Norma by Sofi Oksanen


normabkreviewtemp1 (3)Norma
By Sofi Oksanen
Translated by Owen F. Witesman
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
ISBN13: 9780451493521
Pages: 320
Genre: Finnish Literature/Magical Realism



When Anita Naakka jumps in front of an oncoming train, her daughter, Norma, is left alone with the secret they have spent their lives hiding: Norma has supernatural hair, sensitive to the slightest changes in her mood–and the moods of those around her–moving of its own accord, corkscrewing when danger is near. And so it is her hair that alerts her, while she talks with a strange man at her mother’s funeral, that her mother may not have taken her own life. Setting out to reconstruct Anita’s final months–sifting through puzzling cell phone records, bank statements, video files–Norma begins to realize that her mother knew more about her hair’s powers than she let on: a sinister truth beyond Norma’s imagining. As Sofi Oksanen leads us ever more deeply into Norma’s world, weaving together past and present, she gives us a dark family drama that is a searing portrait of both the exploitation of women’s bodies and the extremes to which people will go for the sake of beauty.


Norma was an interesting encounter that occurred during my ongoing efforts to read more translated titles. I cannot say exactly what expectations I had set upon picking it up nor am I certain that they were met. My experience was a complicated one that I am still attempting to sort out.

Norma has a unique attribute. Her hair. It grows at a rapid rate and reacts not only to her own mood, but the mood of those around her. When Norma’s mother suddenly commits suicide, it is this very ability alerts her to the possibility that there is more behind her mother’s death than she has been told. What ensues is a journey to discover the truth and the revelation that perhaps her mother knew more of their shared secret (Norma’s incredible hair) than she told even Norma.

This is a somewhat typical mystery that is heightened by an added dose of magical realism supplied to the reader through Norma’s supernatural hair. Her hair is what defines her, setting her apart from other protagonist. I found this to be a mix of strength and weakness in terms of character development. While this unique feature provides an interesting variant, there was little else here that really made Norma jump off of the page. She was relatable in her grief and isolation, but perhaps not profound. I was comfortable with her, but not astounded. Supporting characters really failed to grow into anything of true interest for myself. They simply co-existed with the story.

The plot does boast some relevant topics that touch on human trafficking and the selling of black market babies that are worth note. However, it all unfolds at a somewhat surreal pace that is hard to describe as rewarding or heavy hitting. Narration is broken down into easily digested chunks that offer a fast read, but also seems to strip away from what I felt could have been a more impactful experience, leaving the reader to question what is really happening at times. The result is awkward and abrupt. I felt engaged but struggled to maintain the connection at times. Perhaps I would have appreciated this more if the author had chosen to place more emphasis on the topics contained within and explored them further. The pacing was ill-timed, dragging on during uneventful moments and skimming through significant revelations. I cannot say how much of my time with Norma was altered due to this being a translated work, but I have found nothing to imply it has not been translated well.

I think many fans of magical realism with an appreciation for the odd and eccentric might enjoy Norma. For myself, it was a mixed bag of emotions that never seemed to fully blossom into something memorable.

Untitled design Enjoyed with a blend of raspberry hibiscus tea.

Purchase Links: Book Depository

Happy Reading,

Danielle ❤

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HAPPY DREAMS ~ Book Excerpt

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I am pleased to be sharing  Jia Pingwa’s latest novel Happy Dreams along with an excerpt today on Books, Vertigo and Tea. Released on 10/1/17, this contemporary novel has been translated by award-winning writer, Nicky Harman.

Happy Dreams_preview

Happy Dreams
By Jia Pingwa
Translated by Nicky Harman
Published by Amazon Crossing
ISBN13: 9781611097429
Pages: 492



Hawa “Happy” Liu and his best friend, Wufu take an unforgettable journey from their rural hometown to the fast-paced city of Xi-an with just their hopes, friendship, and a pair of high heels for the woman of Happy’s dreams in hand.  In search of the recipient of his donated kidney and a more prestigious life, Happy will need more than just his unrelenting optimism to hold on to the belief that something better is possible when he is faced with harsh city conditions, the crush of societal inequalities and a sudden death.  Will they both survive?

Purchase Happy Dreams: Amazon  Amazon UK  Book Depository

(New)ExcerptFrom Chapter One

“Happy Liu.”
“It says ‘Hawa Liu’ on your ID card. What’s with this ‘Happy Liu’?”
“I changed my name. Everyone calls me Happy Liu now.”
“‘Happy’ are you, Hawa Liu?”
“You must call me Happy Liu, comrade!”
“Happy Liu!”
“Yes, sir!”
“Know why I’m handcuffing you?”
“Because I had my buddy’s corpse with me?”
“I shouldn’t have been at the station with Wufu on my back.”
“Well, if you know that, why did you do it?”
“He needed to go home.”
“Freshwind Township, Shangzhou District.”
“I’m asking about you!”
“Right here.”
“Well, I should be from Xi’an.”
“Tell the truth!”
“I am telling the truth.”
“Then what do you mean by ‘should be’?”
“I really should be, comrade, because…”

It was October 13, 2000, and we were standing on the east side of Xi’an Station Square, outside the barriers. The policeman was taking a statement from me. The wind was blowing hard, and leaves floated down from the gingkos, catalpa, and plane trees around the edge of the square, covering everything with brilliant reds and yellows.

The thing I most regret about that day is not the bottle of taibai liquor, but the white rooster. Freshwind folk believe the spirit of someone who dies away from home has to make its way back. In case the spirit gets lost, you tie a white rooster to the body to guide it. The rooster I bought was supposed to help Wufu’s spirit get home, but in the end, the bird messed up everything. It weighed two and a half pounds at the very most, but the woman insisted it was three pounds. I lost my temper.

“Bullshit! No way is that three pounds! I can always tell how much something weighs! Do you know what I want it for?” (Of course I didn’t tell her what I wanted it for.)

But she kept shouting. “Put it on the scales again! Go ahead and put it on the scales again!” So then the policeman trotted over to sort out the argument.

And he saw the bedroll tied with rope. “What’s that?” He jabbed it with his baton. Lively Shi went as pale as if he’d smacked his face in a sack of ash. Then the stupid fucker opened his big mouth and said it was a side of pork, of all things.

“Pork? You wrap pork up in a quilt?” said the policeman. He carried on poking, and the corner of the bedroll came undone. That was when that coward Lively showed his true colors. He dropped the taibai bottle and took off. The policeman immediately pounced on me and handcuffed one of my wrists to the flagpole.

“Would you be so good as to handcuff my left wrist instead?” I asked with a smile. I’d pulled a muscle in my right arm digging the trench.

This time, the baton jabbed me in the crotch. “Don’t joke around!”

So I didn’t joke around.

Everything looked blurred, as if my eyes were gummed up with boogers. But I told myself to stay calm. The ink wouldn’t come out of the policeman’s pen, and he kept shaking it. The patch of pimples on his forehead flamed red. I tried to put my foot on a drifting plane tree leaf but couldn’t reach it. I’d never seen a young man with so many zits. Obviously not married yet and fierce as a young billy goat.

Click. A reporter was taking a photograph.

I took an instant dislike to her. She was done up like a little girl, with bangs down to her eyebrows, though she was clearly well into her thirties. I didn’t notice her at first. When I did, I smoothed my hair, straightened my clothes, and presented my profile so she could take another picture. But the next day in the paper, they used the one where I was bent over as if I was giving a statement, and in front of me was the flower-patterned bedroll tied with rope. One of Wufu’s feet was sticking out, and you could see his yellow rubber shoe stuffed with cotton wadding. Dammit, that picture was no better than a head-on mug shot, enough to make anyone look like a criminal. I have a prominent nose and a well-defined mouth, but she wouldn’t take me in profile, the bitch.

No way did that photo look anything like me!

Once Wufu’s body had been taken to the funeral parlor, they let me go. But I had to go back to the train station to wait for Wufu’s wife, who was coming to deal with the funeral arrangements. The square in front of the station was full of people who’d seen the newspaper, and they pointed at me. “Look! That’s the man who tried to carry a corpse onto the train! Hawa Liu!” I ignored them. Then they shouted, “Shangzhou husk-eater!” That was an insult to Shangzhou folk, so of course I paid even less attention. (Where I come from, the land’s so barren that there’s not enough grain to last year-round. Come springtime, all there is to eat is a ground-up mixture of dried persimmon and toasted rice husks.)

I needed some time to think. Though Wufu’s body had been taken to the funeral parlor, I felt his spirit must still be around here in the square, maybe perched on the traffic lights or sitting on the piles of roast chicken, hard-boiled duck eggs, bread, and bottles of mineral water on the street vendor’s cart. The small of my back felt sore and tired now, and I pushed my hand against it. Then I had another thought: How good a car is depends on its engine, not on its body, right? And like a car’s engine, a kidney is fundamental to a human body, isn’t it? My flesh was from Freshwind, and I was Hawa Liu, but I’d sold my kidney to Xi’an, so that obviously meant I belonged in Xi’an. Yes, Xi’an! I was very satisfied that I’d worked this out. It made me feel sort of lonesome, but proud too. I held my head high and began to stride along. And each step proclaimed, I’m not Hawa Liu. I’m not a Shangzhou husk-eater. I’m Happy Liu from Xi’an. Hap-py Liu!

“Excerpted from “Happy Dreams” by Jia Pingwa. ©2017 by Jia Pingwa. Published by AmazonCrossing October 2017. All Rights Reserved.”

About the Author

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Jia Pingwa was born in 1952 in Jinpen, a hardscrabble village. As a child, Jia was forced out of his hometown due to extreme poverty and famines. Around the late 1960’s Jia’s father, a schoolteacher was sent to prison after accusations of being a ‘historical counter-revolutionary.’ After his father was released from prison in 1970, Jia was permitted to attend Northwest University of Xi’an where he polished his calligraphy and writing skills. Shortly after, Jia began writing short stories for newspapers, a collection of stories, and eventually went on to write his first novel, Shangzhou, in 1986. HAPPY DREAMS is Jia Pingwa’s third novel that will be translated from Chinese. Today, Jia is one of the most prominent and celebrated writers in the country and the deputy chair of China Writers Association.

Follow Jia Pingwa: Website & Twitter

About the Translator

Nicky Harman Photo_preview
Nicky Harman is co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors) and translates full-time from Chinese. She won Mao Tai Cup People’s Literature Chinese-English translation prize in
2015 and was the first prize winner in the 2013 China
International Translation Contest. Nicky currently resides in the UK and is available for interview.

Follow Nicky Harman: WebsiteTwitter


*I would like to extend a special thank to Pamela with Wunderkind PR for contacting me regarding this opportunity. 

Happy Reading!

Danielle ❤

Connect With Me: FacebookTwitterTumblr and Instagram

Snowpiercer Vol. 1: The Escape

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Snowpiercer Vol. 1: The Escape
By Jacques Lob
Illustrator: Jean-Marc Rochette
Translator: Virginie Selavy
Publisher: Titan Comics
ISBN13: 9781782761334
Pages: 110
Genre: Graphic Novel/Dystopian


Snowpiercer is the enthralling and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic graphic novel that inspired the critically acclaimed movie starring Chris Evans (Captain America, Fantastic Four). Originally published in French, this marks the first time that Snowpiercer will be available in English.

In a harsh, uncompromisingly cold future where Earth has succumbed to treacherously low temperatures, the last remaining members of humanity travel on a train while the outside world remains encased in ice.  

The surviving community are not without a social hierarchy; those that travel at the front of the train live in relative luxury whilst those unfortunate enough to be at the rear remain clustered like cattle in claustrophobic darkness. Yet, things are about to change aboard the train as passengers become disgruntled…

My Thoughts:

This is a unique situation for myself. I have found that elusive case of a film actually superseding a book, or in this instance, a graphic novel. I discovered Snowpiercer on Netflix a few years ago and fell hard. The haunting cinematography and fast paced dystopian plot impressed. It also happens to boast a favorable cast. So I picked up the graphic novel with a pretty high standard in place.

The plot offers a potential that was better executed on-screen and failed to fully come to life within the pages of this first volume. The blurb is pretty definitive and there is no need to explore the concept in-depth. Perhaps the biggest barrier standing between myself and possible love for this post apocalyptic story would be dialog. It  leaned heavily towards dry and flat. There seemed to be a lack of real depth within the story, yet so much was  happening.

The artwork was the one element that actually carried me through to the end. Had it not been for the bold, grey-scale illustrations offering a simplistic yet fitting representation of this bleak and dismal situation, I may have shelved this one. I struggle to imagine this story unfolding in full colour. Even the film was visually drab in the best of ways.


The characters play their part but offer little in terms of interest. Again, I have to blame dialog. I found myself disappointed with the portrayal of women within this container like society, viewed more as sexual objects and contributing little of value. To be fair, that could be the result of the current societal structure in such confined spaces, but I could not get into or support the idea.

While this was certainly not a terrible read, it failed to be an impactful one. I do feel that the GN places more emphasis on the political aspect of the story and manages to convey this successfully which was appreciated. But there were a lot of lack luster moments that struggled to capture just how dire the situation has become. I have read that there are some translation issues that might be at fault, but I honestly cannot offer any insight into the truth of those comments.

The end result for myself was “okay”. I don’t believe I will pick up the second volume right now. This is a series that boasts a fascinating story-line but is moving at a very leisurely rate. If you don’t mind the pacing, perhaps test the waters. For now however, I recommend the film which happens to be a favorite of mine.

Here is a trailer for those of you who might be interested.

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