Category Archives: European Reading Challenge

{Review} The Laughing Policeman – Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

After several weeks of the frivolity of Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Wimsey, it was time to settle down with a more serious crime novel. What better than a classic Swedish detective novel to sober me up! As we had two copies of this crime story at home, it seemed a good idea to read one of them before giving it away. 🙂
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{Review} Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 – Mark Mazower

Prior to reading this book, the only thing that sprang to mind at the mention of this quintessentially Greek city was an Irish Folk/ Independence song, Salonica. I hoped this weighty tome (coming in at a chunky 544 pages) would shed some light on Salonica, or Thessaloniki as it is now called.
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Posted by on November 22, 2016 in Books, European Reading Challenge


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{Review} The Second Death – Peter Tremayne

{Review} The Second Death – Peter Tremayne

It may be the 26th novel in the Fidelma series, but Peter Tremayne is not showing any sign of wanting to say farewell to this exciting, intelligent character. And thank goodness for that! Read the rest of this entry »


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{Review} The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

{Review} The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

When lifestyle writer, Helen Russell’s husband (known only as Lego Man throughout the book) got headhunted for a job in the High Temple of Lego itself… I mean Lego HQ! After much wheedling on his part, they decided to both decamp to Denmark for a year.

Because you’re never too old for Lego, amiright? Read the rest of this entry »


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{Review} The Immaculate Deception – Ian Pears

{Review} The Immaculate Deception – Ian Pears

This is the seventh and final book in Ian Pears’ Jonathan Argyll Series. Fortunately, you don’t need to have read any of the previous books in order to understand or enjoy this one.

Flavia di Stefano, the head of the Italian Art Theft Squad is faced with a dilemma. She has been ordered by the newly appointed Prime Minister to get recover a recently stolen painting from what will be a major exhibition at any cost. This is far easier said than done when she realises that to pay the ransom wanted for the painting will lead to her dismissal from the post or worse, to being jailed.

Desperate for help, she joins forces with her ex-boss, Bottando to try to reclaim it. When the attempt to recover the painting and catch the thief goes wrong, Flavia fears the consequences. Turning to Jonathan for help, the two start to unravel a plot that could bring the government to its knees and cause her death.

A well-written and exciting book. Pears’ knowledge of and passion for Art History shines through. Coupled with his character creation, The Immaculate Deception makes for a good read.


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{Review} A Matter of Death and Life – Andrey Kurkov

Read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge 2014 (Ukraine)

I meant to read ‘out’ from the UK, slowly reading my way across countries until I ended up poised on the edge of Europe, about to step out into Asia. So obviously I went in search of a copy of the Ukranian, A Matter of Death and Life in the local library and decided to give Kurkov another try after the slight misunderstanding we had back in May 2013.

Due to the political situation in Ukraine, I’ve been doing my best not only to keep abreast of developments in the region but also trying to get to know a little more about the nation in the 20th century. As such, I felt better-placed to understand a little more of Kurkov’s famous satire.

Tolya, our main character, begins the novel with a despondent, self-destructive attitude to life. No-one cares about him while he’s alive but he’s realised that if he dies in tragic, mysterious circumstances then people will remember him. He’ll seem ‘interesting’ and be talked about in his absence. By cutting short his life, his memory will live on far longer than he could ever hope to.

The problems start after he hires an assassin to bump him off in a rather prominent café. With so little time left, Tolya starts to value all the things he had previously looked forward to avoiding in the next life.

But he cannot call off his killer or his date with death…

Whether fleetingly or seriously, I’m certain most of us have considered suicide at some point. Kurkov takes this to the next tragicomic level with ease.

As in Death and the Penguin, Kurkov hints at links between death (especially the being-bumped-off variety) and various prominent political figures. He writes about the ‘everything that can be bought’ mentality with a matter of factness that boggles the mind. I’m still not entirely sure as to what to make of those parts of his commentary on contemporary post-Soviet society but it’s interesting to note that they’re some of the main themes that Kurkov explores in his work.

Is this observational satire or critique? Is it a little of both? Think I’m going to have to read some more Kurkov before I can answer that one satisfactorily.

The ending of this story was far more satisfying than that of Death and the Penguin as Tolya’s actions felt more in character and there wasn’t the same degree of bitterness mixed in with the sweetness of the conclusion.

Note on the translation: George Bird’s translation feels direct and sometimes as though there’s more that’s lingering between the lines than in them. I put this down to Kurkov’s ‘between the lines’ sort of satire.

It’s a really good translation though- it puts me in mind of the pictures of post-Soviet Ukraine I saw in a gallery once.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure if that’s a little rude of me to imply that post-Soviet Ukraine’s a little grey around the edges… :/

Either I was better prepared for Kurkov’s satire, or A Matter of Death and Life is a little better (or both?).

Whichever way, this was a pleasure to read and I’m looking forward to improving my knowledge of Ukrainian politics and society before reading the next of his stories.

I’m not sure that his social and political satire are the sharpest I’ve ever come across but he’s still very good and this novel’s more than worth the 100 minutes or so it takes to blaze through it.


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{Review} The Spectacular Group Suicide – Arto Paasilinna

As read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge

I found this review very difficult to write. Not because the writing was bad or because the plot had more holes than my knitting (I keep dropping stitches).

In fact it was quite the reverse.

From my soapbox: first things first, I don’t find the subject of mental illness funny. After even a short period of depression, it can be almost impossible to just get up and get back on with life. What I do believe is that humour is one of the best methods to break down boundaries and get people talking in earnest about taboo subjects.

“Contemplating suicide? Don’t worry, you are not alone!”

Thus begins the attempt of two men, who feel they have nothing to live for, to found a group for other suicidal people so that they don’t have to die alone.

After attracting more members than they had believed possible, the group sits down to discuss how to go about the business of dying. Their suicide attempts become ever more desperate as they travel across Europe, trying to find the perfect place to die. At almost every turn the group is foiled… by itself.

With each attempt, the Spectacular Group Suicide members explore their own and each others’ reasons for wanting to end their lives. For the first time in months (and years, in some cases), they start to talk about what they are going through.

Paasilinna takes on one of the most difficult subjects to come to terms with. Using bleak humour, shocking (but sadly true) statistics and a surprising level of sensitivity, he tackles Finland’s greatest killer.

Feel free to flame me for saying this, but I felt that The Spectacular Group Suicide was a little like some of Chekhov’s work in terms of the plot’s tragicomic element. Within the first few pages, two of the main characters meet because they’re both looking for a quiet place to commit suicide.

The plot picked up momentum which was sustained for the first third of the novel. As the road-trip/ self-discovery elements started to set in, I felt that the novel started to sag a little. The pace picked up again near the end, but didn’t feel as smooth-flowing as it had done at the start.

There are facts and figures that I couldn’t believe, even after I had verified them. The factual elements are a slap in the face and strengthen (what I believe is) the underlying message that this is an issue that should be discussed publicly.

Whilst the main issue is suicide (and its causes), Paasilinna subtly weaves in a couple of other taboo subjects, such as HIV. This was skilfully done as this allows him to create a few more multi-faceted characters (something that can be hard to find in books about social issues *coughDickenscough*) who were as quick to condemn as they were to open their hearts to others like themselves.

Some elements devolved to the farcical, which did detract from the story. So as not to drop massive spoilers, I’m just going to write: fisticuffs with fascists and leave it at that.

The other element that left me somewhat disgruntled was Paasilinna’s portrayal of almost all people who seriously consider suicide as being able to find things worth living for after a few weeks of talking to others about how they feel. Research does indicate that people who can talk about how they feel can stabilise after months of therapy. The thing is that this ‘rule’ does not work in every case. The generalisation made the ending slightly less believable and could lead to misconceptions.

Whilst it’s easy to find books that deal with death, it’s much harder to find novels that explore suicide and attempted suicide without stigmatizing these people. Paasilinna has a done a wonderful job, taking a taboo subject and some facts and creating a story that gives hope to anyone who wants to start a discussion about this subject.

Whilst I have several disagreements with generalisation and a plot that doesn’t always flow, I truly believe that this book should be read by more adults so as to decrease the taboo nature of this subject.

After all, the main message of The Spectacular Group Suicide is that a little communication and understanding can go a long way in helping the most vulnerable around us.

WNI’s verdict: Wavering towards… WIN!


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{Review} The Story of Malta – Maturin Murray-Ballou

Read for Rose City Reader’s, European Reading Challenge.

I’ve never been one to say, “no” to a free book, so when I saw that Amazon had put a free e-book version of a book that had been published in 1893, I couldn’t not download it. Especially as it seemed to be a travel-guide-and history of the place..

In the late 19th Century, Malta was in some ways, the centre of the nautical world. Half-way between Britain and the (contemporary) Empire of India, it was crucial in her retention of the latter. Murray-Ballou’s work is a unique observation of the ‘Fior del Mondo’, the Flower of the World at this time.

Combining accounts of the country’s history with personal anecdotes and a writing style that is compelling (and sometimes shocking to the modern-day reader), The Story of Malta is a book that encourages the reader to examine his or her own perceptions of the world around them.

If you want a travel guide then this is not the book you want. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a book that explores the culture and the history of Malta or the Knights of St. John, then this is the book for you.


“We only present facts to the mind of the thoughtful reader”

One thing I always forget when I start reading older books about foreign countries is the extent to which the ‘primitive culture’ is always unfavourably compared with the author and his reader’s ‘civilized society’.

This attitude is frustrating for the modern reader: I shouted at him when he wrote several offensive racial stereotypes, called the Maltese, “sadly ignorant”, condemned every religious belief he mentioned that was not his own and expressed Sherlock Holmes-esque views on England’s monarchy.

It goes without saying that this element did sometimes make me question the sort of ‘filter’ some of the information in The Story of Malta had gone through before appearing on the page. As a result, I have learnt key dates and general history of the islands, but I don’t trust the more descriptive elements of the prose.

On the bright side, I do feel as though I have learnt a lot about Murray-Ballou’s personal beliefs and opinions of Malta. As soon as I realised that this book was best taken with a pinch of salt (or snuff, maybe), it became much easier to enjoy it and thoroughly.

Excluding the *ahem* contemporary beliefs on race and religion, Murray-Ballou writes very well, combining poetry, amusing anecdotes and nuggets of travellers’ wisdom that ring true after 100 years.

The one element that eventually persuaded me to like this book was his presentation of the island through the eyes of those who had seen it centuries before him. Of course, the use of Classical figures in contemporary books was common, especially among the well-educated, but lines such as: “It seemed like the eye of a Cyclops peering through the darkness, as though one of Vulcan’s workman, fresh from the fiery furnace beneath Sicilian [E]tna… had come forth to gaze upon the progress of the night”.

I’d be interested to read more of Murray-Ballou’s work: he’s well-travelled, writes very well and made me consider how my own perceptions of customs and people who are different from those I’ve grown up with are coloured by my upbringing.

WNI’s Verdict? Wavering towards… WIN!


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{Summary} Cultural Buffet Challenge – Week One

First of all, I’d like to say thanks to Synthesist Chronicles and The Lupine Librarian for their recommendations. 🙂

This week has been quite exciting: after months of studying and revising, I can sit in the shade with a big bottle of water and a croissant and read for as long as I want. I can take as much time as I like to read the same paragraph or poem several times and I can get as carried away with making notes as I like without being crippled by guilt for not sticking to my daily schedule.

The only downside is that my mind’s whirling with so many concepts and ideas that every time I sit down to write a review, I only manage up to type a hundred words or so before my eyes stray back to a book or a film or my Polish vocabulary book.

So, I’ll start putting reviews up for the asterisked books in the next few days.

If you’d like me to review a particular book or film on the list, just ask. 🙂

Books Read This Week
1) The Prince – Machiavelli *
2) The Age of Innocence – Wharton *
3) The Spectacular Group Suicide – Paasilinna *
4) Sonietchka – Ulitskaya
5) Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum – Stevens
6) The Character of Rain – Nothomb *
7) The Gourmand – Barbery *
8) Travels Around Kazakhstan: After the fall of the Soviet Union – Deonna *
9) The Spellman Files – Lutz
10) Water for Elephants – Gruen
11) Italian Shoes – Mankell (re-read)

Films/ Series Seen
1) Dark Shadows
2) Things to Do Before You’re 30
3) The Bridge (series)
4) Medieval Lives (series) *

And I’ve completed the first CD of the Michel Thomas Polish course, so all in all, it’s been a rather good week. 🙂


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{Review} The Royal Guest – Henrik Pontoppidan

When I think of Scandinavian Literature, I think of iconic children’s stories and crime novels that blow most of the ones I grew up on out of the water. So, for Rose City Reader’s  European Reading Challenge, I decided to shake things up a bit and go for books that don’t fall into either of those genres but were written by famous authors. (Pontoppidan won the Nobel Prize for Literature at the start of the 20th century).

It’s a shame I didn’t try this sooner…

Six years after their wedding, Arnold and Emmy are as in love as ever and want for nothing in their country lives save for the occasional visit from their city-dwelling relatives. When they learn at the last minute that their guests will not be able to stay with them during the Carnival, they decide to make the most of it and spend a quiet evening relaxing.

Then a stranger, the so-called Prince of Carnivals, arrives begging a room for the night. It quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary man and his carnival madness threatens to be their undoing…
After years of openings that start with snow (or other forms of pathetic fallacy), it was wonderful to begin by reading a wry observation on country vs. city life and the way in which each is viewed by the other. It’s a nice hook to start the story on and it works very well as the yarn unravels.

Pontoppidan has a beautiful way of bringing characters to life through the smallest of details and the off-the-cuff remarks that they make. We know just how deeply in love his happily in love couple are from the first. Furthermore, the story opens with them being peaceful and ‘we know we love each other’, something that has been sorely lacking in several of the romance stories I’ve read recently.

This is an exploration of the strange and sometimes surreal, although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the revelations centred around the Prince of Carnivals. Then again, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that element in An Inspector Calls until I’d read it several times. The realistic elements in The Royal Guest, such as the couple’s changing attitudes to each other and their interaction with other people who live in their town get a thumb’s up though for feeling realistic and developing at a steady pace that captured my attention for the duration of the story.

This is the perfect book to introduce yourself to Danish Literature with: it’s perfectly balanced and examines love, forgiveness, trust and the unexpected in an interesting way. The only element I’m not wild about is who the Prince of Carnivals is. But that is just me needing to know all the answers. 😉

WNI’s verdict? WIN


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