Categories
Book Reviews

Book Review: David Schalko’s ‘Bad Regina’

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

All I can think of is ‘you wrote a Bad Roman’ to the Lady Gaga tune.

What’s this Bad Roman?

What’s this Bad Roman?

Bad Regina: Roman (German Edition) eBook: Schalko, David: Amazon.co.uk:  Kindle Store

I don’t usually give up on a book I spent €15 on. But I had to give this one up. I had to. I got to page 123 and thought, Jesus Christ on a silver pushbike, I can’t do this anymore.

Which is strange, because everything looked great. The review on New Books in German looked great, the premise looked great, the cover looked great. I do usually enjoy satire – I devoured both the German and English version of Timur Verme’s Hitler-noveau Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back).

I’m not going to include a highlights section, because there weren’t any. But I will give a brief synopsis.

Synopsis

A small town in the Bavarian Alps is slowly being bought out by a Chinese billionaire called Chen. The main character, Othmar, is a slovenly alcoholic who lives off the small payments he receives as the carer of a black Mancunian DJ who had an unfortunate drunk skiing accident twenty years before. The novel meanders along depicting the eccentric characters – exactly 46 -remaining in this slowly dying town.

Lowlights

This is satire trying to be clever. Sometimes it is clever, sometimes it is funny, but it’s mostly just boring. Othmar is completely uncompelling, and so are the other characters in the village. They’re mostly racist or rudderless, or a combination of both. There’s no real intrigue developing over the first few chapters, and its attempt at Thoman Mann Magic Mountain-style surrealism falls flat because I remained completely uninvested by the 30% mark. There is a huge amount of references to Austrian things which I didn’t really get (which I’m not blaming the author for, it was just another reason I struggled), and a lot of nostalgia for a kind of amorphous 80s/90s punk rock/DJ-culture I’m too young to relate to.

The satire was largely blunt and underwhelming. Poking fun at provincial racists is fun, but it can’t sustain a book. This could have been a brilliant book, a comment on the gradual decay of the EU, with especially dire warnings for the post-Covid age. But it didn’t manage it. It just didn’t. The characters feel flat, 2D. The story is going nowhere. The story starts when most of the town and its residents are already gone. I didn’t really understand why Schalko did this. The idea of slow decline could have been imaginatively developed. Chen is a mysterious, amorphous character. Nobody seems to have seen him, just his white Toyota rolling by. I understand that this is a conscious device by the author to comment on the ‘threat’ to the West posed by the Eastern economies in the 21st century. Keeping Chen anonymous means he can represent almost anyone, anything. But this is set twenty years after he first started buying the place. And nobody knows what he’s planning, nobody has even seen him? It’s just unbelievable.

I had almost no idea of place of setting, even a third of the way in. The Alps are a beautiful landscape. Beautiful and isolated for the people still living in the mountains, largely untouched by the 21st century. Believe me, I’ve lived in a similar place in Germany. Why did Schalko pay almost no attention to setting when setting is almost the most important facet of this novel? Many rural places are currently suffering with population decline as young professionals seek their fortune in the cities. But I had no idea of the place. The mountains, the lakes, the resort-ness of the place goes unmentioned. They could have been anywhere.

It could have worked as a short story, maybe. I was looking forward to an Austrian adventure, wittily written, a social commentary on the global shift to the right. But don’t get this book. You will be disappointed. It spreads itself too thin, it tries to develop too many characters simultaneously, meaning that nothing is compelling. Nobody is developed well.

Categories
Book Reviews

Book Review: Anne B. Ragde’s ‘Das Lügenhaus’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Creepy character development paints a convincing vignette of an estranged family with plenty of skeletons in the closet.

Das Lügenhaus: Roman (Die Lügenhaus-Serie 1) (German Edition) - Kindle  edition by Ragde, Anne B., Haefs, Gabriele. Literature & Fiction Kindle  eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Translated from the Norwegian to the German by Gabriele Haefs.

I’m getting to the point now where I assume that anything I pick up originally written in a Scandinavian language is going to be an absolute cracker. Scandi Noir has really taken off in the last few years, and maybe there’s something about the long, cold winters and tendency to ennui that makes for such compelling writers.

I obtained this book from a friend having a clear out. Most of the time, the things you pick up in this way won’t really be to your taste. But then you find a gem that makes it all worthwhile. So much is translated for the German market these days (oh, to be a native German and be able to make a living out of literary translation), that almost anything you come across in Germany these days has an almost 50/50 chance of not having been originally written in German.

Synopsis + Highlights

This is a thriller of the slow-burn type, which works hard to build up a believable picture of a strange, divided family made up of clashing personalities. To say they clash would actually be putting it lightly. An eighty-year-old woman- Anna- having a stroke in a remote Norwegian village sets off a chain of events when her three sons reunite for the first time in years, along with a granddaughter she never even met.

Of the three sons, there’s a solemn undertaker who’s a stickler for the rules, a flamboyant gay window dresser who fled to Copenhagen to avoid the homophobia and closed-mindedness of his isolated hometown, and a lonely pig farmer who stinks like a… well, pig. Her only granddaughter, a dog trainer, also shows up to pay her respects once it’s clear her grandmother is never going to recover- despite the fact that they have never met. Anna’s husband is a strange, mute man who slopes around their dilapidated farmhouse like a ghost and also doesn’t know how to wash himself or the dishes.

The chain of events mentioned at the start of this section may feel a little tame, particularly for an American audience or those who prefer their thrillers full of bodies and explosions. Nobody dies (except the grandmother peacefully in her sleep), nobody goes mad, and there’s not even any incest (well, not really). Torunn, the granddaughter, strikes up a charming (and rather predictable) relationship with the flamboyant Erlend, and they make a concerted effort to support the struggling Tor, the pig farmer with the ghost-for-a-father and no personal hygiene. This is a family drama- suspense and the will to turn each page comes from their chalk-and-cheese combinations and world-building of the rotten farmhouse at the edge of the world.

Anna is a mysterious character. We never really ‘meet’ her, as she is in a coma for the whole novel. We only really get to know her through what others say about her, and there’s a lot of mixed messages and conflicting narratives involved. Tor, the oldest son, is the only one who had any contact with her. In fact, he was still living with his parents when she had a stroke. There are definite creepy oedipal undertones here. There’s an especially memorable part of the book where Tor is reminiscing about his childhood- having a thermometer stuck into a particularly unnecessary part of the body. Yikes.

But, in comparison to other books I’ve attempted to push my way through this week, this was a page turner. I loved the mismatched family vignette. I loved how awkward they all were. The reader sympathises with Torunn as she tries to make sense of the messed-up family she barely even knew existed.

Lowlights

The only disappointments were that I could have done with a tiny bit more happening, and the twist was a bit tame/tired. It turns out that their father is not their father at all, but their half-brother. This was really difficult to get my mathematically and logically-challenged brain around. So Anna is destined to marry the son of a man (I forgot the fake-father’s name, he’s pretty much just referred to as ‘Father’ in the novel). She marries him for appearances. Instead, she is in love with his father, her father-in-law. Her three sons are actually her father-in-law’s, making the fake-father their half-brother. Get it? It took me a few minutes. So no actual incest involved, and I was glad about that. SO MANY books have incest as the twist. I’m past caring. It’s not a twist anymore. Give it up. Find a new twist. This novel basically used the same twist with legal rather than biological incest though, so I was a tad let down about that, especially since I was so impressed with it up until that point.