Thursday, 28 February 2019

The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo


The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo
First published in Danish as Pigen uden hud by Politikens Forlag in Denmark in 2017. English language translation by Charlotte Barslund published by Text Publishing on the 1st October 2018.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Blood and WorldReads: Denmark

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


They were near the edge of the glacier. The sea beneath the helicopter was dense with pack ice. In front of them, the endless whiteness stretched as far as the light could reach. It hurt his eyes. Millions of white crystals. Except in one place. One spot. Right where the mummified Norseman had been found and Aqqalu had kept watch. There, the ice was glossy red.

When a mummified Viking corpse is discovered in a crevasse out on the edge of an ice sheet, journalist Matthew Cave is sent to cover the story. The next day the mummy is gone, and the body of the policeman who was keeping watch is found naked and flayed—exactly like the victims in a gruesome series of murders that terrified the remote town of Nuuk in the 1970s.

As Matt investigates, he is shocked by the deprivation and brutal violence the locals take for granted. Unable to trust the police, he begins to suspect a cover-up. It’s only when he meets a young Inuit woman, Tupaarnaq, convicted of killing her parents and two small sisters, that Matt starts to realise how deep this story goes—and how much danger he is in.

I was excited to read a second novel set in Greenland, the previous one being Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen, because I know very little about this isolated country. Nordbo brings its troubled communities vividly to life and manages to naturally include issues such as attitudes to Danish colonialism and the problems the Inuit people faced as a result of abrupt changes to their traditional lifestyles. At one point characters discuss people leaving apartment windows open regardless of the weather outside because they are used to plenty of fresh airflow. Modern-styled apartment blocks are designed to exclude draughts but the future inhabitants' preferences weren't taken into account when the housing was built for them so now derelict buildings seem to be an all too common feature of town landscapes. Throughout reading The Girl Without Skin I was reminded of Native American peoples forced onto reservations and there seem to me to be remarkable similarities between their original free nomadic lifestyles and the problems of alcoholism, depression and abuse experienced as a result of that freedom being harshly curtailed.

At its heart however The Girl Without Skin is an exciting crime thriller. Its blend of detection and social commentary reminded me of the classic Sjowall and Wahloo novels, but this one is far more grisly in its crimes and owes more than a nod to the Stieg Larsson trilogy! I enjoyed following the dual timeline mystery especially when Nordbo uses aspects such as the foul ever-changing weather to create a tense and foreboding atmosphere. Not mentioned in the synopsis is a potential trigger warning for child abuse. I thought this part of the storyline was handled quite sensitively although I was a little irritated that, despite the title and the frequent protestations about improving the lot of Greenlandic women and girls, this novel felt to be all about the men. Women are portrayed mostly as victims or their roles are overshadowed by men's actions. Aside from this, I appreciated the intricacies of Nordbo's plot and the resolution is satisfying. If you're a fan of Nordic Noir, The Girl Without Skin is a must-read!


Etsy Find!
by Simply Danish in
Denmark

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Books by Mads Peder Nordbo / Crime fiction / Books from Denmark

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Above The Bridge by Deborah Garner


Above The Bridge by Deborah Garner
Published in the USA by Cranberry Cove Press in April 2012.

One of my 2019 Mount TBR Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Downloaded for free as part of a promotion

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


When Paige MacKenzie arrives in Jackson Hole, her only goal is to complete a simple newspaper assignment about the Old West. However, it's not long before her instincts tell her there's more than a basic story to be found in the popular, northwestern Wyoming mountain area. A chance encounter with attractive cowboy Jake Norris soon has Paige chasing a legend of buried treasure, passed down through generations.

From the torn edge of a water-damaged map to the mysterious glow of an antler arch, Paige will follow clues high into the mountainous terrain and deep into Jackson's history. Side-stepping a few shady characters who are also searching for the same hidden reward, she will have to decide who is trustworthy and who is not.

I read a later book in this series, Hutchins Creek Cache, as part of a blog tour in 2016, promptly bought this first in the series as a result and then forgot all about reading it until now. Oops! To be honest, I think if I had read Above The Bridge first I probably would not have continued further into the series though. The aspects I appreciated in the later book - such as the small town community vibe - aren't particularly in evidence yet because our intrepid journalist, Paige, believes she is only passing through the town so the connections she makes are more to do with extracting information from the locals rather than making friends. The romance hinted at in the synopsis is very understated and such a slow burn that I did wonder if they would ever even speak to each other!

There's an odd time-slip idea which I wish had actually been explained. Garner obviously did a lot of historical research at Jackson Hole because this novel is peppered with facts and figures. It was interesting for me to learn about white settlement in Wyoming in the early 1900s and the device of Paige seeing the early town at first hand was fun, although I wanted to know how and why this happened. I especially wanted to see how she explained her resulting knowledge to Jake and I thought this was glossed over too easily. The involvement of other more nefarious characters is also left as a mystery and not in a 'to be continued' kind of way. It just felt to me as though this had been overlooked. On the whole, Above The Bridge is an engaging light mystery which I did enjoy reading, but I felt too many aspects were left hanging for it to be truly satisfying.


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Books by Deborah Garner / Mystery fiction / Books from America

Sunday, 24 February 2019

The Scent Of Blue Ink by Cristina-Monica Moldoveanu #FreeBook


The Scent Of Blue Ink by Cristina-Monica Moldoveanu
Self published in November 2015.

How I got this book:
Downloaded the ebook from Smashwords

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


A collection of poems, eclectic, written in the years 2013-2015 and translated into English by the author. You can find here sadness and melancholia with a dash of hope and a feeling of amazement in front of life's beauty or ugliness and disappointments. The poems are scattered with literary, religious and other cultural allusions.

I chose to download The Scent Of Blue Ink from Smashwords because of its Romanian authorship, and especially because Moldoveanu has translated her own poems so I was confident the English would reflect her original Romanian meaning. I tried to get into the book twice, but unfortunately struggled so much to understand most of the poems that I gave up. The English itself is good so I think the problem is that Moldoveanu alludes to many varied traditions and stories but without each poem identifying its subject or theme. It's a shame because there are stunning flashes of imagery, but I too frequently failed to understand what they related to.


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Books by Cristina-Monica Monldoveanu / Poetry / Books from Romania

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli


Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Published in the UK by Fourth Estate on the 12th February 2019.

2019 New Release Challenge read, featured in 5Books1Theme: Road Trip, and one of my WorldReads from Mexico


How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Suppose you and Pa were gone, and we were lost. What would happen then?

A family in New York packs the car and sets out on a road trip. A mother, a father, a boy and a girl, they head south west, to the Apacheria, the regions of the US which used to be Mexico. They drive for hours through desert and mountains. They stop at diners when they’re hungry and sleep in motels when it gets dark. The little girl tells surreal knock knock jokes and makes them all laugh. The little boy educates them all and corrects them when they’re wrong. The mother and the father are barely speaking to each other.

Meanwhile, thousands of children are journeying north, travelling to the US border from Central America and Mexico. A grandmother or aunt has packed a backpack for them, putting in a bible, one toy, some clean underwear. They have been met by a coyote: a man who speaks to them roughly and frightens them. They cross a river on rubber tubing and walk for days, saving whatever food and water they can. Then they climb to the top of a train and travel precariously in the open container on top. Not all of them will make it to the border.

In a breath-taking feat of literary virtuosity, Lost Children Archive intertwines these two journeys to create a masterful novel full of echoes and reflections – a moving, powerful, urgent story about what it is to be human in an inhuman world.

After almost completely immersing myself in Lost Children Archive over three days and loving every single minute of Luiselli's atmospheric novel, I went online to update my Goodreads and was curious to see how many other reviewers weren't breathlessly fangirling. Did I not read the same book as everyone else? I was so completely drawn in to this story that I often felt as though I was right there in the car, in the midst of this fractured family. Luiselli doesn't name any of the central four characters so, while we come to know them as distinct individuals, there is also a sense that they could represent any and every family. What they have is each other which is more than can be said for the Lost Children of the title - two South American sisters making their torturous way north alongside thousands of other desperate children. In Luiselli's novel, these children are allowed to shout their names while our road-tripping family do not, reversing the real-life situation where the Americans would be named and the Latina travellers anonymous.

I know I missed most of Luiselli's myriad literary references as I don't have her encyclopedic knowledge, but I don't think this was actually a problem. To the contrary, in fact. I might have been led to appreciate more layers within this onion of a novel, but by perpetually book-spotting, I would have missed out on the carefully constructed atmosphere which amazed me. Parallel narrative threads explore historical migrations through Pa's interest in now-lost free Apache culture, while Ma concentrates her focus on present day child migrants. Unusually for a novel, much of the description relates to soundscapes and noise, or the lack of it. Both parents obsessively document their journey by way of sound recordings so we get to 'hear' the vast, empty land they pass through. I am more used to written descriptions exploring visual scenery so this aural approach appealed to me.

Aspects of Lost Children Archive that I especially loved were diversions into stream of consciousness narration, stories within stories that mirrored and developed each other, circular themes and revisiting scenes from different points of view, and a constant unsettling sense of foreboding which isn't openly discussed by the characters, but came from outside the novel by way of my awareness of what is actually happening to these children's real life counterparts in America right now. I became strongly emotionally invested in this book resulting in quite an emptiness when I came to the final page. I can understand why other readers might not be as enthusiastic about Lost Children Archive, but it was a perfect read for me.


Etsy Find!
by Ink And Scribbles Kids in
Cardiff, Wales

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Books by Valeria Luiselli / Contemporary fiction / Books from Mexico

Thursday, 21 February 2019

And Death Came Too by Richard Hull


And Death Came Too by Richard Hull
First published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in 1939. Republished by Agora Books on the 17th January 2019.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Blood, one of my Classics Club Challenge reads and a 2019 New Release Challenge read

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


After three nights of celebration in the humid heat of August, four friends weigh up a very particular request to visit Y Bryn House. Tired and restless, they begrudgingly accept the invitation…

But upon their arrival, their host is no where to be seen. A man plays an odd game of solitaire, a strange woman wafts in and out of the room before fleeing out of the back door. Becoming all the more concerned for their host’s welfare, their worst suspicions are confirmed when a police constable saunters in, has a drink, and announces that Mr Yeldham has been found stabbed next to a lit fireplace.

Who had the motive and means to kill Yeldham? With the odd woman missing, the clock is ticking to solve this case before the four friends are accused of murder.

And Death Came Too is another golden age mystery from the sardonic and sly Richard Hull. Master of the inverted mystery, here he weaves a true-to-style, classic whodunnit.

I requested And Death Came Too as a Decade Challenge read because of its original 1930s publication date. However, by the time I got around to starting it, I had already read Salt Of The Earth so this is now only a two-challenge book! Hull's writing feels very much of its time and I can easily imagine Agatha Christie fans enjoying getting their teeth into And Death Came Too. I loved the first chapters which set up a quirky scenario peopled with some refreshingly odd characters. Unfortunately this style isn't maintained and the narrative settles down into a more traditional crime story.

Hull keeps up a good pace throughout and I appreciated his diversions into genuine clues and clever red herrings. The settings are good too, but I wasn't overly enamoured with any of the characters. The central quartet of louche young things mostly irritated me and I would have preferred to have spent more time with the bickering policemen! And Death Came Too is set at a time when forensic investigation methods are new to this provincial town. Two police officers have been trained in the modern art of Fingerprinting and take their new skills very seriously!

Although I enjoyed the read, this novel wasn't ideal for me because I wanted more depth to the characters and greater exploration of their motives and actions. I did guess the murderer, but then talked myself out of my conclusion so I probably can't make any claims about having solved this whodunnit before it was revealed.

Etsy Find!
by Gifted Tales in
Missouri, USA

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Books by Richard Hull / Crime fiction / Books from England

Saturday, 16 February 2019

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo


The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
Published by Quercus on the 12th February 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads, a Book With A Vegetarian Character, one of my WorldReads from Malaysia and my Book Of The Month for February 2019

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


They say a tiger that devours too many humans can take the form of a man and walk among us...

In 1930s colonial Malaya, a dissolute British doctor receives a surprise gift of an eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy. Sent as a bequest from an old friend, young Ren has a mission: to find his dead master's severed finger and reunite it with his body. Ren has forty-nine days, or else his master's soul will roam the earth forever.

Ji Lin, an apprentice dressmaker, moonlights as a dancehall girl to pay her mother's debts. One night, Ji Lin's dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir that leads her on a crooked, dark trail.

As time runs out for Ren's mission, a series of unexplained deaths occur amid rumours of tigers who turn into men. In their journey to keep a promise and discover the truth, Ren and Ji Lin's paths will cross in ways they will never forget.

Captivating and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores the rich world of servants and masters, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and unexpected love. Woven through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.

I've got three Malaysian-authored novels to read soon and if the other two are as amazing as The Night Tiger, I shall be incredibly happy. I absolutely loved this novel! Set in the Kinta Valley in the early 1930s, The Night Tiger is beautifully balanced story that incorporates a variety of themes and cultures. Malaysia at the time was a British colony so we see a little of the madness of trying to recreate a little England in a tropical climate. The central focus however is a dual coming-of-age storyline as Ji Lin and Ren must individually navigate through society's expectations and the edges of a spiritual world in order to stop a murdering weretiger who appears to be preying on local people.

Choo cleverly intertwines her differing realities, blurring the physical and spiritual dimensions so frequently neither we, as readers, or the characters are completely sure which events can be considered real. Various recurring motifs such as the role of trains and railway stations, or the luck of various numbers, add great depth to the story and I was fascinated by the Confucian connections between the characters' names. There are so many layers to The Night Tiger. It is a truly wonderful novel in which to become immersed!

I felt strongly for Ji Lin who is not at all what a young 1930s Malaysian woman should be in her behaviour or her attitudes, yet she always came across to me as an authentic creation. I could understand the tension of her difficult home life and the fraught family dynamics are often shocking. Initially I couldn't work out how Ji Lin's path would cross Ren's, and I was engrossed in both their stories. The narration switches between the two in an easy and natural way, yet the story itself is pretty complicated. There are a few gory images that I hope won't dwell too long in my mind, however I feel that The Night Tiger will be a truly memorable novel. I will be surprised if it doesn't become my Book of the Month! Brilliant writing!


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Books by Yangsze Choo / Historical fiction / Books from Malaysia

Thursday, 14 February 2019

The Ghostly Father by Sue Barnard + #Giveaway


The Ghostly Father by Sue Barnard
Published by Crooked Cat Books on the 8th January 2014.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy via Rachel's Random Resources

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Add The Ghostly Father to your Goodreads

Was this what really happened to Romeo & Juliet?
Think you know the world’s most famous love story?  Think again.  What if the story of Romeo & Juliet really happened – but not quite in the way we’ve all been told?
This part-prequel, part-sequel to the original tale, told from the point of view of the Friar, tells how an ancient Italian manuscript reveals secrets and lies which have remained hidden for hundreds of years, and casts new doubts on the official story of Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers.
If you love the Romeo & Juliet story but are disappointed with the way it ended, this is the book for you.


The Ghostly Father is the fourth William Shakespeare retelling I have read in the past few years. I love the idea of giving his iconic plays a new lease of life through the novelised form although I have had a bit of a hit and miss experience with the ones I had previously read. For this interpretation of the tragic Romeo and Juliet romance Sue Barnard chose to use the point of view of one of the supporting characters, Friar Lawrence (here named in Italian as Fra. Lorenzo), to tell her tale. I liked that he was therefore slightly removed so we could get a wider perspective and, being a friar, it made sense for so many people to trust the one man with their secrets.

Barnard's deviation from the Shakespeare original is cleverly plotted. I was impressed with how her new direction seemed to flow seamlessly from the traditional tale. It felt as though we had taken a step back in order to see the full picture whereas previously we had only been given a narrow view! The story keeps up a pretty rapid pace throughout so is an intriguing and exciting read. I would have preferred a much stronger sense of its historical setting and got annoyed with frequent historic and geographic inaccuracies which snapped me out of the atmosphere. Also, Fra. Lorenzo has an infuriating habit of mansplaining things that the characters to which he is speaking would already have known! As a historical fiction novel, I was initially disappointed with The Ghostly Father, but when I could reimagine it into a sort of any-time fairytale period, I very much enjoyed the actual story.

Meet the author

Sue Barnard is a British novelist, editor and award-winning poet. She was born in North Wales some time during the last millennium, but has spent most of her life in and around Manchester. After graduating from Durham University she had a variety of office jobs before becoming a full-time parent. If she had her way, the phrase “Non-Working Mother” would be banned from the English language.

Her mind is so warped that she has appeared on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show, and she has also compiled questions for BBC Radio 4's fiendishly difficult Round Britain Quiz. This once caused one of her sons to describe her as "professionally weird." The label has stuck.

Sue speaks French like a Belgian, German like a schoolgirl, and Italian and Portuguese like an Englishwoman abroad.  She is also very interested in family history.  Her own background is far stranger than any work of fiction; she would write a book about it if she thought anybody would believe her.

Sue now lives in Cheshire, UK, with her extremely patient husband and a large collection of unfinished scribblings.

Author links: 
BlogAmazonTwitter ~ Facebook ~ Goodreads

And now it's time for the Giveaway!

Win a signed copy of The Ghostly Father (UK Only).
Open until the 16th February 2019.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

*Terms and Conditions –Worldwide entries welcome.  Please enter using the Rafflecopter box above.  The winner will be selected at random via Rafflecopter from all valid entries and will be notified by Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then Rachel's Random Resources reserves the right to select an alternative winner. Open to all entrants aged 18 or over.  Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will be passed to the giveaway organiser and used only for fulfilment of the prize, after which time Rachel's Random Resources will delete the data. Rachel's Random Resources is not responsible for despatch or delivery of the prize.




Etsy Find!
by Storiarts in
Oregon, USA

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Books by Sue Barnard / Retellings / Books from Wales

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

The Unwinding Of The Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams


The Unwinding Of The Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams
Published by Transworld tomorrow, the 14th February 2019.

My 2nd read for my 2019 New Release Challenge

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Born blind in Vietnam, Julie Yip-Williams narrowly escaped euthanasia at the hands of her grandmother, only to have to flee the political upheaval of the late 1970s with her family. Loaded into a rickety boat with three hundred other refugees, Julie made it to Hong Kong and, ultimately, America, where a surgeon gave her partial sight. Against all odds, she became a Harvard-educated lawyer, with a husband, a family, a life. Then, at the age of thirty-seven, with two little girls still at home, Julie was diagnosed with terminal metastatic colon cancer, and a different journey began.

Growing out of a blog Julie kept for the last four years of her life, The Unwinding of the Miracle is the story of a vigorous life told through the prism of imminent death, of a life lived vividly and cut too short. With glorious humour, bracing honesty and the cleansing power of well-deployed anger, her story is inspiring and instructive, delightful and shattering. More than just a tale about cancer, it's about truth and honesty, fear and pain, our dreams, our jealousies. And it's about how to say goodbye to your children and a life you love.

Starting as a need to understand the disease, it has evolved into a powerful story about living - even as Julie put her affairs in order and prepared to die.

My Mum died from lung cancer in 2013. The first we knew that she had the disease was the diagnosis of a brain tumour about a year and a half before. Mum was a keen reader, which is no doubt where I get my bookworm tendencies from, and the particular cruelty of her cancer was that it destroyed her language capability early on. Mum could imagine what she wanted to say to us, but the words she spoke came out so wrong that we couldn't understand her. We could see when she was in pain or tired, but we never really knew how Mum felt. Reading Julie's memoir now has helped me to envisage elements that might also have been part of my Mum's experience. Admittedly Julie's daughters were thirty years younger than Mum's, but I am sure that her fierce love and dedication to us were just the same.

The Unwinding Of The Miracle starts with the shocking statement that if someone is reading Julie's words then she must be dead. This memoir was never intended to be published as such while she was alive. That sharply focused my mind on what was to come and this is almost completely a memoir about cancer - fighting it, coping with its effects, and coming to terms with its aftermath. Surprisingly, it is not a depressing read. There is sadness, of course, and extreme anger and a myriad of other emotions, but there is also a very real sense of the need to make the most of every moment. Julie and her family savour little happinesses in a way that those of us not faced with a terminal diagnosis might often overlook. It's a habit that we shouldn't need to be reminded to practice, but is one that becomes swamped with everyday minutiae. For Julie, her surviving a harrowing boat journey from Vietnam to Hong Kong was a miracle; as was the fact that she wasn't euthanised at two months old due to her blindness; as was the sparking of new life at her conception. Julie wasn't religious in the sense of any particular tradition, but she fervently believed that every life is miraculous and I think her encouragement for each one of us to seize that for ourselves is the strongest idea I shall retain from reading her inspirational memoir.


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Books by Julie Yip-Williams / Biography and memoir / Books from Vietnam

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
First published in Spanish as El amor en los tiempos del cólera in Columbia by Editorial Oveja Negra in 1985. English language translation by Edith Grossman published by Alfred A Knopf in 1988.

Featured in WorldReads: Columbia
I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

How I got this book:
Bought second-hand from a book stall on Bristol Waterfront

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Fifty-one years, nine months and four days have passed since Fermina Daza rebuffed hopeless romantic Florentino Ariza's impassioned advances and married Dr Juvenal Urbino instead. During that half-century, Florentino has fallen into the arms of many delighted women, but has loved none but Fermina. Having sworn his eternal love to her, he lives for the day when he can court her again.

When Fermina's husband is killed trying to retrieve his pet parrot from a mango tree, Florentino seizes his chance to declare his enduring love. But can young love find new life in the twilight of their lives?

I originally posted this review in September 2014.

I probably didn't pick the best time to start Love In The Time Of Cholera as we were in the last throes of moving house so its first few chapters had to compete for space in my mind. However once I was able to read without interruption, I was totally drawn into the story.

I love Marquez's beautiful emotive writing and can easily imagine Florentino through his many years of waiting. The locations are eloquently described too and the flawed characters are all real people, whether being naive, irritating or poignant. There are so many depictions of different loves in the novel that I wondered which came first, this or Florentino's imagined work. After reading Love In The Time Of Cholera, I swiftly bought and downloaded another Marquez novel in keen anticipation of discovering more of his writing.

Etsy Find!
by bookrapport in
North Carolina, USA

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Books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez / Contemporary fiction / Books from Colombia

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Love In No Man's Land by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga


Love In No Man's Land by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga
Written in Mandarin Chinese. English language translation by Hallie Treadway published by Head of Zeus on the 7th February 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Changthang Plateau lies in the centre of Tibet. A vast, rolling grassland stippled with azure-blue lakes and ringed by snow peaks, it is home to seven-year-old Gongzha and his family who live, as their ancestors have done for centuries, by herding and hunting.

But it is 1967 and the Cultural Revolution is sweeping across China. As the Red Guard systematically loot and destroy Tibet's monasteries, Gongzha helps hide two treasures belonging to his local temple: an ebony-black Buddha marked with an ancient symbol and a copy of the twelfth-century text The Epic of King Gesar, written in gold ink. The repercussions of his act will echo across the decades.

Gongzha will be taken far from home. He will lose love and find it. He will battle wolves, bears, outlaws and his own self, as legend and history are interwoven in the story of a young man's quest to find happiness in a time of uncertainty and unrest.

I haven't read a sweeping romantic epic in ages and Love In No Man's Land certainly fits the bill on all three of those counts. I loved its late 1960s Tibet setting especially as we got to learn a little about the daily lives of the nomadic peoples living there and how their society was irrevocably altered by Mao's Cultural Revolution. Theirs is a harsh isolated existence, survival depending primarily on the health of their sheep flocks and yak herds. Buddhism was a vital faith, but its beliefs were mingled with ancient legends and Duo Ji Zhou Ga does a fabulous job of weaving the spiritual realm into the physical and mundane. At times Love In No Man's Land almost resembled a South American magical realism novel.

I am now completely entranced by the idea of the high Tibetan plateaux and their otherworldly beauty. Scenes of immense grasslands, hidden valleys and soaring mountains are so vividly described that I think anyone reading this novel will be sorely tempted to jump straight onto a plane! The people seem strong, patient and noble, but with the same ugly flaws of jealousy and greed as can be found anywhere. While this novel is essentially about a man's life, I felt that it was the actions of women that drove the narrative. Gongzha is an enticing figure as the heartbroken romantic hero, galloping alone over the wide empty grasslands, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a film version of Love In No Man's Land soon. Keeping track of all the familial and love relationships was a little tricky at times, especially when I first encountered characters with similar names. However, as the story progressed and I got to know everyone better, this was much easier.

Love In No Man's Land is separated into two halves, part two set much later than part one. Had it consisted only of part one I think I would have awarded a full five stars. I felt this part was by far the more fully developed thematically and the characters felt deeper and more authentic too. Part two introduces new characters and I felt it's pace was too swift, lacking the emotional depth of part one. There's an unconvincingly resolved love triangle and that storyline takes centre stage whereas I would have preferred to spend time with the poachers and with the ascetic community. The incorporation of the legend needed more space too - what's the chain all about then?

Despite my pickiness, I think Love In No Man's Land should appeal to a wide readership because of its powerful love story and its historical setting. I love reading stories set in times of great social upheaval and the Chinese Cultural Revolution was one of the most intense.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga / Historical fiction / Books from Tibet

Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Swooping Magpie by Liza Perrat


The Swooping Magpie by Liza Perrat
Published by Perrat Press in October 2018.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Looking Out To Sea

How I got this book:
Won in a Jaffa Reads Too giveaway

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The thunderclap of sexual revolution collides with the black cloud of illegitimacy. 

Sixteen-year-old Lindsay Townsend is pretty and popular at school. At home, it’s a different story. Dad belts her and Mum’s either busy or battling a migraine. So when sexy school-teacher Jon Halliwell finds her irresistible, Lindsay believes life is about to change.
She’s not wrong.

Lindsay and Jon pursue their affair in secret, because if the school finds out, Jon will lose his job. If Lindsay’s dad finds out, there will be hell to pay. But when a dramatic accident turns her life upside down, Lindsay is separated from the man she loves. Events spiral beyond her control, emotions conflicting with doubt, loneliness and fear, and Lindsay becomes enmeshed in a shocking true-life Australian scandal. The schoolyard beauty will discover the dangerous games of the adult world. Games that destroy lives. Lindsay is forced into the toughest choice of her young life. The resulting trauma will forever burden her heart.

Reflecting the social changes of 1970s Australia, The Swooping Magpie is a chilling psychological tale of love, loss and grief, and, through collective memory, finding we are not alone.

I've seen a number of superb reviews for The Swooping Magpie on other blogs recently so was delighted to win a giveaway copy at Jaffa Reads Too. The novel is set initially in 1970s Australia and follows its characters up until pretty much the present day. I was reminded of a nonfiction memoir I read, Empty Cradles. That book was instrumental in publicising the plight of children deemed to be 'orphans' who were deported to Australia without their own or their parents consent. In The Swooping Magpie, Liza Perrat exposes another outrage visited upon children by the state - that of forcing young unmarried mothers into hidden institutions for the duration of their pregnancies, where they were coerced into giving up their babies for adoption. Both schemes are horrific to think about, especially considering that Christian religious organisations were often instrumental in carrying them out. I know The Swooping Magpie is fiction, but it feels utterly authentic throughout so I am sure Perrat did her research well and portrays her findings accurately.

The one potential aspect that concerned me prior to reading The Swooping Magpie is that it focuses on mothers and babies and I am not a maternally minded woman! Fortunately Perrat deftly avoids ever being overly saccharine and cutesy. Her women - from selfish Lindsay to heartless Matron Unwin, terrified Helen to silent Dawnie - are richly detailed and believably nuanced. Despite personally being opposed to the actions of many of the characters, I could usually understand exactly why they behaved as they did and remember reflections of similar attitudes during my own English childhood. The idea that a woman will only be a good mother if she wears a wedding ring is fortunately now mostly seen as outrageous. We do though still need to establish that male sexual partners carry equal responsibility for pregnancies. The Swooping Magpie provides an excellent illustration of how far sexual beliefs have evolved over the past half century.


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Books by Liza Perrat / Historical fiction / Books from Australia

Friday, 8 February 2019

White Walls And Straitjackets by David Owain Hughes


White Walls And Straitjackets by David Owain Hughes
Self published in April 2015. Republished by Hellbound Books in January 2015.

W for my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge, one of my WorldReads From Wales, and one of my 2019 Mount TBR Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Downloaded a copy from the publisher's newsletter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Meet Crystal and Harry - sweethearts and lovers who work in the lower fringes of the entertainment business. After brutally murdering three critics for poor reviews of their show, Crystal and Harry decide it best to skip town and head for the coast. Once there, they know that everything will turn out just fine - it will be their chance to start afresh. A new beginning. But, before they make their way to the seaside, Crystal insists that they visit her sister at Castell Hirwaun, a renowned psychiatric facility for the dangerously insane - because, after all, it is because of Crystal that her sibling sits rotting in the place.

At the beginning of their adventure, Harry discovers a book in the van’s glove compartment - Whitewalls and Straitjackets - written by an unknown author who exhibits the most intimate knowledge of the deadly duo, along with the other nut jobs who lurk about the Rhonda Valleys in that most picturesque part of South Wales. As lives and stories collide head-on, Crystal and Harry soon realize that escaping the Valleys won’t be quite as easy as they’s first assumed - especially so with another vicious serial killer hot on their heels….

As a rare reader of horror, I downloaded White Walls And Straitjackets months ago because of its Welsh authorship, then was too much of a scaredy cat to actually read the book so it subsequently got buried in my Kindle. Now fortunately exhumed, I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying the read. It's a dark short story collection with the tales cleverly connected by way of our journeying heros. I had thought there might be too much gore for me to stomach. Blood does indeed get liberally splattered and there are a number of wonderfully inventive deaths, however Hughes doesn't go into disturbingly graphic detail so I felt more as though I was reading stories akin to The League Of Gentlemen (one of my favourite TV shows). Hughes' characters are on the unbelievable side of believable, but this is perfectly suited to the situations in which they find themselves. I could quite expect to discover such people under garish newspaper headlines, but sincerely wish never to encounter them on my street. The Welsh setting makes for an unusual backdrop and I appreciated the inclusion of Welsh place names and colloquial speech to accentuate this. The book is let down by disappointingly frequent proofreading errors which jar Hughes' efforts to construct a chilling atmosphere, however overall this is a deliciously dark and chilling read.


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Books by David Owain Hughes / Horror fiction / Books from Wales

Thursday, 7 February 2019

How to Lose a Country by Ece Temelkuran


How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship by Ece Temelkuran
Published in the UK by Fourth Estate today, the 7th of February 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


An urgent call to action from one of Europe’s most well-regarded political thinkers. How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship is a field guide to spotting the insidious patterns and mechanisms of the populist wave sweeping the globe – before it’s too late.

‘It couldn’t happen here’

Ece Temelkuran heard reasonable people in Britain say it the night of the Brexit vote.

She heard reasonable people in America say it the night Trump’s election was soundtracked by chants of ‘Build that wall.’

She heard reasonable people in Turkey say it as Erdoğan rigged elections, rebuilt the economy around cronyism, and labelled his opposition as terrorists.

How to Lose a Country is an impassioned plea, a warning to the world that populism and nationalism don’t march fully-formed into government; they creep. Award winning author and journalist Ece Temelkuran identifies the early-warning signs of this phenomenon, sprouting up across the world, in order to define a global pattern, and arm the reader with the tools to root it out.

Proposing alternative, global answers to the pressing – and too often paralysing – political questions of our time, Temelkuran explores the insidious idea of ‘real people’, the infantilisation of language and debate, the way laughter can prove a false friend, and the dangers of underestimating one’s opponent. She weaves memoir, history and clear-sighted argument into an urgent and eloquent defence of democracy.

No longer can the reasonable comfort themselves with ‘it couldn’t happen here.’ It is happening. And soon it may be too late.

How To Lose A Country is probably going to be the most depressing and the most horrifying book I will read this year. Especially because it is nonfiction. Temelkuran's explanations of how her Turkish homeland fell under Erdogan's spell rang scarily true with what I am seeing happening across Brexit Britain and across Trump's America too. The irony isn't lost on me of the Leave campaign's threat of millions of immigrating Turks should we remain in the EU 'when' Turkey joined - when what those very same men would actually love to import is the current Turkish democratic system!

A couple of years ago I read Karl Billinger's 1939 essay Hitler Is No Fool in which that author attempted to explain how easily a nation's people can be manipulated into acting against their own interests. Temelkuran's How To Lose A Country shows that very little of the methodology has changed in the past eighty years. Indeed much of the British rhetoric I hear is nostalgic hankering for 'our glorious past',  seemingly a want to return us all to an imagined version of that wartime society although, as Temelkuran repeatedly warns from her Turkish experience, we are highly likely to end up living as if we were on the Other Side. I found myself in agreement with all her observations and sadly recognising disturbingly similar versions of conversations I have had since 2016 with numerous people who, while incapable of actually defending or explaining their statements and viewpoints, nonetheless expect me to blindly agree because they can shout louder. All marketing and no substance used to be a joke, now apparently it's really the future.

Temelkuran now writes from Croatia, exiled from Turkey because expressing free opinion is no longer acceptable. She has lost her country and cannot envisage herself regaining it any time soon. I wonder how much longer I will be able to think of Britain as my country?


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Books by Ece Temelkuran / Politics / Books from Turkey

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Salt of the Earth by Jozef Wittlin


Salt of the Earth by Jozef Wittlin
First published in Polish as Sol Ziemi in 1935. English language translation by Patrick Corness published by Pushkin Press in November 2018.

My 1930s read for my 2018-19 Decade Challenge, featured in 5Books1Theme: The Great War and one of my Classics Club reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


At the beginning of the twentieth century the villagers of the Carpathian mountains lead a simple life, much as they have always done. The modern world has yet to reach the inhabitants of this remote region of the Habsburg Empire. Among them is Piotr, a bandy-legged peasant, who wants nothing more from life than an official railway cap, a cottage, and a bride with a dowry.

But then the First World War reaches the mountains and Piotr is drafted into the army. All the weight of imperial authority is used to mould him into an unthinking fighting machine, forced to fight a war he does not understand, for interests other than his own.

The Salt of the Earth is a classic war novel and a powerfully pacifist tale about the consequences of war for ordinary men.

The story behind the creation of Salt Of The Earth is as poignant as the book itself. Originally written as a trilogy, all but a fragment of the second and all of the third volume were lost when, in France in 1940, a soldier hurled Wittlin's suitcase into the sea. He never re-wrote the novels. What remains of Piotr's story is a wonderful portrayal of Polish life just over a century ago. Salt Of The Earth is set at the very beginning of the First World War, when Wittlin himself would have been not much younger than Piotr, and was was written in the 1930s so I am confident that much of the fine, everyday detail is accurate and a record of a now-vanished way of life.

I loved Wittlin's rich poetic prose and Patrick Corness has done a superb job of rendering this in English. Piotr's Hutsul home is beautifully portrayed and I felt that we are given a great sense of how this uneducated socially isolated man lived. Ideas such as Piotr's deliberate shunning of the Devil's Signs (ordinary writing) were incredible to me as I often forget that not everybody has or, even so recently (historically speaking), had the same access to education. Piotr and his peers choose to hide their illiteracy behind superstition rather than allow the priest to teach them letters.

Wittlin follows Piotr though his unexpected promotion to signalman as a result of trained railwaymen being called up to war service, to Piotr receiving his own infantry uniform several months later in a barracks hundreds of miles from his home. All through this time Piotr has only a limited grasp of what the war is about in national terms or even how it is likely to affect him personally. His trust in his beloved Emperor is absolute therefore whatever the Emperor has ordered must be right. Such blind obedience - before any military training - was also a concept I didn't find it easy to empathise with although Wittlin's writing is utterly convincing and I never doubted Piotr's faith.

Salt Of The Earth is a very differently styled novel to my more usually modern reads. Partly I think this is due to its having been written over eighty years ago, but I was also always aware that its author came from another culture, somewhere with different ideas about what makes for a good life and a life well lived. As such, I found Salt Of The Earth a fascinating novel and I wish the trilogy's second and third volumes could have survived.


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Books by Jozef Wittlin / War fiction / Books from Poland

Monday, 4 February 2019

How To Create A Vegan World by Tobias Leenaert


How To Create A Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach by Tobias Leenaert
Published in America by Lantern Press in June 2017.

H for my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge and featured on my vegan book blog, HirlGrend.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


In this thought-provoking book, Tobias Leenaert leaves well-trodden animal advocacy paths and takes a fresh look at the strategies, objectives, and communication of the vegan and animal rights movement. He argues that, given our present situation, with entire societies dependent on using animals, we need a very pragmatic approach. How to Create a Vegan World contains many valuable ideas and insights for both budding advocates for animals and seasoned activists, organizational leaders, and even entrepreneurs.

I spotted How To Create A Vegan World on Goodreads when author Bernard Jan shared an update about the book. Being in the middle of my Veganuary challenge at the time I felt that this was wonderfully serendipitous and I was interested to read a European viewpoint on veganism as many of the other nonfiction books I have considered are American-authored. The root ideas are usually similar, but things like product availability and political interpretation can be very different.

Leenaert's ideas are certainly controversial and I liked reading the full range of Goodreads reviews before I got to the book itself. Vegans generally can have a reputation for single-mindedness and intransigence regarding animal welfare. In interviews and blogs their simple message can often be stridently put across with no negotiation on offer. I can understand why this is the case, but I always felt somewhat intimidated by this approach. I personally didn't feel I could live up to such absolutism. Leenaert instead advocates leniency. In his opinion, many people making strides towards veganism is actually better at the present time than a only few hardcore vegans. He actively supports initiatives such as Meatfree Mondays and Veganuary arguing that, so long as people don't then overcompensate for their reduced meat consumption, these challenges may well save many more animals.

Having come to veganism through adopting both Meatfree Mondays and Veganuary, I was delighted to see Leenaert validating such a journey. I now feel reassured whereas previously I had wondered whether, by not embracing the traditional vegan stance, I was maybe letting the side down or not making a proper contribution. His metaphor of placing the utopian Veganville at the top of a mountain is perfect. A plant-based diet isn't an easy lifestyle change to make immediately and I agree that many people making smaller changes have a far greater effect on commercial demand for products. Indeed just last month Piers Morgan inadvertently helped to send sales of the Greggs vegan sausage roll rocketing with his sneering tweet about the product. But Greggs wouldn't have even thought about launching a vegan sausage roll had they not anticipated the volume of Veganuary signups and therefore already been confident of customer demand.

I can understand why some are upset by Leenaert's putting pragmatism over absolutes, but like him at this stage of the global journey I feel getting plant-based diets to be seen as normal (instead of an extreme act) will create the most impact.

Etsy Find!
by Culture 24 in
Kaunas, Lithuania

Click pic to visit Etsy Shop


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Books by Tobias Leenaert / Food and diet / Books from Belgium