Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden and our next Book Club pick.

Hello everyone, I hope you have had a wonderful weekend and have been out enjoying the summer sun!  For the UK, this is a bank holiday weekend, so you guys should kick your feet up and enjoy the long weekend!  For everyone else, commiserations on work tomorrow, but the good news is, I am here to cheer you up with a book review and our next book club pick!  If you haven’t joined my book club already, then you should definitely give it a go!  Just buy this months book, read along and let me know your thoughts!  It’s that easy.

Bear nightingale pic

Last months book was ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ by Katherine Arden.  For those of you unfamiliar with this book, the blurb reads: In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift- a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter.  Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, wilful girl, to the chagrin of her family.  But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.

As blurbs go, this promised a lot, and the book itself did not fail to disappoint.  On the surface, this is a good old fashioned adventure story.  A young girl facing unimaginable odds and unsurmountable danger, must face her fears and fight to save her family.  The tale has been told dozens of times, in various forms, but with the addition of mythical creatures, Russian folklore and classic fantasy, this book rises head and shoulders above the rest, to produce an exciting and entertaining read.  It takes those traditional tales, and turns them on their head, spins them around, and pushes them over.  In a word, it is magical.

Peel back a layer, and the story is about so much more.  The main character’s struggle for independence and power over her own life in a Patriarchal society, provides a classic tale of feminism and female strength.  Indeed, Vasya is told repeatedly throughout the book that a woman’s ‘place’ and ‘lot in life’ is marriage and children, or the convent.  Those are her only two options.  Both, to Vasya, are worse than death, and so she fights her family, her village, even society itself, for the ownership over her body and her future.  Her refusal to submit to such overwhelming pressure from all directions, makes her all the more heroic to me as a female reader.  Too many fairy tales present the concept of a princess who needs to be rescued, or who gives up everything she is to marry her beloved prince.  Indeed, most of the stories I grew up with as a child, seem to give the distinct impression that finding your ‘Prince Charming’ is the be all and end all.  This story certainly does not read like that, and Vasya is a strong and independent female character. I will definitely be reading this book to my daughter.

On another level, it is about a girl who does not fit in.  She is strange and odd, and as a result, she is ostracised and bullied.  But again, in the face of name calling and isolation, she remains determined to be herself.  She is happy knowing that the people who are most important to her, like her family and nanny, love her just as she is.  Again, this presents such a positive role model for younger readers, and makes Vasya all the more loveable as a main character.

Finally, and more controversially, the book is a damning indictment of organised religion and indeed modern politics.  Vasya’s village once believed in the old ways, leaving food and offerings to the many spirits which occupy their home and the neighbouring woods, and who watch over them and their animals.  When a new priest comes to town, Father Konstantin, an arrogant man who yearns to be loved, he brings with him his charming way with words and his striking good looks, both weapons in his arsenal, which he uses to sway the people towards the ‘New God’ with surprising effectiveness.  He wants to be loved, and to have power, so he terrifies the ignorant villagers, with his warnings of the fiery inferno and eternal damnation awaiting them all in the afterlife, if they do not repent and submit to him.  The villagers change, blindly following him, whatever he says, out of pure fear.  In a society where politicians also wield fear as a weapon, this makes for incredibly relevant reading.  Even as the villagers die, the crops fail and the dead walk, Father Konstantin is unwavering in his faith, simply telling the villagers to pray.  Again, I am struck by similarities to our modern day politics, where people in positions of power, positions where they can make real change, merely offer prayers and empty promises.

In short, this book is simply wonderful, and I found myself, on several occasions, unable and unwilling to put it down.  I can’t find any fault with it and I thoroughly recommend it to all of you!  Have you read ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’?  Let me know your thoughts.

Junes Book Club pick is ‘The 9th life of Louis Drax’ by Liz Jensen.  This isn’t a long one, so we may have two book club picks for this month, I will let you know!  So what is this book about?  Nine-year-old Louis Drax is a problem child: bright, precocious, deceitful- and dangerously, disturbingly, disaster prone.  When he falls off a cliff into a ravine, the accident seems almost predestined.  Louis miraculously survives- but the family has been shattered.  Louis’ father has vanished, his mother is paralysed by shock, and Louis lies in a deep coma from which he may never emerge.  In a clinic in Provence, Dr Pascal Dannachet tries to coax Louis back to consciousness.  But the boy defies medical logic, startling Dannachet out of his safe preconceptions, and drawing him inexorably into the dark heart of Louis’ buried world.  Only Louis holds the key to the mystery surrounding his fall- and he can’t communicate.  Or can he?

If you fancy joining my book club, buy a copy as well, and read along!  Don’t forget to follow my blog for updates on this series of posts, along with many others and happy reading!

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