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{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.

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

 

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{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?

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

 

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{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

 

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{Review} Sunshine on Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith

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

Time to start reviewing the titles I’ve read for this year’s book challenges! As I’m so desperate to travel, I’m starting with a book from the UK and aiming to “read my way out” of my home turf so that I can pretend I’m going on an epic hitch-hiking trip around Europe (or wherever I end up).

NB. I don’t actually advocate hitch-hiking unless you take necessary precautions- there are some truly wicked people out there.

Sunshine on Scotland Street

Blurb (from goodreads)
As the sun rises over the Georgian townhouses of Scotland Street, its most delightfully eccentric residents have burning questions on their minds. Will Big Lou find true love at last? How will Bertie’s healthy snacks go down at his school fair? And has Bruce Anderson really won the lottery? With his trademark charm and deftness, Alexander McCall Smith writes the eighth installment in his popular series.

Review
There is something about this series that has me coming back for more. Many somethings in fact, although I’ll restrain my remarks to my 2 favourite aspects of this book. Promise.

Firstly it is the writing style. Whether poking fun at the narcissistic Bruce Anderson, who’s now back in Edinburgh for the foreseeable future (and with one heck of a story-line floating around him), or following Cyril the dog as he embarks on another adventure around Edinburgh, McCall Smith leads the reader with a gentle but firm hand. Each character’s lives progress at a decent rate, except of course for Bertie’s- he’s been stuck at 6 years old for seven books now, which is starting to drag as I really want to see him grow up and become a moody teenager/ independent adult. McCall Smith handles any potentially painful or traumatic moments, such as the near argument over the Battle/ “Misunderstanding” of Glencoe well and resolves them quickly and in a grown-up fashion before any nastiness occurs.

The second something that has me going back for more is that although each character has an active life, they all have time to reflect upon aspects of life and draw some interesting conclusions that always end up filtering back into the non-book world. The part that stayed with me after finishing this novel was the moment when Angus’ looked around the room during a party he and his wife were hosting and felt thoroughly blessed as he saw, “links between people that went in all sorts of directions and had made for friendships that would otherwise not have come into existence. The forges of friendship, thought Angus, may be busy ones, but their doors are always open”.

Overall
Although some elements, such as Bertie remaining 6 and Pat’s continued and completely unbelievable crush on Bruce jar, there is so much goodness and ‘simple’ joy in this that it entertains and warms the cockles of your heart.

Perfect reading in a cold climate.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on January 20, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges

 

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European Reading Challenge 2014

A new post! Huzzah!

This one is about Rose City Reader’s European Challenge. I’ve done it once before, back in 2011 (my goodness, it’s hard to believe that so much time has passed) and really enjoyed it as it led to the exploration of entirely different shelves of the library.

The aim is to read and review a minimum of 1 book that’s either set in Europe (irrespective of where the author’s from), or whose author is from a country in Europe. And darn, are the authors of some countries prolific: it’s now estimated that 10% of all Icelanders have written and published a book at some point. A statistic that seems a little less improbable when you hear that in 2010 alone, 1,100 of new publications in Iceland were written by Icelanders (the country has around 320,000 inhabitants).

Pointless but shiny statistics are shiny. 🙂

Just to keep things light and, well, not too daunting, I’m aiming for the ‘honeymooner’ level, which entails reviewing 4 books that comply with the above guidelines. That’s one book every 3 months, which is do-able.

My main aim is to get back into the habit of reading more widely as I do feel as though I’ve stagnated in the last 12 months- I’ve barely read 90 books that aren’t related to my course, which is slightly galling as in 2012, I managed 151. I shall conquer this, I shall!

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2013 in 2014 Reading Challenges

 

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