RSS

Category Archives: 2014 Reading Challenges

{Review} The Celtic Ring – Björn Larsson

One of the main reasons I proof read on www.pgdp.net is so that I can pick up inklings about what it was like to live at the time when the novel was written. It’s exciting to find out about issues and PoVs contemporary to the author or story. But I spend so much time flicking through these older books that I often forget just how different the world was even a few years ago.

The Celtic Ring took me back to 1990 (24 years ago! 24!! The Berlin Wall had come down a few months before that!) with a little bump. My goodness how times have changed! Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 19, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges, Books

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

{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.

Blurb
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…

Review
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… :/

Overall
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.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

{Review} No Word from Gurb – Eduardo Mendoza

¡Hola a tod@s!

I’ve been meaning to read and review Spanish books for caffeinatedlife’s Everything España: a 2014 Reading Challenge but as of last month had made as many steps towards doing so as Russia has towards backing out of Ukraine.

Today this changes! Today, I review!

And it’s a fairly good book I’m reviewing too: No Word from Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza

Blurb (from back of book)
A shape-shifting extraterrestrial named Gurb has assumed the form of Madonna and disappeared in Barcelona’s back streets. His hapless commander, desperately trying to find him, records the daily pleasures, dangers, and absurdities of our fragile world, while munching his way through enormous quantities of churros. No stone is left unturned in the search for his old pal Gurb.

Will Barcelona survive this alien invasion? Will the captain ever find his subordinate? Are there enough churros in Barcelona to satisfy his intergalactic appetite?

Review
I suppose that this novel counts as a Space Opera on some level. There are aliens and there is strangeness and a lot of hilarity. I also like this novel much more than I feel that I should as I’m the only person I know who has thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

So why did I find it highly entertaining? Possibly because of the commander’s ridiculous transformations into different people, from Delia Smith to Miguel de Unamuno (as he felt fitted the situations) were brilliantly timed and made me grin a fair amount.

Possibly because the narrator’s portrait of Barcelona as it prepared to take its place on the world stage in the early ‘90s was interesting and amusing. The comments on Cataluña and especially Barcelona- provided a snapshot of the region at an exciting period in its development and capturing the grittiness as well as the glamour of it. For some reason as I was reading this, I could imagine Almodóvar (in his younger years) adapting and directing this with much more sex, a few more gender-bending moments, more drugs and even more dog poo.

Not entirely sure whether people who aren’t au fait with or interested in this particular era will enjoy it as much due to some of the references made to specific events and places in the text.

Overall
This was a good start to the Everything España challenge. It was snappy and funny and aimed at people who’re particularly fond of their references to different and occasionally obscure people.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on July 9, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges, Books

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

{Review} The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden – Jonas Jonasson

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through goodreads in return for an honest review.

This also ties in nicely with Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge 2014 (Sweden).

Prior to this, I’ve read a few a few Swedish books that have offered a commentary on various aspects of African and Swedish politics (namely the Wallander series) and – for the most part- found them pleasant but occasionally tangential and difficult to follow. The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden has raised the bar in this field and in spite of a few snicks was a really rather good read.

Blurb
On June 14th, 2007, the King and Prime Minister of Sweden went missing from a gala banquet at the Royal Castle. Later it was said that both had fallen ill: the truth is different. The real story starts much earlier, in 1961, with the birth of Nombeko Mayeki in a shack in Soweto. Nombeko was fated to grow up fast and die early in her poverty-stricken township. But Nombeko takes a different path. She finds work as a housecleaner and eventually makes her way up to the position of chief advisor, at the helm of one of the world’s most secret projects.

Here is where the story merges with, then diverges from reality. South Africa developed six nuclear missiles in the 1980s, then voluntarily dismantled them in 1994. This is a story about the seventh missile . . . the one that was never supposed to have existed. Nombeko Mayeki knows too much about it, and now she’s on the run from both the South African justice and the most terrifying secret service in the world. She ends up in Sweden, which has transformed into a nuclear nation, and the fate of the world now lies in Nombeko’s hands.

Review
Opening in South Africa at the time of the Apartheid, this novel gently educated me about aspects of the regime of which I’d previously been unaware whilst mocking that system of government. It’s left me with a yen to find out more about a regime I still can’t believe existed in the late 20th century.

Little nuggets of information about the political situations of South Africa and a plethora of other countries are slipped in every chapter, which helped to provide extra context for the story and illustrated points made throughout. The information about George W Bush Jr’s decision to take Nelson Mandela off of the list of terrorists in 2008 was eye-opening, even though the country has a habit of being slow to change its foreign policies.

PoG
Seriously, Polish people still need visas to be able to even pass through the country and it’s not even a formality. Polish friends of mine have been unable to get flights to South America simply because they have to transfer in an airport in the US. They’re unable to spend a couple of hours in one airport simply because members of their families have moved out of Poland and are now living in other countries, such as Germany and the UK. Apparently this means that they will try to remain in the US instead of going to whichever other Latin-American country they’ve managed to get a summer scholarship to study in. As you can tell, this is a pet peeve, hence the Paragraph of Grumbling (PoG).

Back to the review
Both the protagonists’ and political situations were treated in the same seemingly light-hearted but deeply satirical way. My erstwhile flat-mate had problems enjoying the story because of this but I found it got the necessary horror and despair of the various situations across without putting the reader off by being bitter about these things. But then I’m the sort of person who, if I can’t laugh and try to brush off some of the really horrible situations, will end up rocking in a corner with what little faith I have in humanity shattered.

The characters were varied if stereotyped, which helped the humour of the piece. The one issue I really had was the pacing of the story from part of the way through chapter 17 to chapter 21. As the action was inevitable but the build-up took a little too long, the resulting situation felt a tad anti-climatic.
Note on the translation: though I obviously can’t compare it to the original text, Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation was a pleasure to read. The humour and nuances in the text were conveyed wonderfully and the text felt… perfectly, really. 🙂 According to some serious duckduckgo-ing, she’s translated a fair amount of exciting Swedish novels, including at least one of Arne Dahl’s crime series (that has been adapted for TV and is a darn good show). Am hoping to find other translations of hers on a local library shelf. 🙂

Overall
I heartily recommend it to anyone who’s never been particularly interested in South Africa’s political situation from the ‘60s onwards. And to people who have a dry sense of humour. And to those who dislike racism. That’s actually a fairly large number of people now that I think about it.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on July 8, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges, Books

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

{Review} The Year of the Hare – Arto Paasilinna

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

Back in 2012 when I started this blog, one of the first books I reviewed was Paasilinna’s A Charming Mass Suicide. Weird as it may sound, I needed to read that book at that stage of my life. I was afraid to try to read any of his other works as I didn’t know if they’d strike the same chord as A Charming Mass Suicide.

Two years later, in a completely different country and forced to sit in a chair for most of the day (I’ve sprained my ankle and my goodness does it HURT), one of my house-mates lent me The Year of the Hare to pass the time.

Did it live up to the high standard Paasilinna set with ACMS?

Blurb from the publisher’s site
Vatanen the journalist is sick of his job and fed up with city life. One summer evening while he is out on an assignment his car hits a young hare on a country road. Vatanen goes in search of the injured creature, and this small incident becomes a life-changing experience as he decides to break free from the world’s constraints. He quits his job, leaves his wife and sells his possessions to travel in the wilds of Finland with his new-found friend. Their adventures take in forest fires, pagan sacrifices, military war games, killer bears and much more.

Review
As you may have gathered from my reviews of Nothomb’s “A Life Form” and Kurkov’s “Death and the Penguin

How can you say ‘no’ to this cover? Seriously! How?!

”, I do rather like my books to have a little dash of the unexpected in them. Luckily for me, The Year of the Hare definitely delivered the goods here.

I don’t know if I was reading this ‘right’, but my overwhelming impression was that this is the story of a man who decided that he wanted a simpler life and then spent the course of the novel finding out just how hard it is to lead that sort of life when you factor in interacting with the rest of the world.

That is a horrific over-simplification of a beautifully crafted story but I’m going to stand by it. Each chapter moved from one strange (and sometimes surreal) scene to the next and the penultimate chapter introduced a rather amusing twist on the book as a whole. No spoilers, I promise!

The section set in the USSR was particularly amusing, especially when contrasted with the action of the last few chapters. Sort of wondering if the bear was allegorical for the USSR…

Any theories on this one are welcome. 🙂

Overall
If you’re after a quick read with a plot that’ll stay with you for a while, then this is the book for you. Likewise, if you’re finally standing up to external pressures and trying to live the sort of life you’ve always hoped to, then you may find that this book makes you feel better about all the moments along the road when you end up falling flat on your face and feeling like an eejit.

As before, this Paasilinna novel found me at just the right time in life. 🙂 I sincerely hope we keep meeting like this.

In the meantime, if you have read any Finnish novels and enjoyed them, please tell me the titles?

 
4 Comments

Posted by on July 4, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges, Books

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

{Review} A Woman’s Story/ Une Femme – Annie Ernaux

Read for: Words and Peace’s Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge.

Blurb
After Ernaux’s mother died of Alzheimer’s, Ernaux attempted to commemorate her mother by writing about her to, “capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me, born on the outskirts of a small Normandy town and who died in the geriatric ward of a hospital in the suburbs of Paris”.

Review
Ernaux wrote A Woman’s Story over the course of a year after her mother died by way of coming to terms with her grief as well as creating what she hoped would be a fitting tribute to her mother. The story of her progenitor’s life is interesting, well-written and really easy to fall into and power through in one sitting: Ernaux’s mother was a tough lady who worked hard to change her life and claim her place in a totally different social milieu from the one into which she was born. This led to several social and ideological clashes between the two which Ernaux explored over the course of the novel.

There are moments when the narrative breaks off as Ernaux reaches for her grief to see if it’s lessened since the last time she wrote. It is these moments that added depth to the biography of the woman Ernaux knew but also didn’t. The reason these moments were so telling and added so much was that the language used was succinct but not impersonal. The sense of loss, the pain were summed up perfectly with each word provoking an emotional response when I was reading.

Overall
At 104 pages, this makes for a quick read that feels much more substantial because of the emotional punch it packs.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 21, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

{Review} Histoire de la chauve-souris – Pierette Fleutiaux

Read for: Rose City Reader’s  European Reading Challenge and for Words and Peace’s Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge.

Ashes by Edvard Munch. It pretty much sums up the story…


Disclaimer. Even now, in the final year of my degree, I feel a little nervous about reviewing books read in French. What if I’ve missed some cultural reference that every other French reader’s grasped? What if, even after close reading, I haven’t fully appreciated the linguistic subtleties of the text, such as those present in Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal? Just because I can understand the words doesn’t mean I’ll ‘get’ all the sub-texts.

I fear I shall always be an English woman reading French novels.

Now that’s out of the way, on to the review! 🙂

Blurb
If they had only cut off her hair, she would have been freed from the bat, but her family forbad it and she was lumbered with her “petit bête”. But the beast is demanding and slowly strips her of her sense of self as she strives to care for it. In an attempt to satisfy it, she runs away from home and sets out on a journey that takes her far from her tiny world to one as nightmarish as Lorca’s New York.

Review
Despite being Fleutiaux’s first novel, her style is already developed and by gum, what a style! Part gothic novel, part psychological thriller, part coming of age tale, part social commentary; NdlCS drew me into the claustrophobic head of its narrator from the opening lines. The book is sub-divided into 3 books, just like the novels of yore and each has a slightly different style, even though each section is equally dark and oppressive. With a hand on my heart, I can swear that the last author I’ve read who’s convincingly managed to maintain such a constantly airless atmosphere throughout their novel was Mervyn Peake in the Gormenghast Trilogy.

Then again, perhaps a comparison to The Yellow Wallpaper would do HdlCS more justice: the narrator’s sanity is repeatedly called into question as she is exploited and potentially abused (I say ‘potentially’ as the first-person narrative coupled with her innocence leads to some ambiguous passages that had me squirming and thinking, ‘Oh G-d, really? Is what I think is happening really going on?’).

It seems silly to have written a review about a book with the word ‘bat’ in the title without (thus far) having mentioning said bat! Fleutiaux mentioned in an interview that she chose to stick a bat in there because she « could never have written a novel about a young girl, a coming-of-age story » without the presence of a ‘character’ that would be versatile enough to be used as short-hand for the duality of human nature. So both the darker tendencies of human nature, such as depression, guilt and self-loathing as well as hope and freedom. Furthermore, the bat’s existence is called into question on several occasions, leading the reader to wonder if it’s real until the end. (Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here!)

That bat really does drive the story forward as it has complete control over the narrator, forcing her to exhaust and ostracise herself to feed and care for it.

Overall
Dark, disorientating and darn well-written! If you can read French, I heartily recommend it. English speakers, there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of it 39 years after it was written, so I doubt there ever will be. 😦 Nonetheless, I live in hope!

 
3 Comments

Posted by on February 6, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges, Books

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: