The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend – Q&A with author Katarina Bivald

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend blog tour, plus author interview!

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The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is Katarina Bivald’s debut novel. First published in Swedish in 2013, it is now available in an English translation. Set in a small town in Iowa, it follows the story of Sara: a book-loving woman in her twenties who is invited to travel from Sweden to Broken Wheel by her elderly pen-pal, Amy. It’s a big adventure for Sara, who has never ventured outside Sweden except in the many books she reads.

But when she arrives in Broken Wheel, she discovers that Amy has recently passed away. In fact, she arrives almost smack-bang in the middle of Amy’s funeral. Despite this unexpected twist, Amy’s relatives insist that Sara stays in her house as planned; Amy would have wanted to show hospitality. So Sara stays in Broken Wheel, getting to know the town’s small population and meeting the people she heard about in Amy’s letters. And she quickly realizes that this decrepit little town, struggling to get by, is in dire need of a bookstore…

Katarina Bivald tells us more about the book, her writing process and her love of reading.

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Books and movies to watch out for in 2016

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that reading books and watching movies are two of my favourite ways to rest, relax and recharge.

I love this quote from an Iranian woman photographed by the Humans of New York project:

HONY books photo

Books and films can transport you into different lives, different worlds, different possibilities. And reading a book or watching a movie you enjoy can be a real mood-booster too. The last movie I saw was Joy (here’s my review), and I felt great when I left the cinema.

We’re a week into the new year already, and 2016 has some exciting new books and movies in store. Last year, I wrote that I was looking forward to Far from the Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan and the adaptation of the Irène Némirovsky novel Suite Française.

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In August, I read…

Now that we are in the last few days of August, it is time for my literary round-up of the month. This month, I read two very different but equally gripping novels. My August reading material began with a trip to Spain and then to Morocco in The Seamstress by María Dueñas.

Note: You can also find María Dueñas’s novel under the title The Time In Between (click here to see its Amazon page). It is identical to The Seamstress, just with a different title.

“Born in the summer of 1911”, Sira Quiroga grows up in Madrid. From the age of twelve, she works as an apprentice to a dressmaker in the same workshop where her mother worked. Her life is simple, predictable, stable. “My ambitions remained close to home, almost domestic, consistent with the coordinates of the place and time in which I happened to live” (p. 3). But when she is seduced by a man who persuades her to run away with him to Morocco, her life begins to change. Her suitor betrays her and steals her money, leaving her alone in a country of which she knows nothing. This is when the novel really starts to pick up the pace. The first few chapters laid the groundwork and the background for Sira’s character but the chapters in Morocco are the ones I enjoyed most.

By now, the Civil War is raging in Spain and Sira can’t go back to Madrid, as much as she longs to return home and to see her mother, who she has no way of contacting. She is stuck in Morocco, she has no money and her duplicitous lover left her with a large debt to pay. So, Sira turns to the only trade she knows: dressmaking. Her years spent sewing dresses in a Madrid shop meant that she is an expert at her trade.

Between 1912 and 1956 in Morocco, the Spanish established the Protectorado español en Marruecos (the Spanish Protectorate) and during the Spanish Civil War many expat Spaniards and their Nazi German friends lived there. Sira manages to achieve success by setting up an atelier and sewing dresses for the Spanish and German women. “Bit by bit the business began to flourish, word began to spread” (p. 173).

The novel spans a wide arc from pre-Civil War Spain, to Morocco during the Civil War and finally to Franco’s Spain during the time of World War II. The Seamstress is full of detail and at 600+ pages (609, to be exact) I read it slowly, enjoying a few chapters each day. María Dueñas has a PhD in English philology and teaches at the University of Murcia, in the south-east of Spain. Her academic expertise and research skills are evident in the novel. She includes a lengthy bibliography of the sources and texts she consulted while writing. The historical detail is wonderful and the plot is constantly developing. Despite having studied the Spanish Civil War, I knew nothing about the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco and its role during the Guerra Civil. The Seamstress made me want to find out more. Although the protagonist is a fictional character, many of the other people who appear in the novel were real people, including Rosalinda Fox, who had a fascinating life.

There are some areas where the novel dragged a little. The detail is wonderful and really sets the scene but there is a lot of it and I think some skilful editing would make a difference. On the whole, though, I can’t really fault this book. The plot is engaging, the setting is atmospheric and I liked the central character. Some reviews I read called Sira a shallow character but personally, I disagree with that judgement. She is an enterprising, resolute young woman and it is a credit to Dueñas’s proficient writing that Sira matures and develops throughout the novel. It is a great, memorable novel and I look forward to reading more from Maria Dueñas.

My second August read was Serena by Ron Rash. I have just finished reading it and it is in sharp contrast, both in setting and in characters, to my first August read. It begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his wife, Serena, set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees a logging empire: the Pemberton Lumber Company. But the title of the novel is really the key to its contents: Serena, a determined, ruthless and ambitious woman who stops at nothing to get what she wants, is at the heart of this story. Her name is an ironic choice; she is anything but serene.

Rash’s writing hooks the reader in right from the first paragraph:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.” (p. 3)

Throughout the book, Serena and Pemberton’s story interweaves with the young woman’s, whose name is Rachel Harmon. Rachel is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. She struggles to raise her son with almost no acknowledgement from Pemberton; he doesn’t even remember her name.

There are many reviews where Serena is called an “Appalachian Macbeth” and I can clearly see the resemblance. Serena is an extraordinary character, very similar to Lady Macbeth. Like Lady Macbeth, Serena works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor. The reader is only shown glimpses of her background; she refuses to think about the past and only looks forward to the future. Her parents and siblings died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when asked who was managing their Colorado estate, she responds simply, “I had the house burned down before I left” (p. 55).

Neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it very hard to get close to them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of murder and destruction, but he follows willingly. What bothered me the most is that they don’t show remorse or guilt for their actions; they come across as being psychopathic. Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever.

Although the craziness of Pemberton and Serena is a constant presence throughout the book, comic relief is provided by one of the workers at the logging camp. Ross’s shrewd comebacks made me smile more than once. When the fanatical lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds with dry humor:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed,” Ross noted. “You saying we don’t need to follow that one?” (p. 63)

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I stayed up late to finish reading it because I wanted to know what happened. It really held my attention and that is always a good thing in a book. Ron Rash writes well and I like his gritty style. But some elements of the plot irritated me because of their sheer implausibility such as the old woman who can see the future and helps the Pembertons out with her psychic powers. There is another similarity to Macbeth here: she reminded me of the Macbeth witches and their prophecy.

By the time I finished reading the novel, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top. They seem one-dimensional because of their sheer lack of compassion for anyone and their obsessive relationship with each other. I hoped that by the end of the novel Rash would elucidate the motivations for Serena’s unrelenting greed and ruthless ambition but he does not dwell on her motives.

A movie adaptation of Serena (Serena at IMDB) is currently in post-production. Jennifer Lawrence plays Serena and Bradley Cooper is Pemberton. At the time of writing this, there is no US release date but it will most likely be released at some point in 2014.

What did you read in August?

New music from The Civil Wars

The Nashville duo, The Civil Wars, released their second album this week. I first found out about The Civil Wars thanks to a song on The Hunger Games soundtrack which I heard in December 2011. I bought their début album, Barton Hollow, and for most of last spring I played it on repeat on my iPod. The music, sung by Joy Williams and John Paul White, is haunting and melodic. Joy Williams’s voice is astoundingly beautiful combined with the raw simplicity of acoustic guitar. From melancholy ballads to foot-tapping melodies, each song tells a story, combining rootsy Americana, bluegrass and country in a captivating blend.

I would love to see them play live but unfortunately last year they cancelled tour dates on their European tour, giving “irreconcilable differences” as the reason. I hope they don’t stop producing music together. It is unclear whether they will tour again or release another album. It is a real shame as they are definitely one of the most talented Americana/country duos around at the moment. Let’s hope they manage to resolve the problems.

This song from their latest album left me with goosebumps. Go have a listen!

(Video linked from The Civil Wars Youtube channel. No copyright infringement is intended. All rights belong to their respective owners)

If you enjoyed hearing this, I also recommend “20 Years” and “Barton Hollow” from their first album.

For more about The Civil Wars with music videos and other info, you can visit their official website: The Civil Wars and follow them on Twitter @thecivilwars

What do you think of The Civil Wars’ music? If you have any recommendations for other Americana and country artists, let me know by leaving a comment on this post. I would love to hear them!

Cultural Life turns two!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Cultural Life! Public domain image - Happy Birthday In Sand by Petr Kratochvil

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Cultural Life!
Public domain image – Happy Birthday In Sand by Petr Kratochvil

My WordPress blogging journey began two years ago today. I have enjoyed every minute of blogging so far and I am glad to be a member of the WordPress blogging community. In the past year, a lot has happened in my blogging life: my number of followers has grown significantly from a mere 60 this time last year to 619 (and counting!) at the time of writing this post. And I was Freshly Pressed in February! That was a wonderful experience and getting a personal email from the editor of WordPress made me feel very honored.

To mark my second blog anniversary, here are a few highlights from the past two years of Cultural Life:

Reasons why I want to move to Maine – this post, with wonderful Maine photos courtesy of Karen at Back Road Journal, is one of my most popular posts. It seems that a lot of people Google “reasons to move to Maine”!

Saying Goodbye – This is my Freshly Pressed post, about the emotions I felt when saying goodbye to my mother before she was wheeled into an operating room for lifesaving surgery.

Valencia Orange Cake – a delicious recipe with no flour, making it perfect for gluten-free diets. The cake is simply amazing, especially when served with cream.

Photo Challenge day 1: Resolution – I took this photo on the first day of this year; it’s a pretty view from outside my home.

Thoughts on reading The Hunger Games – when I first read The Hunger Games in November and December 2011, I became hooked on the series. When I was going through a stressful time last year, I re-read the series a couple of times. I find that I take inspiration from Katniss’s grit and determination.

Thank you to my readers for supporting my blog and here’s to the next two years – and more! – of Cultural Life.

Memorial Day

In less than a month, it will be the longest day of the year. Thursday, June 20th marks the last day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The apple tree in the garden is in full bloom. Hopefully we will have a lovely crop of apples in a few months and I can bake to my heart’s content.

Apple blossom in the garden. Collage created with photovisi.com. Photos Grace @ Cultural Life copyright 2013

Apple blossom in the garden. Collage created with photovisi.com. Photos Grace @ Cultural Life copyright 2013

As well as celebrating the wonderful weather and the imminent arrival of summer, today is Memorial Day in the United States. Whatever your personal beliefs are regarding the issue of war, spare a thought for families who have loved and lost on this Memorial Day. I have relatives – now deceased – who served their country and it is important to remember the sacrifices they and countless others have made and are still making.

“Peace is more important than all justice; and peace was not made for the sake of justice, but justice for the sake of peace” – Martin Luther

Many other countries are celebrating holidays today too. In the UK, it is a Spring Bank Holiday, in Bolivia they are observing a Mother’s Day holiday, it is Children’s Day in Nigeria and the President of Ghana has recently declared that today is a public holiday for the country. Are any other countries celebrating public holidays today?

Book review: Into the Beautiful North

There are almost no men in the small Mexican town of Tres Camerones. They have all left to pursue dreams of wealth and a better life in the U.S.: the “beautiful north” of the title. But when the bandidos move into town, the women of Tres Camerones realize something must be done and so nineteen year old waitress Nayeli, inspired by a screening of The Magnificent Seven, sets off with three friends on a journey to el norte to bring seven Mexican men back to Tres Camerones. Interwoven with this tale is Nayeli’s personal story: her father was one of the men who left his family in order to find work in ‘Los Yunaites’ and she is determined to find him, basing her search on a treasured post-card he sent her from Kankakee, Illinois.

Luis Alberto Urrea brings Tres Camerones to life with his prose: the Mexican sun, the dust swirling from the wind and the colorful food. Into the Beautiful North is a skilfully written novel, blending social issues such as immigration and undocumented migrant workers with a mix of vibrant characters, humor and suspense. Whatever you think about illegal immigration, the novel gives a different and much more humanizing perspective than the harsh views we often hear. It is a thought-provoking, moving novel which is well worth your time.

Into the Beautiful North at www.luisurrea.com

Photo challenge day 18: Close up

First Thirty-one Photo Challenge (from Fourtuitous). Day 18’s theme is “Close up”.

A close up of the title of my current read: Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. It is a novel set in Mexico and the United States and I am really enjoying it. I will post a review on here next week, when I finish reading it!

Into the Beautiful North

Into the Beautiful North

Weekly writing challenge: my dream trip

Writing challenge: You’ve got three months, an unlimited budget, and a severe case of wanderlust. Where would you go?

This writing challenge from The Daily Post at WordPress.com sent my imagination into dizzying whirls of euphoric bliss. One of my big dreams is to travel with plenty of time to spare and a sizable (preferably unlimited) budget. Why not dream big?

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry” – Jack Kerouac

Month 1

Taxicabs On 5th Avenue by Julie Gentry

Taxicabs On 5th Avenue by Julie Gentry

I would begin by spending two weeks in New York City, reveling in the bustling metropolis, seeing the sights and picking up a few bags of shopping along the way. My budget is unlimited, remember. But I am traveling partly via public transportation so I need to keep my luggage load light. This factor restricts me from an overly extravagant shopping spree. When it is time to leave NYC, instead of hiring a car, I hop on an Amtrak train at Penn Station.

I might take the Acela Express to Boston or I might prefer to take the Empire Service for a scenic tour through New York State. Either way, I would eventually arrive in Boston. The city is historic, beautiful and full to the brim with places to see and people to talk to about its fascinating past and the pivotal role it played in U.S. history. I visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, join a guided tour at Harvard Yard and follow the Freedom Trail: a 2.5 mile tour of Boston around some of its most historic places. It begins at Boston Common and ends at Bunker Hill Monument.

Downtown Boston by Bill Walker

Downtown Boston by Bill Walker

After seeing the sights of Boston I get on the train and travel to Amherst, MA.

In Amherst, I plan to see the birthplace of Emily Dickinson and enjoy other sites of interest. I might check out a movie at the Amherst Cinema Arts Center, which shows a lot of indie films, before hiring a car and driving up to Portland, Maine on I-95.

On the way to Portland I spend two or three days exploring the Kennebunks (Kennebunk and Kennebunkport). Kennebunk and its sister are only 30 miles south of Portland and the two small towns are situated along a rocky coast. St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery is a peaceful place to visit, with a calm atmosphere and lovely gardens to wander around. Strolling along Kennebunk beach is simply glorious and I dip into the waves for a swim, admiring the expansiveness of the Maine sky and the vivid colors of the sunset.

I spend a week in Portland itself where I have a lot of fun exploring the quirky side of the city. The little arty coffee shops are ideal for lingering over a delicious brunch, chatting with the locals and hanging out with a good book and a cup of coffee.

Month 2

When the second month of my travels begins, I leave Portland and drive up the beautiful Maine coast.

I stop off at various towns along the way, staying in Bath and Camden for a few days. Visiting Bath gives me a fascinating history lesson into Maine’s Colonial past: the industry of wooden ship builders was a thriving way of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Visiting Maine Maritime Museum is a great way to find out more.

I enjoy the beaches of lovely Penobscot Bay and sample some of Maine’s finest seafood. Then I get back in the car and drive to the quiet, unspoiled Blue Hill Peninsula. I stay in the tiny town of Blue Hill and every day, come rain or shine, begins with a walk along the beach. I explore to my heart’s content, chatting to the locals and absorbing every bit of Maine life that I can.

Harbor View, Maine by Junior Libby

Harbor View, Maine by Junior Libby

My eyes are filled with beauty and I hike the forest trails, cheeks rosy from vigorous exercise and legs aching at the end of a long day in the open air. From Blue Hill, I head to Bar Harbor which will be my base camp for a week as I explore Acadia National Park and take a trip to Bass Harbor.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse by Junior Libby

Bass Harbor Lighthouse by Junior Libby

Then I backtrack to Boston, where I return my rental car and get on a plane at Logan International.

Month 3

My plane arrives in Nashville, TN.

I am so excited when I get off the plane that I almost begin singing a country music anthem under my breath.

On Stage by Junior Libby

On Stage by Junior Libby

I love country music and spending a whole week immersed in the Music City is heaven. By sheer coincidence, Dolly Parton is performing a gig in the middle of my week in Nashville. It is sold out but I exercise the power of my unlimited budget and manage to get myself a ticket. The week goes past too quickly and it won’t be long before I have to get on the road again. I have fun visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and shopping at the numerous vintage shops in Nashville. I spend my nights dancing to great music!

I drive from Tennessee to Louisiana.

It is an approx. eight hour drive so I am tired by the time I arrive in New Orleans and I head straight to bed. But the next day I am ready to take on the city! New Orleans is a vibrant, atmospheric city and I spend a few days enjoying the music, the food and the culture. The soul of the city is enthralling and the beat of the music makes your foot tap and your heart feel good. Laissez les bons temps rouler – let the good times roll!

Alas, my three months of ‘wanderlusting’ across the States are nearly up and I speed up my leisurely pace a bit so I can fit in the other places I want to visit before I have to return to normal, everyday life. I fly from New Orleans to Denver.

In Colorado I stay at a ranch and go horseback riding in the beautiful Rockies.

Spectacular! Colorado by Roberta Dulay

Spectacular! Colorado by Roberta Dulay

Horseback by Charles Rondeau

Horseback by Charles Rondeau

I finish my trip by flying from Denver to Seattle where I spend a few days in the city.

Seattle Skyline by Julie Gentry

Seattle Skyline by Julie Gentry

Downtown Seattle’s Pike Place Market is great fun to explore and I could easily spend a whole day meandering around there. I love a good book and a whole morning flies by when I visit the Elliott Bay Book Co.. Over 150,000 titles – oh yes, bliss! I also love a good latte and a trip to Seattle wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the original Starbucks, along with one of my new literary purchases so I can drink coffee, people-watch and read too. While in Seattle, I head to The Space Needle: one of Seattle’s most exciting attractions. I enjoy the novelty of dining at SkyCity restaurant, which moves 360 degrees!

Space Needle by Julie Gentry

Space Needle by Julie Gentry

After Seattle, I drive into rural Washington state, making sure my suitcase contains plenty of wet weather clothing! The Olympic peninsula is wildly beautiful and I love my time exploring the untamed, spectacular Olympia National Park.

When my three months come to end, I reluctantly have to conclude my trip. On the way, I have seen some spectacular places, eaten some amazing food, met some fascinating people and, to use a cliché, I have quite simply had the time of my life. My hunger for seeing the world has only increased and I would do this trip twice over if I could.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: a review

My copy of Once Upon a River

A couple of weeks ago, I read a book called Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. At first glance, Once Upon a River has an old-fashioned, archaic kind of feel to it. The ‘once upon a…’ title reminds me of legends and fairy tales and the cover picture makes me think of settlers in the old American West: I came to this book expecting a Wild West type of story. When I skimmed the synopsis on Amazon, I thought it was going to be a tale set in the wilderness in the nineteenth century. It was only when I started reading the book itself that I realized it is in fact set in the late twentieth century. Nevertheless, the lifestyle of the teenage protagonist, Margaret Louise Crane, who hunts animals and gathers plant in order to eat, and the settings of rural southern Michigan lend the book a much older feeling.

When Margo’s father is killed, a death “in which she [Margo] is complicit”, she sets off on a journey down the Stark River, a fictional tributary of the Kalamazoo, in an attempt to find the mother who abandoned her. Her journey on the river becomes “one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices” (quotes from the back cover of Once Upon a River).

Part of the blurb on Amazon for the book says it will appeal to fans of The Hunger Games and that caught my attention. But Once Upon a River is not just for Hunger Games fans and Once Upon a River is mostly very different than the tales of Katniss Everdeen. The most obvious difference is the fact that The Hunger Games is a science-fiction story which takes place in a futuristic dystopian North America whereas Once Upon a River is not. However, the key similarity between THG and Once Upon a River, if the two must be compared, is the nature of the principal female character in each book. Katniss and Margaret (aka Margo, as she is called in most of the book) are both strong, independent girls in their mid to late teens. Both of them hunt, fish and gather in order to live and they each have a gutsy, gritty streak in their character that serves to carry them through hard times.

I did not want to reach the end of this book. Although I think Campbell concluded the book in a satisfactory way for the reader, I still wanted the last few chapters to be a bit thicker! I was absolutely gripped and read it cover-to-cover in little more than 24 hours. Campbell’s style is eloquent, especially in terms of the descriptions of her native Michigan, and it is absolutely compelling. Before I read this novel, I had not heard of the author but I will certainly be seeking out more of her work in the near future. A link to her website is below:

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s website

The author, Bonnie Jo Campbell — photo © John Campbell