Category Archives: Challenges

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Mircea Cartarescu – Why We Love Women (De ce iubim femeile)

Mircea Cartarescu’s book is a collection of personal essays on women. I’m not sure why I picked it up; maybe it was the idea that soon enough I would be far away from Romanian literature (the odds of finding anything in this language in Bangkok are pretty slim) so I’d better take advantage of the time I had left and the books available. Strangely enough, a few days after finishing the book I found out about Romanian Writers Challenge hosted by Snow Feathers and thought this was too much of a coincidence. Hence the review.
I really liked this book up to the last story. That one robbed it of a 5 star rating. But bear with me, we’ll get there.

Mircea Cartarescu

Mircea Cartarescu

Twenty-one short essays about women – women who were unforgettable for different reason, some, because of their beauty, others because of what they did (or didn’t do), or the way they came back into the author’s life after a long time. Stories of lust, love, eroticism, betrayal, tragedy, all plucked from the folds of memory, dusted and printed on the page, ready to be smiled upon, frowned upon and even shed a tear upon. I smiled reading about Carturescu’s self-professed awkwardness and I can very well imagine the strange, thin youth who used to go around quoting favorite authors to the dismay of acquaintances and girls in particular. I kept smiling when he talked about finding a room filled with old books in a dilapidated building, and spending hours of pleasure immersed in reading, sealed away from the world until one day the room along with its treasure was gone.

It’s hard to describe with accuracy the tone of some of the stories. Imbued with the air of a long gone era – some of them take place during the communist regime that ended in 1989 – I found myself laughing at some of the expressions I found nearly impossible to translate. I wonder what the English translation of this book is like. Although Cartarescu is older than I am (he was born in 1956 and is still living), he talks about a Bucharest that doesn’t seem that old – a dilapidated house, a subway station, the gray apartment buildings rising tall and ugly (they’re still there), a black and white photograph (my parents still have those, where people look like ghosts printed on hard pieces of paper with jagged border all around), a big market that still exists where Gypsies are on the prowl for wallets belonging to inattentive customers. This is probably the main reason why I felt such a connection with these stories – he writes about the familiar, things and people I can readily imagine and accept because at some point I’ve seen/met them.

There are some stories that are not that personal – Zaraza is one of them. This is one of my favorites because it’s a tale of a love story so intense and dramatic I couldn’t help but be moved and immensely saddened by it. According to the author, this is a true story that happened in 1944 when Bucharest was caught in the grip of war and the nightlife was luxurious, loud and tumultuous. Two famous singers vied for public attention, Cristian Vasile si Zavaidoc. They were rivals and both under the protection of local gangs. Because they were so popular nobody would touch them, although Zavaidoc wished his rival’s death and even asked a local gangster to kill him. But the man liked Cristian Vasile’s music and refused to kill him. He killed his lover instead, the famous Gypsy woman Zaraza. Her death was the end of Cristian Vasile’s life as a singer. After she was cremated, he stole her ashes and ate them one spoon at a time, then tried to kill himself by drinking a toxic substance. He survived, lost his voice and kept on living, a broken man who made his living as a stagehand in a theatre, nearly voiceless and forgotten.
Probably his most famous song which bears the name of his beloved has survived and you can listen to it here:

The last essay in the book is an ode to women everywhere. Carturescu sees women as candid beings, sensual, sometimes difficult to understand but always great to be loved. He also shows a somewhat archaic understanding of women by claiming they don’t do things I’m sure most of them are familiar with. Here’s a 5 minute YouTube reading of that last essay. I found minute 4.20 particularly funny.

I enjoyed these stories/essays. They kept me alert, the writing is smooth and lyrical and sensual, with a pinch of the bizarre, and Cartarescu’s flair for the dramatic stands out. This is certainly a great book and one I recommend. You can find the English translation by following this link.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in February-March 2016






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Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Daphne du Maurier

Nu-privi-acum-si-alte-povestiri-Daphne-Maurier-Editura-Univers-1983 I must confess, I expected a lot from this book. With a title like that, I thought, this must be a great book. As it turned out, it really was. There are four stories and I loved them all but one truly stands apart.

Don’t Look Now is about a couple on holiday in Torcello, Italy. What seems like an innocent holiday game of making up stories about strangers begins to be more than that when John and Laura spot two elderly ladies at a nearby table. And when one of them claims to see the couple’s recently deceased child, a girl named Christine, things really get interesting. Told through vivacious dialogue and dropping clues one after the other, the story reaches the end and everything comes full circle, leaving one more mystery behind but providing satisfying closure nevertheless.

The narrator of Not After Midnight is Timothy Grey, a 49 year old bachelor who remembers his fateful trip to Crete and the horrible incident that changed his life. He’s not an unreliable narrator, plagued by bouts of madness concealed into the folds of everyday routine. On the contrary, the accuracy of detail makes him a highly credible story-teller and I couldn’t help but sympathize with him and wishing things had ended on a different note. Timothy seems like the kind of person who’s almost pedantic in his routine. It’s obvious he likes things done a certain way and he highly values his privacy. That is why, when he meets an odd couple – the big, drinking man and his silent wife, he tries to keep his distance. I really liked how the author gave a new spin to a famous snippet of Greek mythology.

A Border-Line Case is about Shelagh, a young woman who tries to find out more about her father’s best friend. The men had had a falling out after Shelagh’s father got married. Her mother can’t stand the man. And following her father’s death in such strange circumstances – he was watching his daughter when it happened – Shelagh decides to employ her talents as an actress to fabricate a story that will allow her to find out the truth. What’s really behind the mysterious, reclusive man living on an island with a few trusted companions? And why does he have a picture of her parents on their wedding day but with himself as the groom? As Shelagh finds herself caught in the mystery, it is Shakespeare who ultimately unlocks the past and reveals the terrifying truth. This is perhaps the most dramatic story in the book and also my favorite.

The Way of the Cross takes place in Jerusalem. A group of people under the supervision of young reverend Babcock visit the holy city. They are quite a mix – the young couple on their honeymoon, an older couple from the high society and their spoiled nephew, a businessman and his wife, and an elderly spinster. It’s obvious from the start that things aren’t as they should be. Reverend Babcock had to take the place of an older and much beloved reverend on this trip, a fact that will have devastating consequences for all in the group. With uncanny precision, the author unveils the insecurities, weaknesses and secrets of all involved. Shocking revelations, betrayal and humiliation follow in rapid succession. Come here all, and have yourselves be stripped to your very soul – this seems to be the motto of the story.

I was fascinated by the stories and only wished there were more in the book. Du Maurier doesn’t waste any time in lengthy descriptions or flowery turns of phrase. Straight to the point using dialogue for the most part, this seems to be the best way to tell the stories. A clever manipulation of clues dropped here and there throughout make them almost seamless. It was not until quite close to the end that I remembered them, and when the ending came it was as unexpected as it was natural. Of course this is how it happened, I told myself, there couldn’t have been a better way. I went back and forth a couple of times, because I had forgotten some of the clues that were vital to the story. Who knew Shelagh’s love for acting and Shakespeare in particular were more than just a literary allusion? Or that a half-god’s legacy would find a new victim in poor Timothy? Or that a strange prophecy of an old blind woman will prove to be so accurate? The characters are exposed, their flaws and hopes and desires revealed. There’s cruelty but also love and vulnerability.
I couldn’t praise this book more. I had no idea such a little gem was hiding in my library. The edition I have is a Romanian translation from 1983 which I discovered one night when sleep was slow to come. If you’re a fan of mystery, I recommend you give this book a try.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in February-March, 2016

***

roch
A few days ago I was ver excited to read about a Romanian Writers Challenge on Bellezza’s blog. The challenge is hosted by Snow Feathers, a Romanian blogger, and lasts until 1 December 2016, so there’s plenty of time if you want to join. Coincidence or not, I found out about this event not long after I finished a Romanian book, Why We Love Women, by Mircea Cartarescu, so this event seemed too good to pass up. As soon as I’m done with Dan Brown and the mysteries of the Vatican (I’m about halfway through “Angels and Demons”) and write a review for Cartarescu’s book, I’ll see what other Romanian writers I can read for this challenge.






Posted in Challenges, The Book on The Nightstand | 20 Comments

Reading Erich Maria Remarque for German Literature Month

German Lit Month big
November was German Literature Month, an event hosted by Caroline@Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy@Lizzy’s Literary Life. I’d like to thank them for devoting their time to such a great event. I’ve wanted to participate for years and I loved all three books I managed to read.
I’m a little behind with my reviews, trying to carve slices of time to write and succeeding only today in finally putting my thoughts together. My first contribution to the event was a short collection of stories by Franz Kafka which can be read here.

Remarque A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954) is the first novel by Remarque that I’ve read. It starts with a rather graphic description of the ravages of war, of dead bodies and smell and the horrible weather that changes the human flesh in a way I didn’t really want to know but became fascinated with from the first page.
The main character, Ernst Graeber , is a German soldier who, after two years spent fighting in the war, finally gets a two-week leave to go home and see his parents. But home as he remembers it is no more. His parents’ house is a heap of rubble, as are quite a few of the houses nearby. He tries to adapt to this new reality, nurturing the hope that somewhere his parents are safe and one day he will see them again. When he meets Elisabeth, things don’t look so bleak anymore. Suddenly the two weeks that seemed like an eternity before, now seem too short to spend with Elisabeth.

Can a lifetime be lived in fourteen days? Can happiness and love blossom on the wasteland of war? Is living a normal life possible? I found myself pondering these questions as page by page, Graeber becomes more and more a person and less a character. He’s compassionate and he questions the part he had to play in the war. The conversations he has with Elisabeth are full of depth and meaning and sometimes they’re quite philosophical. Questions about life and death and the futility of it all, the disillusion of war, the reality behind what he’s been told on the front and what actually happened back home, it all becomes a living nightmare. But Remarque gives Graeber resources to keep on living and the wisdom to appreciate whatever morsel of goodness he finds.

What I liked the most was the dialogue. It gives the story a real and urgent pace, sprinkled here and there with humor, something I did not expect to read about in a war novel but there you go, it’s there and it’s done in such a way that it adds even more depth to the story. Many times I stopped and wondered at the passages showing the cruelty, the hope, and the ability of the characters to climb right back from the abyss of despair. It wasn’t an easy novel to read, but Remarque doesn’t let things get too bleak – an unexpected turn here and there, help coming from strange places, and the extraordinary beauty of the words make this truly a book to remember. And I’m sure I’ll remember the abrupt and beautiful ending. It could not have stopped any other way but I still have mixed feelings about it.

The Black Obelisk (1956)

Having liked “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” so much, I immediately dived into “The Black Obelisk”. This book is set in 1923-1924, a time when war was a thing of the past but its effects were still very much palpable. Inflation was running every business into the ground, and for those working for the funeral house Heinrich Kroll & Sons staying abreast was done with the ability of a juggler performing at the circus.
Georg, the owner, and Ludwig, the main protagonist, work together, trying to stay in business. And dying is a profitable business after all, says Remarque with an irony present from the first page. It is clear this book is a lot lighter, more than slightly ironic and a lot more humorous than “A Time to Love and a Time to Die”. The characters have their own idiosyncrasies, and they each play their part in something that resembles more of a spectacle than anything else. Eduard, the owner of the restaurant Walhalla, who once sold coupons to his customers thinking this will bring him more money, only to have inflation ruin his plans; Wilke, the carpenter who made coffins and sometimes slept in one; Isabelle, the young lady living in an insane asylum; Lisa, the temptress, married to a horse butcher; Knopf, the former general who comes home drunk in the evening, and Gerda, whose relationship with Ludwig made me remember that of Graeber and Elisabeth.

Ludwig is an idealist; a World War I veteran, he clings to his beliefs, keeping himself apart from the new world of greed and speculation. Because of this his relationships with two women don’t last. Through his conversations with Genevieve Terhoven, or “Isabelle” as she likes to call herself, he is as close to love as he can, but Remarque adds a twist to this story – the young lady is a schizophrenic and their relationship anything but simple.

I enjoyed this novel as much as the first but for different reasons. While “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is somber for the most part, and more introspective, it is clear that in “The Black Obelisk” the author created a more relaxed atmosphere where humor plays a bigger role, and the conversations verge on cheerful at times, only to be punctured by the achingly heartfelt exchanges between Ludwig and Elisabeth. The black obelisk that gives the title to the novel is real and as I often wondered about its role in the story, it is at the very end that it is made clear. I have to say I love Remarque’s endings even if I wish they were different; the novels feel complete, and Remarque trades open endings for something with more substance, giving plenty of answers and not much ambiguity.
I’d be hard pressed to choose one book over the other. I liked both. The writing is superb, the dialogue is perfect, his characters believable and likeable. Unfortunately I can’t quote from my favorite passages since the books I read were Romanian translations, but there were so many! I would like to read more of Remarque’s work – perhaps his famous “All Quiet on the Western Front”. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors.

*Read in October-November 2015
*My rating 5/5 stars for both books

Caroline’s review






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The Verdict and Other Stories (Das Urteil und andere Erzahlungen) – Franz Kafka

German Lit Month big Franz Kafka has been on my TBR list for some time and finally I decided to take the opportunity and read some of his work as part of German Literature Month, an event hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The book I have is an old but well-preserved Romanian translation printed in 1969 with a beautiful sepia color bordering each page so that the words seem encompassed in a sort of frame, a painting without the picture.
There are nine stories, and the first, The Verdict (Das Urteil), pulled me in right away with its beginning – a young man writing a letter to his friend who had gone to Russia years ago where he was supposedly working hard for some business or other. We also find out the young man, Georg Bendemann, lives with his elderly father and is engaged to a girl from a rich family. It’s not until the dialogue between father and son that something begins to feel amiss – it’s like suddenly getting a whiff of an unknown scent coming from a place we can’t pinpoint. It’s unsettling, slightly disturbing, and forced my mind, which until that point had a fairly linear thought process, to take a leap. I felt like I had to take sides – is it the father who has lost his mind or is it the son? Even the last sentence of the story adds more to the uncertainty and I loved that about it.

DSC01270 The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) is my favorite story from the book. I could very well argue that this is a horror story because how can it not be? Can you imagine waking up as a human size bug one morning?
Gregor Samsa’s nightmare begins when he realizes his shocking change just as he wakes up to go to work. The cause of the metamorphosis is never explained but through plenty of detail the reader is introduced to Gregor’s life following this amazing misfortune. Or is it not a misfortune after all? If you have read the story you might think I’m slightly off (or more than slightly) but it is clear the whole family went through a metamorphosis. Perhaps Gregor, as the dutiful son and breadwinner got the short end of the stick; it is however just as captivating to see his family’s reaction and the changes they go through as they adjust to their new life.
Interestingly enough, both The Verdict and The Metamorphosis begin in the morning. I found this clearly defined frame of time to add a realistic tone to the story ahead.
“Bug” may not be the best term to describe Gregor’s transformation. The edition I have refers to it as an “insect-like” creature. We have a specific word for that in Romanian which perfectly fits Kafka’s description.

On a personal note – I’ve had a couple of unfortunate encounters with bugs, the most recent one when I found one in my jacket pocket while taking a stroll through a park, not long after I finished reading this story. Maybe it was a reminder.

In A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt) the author present us with a moral dilemma told from the point of view of an elderly country doctor who is called away suddenly to the bedside of a patient. An unexpected help presents itself – a man with two horses, ready to replace the doctor’s own horse that had died the night before. The doctor’s housemaid, a young woman named Rosa, helps the man with the horses but it’s clear the man can hardly wait for the doctor to leave so he can abuse the girl. The doctor doesn’t want to leave Rosa behind but somehow the horses take the carriage away before he can get down and he can hear her screams as the man breaks down the door. From this moment on the story takes a fantastical turn – the horses become agents of evil, and the patient, a young boy, is dying of a terrible wound.
Has this been just a wasted call? Did the bell, which rang in the night and whose voice the doctor always obeyed, lead him not to save a life but to lose two? Is this an allegory for something that happens in life? I found myself totally captured by the story and utterly immersed in the doctor’s predicament.

Some of the stories are quite short but not less powerful. Up in the Gallery (Auf der Galerie), which is something that brought to mind an “if – but” story (a term I just came up with), is a two page story that describes a scene at the circus. The urgency of the image presented is not less potent than a story sprawled across a dozen pages. It is the precision of every word and their capability to surge forward that create an emotion which cannot be explained easily. Not by me, at least.

Before the Law (Vor dem Gesetz) is the story of a peasant trying to gain access to the law. The way is barred by a guardian who, every time the peasant tries to go in, comes up with clever excuses to delay him – from warnings to accepting bribes to other ways in which he shows his power. This goes on for years when, at last, the peasant asks the one question which prompts a revealing answer from the guardian. The end is abrupt, and while we don’t find out why the peasant wanted to see justice done, it is, somehow, satisfying.

Eleven Sons (Elf Söhne) is a father’s description of his sons. It’s a case of a man who is never satisfied – one son is clever but not good looking, another is very handsome but lacks courage, yet another is nearly perfect but for the fact that he travels through the world, self sufficient and content, ignoring his father’s wish of starting a family, and the list goes on. Reading this story felt like watching a man who, no matter how many gifts is given in life still finds fault with all of them.

In A Report to an Academy (Ein Bericht für eine Akademie), a man is called to recount his experience as a monkey in front of distinguished members of an unnamed academy. He launches into lengthy descriptions of what he calls “his past life as a monkey”, starting with allowing himself to be captured by people, then talking about how he finally learned to do whatever was necessary to please his captors. I find this story more than slightly ironic, as if Kafka was poking fun at the origins of the human species by claiming the man’s life as a monkey ended but five years prior to this confession. Also, the amount of detail makes it hard not to believe the man – the story seems entirely plausible.

At first glance, In The Penal Colony (In der Strafkolonie) is a story of an execution. A famous explorer is invited to witness the execution of a man whose offense is punished by death. But beneath this obvious story there’s another layer, deeper and even more troubling than seeing a man being crushed to death by a man-made machine. It’s the story of a belief, an absurd belief, and a man willing to go to great length to show his devotion to it. Aside from The Metamorphosis, this was the most disturbing story in this collection because there was no way I could have guessed the horrible turn it took. And I could also argue that this one as well is a great horror story.

A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler) is the story of a man who fasts for days while being exhibited like some kind of freak in a cage, while people come to watch him. The fasting goes on for forty days, a period of time set by his manager as being the maximum time people will take an interest in this curious form of art. Of course this brings to mind the famous “15 minutes of fame” so prevalent these days. This could also be interpreted as a man choosing to display himself in front of others, risking their admiration, distrust and revulsion. It could also be a way of trying to get their attention by choosing to stand out from their midst, a person who’s doing something others don’t. I find the title very apt – aren’t many artists after all courageous people who are willing to brave people’s displeasure by displaying their art?

I loved my first encounter with Kafka. He scared, delighted, and surprised me. He’s fascinating, bold, and his attention to detail is worthy of the highest praise. I didn’t know what to expect from his writing and I confess to reading next to nothing about his books because I like to start on a new author with a blank slate and form my opinion of them with as little influence as possible. I will, however, read more of his work in the future, although I confess I’m a little uneasy (but also delighted and fascinated) by the prospect.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read from September 29 to October 06, 2015






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November is German Literature Month

October was quite a slow month reading-wise. Life took over to such an extent that I simply could not focus on the printed word for too long. I managed to review a couple of books for R.I.P. XThe Ruins by Scott Smith and The Birth of Venus by Jarl Nicholl, both perfect for this event.

I’ve also participated for the first time in writing the Stephen King Message Board Halloween Story, a great project in which a few message board members contribute a segment to a story that gets posted on the forums on Halloween. This year the story had werewolves, gypsies, some great fighting scenes, an evil dwarf and, of course, a cemetery. I had a lot of fun and hope to replicate that next year as well.

German Lit Month big

This month I will be participating in German Literature Month, an event hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I knew about the event for a few years but the last two were taken up with NaNoWriMo. This year however, I’m not joining in the mad, wonderful, exhilarating rush to write 50,000 words in 30 days so I decided it was about time to broaden my horizons by reading German literature. So far I’ve finished a collection of short stories by Franz Kafka, which includes “The Metamorphosis”, a story I’ve wanted to read for a very long time. It was one of the best stories I’ve read. I’ve also completed “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” by Erich Maria Remarque, whose wonderful dialogue will probably stay with me for a long time. Reviews coming soon.
As for future reading plans, I have The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque and The Trial by Franz Kafka. I’m rather favoring the former but we’ll see if time allows for both of them.

Are you participating in German Literature Month? What do you plan on reading?






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The Birth of Venus – Jarl Nicholl

I first came across Jarl Nicholl’s stories when Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat sent me a link to Unsung Stories, an online magazine that publishes fantasy, science fiction and horror. His story, Eternal Sleep caught my eye and soon enough I was deep into the world of an unreliable narrator living alone in a ‘rustic little house’. Here, in a windowless room he finds a statue, and the mystery of its provenance begins to burden his already tormented mind. You can read the story here. This sentence stayed with me – perhaps because I knew exactly how the character felt.

His skeleton felt as though it wanted out from under his flesh and he suffered from alternate bouts of hot and cold sweating.

Not long after that Jarl sent me The Birth of Venus for review. He can be found here, where he occasionally posts short stories like this disturbing little piece which can be read in one sitting Microfiction – On the Generation of Animals.

The Birth of Venus The Birth of Venus – Jarl Nicholl

Some horror stories are bizarre, like an image seen through a thick glass behind which fantastic shapes move in slow motion; others, like The Ruins by Scott Smith, are quite straightforward – you get a few surprises along the way but soon enough it is clear which way the story is going. The Birth of Venus belongs to the former category.

Maya, Breanna and Paul, are three teenage friends. Paul is older – he’s seventeen and he likes Maya, his sister’s friend. Breanna, Paul’s sister, doesn’t play a major role in the story; it is here and there that we get a glimpse of her as a thin thread that has brought Paul and Maya together. From childhood games like hide-and-seek, to playful teasing, the relationship between the two of them is innocent and in time could lead to something more. But Paul is shy and awkward and he can’t quite bring himself to do anything besides acting like a big brother.
It’s not until Paul sees Maya with a strange older boy that something really seems to start going wrong. Maya’s mother is suddenly afraid for her daughter’s life. Her ex-husband, Maya’s father whom she managed to run away from years ago, seems to have found them, despite the woman’s efforts to disappear. As his presence looms closer, Sandy, Maya’s mother, begins to remember terrible things from her childhood, things she had managed to somehow forget. And Paul suddenly plucks up the courage and feels it is his duty to protect Maya from anything bad that might happen to her.
It is not exactly clear what Sandy’s memories are, besides the fact that they hint at something that would leave deep psychological scars – images, actions, even incest is hinted at, but the image stays foggy, the glass opaque, hiding the horrors. Sandy’s story and Paul’s sudden courage bring about a rush of events that precipitate the end, a part I confess left me a little baffled. The author plays with time, manipulating the story and even though I liked the story overall, the end left me shocked, in awe, watching those fantastical shapes moving around with no clear idea of what they are. But then, maybe not all stories are meant to be understood. For some, it is enough to be read.

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

Many thanks to the author for providing me with a copy of the story for review purposes.
I’m including this in the R.I.P. challenge, an event that ends on Halloween.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Read in October 2015






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The Ruins – Scott Smith

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

R.I.P. X or Readers Imbibing Peril is my favorite event of the year. Not that I need another excuse to read horror, because I read it all year-round, but because this event brings together so many great bloggers and I get to read a lot of reviews and take notes for new books to add to that ever-growing to-be-read pile.

The Ruins is a great horror story. It delivers fast paced action, has interesting characters (more on that later) and it concludes in a perfectly shocking way. As I came to the last couple of pages and finally realized where the story was going I could not believe it. Between wanting to throw the book out the window (as if this could, in any way, change the ending) and simply stare anxiously at the next words, this has kept me on the edge of my seat for days. It’s not a story about characters, or sprinkled with purple prose like Adam Nevill’s House of Small Shadows which is also an excellent read – it’s a straightforward narrative brimming with horrifying events that seem to escalate with every page.

The Ruins It starts quite innocently – two young American couples, having a great summer adventure together before heading off to university, dreaming of weeks spent lazing around on a beach in Mexico. They become friends with the Greeks, two guys who seem to be looking for a good time, just like their little group. Then they meet Mathias, the quiet German whose brother had left for a mysterious place, leaving behind a note with a hand drawn map. Together they decide to go and find the place, a Mayan archaeological dig at an old mining camp. And so the horror begins.
There are signs, subtle at first, then more obvious, that the place they’re trying to find should, in fact, be well left alone. Their bus driver tries to warn them, the people in a village try to warn them, but due to their inability to communicate clearly why they shouldn’t go there, the travelers choose to ignore them. If you were on your way to a mysterious place on your holiday, would you heed the warnings or keep going, hoping for adventure? That’s an interesting question. I felt that the author used the language barrier conveniently not only in this case but also when it came to the Greeks who didn’t speak any English, yet adding another layer of doubt and discomfort for me as a reader.

The travelers arrive at their destination. They find Mathias’ brother but this is more a case of “be careful what you wish for” rather than occasion for celebration. The tension is palpable, and this adventure pushes their limits, both mental and physical. There’s the heat, thirst, hunger, and the mental distress of facing a situation with little hope of positive outcome. How they react, what they do – and don’t do – life and death decisions that must be made, discoveries they stumble upon as the truth of what that place is starts to sink in, it all adds up, escalating in a finale of horrific proportions. It’s true that the characters act stupidly at times, their flaws obvious in the decisions they make, but I can forgive that – they are after all, young and just looking for a bit of adventure. Who goes on a relaxing three week holiday to the beach thinking they’ll have to go through a terrifying ordeal? Still, this was the main reason why I didn’t give this a 5 star rating.

I kept closing the book and picking it up again and again. As much as I love horror – and telling myself this is just a story – at times I found it difficult to keep reading. There are graphic passages and disturbing scenes so this is definitely not one for the squeamish. But curiosity and an engaging narrative won. I got to the end. It was unexpected. It was perfect. And it was terrible.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in September 2015






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The Farseer Trilogy – Robin Hobb

I’ve wanted to read a really good fantasy series for a while but I knew most of them spanned several volumes and I wasn’t quite ready for something so epic. When I told a friend about my dilemma, she recommended The Farseer Trilogy and she even offered to lend me the books.
There are no words to express how much I love these books. But I can’t draw that well, or take a picture to capture the brilliant magic behind the story, and if I looked at you insisting that you must read this, that this is the most wonderful story I have read in a long time you’d probably just wave me away. So words will have to suffice, poor as they may be.

farseer-trilogy The story begins with a boy. Well, actually it starts with the man the boy has become, looking back on the events of his life. Brought to Buckkeep Castle when he was six, he is left there – Bastard, as his grandfather who abandoned him and many after will call the boy. Son of King-in-Waiting Chivalry, the boy whose name becomes FitzChivalry is given in the care of Burrich, the stable master. Then King Shrewd takes an interest in the boy and asks Chade, his old assassin, to train him. Fitz is also given lessons in combat, writing, learns how to take care of animals and follows various assignations given by the king. It is not long before he becomes a weapon, a royal assassin whose actions change the course of history. He is Changer, Catalyst, his missions known only to a handful of people. He makes enemies – Prince Regal being the one who will seek his death, and friends – Prince Verity, Burrich, and even King Shrewd’s Fool, an exotic man nobody knows much about.

Fitz is the main character – everything revolves around him, his actions, and the consequences those actions have on his friends’ lives and that of his own. There is so much detail but the story never becomes complicated. I could write a summary of each book but there are too many surprises and I don’t want to give them away. So instead I’m going to focus on a few things I found very interesting.

Forging

The Six Duchies Kingdom is raided every year by the Red Ships – fighters who burn everything and leave none alive. Except the prisoners they take and “forge”; when the people are released they are but empty shells of what they have been, very much like zombies. Everybody is baffled as to the raiders’ intentions until we get to find out the purpose of their actions. That was a shocker but in the context of the story not surprising.

The Mountain Kingdom

This made me remember that famous song by John Lennon – Imagine. The Mountain Kingdom is a place where everybody lives in harmony, where people respect nature and live peacefully, where bright colors abound, where the king and queen live to serve the people and call themselves “Sacrifice”, where there is no opulence but everybody has what they need and everybody can come and go to the royal palace as there are no guards. This was my favorite land in the book. If I could choose one place in the books to live in, that would be it.

The Wit and the Skilling

The Wit is the ability to communicate with animals but that’s just the short version. The Witted (people who possess this gift) can bond with a creature to the point where they become a single soul dwelling in two bodies. Fitz bonds in turn with some of Burrich’s hounds and ultimately with Nighteyes, a wolf cub he saves. They can share thoughts without speaking and call each other “brother”. It was quite funny following the thought process of the wolf who lives in the here and now and whose routine is hunt-eat-sleep, without a care for the future. In time, Fitz and Nighteyes begin to share in each other’s traits and ultimately the wolf saves the man’s life through a very supernatural method.

The Skilling is the ability to share in other people’s thoughts. It can be used to manipulate by putting thoughts in people’s heads, even switch bodies for a while. But it can also be addictive and too much skilling can bring about a monstrous headache and complete exhaustion. Members of the royal family can skill, and Fitz also tries although not being trained, as the custom is, he’s more prone to making some serious mistakes. Imagine someone being able to see inside your head and find out all your secrets and innermost thoughts and then use them against you. That’s where putting up walls come in handy – the ability to shield your thoughts, but this takes so much energy that in a combat you can’t both fight and keep your walls in place.

The names

The Farseer line who rules the Six Duchies has always had names that reflected their character – the first Farseer, Taker, was the one who claimed the land for his own. King Shrewd, like his name, is a great manipulator but everything he does is for his kingdom. His sons – Chivalry, Verity and Regal, all live up to their names. Regal, the youngest son, is good looking and vain, jealous of his half-brothers (his mother is King Shrewd’s second wife), scheming and plotting murder.

The Fool and the Catalyst

King Shrewd’s Fool is quite the entertaining character – true to his name he is witty, full of tricks and extremely agile. But behind his painted face and sharp tongue he’s fiercely loyal to his king and through his riddles he tries to help Fitz as much as he can. In the last book his role becomes crucial and his purpose revealed. He reveals part of his plan to Fitz and calls him Catalyst, “the wedge I must drive into the world to change its course”.

References to The Lord of the Rings

This is something that became obvious in the last book – Prince Verity’s quest to the mountains to find the Elderlings who can help him save the Six Duchies from the Red Ships. I couldn’t help but think of Aragon and the spirits of the long ago kings, trapped in the mountain.
It’s a long quest and Verity can’t achieve his goal without help from Fitz and a handful of others. What the Elderlings are is not clear until Fitz and his group literally stumble upon them. To bring the creatures back to life, the ultimate sacrifice is required – one of the most emotional scenes in the book.

Love

Fitz loves Molly the candle-maker, a girl he had known since childhood. He wants to marry her but his duty to the Farseer kings is above anything else and so he must suffer heartbreak, especially after he finds out Molly is pregnant.
Prince Chivalry married for love a lady named Patience, defying his father’s wishes. She cannot have children so when news of Fitz reaches her, she is heartbroken but ultimately learns to care for the boy and to protect him.
Prince Verity must marry Kettricken, daughter of the ruler of the Mountain Kingdom, in order to open up trade with the mountain folk. What seems but a cold alliance at first will gradually become a great love story.
Burrich finds love as well, and he is probably the only one truly happy, although his happiness means somebody else’s suffering. Thankfully he is innocent of that and is able to live his life in peace.

*

There are many things I love about this trilogy – how the author uses the beginning of each chapter to offer snippets of the history of the Six Duchies; how women have just as important a role as men – the weapon’s master was a woman, and so was a Skilling master and some of the castle guards. But the thing I liked the most was following Fitz on his adventures and seeing how his bond with Nighteyes became stronger with time. Their relationship provided most of the humor in the story and I couldn’t help but think of another famous creature – Oy the billy-bumbler from Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series. Oy could also talk but in a more limited way, not like the wolf who does it through thought sharing, and both creatures are fiercely loyal. I was surprised how natural Fitz’s connection with the wolf seemed until I read this on Robin Hobb’s website:

“Robin Hobb is one of the world’s finest writers of epic fiction. She was born in California in 1952 but raised in Alaska, where she learned how to raise a wolf cub, to skin a moose and to survive in the wilderness. When she married a fisherman who fished herring and the Kodiak salmon-run for half the year, these skills would stand her in good stead. She raised her family, ran a smallholding, delivered post to her remote community, all at the same time as writing stories and novels. She succeeded on all fronts, raising four children and becoming an internationally best-selling writer. She lives in Tacoma, Washington State.”

I’m always fascinated by details from writers’ lives and how these details make their way into a story. Reading Robin Hobb’s short bio after enjoying this trilogy made me appreciate it even more. I was also surprised to see this is only one of the author’s pen names. Her real name is Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden.

After finishing this trilogy I immediately started on the next one called “The Tawny Man”. This follows Fitz and the Fool as they once again try to change the course of history. I was also very happy to hear there is a third trilogy in the works, “Fitz and the Fool Trilogy”, of which the first book is already written. I can’t wait to read it.

oncetimenine250 While I was reading this, Once Upon a Time started – one of my favorite reading events of the year so I’m more than happy to bring my contribution. The beautiful drawing is by artist Kim Kincaid.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in March-April 2015






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Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita readalong 1 I postponed reading Lolita for quite some time. I wanted to, yet something kept me back. Finally, when Vishy said he got the book from a friend (what a coincidence, so did I) and wanted to read it, we decided to do a read-along. His review can be found here.

I started reading Lolita with more than my usual curiosity. It was, after all, a classic. It was, after all, my first Nabokov, and it was, after all, a book about a subject I had heard and read just enough to fan my curiosity even more but not enough to know exactly what was going on. So I began.

Minor spoilers ahead!

Lolita From the first page Nabokov manages to establish closeness with the reader, like a friend who talks about an event that irreversibly changed his life. For better? For worse? We don’t know yet. The story begins with Humbert talking about his childhood – his distant father, dead mother, and the first girl he fell in love with. It’s a buildup. We are supposed to like Humbert; he is, without a doubt, very adept at portraying his early life in such a way as to make the reader sympathize. Poor Humbert, deprived of a mother’s love, in love with a girl who dies young, living his days dreaming of what could have been. Until he meets Dolores Haze, or Lolita as he likes to call her. Until then, Humbert, admirer of nymphets to such an extent that he goes to the park so he could be near them and see the girls playing, was too shy and possibly too afraid of consequences to approach them. But Lolita, she of the “tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures, from the blurry pinkness of adolescent maidservants in the Old Country (smelling of crushed daisies and sweat); and from very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels; and then again, all this gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, oh God, oh God”, she is not like all the others. From that moment on, Humbert plans his way to her. A boarder in her mother’s house, he warms (or worms, it works just as well) his way into the small family until fate very conveniently delivers the girl right into his waiting, lusty hands.

And Lolita? Well she is not the sweet innocent I thought she was, and her experience in certain matters was an unexpected twist in the story for me, but still, she was 12 years old and Humbert but a few years shy of 40. She flirts, and teases, and seems to want to be near Humbert until he is all she has left. Her mother’s death leaves her an orphan, and Humbert manipulates her into thinking life without him as her guardian could be very difficult. Lolita accepts the situation at first, but after a year of traveling and posing as the dutiful daughter during the day and unwilling mistress at night, Humbert finds things slipping through his fingers. He guards her jealously, and with just the right amount of bribes, promises and threats, manages to keep his nymphet, until she finally gathers the courage and breaks free. It does not end well. Not for Lolita, and not for Humbert, who writes his memoirs in prison, waiting to be tried for murder. Did he kill Dolores Haze, his Lolita? Yes and no. Her demise, tragic, like her life, may be the result of Humbert’s influence. I strongly believe that.

As for Humbert, I started the story liking him, or at least the way he wrote it. He knew what demons haunted him. He tried to stay away from them, or rather to indulge in his fantasy in such a way that no one would come to harm. He even got married.

“It occurred to me that regular hours, home-cooked meals, all the conventions of marriage, the prophylactic routine of its bedroom activities and, who knows, the eventual flowering of certain moral values, of certain spiritual substitutes, might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and dangerous desires, at least to keep them under pacific control.”

It didn’t work out. That was the moment I began to dislike him and it just went downhill from there.
I was shocked to discover how much I liked the writing, for in admitting such a thing I would have to admit I liked at least an aspect of the book. I hated the very idea the book was based on, because for me it’s just a story of abuse, of a life torn out of its way. On the one hand I admire the way the words slide down the page so magically until they remind me what they are saying and then a shudder of repulsion replaces that admiration. Is it possible to love the writing and hate the story? Perhaps this is after all, the ultimate allure of Lolita, this combination of style and story that can leave the reader fascinated and somehow feeling dirty at the same time.

These are some of my favorite passages. The first one I read over and over again, as I imagined it, not as the simple act it really is, but as something beyond that, the ordinary transformed by extraordinary words.

“I set out two glasses (to St. Algebra? To Lo?) and opened the refrigerator. It roared at me viciously while I removed the ice from its heart.”

“There and elsewhere. Hundreds of gray hummingbirds in the dusk, probing the throats of dim flowers.”

“And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.”

My rating 4/5 stars
Read in December 2014






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NaNo thoughts and what else I’ve been doing in November

It’s been almost a month since I disappeared somewhere in the dark and exhilarating vortex that is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo but now that it’s finally over, I can come up and think about something else other than vampires, kings and queens, pirates, and the red dress my female character was wearing.

Some things I took away from my second year of doing NaNo:

– It gets easier, in a way, although it’s not really easy. Knowing I did it once made me confident enough that I could do it again. The first time around I had no idea if I could do it so the stress was higher.
– Less preparation meant I didn’t really have time to get acquainted with the idea behind my story. Last year I used the beginning from an earlier story I started some years ago (rewrote it completely but kept the idea), and a bunch of sticky notes I could go back to; this year I didn’t write anything anywhere, it was all in my head.
– Taking advantage of support early on instead of waiting until I was at the end of my rope was a great idea. Skype word races with NaNo buddies gave me the push I needed.
– Changing the writing space was good. Sitting on the couch with the laptop felt much more relaxed than sitting on the office chair at my desk which is actually an old dressing table. The mirror does distract from writing (I’m making a face at myself in the mirror as I’m writing this).

Although my reading has considerably slowed down in November, I still managed to read two excellent books– Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill. The former is a great pep talk for people who want to write, complete with some writing exercises and shared personal experiences. The latter is an excellent horror novel. Reviews coming soon.

I listened to some good music, Two Steps from Hell with Protectors of the Earth (think epic movies) and Coldplay with Lost (which was my NaNo song this year because it has a great rhythm).

I went to a book sale and came away with three books I can’t wait to start reading – The Christmas Train in particular, as I love to read Christmas themed books this time of year.

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I also got a Kindle and have mixed feelings about it. While I suspected this moment would eventually arrive, I still feel like a traitor, even though I know I shouldn’t. A story is a story, no matter if it’s on a paper page or a screen, but rationalizing about it doesn’t make me feel better. Maybe it’s a question of getting used to it.

And finally, this coming weekend is the start of Lolita read-along I’m co-hosting with Vishy. If you haven’t made up your mind to join yet, there’s still time. You can post your review any time from the 27th to the last day of the year.






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