Review: Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

FTC darling, I am constantly getting you mixed up with the FCC.  I am always saying, Grrr, that FTC, cranky censorship snarl can’t even say swear words on the television grumble grumble grumble, and then remembering twenty minutes later that I’ve been ranting about the wrong acronym.   Sorry, FTC!  It was unkind of me to call you an ugly poophead and a fascist bastard, even if it was just to my sister!  Also, I thought you’d want to know that I received Broken Glass Park for review from the lovely people at Regal Literary Agency.

What I liked about Broken Glass Park:

  • The protagonist, Sascha, is an orphan.  I love a book about an orphan.  Indeed, the sentence that made me decide to like Love Walked In was “All of Clare’s favorite characters were orphans.”  For I, too, love orphans.  I dote upon orphans.  Especially plucky orphans.
  • Sascha is a fantastic protagonist with a clear, honest voice that drew me into the story straight away.  She’s tough, and she goes after what she wants, but not in an unrealistically sensible and fearless way.  Which is to say: She plans to murder her stepfather when he gets out of prison, lovingly reviewing her options for poison, breaking bottles over his head, and so forth, but when a local newspaper writes a sympathetic article about her stepfather, and she goes to confront the author of the article, she is madly intimidated by the newspaper office.  So right.  Teenagers find it easy to make murder plans and hellishly difficult to navigate adult spaces.  (At least I did.  And so does Polly Whittaker in Fire and Hemlock.)  (Er, I didn’t make murder plans as a teenager.  The other half.  Easily intimidated by having to interact as an adult with adults.)
  • I liked the way Sascha’s backstory unfolds gradually, so that you have mostly figured out what happened by the time the story confirms it.  Rather than trying to build up to a reveal, and BAM, explain everything at once, the book lets you see bits of the picture at a time until the whole thing becomes apparent.  It made the situation sad, rather than sensationalizing it.
  • Sascha’s relationships with her family rang absolutely true: her frustration with her mother’s romantic entanglements, her fierce devotion to her younger half-siblings, and her half-tolerant, half-nasty frustration with her guardian, a relation of her stepfather.  Lovely, lovely, lovely.
  • The end.  It was one of those endings that is emotionally satisfying endings and not too pat.
  • The translation!  Ah, yes, it is not often I have nice things to say about translated works.  I find them a trial.  Unless, of course, I have translated them myself, like The Aeneid and bits of The Metamorphoses, in which case I find them to be the best thing ever because I have conquered them WITH MY WITS (and sometimes a dictionary and nearly always the invaluable input of a commentary or two).  In the case of Broken Glass Park, however, I never felt I was reading in translation.  Props to translator Tim Mohr.
  • Getting this book in the post.  I do not often get new books at all, let alone as delightful treats through the post.  If I can get them used I do it, as I am an impoverished receptionist trying to decide on a Life Plan.  Still, there’s nothing like new books, with their shiny covers and sharp corners.  I was surprised at how excited I was when this one arrived.

What I did not like:

  • You saw this coming: Violence against women. It upsets me.  After finishing this book, I had a nightmare that a guy broke into my apartment and was just engaged in bashing up the mirrors in my bathroom when I woke up and confronted him.  I noticed I was dreaming, tested it by flicking the light switches to see if it changed the light levels in the room (it didn’t), and then went right on having the nightmare.  This was my second unsatisfactory experience of lucid dreaming in two nights.  I was led to believe that if I learned to dream lucidly, I would be able to have whatever sort of a dream I wanted.  I feel like instead of having a scary dream where I tried to figure out ways to get to my car and push the intruder down the stairs, I should have been able to start having a delightful dream where I traveled back in time and met Oscar Wilde and went to Greece and Rome with him and gossiped about the Theban Band.  So, not good.  The violence against women (Sascha herself as well as her mother) was not excessive, nor extensively described, but it upset me anyway.
  • Along the same lines: Sascha’s predictably self-destructive behavior.  It didn’t ring false or anything.  It just made me sad.
  • This one thing that happened with Volker.  Volker is a kind newspaperman who takes Sascha under his wing and takes care of her.  She becomes fast friends with his son Felix, and then THIS THING HAPPENS.  This thing happens that I can’t stand!  It felt out of character for Volker.  I wanted him to be lovely, but I couldn’t actually like him, because there was this thing.  I could not work out what Sascha’s feelings on the matter were, and the whole episode was jarring.

The Volker thing threw the whole rest of the book (until the end) off-kilter for me.  Still, I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I am with the writing and then translating of Sascha’s voice.  I love it when authors (and translators) can make first-person narrations work this well.  (Muriel Barbery, take note.) (Monsters of Men, wish you were here.)

Have you reviewed this too?  Let me know and I will add a link!

The Death Collector, Justin Richards

Recommended by Darla D from Books and Other Thoughts – I knew I had to read this when she said “dinosaurs” and “Victorian”, and then she carried right on and said “street urchin” and “vicar’s daughter” and “clock-maker”, which is not totally unlike Ella saying “Warning, it’s very Gothic” about Blackbriar.  I am leaving for a fantastic and glorious vacation in London (don’t go anywhere, London, I am coming back to you soon!), so I had collected all my books together to return to the library before I left (I know, right?).  And still I could not return them until I had read The Death Collector.

Essentially, a nice clock-maker called George teams up with street urchin Eddie and vicar’s daughter Liz to discover what is up with two mysterious deaths at the British Museum.  There are automatons (hahaha, that word is funny), there are corpses with dinosaur bones inside.  There is intrigue!  There is deception!  Intrigue and deception!  Kids’ books are fun for Jenny!  I really found The Death Collector entertaining, and I didn’t want to leave the country without finishing it.  And if the characterization was the tiniest bit limited, the plot was fun and included dinosaur eggs, so I’m at peace with it.

Other reviews:

Books and Other Thoughts
bookshelves of doom
Washington Post on the audio book

The Good Thief, Hannah Tinti

I read about this on Foreign Circus Library, the name of which I simply adore, and which I’m glad I’ve remembered because for some reason it wasn’t in my bookmarks even though I really like the name. Silly Jenny. Anyway, this book sounded so appealing. A little Catholic orphan! A con man! Mysteries of parentage!

However, having read a bit of it, I concluded that there weren’t really any mysteries of parentage, and so I didn’t peek at the end to see what the truth was, so I didn’t pay attention to any little clues that were dropped. Therefore my review right now is totally useless. I found bits of this story rather gruesome, and the bad guy had an aggravating way of talking. But since I didn’t know the end, and could not be pleased by the clues being dropped along the way, I don’t know how everything balances out. I enjoyed the book, but I can’t decide if I am in favor of it. In a while I’ll read it over again, and once I’ve done that I’ll let you know my complete opinion.

This is what HAPPENS when you don’t read the END. I am NOTHING BUT JUSTIFIED. I’m going back to watching Doctor Who.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling

I’m very emotional.  I – I – I have so many, so very many, feelings.

This was the only one of the books I waited for but not with my family.  When the sixth book came out, I was doing a month in London, which was amazing and I saw like twelve plays that month, but it also meant that I got my book from a bookshop in Croydon.  Aggravating melodramatic liar Frank Harris is from Croydon.  That’s all I will say.  Also, nobody stayed up with me to read it.  I was with (a different) Jane, and she and I and this other girl read the first three chapters out loud to each other, which was fun – I can vividly remember Hannah’s voice saying “Kreacher won’t, Kreacher won’t, Kreacher won’t!” – but then everyone went to bed except me.  In a way this was good because I could shriek and gasp all I wanted to without annoying anybody, but in another way it was sad because there was no one awake to say “HOLY SHIT SNAPE IS THE DADA TEACHER!”

So let me just take this opportunity to say, “HOLY SHIT!  SNAPE IS THE DADA TEACHER!” because reading this book for the fourth or so time has done nothing to dim the anxiety I feel when Dumbledore makes that particular announcement.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, things are getting nastier.  People you’ve heard about are dying suddenly, Death Eaters are all around, and Snape is acting shifty (for a change).  Malfoy’s got some top-secret Evil Project to do, but Harry’s the only one who seems concerned about this.  Dumbledore is giving Harry private lessons in which he shows him memories about Voldemort that he has collected, which is cool.  I don’t really know how to summarize the plot, since the fifth and sixth books are more just rising evil than a self-contained mystery, the way the earlier books are.  Suffice it to say, evil is rising.  The rest is spoilers.

The sixth is my second favorite of the books, just after the third.  Sometimes I think I like it even better than the third.  The adverbs don’t actually get any better, but a lot of fun stuff happens – the scene with Dumbledore at the Dursley house, at the beginning of this book, has gone on my favorite scenes list, for instance.  I love the entire Ron-Lavender plotline, which never fails to make me laugh.  It’s nice to see Harry doing well in Potions for a change – better he have an asshat Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, since he’s already brilliant in that area.  Besides which, this is the first book in which Harry really seems like an adult, and I feel very proud of him.  His instincts are good, and he’s gotten better at reporting weird things to teachers and other adults when he sees them.  (I think Dumbledore should have been straight with him about Malfoy.)  The scene in the middle where he puts Scrimgeour in his place is another favorite.  Sometimes I read it when I am feeling blue.

My family definitely knew Snape was in love with Lily by now.  My mother was certain about it by the time the fifth book came out, and this Lily being brilliant at Potions business just clinched it for us.  Mumsy spent a lot of time coming up with really maudlin scenarios for Snape to confess to Harry that he had loved Lily.  Her favorite one involved Snape giving his life for Harry and then in the throes of death imagining that he was talking to Lily instead of Harry (because of the eyes) and choking out “I did it, Lily – I saved your son – I did what I promised – ” Imagine how pleased she was at Snape’s real death scene in the seventh book.  I knew straight away that Snape was not really evil, and Dumbledore was not pleading for mercy.  I mean almost straight away.  I had a moment of pure and total consuming fury when I first read it, but then I was like, Now, Jenny, if Dumbledore asked him to kill him it doesn’t count as murder, so you cut that out.  I was still really mad at Snape.  I enjoy being mad at vile Snape.

And oh, how sad Dumbledore’s funeral was!  When Hagrid cried and cried – it hurt my heart.  Especially when Harry said the thing to Scrimgeour about Dumbledore’s not really being gone from Hogwarts, and that he was Dumbledore’s man through and through.  It gets me every time.

I am so emotional.  Obama inspirationally won the election, and we came very close to beating Alabama at the game that I ATTENDED, and Dumbledore died.  What a weepy week for Jenny.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling

I saw this graph one time on something connected with the Lemony Snicket books, and it showed how as time went on, the number of fortunate events decreased. And that is what I always think of when I read the fifth Harry Potter book. It contains so many depressing things – dementors, Umbridge, writing lines in blood, everyone thinking Harry is crazy, an acknowledgement of Harry’s psychological issues, Cho Chang – and the end makes me feel so very, very sad, for Harry and for Dumbledore. I stayed up until midnight for this book when it came out, at the Bongs & Noodles near my place, which was fun because of the big party they were having. I kept running into people from my high school who tried to pretend they weren’t there for the Harry Potter book but I KNEW BETTER. And the cover was so cool and mysterious! And then once we got our books, me and my big sister and our friend Jane went back to Jane’s house to read it, and they both got cross at me if I made a single noise when I was reading. And Jane’s dogs got really tired because we never turned the lights off, and they kept falling over when they tried to walk. It was good times.

I mean, sort of. If you ignore how sad this book is. In this one, Voldemort’s back, and nobody believes it. Harry and Dumbledore are totally discredited in the wizarding world, and everyone is constantly telling lies, repressing stories about dreadful things happening, and punishing Harry when he tries to tell the truth about Voldemort. There is a new awful Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher called Dolores Awful Umbridge, who spends her time turning Hogwarts into a Fascist state. Snape continues being horrible to Harry, and we sort of find out why. Harry’s psychic connection with Voldemort deepens (ugh), and Hagrid makes Harry’s life harder (again) (but I still love him). A few cheerful things happen, but they are few and far between, and they are quickly cancelled out by all the awful things that follow in their wake.

The adverbs in this book hurt me. I tried not to notice them but it was difficult when they were clawing free of the page and burrowing into my eyeballs. My recollection is that the sixth book isn’t as bad about this, but we’ll see. I feel like the adverbs in this book are worse than they’ve been.

My mother doesn’t like it when Harry yells at everybody all through this book. I kind of do. I mean, not the all-caps business, which just shouldn’t be allowed, but I feel that at this point, he’s entitled to a little anger. You know, the kid loses his parents, gets raised by assholes in total ignorance of his heritage, and when he does go off to wizard school and escape from the jerks that didn’t parent him properly, the adults in his life continue to not parent him, not even managing to protect him from Dark wizards trying to kill him (I feel guilty even writing this because I was so sniffly when I was reading the bit about how guilty Dumbledore feels about Harry at the end of this book), and then, when the person who killed his parents returns to start killing more people, everyone he knows quits talking to him for half the summer. Oh, and the wizarding world staunchly denies that his very traumatic experience of watching Voldemort return ever happened. So hey. I’d be mad too.

(Apparently growing up with these books has made me very protective of Harry.)

Now I will have spoilers.

On rereading, I find myself much fonder of Luna Lovegood, who grew on me in the sixth book after I originally completely loathed her (how did I ever loathe her? I’m so weird). I find Umbridge and Snape’s nastiness with Harry actually more upsetting now than I did originally, because I know that Umbridge is never getting her comeuppance, and because I feel like Snape could really have made more of an effort to be nice to Lily’s kid, especially when the kid in question is going through a very hard time with hostility on all sides. That jerk of a Snape. Lily’s looking down from heaven and saying You asshole. I found it incredibly woeful when Lupin told Mrs. Weasley that of course Ron and Ginny would be taken care of if something happened to the Weasley parents. In light of what I know is going to happen to Lupin, that is rather depressing.

On the positive side, I love their top-secret underground Defense Against the Dark Arts Group. I love it when Fred and George take off for good, and everyone in the school works to sabotage Umbridge and her reign of terror (that writing lines in your own blood thing is damn creepy, I must say). I am pleased each time I read the scene where Dumbledore fights off all the Aurors and goes on the run. As much as it pains me, I am interested in the scene from Snape’s memory with James and Sirius – because, I hate him, but it’s about time we found out some extenuating circumstances about Snape. And I am glad about how Hermione confronts Harry about his “saving-people thing”. She’s so clever and perceptive, and if Harry had just damn well listened to her, Sirius wouldn’t have died. So it was nice to have that out there.

I have not yet reconciled myself to the fact that Sirius dies. I cry every time I read that scene. My own father’s so lovely! Imagine having no father and then when you finally acquire a father figure who, okay, has some issues to work out, but nevertheless is devoted to you, HE DIES. It’s so unfair. Poor Sirius. Poor Harry. Actually, the sequence in the Department of Mysteries is a tense and upsetting sequence. Everyone is so brave, and particularly darling Neville is so brave! Oh, when he says that Harry’s not alone, he’s got Neville, and when, oh, Neville, when he tells him not to give them the prophecy, and…

Suffice it to say that – this always happens – I started crying when Neville starts being so brave and wonderful, and I carried right on crying through Sirius’s death, Dumbledore’s fight with Voldemort, and especially all through the part where Dumbledore is explaining everything to Harry. Just don’t even talk about how many tissues had piled up next to me by the time he told him why he didn’t make him a prefect. Oh, right, and at the exact second when I managed to begin drying my eyes, I got to the bit where Harry finds the mirror, and then just when I was feeling proud that I didn’t cry when Harry talks to Nearly Headless Nick, I got to the part where he talks to Luna, and that destroyed me all over again.

…I have a lot of feelings.  The more of these books I read the more emotional I get.  I’m going to have a thing or two to say about Rufus Scrimgeour after I read the sixth book.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling

Holy God, this book is scary. I had completely forgotten how terrifying the scene in the graveyard is. Damn.

Goblet of Fire isn’t as unfavoritey to me as I remembered it being. I don’t know why I was so cranky about it. I mean, apart from the Blast-Ended Skrewts, which were a much less important part of the book than I was remembering, and the fact that this book is hard on poor Harry, Goblet of Fire isn’t half bad. I was expecting that I would reread it and decide after all that I liked it even less than Chamber of Secrets, but that hasn’t happened at all. On the contrary, I have felt very fond of it, even though this is the book in which things take a turn for the Very Dark. Goblet of Fire was the first of the books that I actually waited for. It came out when my family was on vacation in Maine, and we went to this lovely little bookshop in a loft in Kennebunkport (the vacation spot also of the senior Bushes, but don’t get me started on the awful stories I’ve heard about that) called Kennebunk Book Port. I miss that bookshop. Anyway, we got there way too late, because they are a small bookshop, and they only had two left to reserve, so my mother and my big sister each reserved a copy. On the day, they brought them back to the house, and we all had to wait and wait and wait and wait to read them until Mum and Anna had finished. There was much staying up late and swiping books from people. Good times.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Hogwarts had joined up with two other schools of magic (Bulgaria’s Durmstrang and France’s Beauxbatons) to hold the Triwizard Tournament, in which one student from each school gets to compete in scary tasks and win a shiny cup. Inexplicably, the supposedly impartial Goblet of Fire spits out two names for Hogwarts, and one of them is Harry’s. As he deals with this, there are rumors and whispers about Voldemort, with mysterious Voldemort-related things happening all over the place – disappearances and scary KKK-like Muggle torture.

On reflection, Goblet of Fire is not at all a bad book. Not a bit bad. Reading it again has reminded me of a number of things, like how fond of Mr. Weasley I used to be, back in the day when he still had time to be fascinated by Muggle things. It’s so cute when he comes to the Dursley’s house and says that the fireplace runs off of eckeltricity and that he collects batteries. I would have been sad if J.K. Rowling had gone with her first instinct and killed Mr. Weasley, but on the other hand I think it would have been preferable to the nineteen people she ended up killing to make up for Mr. Weasley. (I’m counting four people, right now, that probably would have survived if she had killed Mr. Weasley, and three of them were on the list I made before the seventh book came out of people who Absolutely Must Not Die. And the other one would have been on that list if it weren’t for the fact that I didn’t have the sense to make a list before JK Rowling killed him off.

I can’t decide how I feel about Hermione’s house-elf mania in this book. On one hand, it’s fun, it’s a very Hermione thing to do, and it sets up house-elves as a major point, which is important for the fifth and seventh books. On the other hand, that’s pretty well set up without Hermione getting all crazy about it, so I’m torn. I do enjoy that the three main characters are starting to grow up – though, hey, Krum’s kind of a perv, asking a fourteen-year-old girl to come visit him in his country – and it’s nice to see Harry really coming into his own as far as Defense Against the Dark Arts are concerned.

I’m reluctant to read the fifth book. I like it a lot, but it’s so sad. I don’t know if I want to read all that sadness.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling

Mm, this is the one I’ve been waiting for. My original plan was just to read Prisoner of Azkaban, my most favorite of all the Harry Potter books, but then I decided to read them all, since I knew that would take longer and afford me more lasting satisfaction. In Azkaban, a supporter of Voldemort (and, it more or less goes without saying, murderer) breaks out of the wizard prison Azkaban and is out on the lam, desperate – say the prison guards – to get to Harry and kill him dead. Meanwhile the soul-sucking dementors that generally spend all their time guarding Azkaban are out in force at Hogwarts in case Sirius Black (the aforementioned stone-cold killer) shows up there, and the dementors are so awful that poor Harry has a ‘sode every time they come around. A really unpleasant one in which he hears his parents’ last moments on earth. In other news, Hagrid has become a teacher, the kids have a new and wonderful Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and we find out a number of things we didn’t know before about Harry’s father. Plus, Hermione gets a cat, and Harry learns a cool new spell, which is probably the most useful spell he ever learns.

There’s just nothing about this book that I dislike. I think the reason I like it so much is that all the elements are interesting and cool and handled well; and at the end, they all pull together beautifully: Hermione and her many classes, the hippogriff on trial, Harry’s spell to ward off dementors, his acquisition of the Marauder’s Map, the business with Sirius Black, the back-story on James Potter’s school life, the ongoing quarrel between Hermione’s cat and Ron’s rat. Everything. It’s synergistic. It’s satisfying. Not to mention that this is the book in which we first meet funny Professor Trelawney, whom I love, and Professor Lupin, whom I love even more (until the seventh book, at which point I kinda fell out of love with him because he was being a jerk, which is too bad since I spent books four, five, and six complaining loudly about how totally not enough Lupin there was). The end sequence in the Shrieking Shack is one of my top five favorite scenes in the entire series. (I’ve just pulled the number five out of nowhere. I don’t actually have a list of the five best Harry Potter scenes – though now I want to make one, to see how the Shrieking Shack scene measures up.)

I will say, because I don’t want this to be a total panegyric to the third book even though it’s the best, that-

Yeah, no. Nope. I can’t think of anything bad to say about Prisoner of Azkaban. Every time I read it, I have one of those reading experiences where everything else falls away. It’s always like reading it for the first time. Whenever I (spoilers ahead) get to the bit in the Hogsmeade pub where they’re talking about Sirius Black, and Madam Rosmerta says “Quite the double act, Sirius Black and James Potter!”, I always feel startled, it always makes me gasp (Social Sister will tell you that this was very irritating the first time I read it, lying on my bed in the room we shared and refusing to tell her why I was gasping), and I always worry about Harry, poor dear, with his many psychological issues. I continue to get riled up every time Snape acts like a jerk to Harry about his father, or to Lupin about his werewolfiness – Snape’s such a bully! I’m sorry, I don’t care how tortured and miserable he is, he’s got no call to be such a bullying meanie to a bunch of fourteen-year-old kids. Mean old Snape. The list of things for which I can never forgive him, oh, it is a long list.

As far as post-Deathly Hallows rereading goes – I think the only major change is that I find the scenes where Lupin remembers Harry’s father to be much more upsetting than I did when I was first reading these books. I mean, knowing Lupin’s whole story, how he was so lonely and sad and friendless as a kid, and then he finally made some amazing friends who did amazing things for him, and then they all died or turned out to be evil, and he went right back to being lonely and sad and friendless all through his adult life. Ouch. That hurts my heart. I also feel rather affectionate about Ron and Hermione’s quarrel over Crookshanks and Scabbers. It’s the first of many quarrels they will have on their bumpy road to happy togetherness. Oh, and how good was it when harry got to stay by himself in Diagon Alley before the year began? Staying at the pub and having nice meals and wandering all around by himself? That must have been fun. Since he will never have fun again, ever, I’m glad he got to have that experience.