes such elements as how ‘Doro has a long list of things she disapproves of, including consumerism, racism, war, Botox, Jeremy Clarkson, and trans-fatty acids’.  Even those who feature merely momentarily in the novel are well-developed.   Every chapter of the novel essentially focuses on a different character.  Each chapter heading is followed by a witty or amusing subtitle – for example, ‘Vandalism, Pee and the Doncaster Climate’, ‘The Carrot Rocket’ and ‘The Slowness of Plants’.

One of Lewycka’s strengths lies within the narrative voices which she creates.  Various Pets Alive & Dead is strong from the outset and begins with a great opening sentence: ‘The whole world is deranged, though most people haven’t noticed yet’.

The novel is told from the third person perspective, often in the present tense.  This gives the reader a real sense of comradeship with the incredibly believable characters which combine to create the novel.  The narrative style itself is quite relaxed but is still incredibly attentive to detail.  Irony, sarcasm and amusement are included throughout.

The dialogue throughout is well crafted and incredibly amusing in places.  Lewycka captures the dialects of her characters perfectly.  Whilst the reader is made aware that some of the characters speak with an accent – Eastern European Maroushka Malko, a colleague of Serge’s, and the youngest Free child, Oolie-Anna – their accents are subtle and not overdone.

Lewycka’s descriptions are fresh and original.  One of the best examples of this is the way in which she describes aftershave smelling of ‘aniseed and benzene lighter fuel’.  Lewycka puts series of words together so cleverly that even her descriptions of the more mundane aspects of life seem fresh and exciting.  The novel, particularly aspects such as the stock market which is detailed throughout, has been very well researched.  It is clear, even without reading the Acknowledgements page, that Lewycka has approached experts in the more intricate details of her novel.

Various Pets Alive & Dead is filled with a barrage of surprising twists and the reader can never quite predict where the story will end up.

Various Pets Alive & Dead is an incredibly absorbing novel.  Lewycka has a wonderful knack of bringing her stories, and the characters within them, to life.  Unlike many contemporary authors, she brings a vibrancy to the ordinary and offers fresh perspectives.  She manages to produce books which are incredibly different from one another in terms of story and setting, but which all contain her trademark humour and polished writing style.  Lewycka’s stylistically bold fourth novel is contemporary literature at its very best.

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Reading the World: Europe (Two)

The second part of miscellaneous book recommendations around Europe!

1. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Ukraine) 9780141008257
‘A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a “blind” old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive – a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down…’

2. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (Ukraine, England)
‘For years, Nadezhda and Vera, two Ukrainian sisters, raised in England by their refugee parents, have had as little as possible to do with each other – and they have their reasons. But now they find they’d better learn how to get along, because since their mother’s death their aging father has been sliding into his second childhood, and an alarming new woman has just entered his life. Valentina, a bosomy young synthetic blonde from the Ukraine, seems to think their father is much richer than he is, and she is keen that he leave this world with as little money to his name as possible.If Nadazhda and Vera don’t stop her, no one will. But separating their addled and annoyingly lecherous dad from his new love will prove to be no easy feat – Valentina is a ruthless pro and the two sisters swiftly realize that they are mere amateurs when it comes to ruthlessness. As Hurricane Valentina turns the family house upside down, old secrets come falling out, including the most deeply buried one of them all, from the War, the one that explains much about why Nadazhda and Vera are so different. In the meantime, oblivious to it all, their father carries on with the great work of his dotage, a grand history of the tractor.’

97800995077893. The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine, Paris)
‘Ada grows up motherless in the Jewish pogroms of a Ukrainian city in the early years of the twentieth century. In the same city, Harry Sinner, the cosseted son of a city financier, belongs to a very different world. Eventually, in search of a brighter future, Ada moves to Paris and makes a living painting scenes from the world she has left behind. Harry Sinner also comes to Paris to mingle in exclusive circles, until one day he buys two paintings which remind him of his past and the course of Ada’s life changes once more…’

4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain)
‘The discovery of a forgotten book leads to a hunt for an elusive author who may or may not still be alive…Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘cemetery of lost books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out ‘La Sombra del Viento’ by Julian Carax. But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from La Sombra del Viento, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Carax’s work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.’

5. Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic (Bosnia) 9780140374636
‘Zlata Filipovic was given a diary shortly before her tenth birthday and began to write in it regularly. She was an ordinary, if unusually intelligent and articulate little girl, and her preoccupations include whether or not to join the Madonna fan club, her piano lessons, her friends andher new skis. But the distant murmur of war draws closer to her Sarajevo home. Her father starts to wear military uniform and her friends begin to leave the city. One day, school is closed and the next day bombardments begin. The pathos and power of Zlata’s diary comes from watching the destruction of a childhood. Her circle of friends is increasingly replaced by international journalists who come to hear of this little girl’s courage and resilience. But the reality is that, as they fly off with the latest story of Zlata, she remains behind, writing her deepest feelings to ‘Mimmy’, her diary, and her last remaining friend.’

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Exciting New Releases

I feel that I am rather behind on new releases, since I am no longer actively receiving review books and the like.  I have also had very little time with which to browse book websites; gone are the University lull days that I could browse Powell’s catalogue for hours without thinking I had anything better to do!  That said, I am nonetheless very excited about five new releases which have come out since January, or are due to be released at some point in the near future.  These books have one common theme; I have very much enjoyed the author’s other work to date, and am therefore suitably excited to get my hands upon them.

1. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (02/08/2016) 9781472208606
‘Set in the Alaskan landscape that she brought to stunningly vivid life in The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World is a breathtaking story of discovery and adventure set at the end of the nineteenth century. Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its rich natural resources to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy. Forrester leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Adventurous in spirit, Sophie does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband carves a path through the wilderness. What she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage and fortitude of her that it does of her husband.’

97800919490442. Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran (10/03/2016)
”I’ve lived through ten iOS upgrades on my Mac – and that’s just something I use to muck about on Twitter. Surely capitalism is due an upgrade or two?’ When Caitlin Moran sat down to choose her favourite pieces for her new book she realised that they all seemed to join up. Turns out, it’s the same old problems and the same old ass-hats. Then she thought of the word ‘Moranifesto’, and she knew what she had to do…This is Caitlin’s engaging and amusing rallying call for our times. Combining the best of her recent columns with lots of new writing unique to this book, Caitlin deals with topics as pressing and diverse as 1980s swearing, benefits, boarding schools, and why the internet is like a drunken toddler. And whilst never afraid to address the big issues of the day – such as Benedict Cumberbatch and duffel coats – Caitlin also makes a passionate effort to understand our 21st century society and presents us with her ‘Moranifesto’ for making the world a better place. The polite revolution starts here! Please.’

 

3. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonsson (24/03/2016) 9781408837641
‘East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent sabre rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master. When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more free thinking – and attractive – than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape, and the colourful characters that populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.’

4. The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (07/07/2016)
‘Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed. In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn’t dare to look, and the result is riveting – unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence.’

97819054905615. The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka (05/05/2016)
‘North London in the twenty-first century: a place where a son will swiftly adopt an old lady and take her home from hospital to impersonate his dear departed mother, rather than lose the council flat. A time of golden job opportunities, though you might have to dress up as a coffee bean or work as an intern at an undertaker or put up with champagne and posh French dinners while your boss hits on you. A place rich in language – whether it’s Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian, Swahili or buxom housing officers talking managementese. A place where husbands go absent without leave and councillors sacrifice cherry orchards at the altar of new builds. Marina Lewycka is back in this hilarious, farcical, tender novel of modern issues and manners.’

 

Which of these have you read?  Which would you like to read?  Which are the new releases which you are most intrigued by?

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One From the Archive: ‘Various Pets Alive and Dead’ by Marina Lewycka ****

First published in February 2012.

Having greatly enjoyed Lewycka’s previous literary efforts – Two Caravans, We Are All Made of Glue and the bestselling A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – I was incredibly excited to read her fourth novel, the quirkily titled Various Pets Alive & Dead.

The novel begins on the 1st of September 2008.  Its opening focuses upon one of the book’s main protagonists, Serge Free, who is currently working in an office on the London Stock Exchange.  He is leading his parents, overprotective Doro and quiet Marcus, to believe that he is still finishing his abandoned Maths PhD at Cambridge, rather than letting them know that he actually has rather a high paid job in the capital.

Serge, along with his sisters Clara, a primary school teacher on a Doncaster estate, and Down’s Syndrome sufferer Oolie-Anna, were brought up in a commune in the south of Yorkshire ‘with a floating population of adults, children and various pets alive and dead’.  The Free siblings could not be less alike if they tried.  Serge is incredibly clever if a little naïve at times, Clara is strait-laced and sensible, and Oolie-Anna strives for the independence which her disability has taken away.

The characters themselves are all incredibly likeable.  They each have different quirks which immediately appeal to the reader.  Lewycka focuses upon the strengths and weaknesses of each of the Frees, and describes such elements as how ‘Doro has a long list of things she disapproves of, including consumerism, racism, war, Botox, Jeremy Clarkson, and trans-fatty acids’.  Even those who feature merely momentarily in the novel are well-developed.   Every chapter of the novel essentially focuses on a different character.  Each chapter heading is followed by a witty or amusing subtitle – for example, ‘Vandalism, Pee and the Doncaster Climate’, ‘The Carrot Rocket’ and ‘The Slowness of Plants’.

One of Lewycka’s strengths lies within the narrative voices which she creates.  Various Pets Alive & Dead is strong from the outset and begins with a great opening sentence: ‘The whole world is deranged, though most people haven’t noticed yet’.

The novel is told from the third person perspective, often in the present tense.  This gives the reader a real sense of comradeship with the incredibly believable characters which combine to create the novel.  The narrative style itself is quite relaxed but is still incredibly attentive to detail.  Irony, sarcasm and amusement are included throughout.

The dialogue throughout is well crafted and incredibly amusing in places.  Lewycka captures the dialects of her characters perfectly.  Whilst the reader is made aware that some of the characters speak with an accent – Eastern European Maroushka Malko, a colleague of Serge’s, and the youngest Free child, Oolie-Anna – their accents are subtle and not overdone.

Lewycka’s descriptions are fresh and original.  One of the best examples of this is the way in which she describes aftershave smelling of ‘aniseed and benzene lighter fuel’.  Lewycka puts series of words together so cleverly that even her descriptions of the more mundane aspects of life seem fresh and exciting.  The novel, particularly aspects such as the stock market which is detailed throughout, has been very well researched.  It is clear, even without reading the Acknowledgements page, that Lewycka has approached experts in the more intricate details of her novel.

Various Pets Alive & Dead is filled with a barrage of surprising twists and the reader can never quite predict where the story will end up.

Various Pets Alive & Dead is an incredibly absorbing novel.  Lewycka has a wonderful knack of bringing her stories, and the characters within them, to life.  Unlike many contemporary authors, she brings a vibrancy to the ordinary and offers fresh perspectives.  She manages to produce books which are incredibly different from one another in terms of story and setting, but which all contain her trademark humour and polished writing style.  Lewycka’s stylistically bold fourth novel is contemporary literature at its very best.

Purchase from The Book Depository