Up for Review: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

I don’t celebrate Halloween, although it’s become an increasingly popular party day in South Africa over the past couple of years. We don’t bother with any of the related traditions like pumpkin-carving or trick-or-treating, and it’s not exactly a family holiday, since (in my experience anyway) kids aren’t typically involved. Mostly, it’s just a good excuse for a few people to throw costume parties and host events like the South African Horrorfest.

Here in Ethiopia, I doubt many people know about the holiday, except for some of the expats and the Ethiopians who have lived in the states (a surprisingly large community). However, I have found myself invited to an American birthday/Halloween party, so I need to think of a costume. Preferably something that I can put together using the clothes in my wardrobe, stuff around the house, and maybe a prop that’d be easy to find in the shops, which aren’t very well stocked. Any ideas?

Now would also be a good time to read Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye, a Halloween release from Penguin Books. I love the title and the creepy cover. Also, kids are scary.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye (Penguin Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

This Halloween, Penguin Books is excited to publish Stefan Kiesbye’s spooky new novel YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, YOUR CHILDREN ALL GONE about a haunted German village and the children who are the guardians of its secrets.


Shirley Jackson meets The Twilight Zone in this literary novel of supernatural horror about a village called Hemmersmoor, a place untouched by time and shrouded in superstition.  YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, YOUR CHILDREN ALL GONE is told from the point of view of its children (Christian, Martin, Linde, and Anke) who grow up in a claustrophobic world of ancient superstitions, pagan rituals and wartime secrets.  The town’s main buildings are its grand manor house whose occupants despise the villagers, the small pub whose regulars speak of ghosts, and the old mill no one dares to mention.  This is where the four young friends come of age, in an atmosphere thick with fear and suspicion.  All too soon, their innocent games bring them face-to-face with the village’s darkest secrets – which will never let them go.


This eerily dispassionate, astonishingly assured novel is evocative of Stephen King’s classic short story “Children of the Corn” and infused with the spirit of the Brothers Grimm.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone was published on 25 September by Penguin Books.

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About the author:
Stefan Kiesbye has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. Born on the German coast of the Baltic Sea, he studied in Buffalo, New York, and now lives in Portales, New Mexico where he teaches creative writing at Eastern New Mexico University and is the arts editor of Absinthe: New European Writing.  His stories and poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his first book Next Door Lived a Girl won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award and was praised by Peter Ho Davies as “utterly gripping,” by Charles Baxter as “both laconic and feverish,” and by Robert Olmstead as “maddeningly powerful.” – NetGalley


Review of The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

Title: The Bay of Foxes
Author: Sheila Kohler
Published: 26 June 2012
Publisher: Penguin Books USA
Genre: drama, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Dawit is an Ethiopian refugee living in Paris in 1978 after having escaped torture and imprisonment under the violent, oppressive rule of the Derg. He has no money, no job, and no visa, so he lives in fear of being caught by the police and deported. Then one day in a café he sees M., “that rarest of writers, a literary best-selling one.” Dawit – a well-educated aristocrat – has always admired her work. She’s in her sixties now, and her face is ravaged by both age and alcoholism, yet he still finds her beautiful. He goes over to speak to her, and they strike up a conversation.

M. is clearly enraptured by the stunning, young Dawit and invites him to stay with her in her luxurious, spacious apartment overlooking the Luxemborg gardens. Dawit eagerly grabs hold of this opportunity. He’s been living in a cramped apartment in the ghetto with many other Ethiopians, and appreciates the luxury of having his own room at M.’s place.  More importantly, he’s no longer has to worry about starving.

However, this is a strange arrangement, and as you can imagine their relationship is disturbing from the start. For a while, Dawit does nothing and barely even sees M., since she spends most of her time locked in her room, writing. He wonders what her motives could be, but there are no prizes for guessing what she wants from him. M. uses Dawit for inspiration, ideas, and shows him off to her friends like a living African artefact. Obsessed with Dawit’s youth and beauty, M. clearly expects their relationship to become sexual, but unfortunately – for both of them – Dawit is gay. It’s unfortunate for Dawit, because he is almost powerless here. M. provides him with everything – a home, food, designer clothes (Hermès, Armani). With his excellent French, he eventually starts to do secretarial and editorial work for her, so she pays him a monthly stipend. She even secures a tourist visa for him so that they can travel to her villa at The Bay of Foxes in Sardinia.

M. holds the power of wealth over Dawit, and unless he’s willing to live in fear and poverty again, he has to put up with patronising racism and can’t raise many complaints when the old woman comes into his room at night, switching on the light to watch him sleep naked, or crawling into bed with him. His life with M. actually reminds Dawit of his imprisonment in Ethiopia. The guards would also leave the light on, making it impossible for him to sleep, and like M. they could enter his cell whenever they wanted and do what they wanted with his body.

Dawit is at M.’s mercy, but in this case his imprisonment is cushioned by wealth, comfort and safety, so it’s not hard to understand why he stays. He also picks up some useful skills and information. As M.’s secretary, he takes care of all her correspondence and to do so he learns to impersonate her – she teaches him her signature, so that he can answer her letters and sign documents; he learns to imitate her rough, masculine voice so that he can take phone calls for her. They’re both very tall and skinny, and because she sometimes buys men’s or unisex clothing, he initially wears her pants suits and shoes. She calls him her “very young and dark double” and is amused by this comparison.

From here, it wasn’t difficult for me to see where the story was going. Although I can’t think of any specific examples, I’m pretty sure I’ve come across some version of this tale before. It also parallels Kohler’s earlier novel Cracks in several ways. Predictable as it is though, it’s not too bad. I like novels that intimately explore strange, manipulative relationships, and the psychology of obsession. The Bay of Foxes is also detailed and well written in a way that I find engaging even though there are no surprises. When Dawit speaks of M.’s work, he says he “does admire her spare, concentrated prose, her brief evocative novels” and I wondered if Kohler was using a description of her own work here; I’d say that’s an excellent way to describe my feelings about the two novels of hers that I’ve read so far.

The Bay of Foxes didn’t explore Ethiopian culture as much as I’d hoped (if you strip away a few names and details, Dawit could be from any number of countries), but I suppose this novel isn’t really about Dawit as an Ethiopian, but rather about the relationship between a disempowered young African man and an old, rich, white European woman. I don’t like the use of ‘African’ as a blanket term since the continent is so vast and diverse, but in this novel it doesn’t matter that Dawit is Ethiopian – to the French, the Italians and perhaps even to himself, he’s an African, a black man.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending though. It’s not unsatisfying (although I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers feel otherwise), but it’s a tad… convenient? Dawit is trapped in a difficult situation, but the most likely conclusion would, in some ways, be unjust and displeasing to the reader. Instead, Kohler smoothes everything over in a way that’s more palatable but doesn’t feel quite right. I can’t say much more of course, but I’d be interested to know what others think. All in all, a good, quick literary read, if a little predictable.

Buy a copy of The Bay of Foxes at The Book Depository

Review of Strindberg’s Star by Jan Wallentin

Title: Strindberg’s Star
Author: Jan Wallentin
Translator: Rachel Willson-Broyles 
Published: First published October 2010 in Swedish; this edition  to be published 24 May 2012
Publisher: Viking, an imprint of Penguin USA
Genre: thriller, adventure, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4/10

I really loathe having to review books like this. It’s not because it’s bad – this is hardly one of the worst books I’ve read. But even when a book is bad I don’t normally have a problem describing it and explaining how I felt about it and why. Strindberg’s Star however, is both dull and complicated, making it hard to pay attention long enough to scrabble together the information for a decent plot summary, nevermind a thorough articulation of my feelings about the book. I’d like to just give you the short simple version of my review which is this: Strindberg’s Star sounds like a good thriller, but it’s really boring so don’t waste your time. I’m obliged to write a proper review though, so if you want to know more, read on.

Diver Erik Hall is exploring the depths of a flooded mine shaft when he discovers a dead body clutching an ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life. He notifies the authorities about the body, and it instantly becomes a major news story. Everyone assumes it’s a recent murder, but it turns out that the body is far older than expected and has simply been very well preserved. Erik keeps the ankh a secret, but when all the media attention starts dying down, and he uses it as an attempt to get back into the papers.  He tries to get Don Titelman, an expert in religious symbols and Nazi history, to take a look at the artefact.

Don isn’t interested, but when he eventually gives in and goes to see Erik he finds the man’s corpse cooling outside. A secret society was after the ankh, and one of their agents murdered Erik in an attempt to get it. The society ensures that Don is framed for Erik’s murder. During an interrogation at the German Embassy in Sweden, Don and his lawyer Eva Strand are told a remarkable story about the ankh and a corresponding artefact – a star (I just have to mention that I don’t know why the interrogator bothered telling them this very long and complex tale). Both artefacts were studied by the famed scientist and photographer, Nils Strindberg, who discovered that together, the star and ankh could work as a magical map to a shifting location at the North Pole. The treasure and knowledge that can be found at this location is highly sought after.

Don and Eva are inexplicably imprisoned in the German Embassy but manage to escape and go on the run. With nothing but a postcard as a clue to the mystery of the artefacts and the dead man in the mine, Don decides to try and learn more. However, he and Eva are being chased by both the law, and the secret society that had them framed. Now that the ankh has been discovered, the race is on to find its partner – Strindberg’s star – and then travel to the North Pole to see where the map leads.

The adventure is intertwined with history, Norse mythology, fantasy and Nazi secrets. It sounds a lot like a Dan-Brown style mystery-adventure, with its artefacts, secrets and a protagonist like Don. I’ve never read Dan Brown (and never will), but artefacts and conspiracies seem like good ingredients for an entertaining read. Not in this book. The characters are flat, the writing is clunky, and the story tends to be confusing and slow. There’s a lot of long, dense exposition – history lessons and character backgrounds. Some of these are actually interesting or at least easy to read, but with most will make your eyes glaze over. It’s the same with the story as a whole – a few interesting bits amidst many long, dull sections.

Don is pathetic protagonist. He should be great for this story, being an expert in mythology and the Nazis, as well as possessing photographic memory. He can offer endless bits of interesting trivia and find all the fascinating connections between the clues. And yet he’s a dud. You see, Don has some serious childhood trauma, thanks to a grandmother who used to tell him about all the horrific experiments conducted on her in the Nazi concentration camps. Thanks to his memory, Don never forgot a word. To cope, he became a drug addict. Having qualified as a doctor, he is able to prescribe medicines for himself, and he carries around a bag full of pills. He pretty much uses powerful prescription medication to constantly control his state of mind – if he wants to calm down, go to sleep, be more alert, etc. he takes a bunch of pills. He doesn’t even bother with water, he just chews them.

Unfortunately when he goes to Erik Hall’s house to check out the ankh, his mouth is dry with anxiety so he takes some anti-anxiety pills that he’s never tried before and washes them down with some wine he sees on a table. Thanks to this utterly moronic decision, his fingerprints are on the bottle, making it look like he was hanging out with the murder victim, and when the police get to the house they find Don in a drugged stupor kneeling next to the body. It’s hardly surprising that they arrest him, and it’s easy for him to be framed.

This is just the first occasion when Don is too drugged or sick to be of much use. Half the time he seems to be flopping around or falling over – it seems a miracle that he manages to get anything done. He’s in his forties, but most of the time I picture him as a sickly old man.

Then there’s Eva Strand, Don’s attorney and sidekick of sorts. She’s a stiff, formal woman with extremely pale skin and a preference for a 1940s style of clothing. I mention the latter, because at one point while they’re on the run, Don and Eva need to buy new clothes, since their own have been ruined. Don just gets the first decent suit he sees, but despite the fact that they need to keep a low profile, Eva insists on shopping around until she finds the specific type of clothing she’s looking for. Argh… There are some very odd things about Eva too – her excessively pale skin, a stiffness in her joints, and an ability to heal very quickly. Don notices all these things, but doesn’t make much of an effort to enquire about them, even Eva’s healing abilities. For the reader it’s clear that this is somehow important, so it’s annoying that Don is so obtuse.

Eva isn’t the only one with special abilities. The secret society has a beautiful young agent named Elena who seems unnaturally strong for her tiny frame. As a child she had paranormal powers that allowed her to “look into other people’s thoughts, see all their dreams and hopes in distorted, brilliantly coloured forms”. The book doesn’t really explain what this means in practical terms, but we do know that Elena’s powers have been a great advantage to the secret society, at least until they faded away in her teens.

The vague understanding I had of Elena’s powers characterised my understanding of most of the book. It’s not that I didn’t know what was going on, but most of it seemed hazy, indistinct. Like watching a movie but walking in and out of the room all the time. I’ll admit that maybe I was just too bored to concentrate properly, but that in itself is a criticism. This isn’t supposed to be a literary masterpiece or groundbreaking philosophy – I shouldn’t have to work so hard.

Since it’s already a bestseller in Europe, I have to wonder if part of the problem is that it just doesn’t translate well, so that the consequently clunky language serves to dull the novel. So maybe give it a shot if you can read it in the original Swedish, or perhaps one of the other European languages it’s been translated into. But if you’re going to read it in English, give it a miss.

Still want to read Strindberg’s Star? Order a copy from The Book Depository.

Up for Review

I thought I’d try and make a regular Monday feature out of my Up for Review posts. I’m always getting new stuff, and it’s a fun and easy thing to share, so here goes 🙂 I thought I’d start out with Strindberg’s Star, the last of the May publications that I’m planning to review.


Strindberg’s Star by Jan Wallentin (Viking Books)
Written by Swedish journalist Jan Wallentin, cross-genre thriller Strindberg’s Star was originally published in 2010 as Strindbergs Stjärn. It’s already become an international bestseller with rights sold in 20 countries. It’s been particularly popular in Sweden, Germany and France, and now Viking Books, a division of Penguin USA, is bringing out their edition.

Here’s the marketing copy from NetGalley:

STRINDBERG’S STAR opens on amateur cave diver Erik Hall exploring the deep recesses of a flooded mining shaft near his home in Sweden.  In a cavern seven hundred feet below sea level, he discovers a well-preserved corpse wearing an ancient ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life.  It doesn’t take long for the press to appear on the scene and news of the strange find to spread.


When a German expert in religious symbols and Nazi history, Don Titelman, learns of the ankh he seeks out Erik only to find him dead-and immediately becomes the prime suspect in his murder.  Don and his lawyer, Eva Strom, are taken to the German Embassy in Sweden for questioning only to be inexplicably imprisoned in an old wine cellar.  Don and Eva manage to escape, seeking out refuge with Don’s sister, Hex-a mysterious recluse who lives in an abandoned railroad deep underground.  Soon a ruthless secret society is chasing Don and Eva across Europe, in search of the ankh and its secrets…and that’s only the beginning.  Nils Strindberg’s arctic expedition, Norse mythology, ancient mysteries, and horrific Nazi secrets are all woven into this seductive, sophisticated, and thrilling adventure story.  In the hands of expert translator Rachel Willson-Broyles, fans of history, fantasy, crime, suspense, and well-told fiction will all find a new favorite in Wallentin.

Viking Books’s edition of Strindberg’s Star is due 24 May 2012.