Adrian reading “Captain Underpants”. The book has butt jokes, people running around in their underpants, and a time machine made out of a portaloo. Absolutely perfect for a seven-year-old.

A rare thing happened: I read a Swedish book that I really liked. That is worth a book review post, even though most of you reading this probably don’t care about Swedish books.

The title, “Ordbrodösen”, means “word embroiderer”. Females from a special family in rural Sweden have the power to control and influence others using their written words. Girls get their power when they turn eighteen. Alba, a girl from the magical family, turns eighteen and goes through her induction ceremony, but for some reason her power doesn’t work.

As she tries to understand what is going on, dark secrets start leaking out from previously hidden corners of the family history. And before you know it, Alba is racing to find a lost/hidden relative, before other people find him and, ehm, get rid of him.

I like the magic in this book, because it is so low-key and un-fantastical. It has some interesting limitations and implications. And in a way it is like a weird kind of programming.

The tone of the book is also everyday and un-fantastical, which makes the story feel quite normal and believable. There is a lot of detail that makes each scene feel real and almost palpable, as if I was there.

The mystery aspect of the story is well handled: we get hints and clues at an appropriate pace, there is a thrilling final “battle” and the secrets ultimately revealed are suitably astonishing.

Like many fantasy books I read and like, this one is probably aimed at young adults. On the plus side, this means it is relatively brief (as opposed to the thirteen-book mammoth series that some more grown-up fantasy works grow into). On the minus side, it feels a bit lightweight in a way I cannot exactly define.

“The Night Circus” is the story of two young magicians, Marco and Celia, and their magical contest. The contest has no apparent end and its goals and rules are unclear. The contestants are both bound to it for life: they cannot give up, nor apparently win or lose. They just keep competing. The tragedy of it all only dawns on us slowly.

The arena for the contest is the circus from the book’s title. It has mostly non-magic performers, but Celia and Marco start adding magical elements to it. Not just the obvious illusionist’s show that is truly magical, but all sorts of other acts that are magical in the sense of being weird and wonderful. A garden of ice; a carousel where the animals are partly alive; a hall of mirrors where the reflections are not quite the mirror image of that which they reflect.

Marco’s and Celia’s powers complement each other. They build the circus together, while still always being aware that they are competing.

As a reader, you can see the love affair between the two from miles away, but they themselves don’t, and it takes years for them to cover those miles. (What a romantic, sentimental concept of love, to have the lovers kept apart and longing forever.)

The circus is beautiful and mysterious, and makes you wish you could live in that world only so I could visit it. In the book, the circus gains fans whose whole life revolves around visits to the travelling circus. But I never feel that I can really picture it – it remains just a little bit vague, like a dream.

The world is apparently flawless, full of lovable, charming characters. They have parties with excellent food; they perform in beautiful circus acts. Magic appears to always succeed. There are no failures and no mistakes. Nobody is ever in a bad mood, everyone at the circus always gets along. All is dreamlike perfection.

We experience all of this through short glimpses and the occasional set piece. The story jumps back and forth in time, which is occasionally confusing, but in keeping with the dreaminess of it all, the slight confusion didn’t bother me much because I found that the exact order of events mostly didn’t matter much.

It takes a patient reader to savour the wonders of the circus and the book. The pacing is slow all the way, which goes with the dreaminess but has its downsides. While I enjoyed every page I read, I never got that feeling that I can’t put the book down and just have to read one more page, so it took me a while to finish. It could have done with more variation in tone and pace.

Only at the very end does the intricate magical balancing act of the circus start to teeter. I was almost hoping for it to come crashing down in fire and flames, but it doesn’t. Ending such a story is hard, but Morgenstern manages it well – although again she doesn’t quite succeed in getting the pacing right, making it dreamy instead of dramatic.

I got this book as a Christmas gift from Ingrid. It was a great choice. I do wonder how she picked it.

By chance, I happened to read these three books consecutively. They turned out to explore similar themes but from quite different angles, and they fit together like three parts of a… something. What’s the three-part equivalent of “hand in glove”? Two legs in a pair of trousers, perhaps?

Touch by Clare North
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, also by Clare North
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

In Touch, a man called Kepler can transfer himself into the body of anyone he touches, pushing to the background the person who used to inhabit that body. He is not alone in having this power – there are others, but they are few. This power can of course be used in all manners of ways, but one obvious benefit is that he can effectively live forever, as long as he can find someone to touch before he dies. That is, in fact, how he discovers his power – he is killed, and instinctively jumps from his body, before it dies, into the killer’s.

The cover of the book sells it as a thriller, and it is. One day our man finds himself hunted. People are trying to kill him, people who know what he is and how he moves from body to body, and he needs to find out who and why.

But more interesting to me than the thriller plot was the exploration of this power, and what life choices it gives to its wielders. “Ghosts” vary as much as humans in general and use their abilities in very different ways. But like for normal humans, what most of them really want is to be loved.

It is a power, but it has its cost – the “ghosts” can never live a life that is fully their own. They are parasites. In order to live, they must push aside someone else, exploit someone’s body, take over their life – their family, friends, identity… With some, the exchange is conscious and willing. In other cases, a ghost steals decades of an unwitting host’s life and only leaves them when they are near death – and the original inhabitant of the body awakes in panicked pain and confusion.

I really liked Claire North’s writing style. It flows incredibly smoothly, fast-paced without ever feeling speedy, poetic despite its thriller plot. There is something touching and sad about its tone. Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, when it comes with this kind of rootlessness.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is, in one reviewer’s words, “Life After Life done right”. While I don’t agree at all, I can see why they would say that.

Life After Life is about reliving a life, over and over – surviving an accident that killed you last time – but without ever truly remembering the previous lives. The most that you might get is a sense of foreboding when that accident nears, or a vague sense of familiarity, inexplicably feeling that you know what is about to happen.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is that, but with full memory and consciousness. Having lived and died once, Harry August is born again and lives the same life again. Unfortunately, unprepared for this experience as he is, the disorientation and horror soon drive him mad and he takes his own life. But he adapts, and while the next lives are far from happy, at least he survives into old age.

But, just as with Touch, Clare North adds a thriller angle. At the very end of one of his lives, Harry August is visited by a young girl who gives him a message to pass on to the Cronus Club, a fraternity of time travellers like him. (Handing a message to an old person on their deathbed, so that their reborn young self can pass it on to others, is the established way of communication backwards in time. This particular message has already travelled thousands of years.) She tells him that the world is ending. And with each cycle, the end is coming closer.

In parallel with the thrilling brain-twisting plot is unfolding (with extra brain-twistyness since it is presented non-linearly) the book (like Touch) explores the implications of this “power”, what it means for the person and what it does to them. Since Harry keeps his memories, he is not the same man the next time around – he learns, he makes different choices, sees the world differently, has different priorities. Where Life After Life truly feels like a never-ending cycle, Harry August’s many lives are more like a spiral: each cycle is the same, but different.

After a while, it all becomes “same old, same old” for Harry. When you’ve travelled all the places you want to travel, learned all the skills you want to learn, studied all the subjects you want to study, and every relationship is burdened by your unspeakable secret (as well as your unequal ages), endless life becomes dull.

One might think that as an immortal, there is endless opportunity to experiment to spice life up: just kill Hitler and see what happens! or introduce future technology 50 years early! or try something else to kick life into a new groove. But any radical changes to the timeline would lead to future immortals not being born, and causing this to happen is the gravest possible sin among immortals. (This ideology of non-change underpins the plot, by the way: one immortal decides that he wants more from life, not just more of it.)

I have two quibbles with this book. Parts of it are rather slow. And so is Harry as a character and narrator – a bit dull and bland. The narrator in Touch feels a touch more sensitive and mature. It does not surprise me that Claire North wrote The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August before Touch.

Still, an excellent book – interesting, intellectually challenging, well written.

(Here’s an interesting, longer review that tells you much more of the plot.)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell also has immortals, akin to those in Touch in that they live linearly rather than cyclically, but also akin Harry August in that they are reborn into a new body instead of transmigrating as and when they wish.

They are the centrepiece of the book, but for the most part they go almost unnoticed. Instead we follow the lives of a bunch of ordinary people. Holly Sykes is the first one we meet. The others are tangentially linked to Holly, and the stories all keep coming back to her.

After 400 pages of detail-rich realism and ordinary people leading ordinary lives (with just tiny hints of something strange going on in the background), suddenly Mitchell shifts gears and now we’re fantasy land. Holly gets drawn into a centuries-old war between a “good” bunch of immortals who get their immortality more or less naturally, and a “bad” bunch who consume other people’s lifespans, vampire-like. Magical duels and travelling through weird dimensions into impossible places and mysterious substances and made-up jargon and an Ultimate Battle to End All Battles and that sort of stuff. Mitchell is, frankly, not good at this kind fantasy – it’s like something out of a Dan Brown book. When we see the mystery up close, it loses much of its appeal and becomes almost silly.

… aaand then we’re done with the ultimate battle and back in the realm of realism again, but decades into our future, so it’s hard to tell how realistic this part of the story actually is.

It’s all very well written, brilliantly alive. I can open the book at any page and be sucked right in. But when I reach the end of the book, I’m unsure what the purpose was.

This book wasn’t Holly’s story – we know some of what happens in her life, but not enough actually happens to make it worth a book. It definitely wasn’t about the other people, because even less happens to them. (I could have skipped the whole of the part about the disillusioned writer and not missed anything.) And given how much of the time the immortals spend in the background (plus their ultimate battle doesn’t even resolve their war) it doesn’t seem to be about them either. I kept waiting for some kind of finale, some conclusion, and there was none.

I loved much it while I was reading it but I feel no strong need to read it again.

Eric is reading Harry Potter for Ingrid every other night. (The other nights, I read Supilinna salaselts.) I also listen because Harry Potter is fun, even in Swedish. Several evenings now we’ve heard about about quidditch games.

[I note that my text editor recognizes quidditch as a valid English-language word. Unlike recognizes, which it thinks should be spelled with an S instead of a Z.]

The programmer in me cannot help but wonder about the magic controlling the quidditch balls. I mean, since the balls fly around on their own, they must have some kind of instructions. If you want to control something by magic, you must know precisely what you want it to do.

How could you instruct something to behave the way the Golden Snitch behaves in the books, for example? “Fly around, fast and unpredictably, but not too fast. And keep yourself hidden, but not too hidden – no burrowing into the ground or someone’s pocket!”

I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour in the science fiction bookshop and came home with a pile of books, among them a whole series by Robin Hobb – the Rain Wilds Chronicles. Now I can’t stop reading. This series is just as unputdownable as the ones I’ve read before. I am putting off household tasks, skimping on sleep, choosing the quickest dinners I can cook, saying no to the kids, so that I can go back to reading. I’ve come to realize I need to ration my reading so that other parts of my life don’t get completely neglected.

One of the things that I really like about Robin Hobb’s writing is her ability to hint at things to come and to build up anticipation. She builds it up gradually and subtly. She may start by just mentioning an idea or a concept in an aside, or perhaps a person who hasn’t been mentioned for a while. Then later she discreetly brings up the same idea from another angle. And you know it’s going to lead to something big, and you know it’s getting closer, and even though you have no idea what it is, you’re biting your nails while you’re waiting to get there.

Melanie is 10 years old. Like most 10-year-olds, she goes to school. Unlike most 10-year-olds, she is taken to school by armed guards, strapped into a wheelchair. After school she is taken back to her cell. She never goes outside that building.

Until one day, she has to, together with her favourite teacher. The world outside is not like in the stories her teachers have told her, not like what she’s read about in the books. There’s not much left of it, and it’s pretty deadly.

I really don’t want to spoil the story for you, even though I’m itching to write more. It’s clever, it’s thrilling, it’s scary. The world is unwrapped with such care, the people and their relationships developed so lovingly. Secrets and surprises are uncovered at just the right pace, with just the right amount of drama.

The girl in the title refers of course to both Melanie and the myth of Pandora, the story of which Melanie has heard in her lessons. So I guess I should have seen it coming but the ending still took me by surprise – in a really good way. When you think you know where this is going, no, you don’t.

A more in-depth review at io9 that manages to avoid spoilers.

The book strongly reminds me of John Ajvide Lindqvist by the way.

Egenmäktigt förfarande won the August prize in 2013 and reviewers praised it to the skies. I can see why, and yet I didn’t like or enjoy the book at all.

Ester, a writer/journalist, falls head over heels in love with Hugo, a famous artist. He seems sort of interested and they meet casually a few times. But it soon becomes apparent to everyone but Ester that he’s just not that into her. She can’t let go and desperately interprets every little action of his, looking for signs of love. He on the other hand needs that feeling of being desired and keeps her hanging on, never quite saying no.

If Ester was a teenager, I might find this believable. But I just cannot swallow the idea that an intelligent, rational adult woman with no apparent psychological problems would suddenly become so naive and blind, and lose all of her critical thinking ability as well as her self-respect. This book makes no sense to me.

And its wallowing in Ester’s inability to think clearly became very predictable and quite annoying after a while. At first I could empathise with Ester to some extent. But as the story went on and nothing ever really changed, I felt that her emotional state was so far from what I could relate to that it didn’t engage me at all any more. I turned the pages faster and read less of each one.

The story is so very simple that the book isn’t really about the story but about how it is told. Even though it’s all about emotions and passion, it’s very dispassionately written. I never get close to Ester. We may hear the thoughts inside her head but we see them from the outside, laid out in order and clinically dissected. It’s passion as described in an essay, using the most carefully chosen clever and precise phrases, strung after each other just so. Passion from a distance, so you cannot actually feel it, only analyze it.

A book for intellectuals to be impressed by, not for readers to enjoy.

Our bookshelves are full, and books keep piling up on all sorts of surfaces here. I have 6 piles on my desk. There are piles on the bedside tables in our bedroom and the kids’ bedroom. There are piles on the side table next to the sofa. At least we manage to keep the piles off the floor…

Kate Atkinson’s Life after life is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

To quote the back cover:

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

That baby is Ursula Todd. She dies at birth, strangled by her umbilical cord. But then the story starts over again, and this time the doctor makes it in time despite the snowstorm, and she survives.

At the age of four, at a beach in Cornwall, she and her sister are swept out to sea. No – an amateur painter notices the girls struggling in the water and carries them safely to the shore.

Again and again, Ursula starts over and avoids the death that ended her previous attempt.

Ursula herself gradually becomes vaguely aware that her life is repeating. She sometimes knows what is about to happen, and gets a sense of foreboding when she approaches a pivotal point in her life. Sometimes this helps her avert the tragedy; sometimes not.

The turnings and returnings may sound repetitive, but I would rather describe them as rhythmic, even mesmerising. Each time Ursula relives an event, we learn something new about it. Perhaps we see it from another character’s viewpoint, or maybe simply from a different angle. Our view of the web of Ursulas life/lives becomes richer and denser with each turning of the wheel.

There are an awful lot of ways for a girl to die. Accidents. Influenza. (That one took several attempts to get past.) An abusive husband. The world war.

The war and the endless bombing of London take up a major chunk of the book. According to the author, the book was triggered by her thoughts the war that she just missed. It is a book of “bearing witness to the past”.

But to me it is also about the vulnerability of life, and the fear and pain of losing our loved ones. Ursula’s mother loses not just her, over and over, but sometimes also her brothers and sisters. Ursula herself sometimes starts over not for her own sake, but for that of others.

With these premises, the book could be a really depressing read. But there is so much warmth and love in Ursulas lives, and there is always that persistent hope that next time will be better.

Kate Atkinson is an incredibly skilled writer. I feel tempted to pile up all sorts of praise here. Beautiful, rich, vibrant… This is a wonderful book, one of the best I’ve read.