Review-ish: The Prince of the Mist by Carlos Ruis Zafón

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Originally published in Spain as El Príncipe de la Niebla. This version is translated by Lucia Graves.

“Whenever it poured like this, Max felt as if time was pausing. It was like a cease-fire during which you could stop whatever you were doing and just stand by a window for hours, watching the performance, an endless curtain of tears falling from heaven.”

I originally picked up this book as I loved Shadow of the Wind, which I read on whilst driving through Spain several years ago. I loved the fast-paced nature of his writing and how evocative Shadow was of Barcelona, somewhere I had never visited but now have such a clear image in my mind of.

The Prince of the Mist is Zafón’s debut novel, aimed at younger readers. Like so many of my favourite YA novels, it doesn’t shy away from darker themes. This novel, set during the second world war in an undisclosed location (to me it was reminiscent of a seaside town in my home county of Devon) it touches on the war’s looming presence for many young people. It also carefully and delicately examines the flawed nature of adults, and some of the well-intentioned mistakes they can make in trying to protect children.

The pacing of it may have distracted me from some of the less well-written bits, as many reviewers on Goodreads are suggesting that it isn’t as beautifully written as Shadow but either way, it reads well, with Zafón’s trademark poetry at its heart. According to Wikipedia, Shadow was also translated by Lucia Graves.

I’m not ashamed to say that this book gave me nightmares! The way that the ‘monster’ is described is so chilling, it really got into my psyche. But that isn’t to say that its not suitable for younger readers. I heard a Radio 4 programme this week where authors were talking about writing for children and how you can present really quite scary scenarios as long as you give the reader a glimmer of hope. This programme really got me thinking about some of my favourite YA books and the importance of them in a young readers development.

I have spent a lot of time recently looking for books for my pre-teen sisters; books that I have loved, but also books that offer something a bit different from the boy-meets-girl story-line, or in fact, the boy-saves-girl trope. Clearly all children are different and have different reading ages, as well as differing levels of maturity, but it can be so hard to find guidelines for suitability of books.

I really try to read everything that I give out as presents in advance but its not always possible. Does anyone else enjoy buying books for the young people in their lives? Any advice or recommendations? Would anyone enjoy a post about what I have enjoyed/bought in the past?

Happy reading, people!

Kelly

Review-ish: The Power by Naomi Alderman

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‘This is the trouble with history. You can’t see what’s not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something’s missing, but there’s no way to know what it was.’

Before I start, I wanted to take a moment to note the trauma that many people would have been re-living, re-hashing, and re-imagining this week. It couldn’t be a more appropriate time to discuss this book; with everything happening with the US Supreme Court nomination and the Judiciary Committee. I just wanted to say that I believe her. That I think she is incredibly brave. And that I am angry that this week will mean that many, many people won’t come forward for fear of not being believed.

To men that are our allies, please be seen. Please make your voices heard too. Clearly, its not enough for us to speak up alone anymore.

And to the book. Well. This was exciting. Totally the sort of book that you could read in one-sitting. The sort of book distracts you to the point of leaving your tea to go cold or neglect your children (should you have them). This is the perfect book for a rainy Sunday when you have nothing else to do but get fully engrossed in a book.  I finished it 1 hour into a 4 hour train journey. Annoying. Lesson learnt.

I think that there’s always a danger with a book that examines the subversion of power; that they can rely too heavily on the subversion and the writing suffers, but this stands up as a well-written piece of fiction. Even though it was the perfect book to skim-read….(I cannot break this habit, please tell me how I can be better at this!) so I had to go back through it a bit to remind myself of what I enjoyed about the writing.

The descriptions that each character give of their physical experience with the power were so wonderfully written and all distinct. Each of the four main characters that Alderman focuses on have depth and are well-constructed; saying that, I felt like I could have spent more time with all of them. I so wanted more. Which is a ringing endorsement for the thrilling ride that the book takes you on.

I really loved the introduction chapter and its interrogation of what power is, and its comparison to a tree. It’s powerful (obvs) and gripping and introduces some of the main metaphors used throughout the book.

I’m truly surprised that a book with so much press attention (here’s a Guardian review) written two years ago hasn’t been picked up for a film (that I know of). Its length and intensity mean it is crying out for a film adaptation. I have no doubt that like so many film adaptations it will be terrible…but its such a visually stimulating story. The Washington Post called it ‘our era’s Handmaids Tale’  which is not an unfair description.  In fact, I think that the writing style is actually quite similar. I found myself wandering, if like Handmaids Tale, the things that happen to the men in Atwoods novel are similar to things that have truly happened to women before… but that’s a hard comparison to make within the introduction of a force like the power. This nytimes article is fab actually, and it explains that Atwood was a mentor to Alderman whilst she wrote The Power. 

I would highly recommend this book. It’s a proper page-turner that stays with you, long after you have finished it and a loved-one has pried it out of your cold hands. Go. Enjoy. And then come back and discuss gender politics with me in the comments. Lets be good to each other. 

With love this week,
Kelly

 

Review-ish: Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi

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‘My father pounded his cane against the walls of my void as he laughed. My paper heart crinkled in response. The sound of his laughter was a balm to my wounds’

I entirely judged the book by its cover on this one, Team. It was alone on a ‘featured books’ shelf at Splott Library and it’s called to me with its name and its colourful cover. I picked it up because it looked beautiful, I read it because it felt beautiful. I’m a sucker for good quality paper. I felt like I was the first person to borrow this book. It was box-fresh.

Call Me Zebra is pretty indescribable so apologies, this will just be a gushy review about how much I loved it, with very little content. The whole book speaks of an experience I know nothing about; the idea of being rootless and exiled. But its told in such a way that your lack of knowledge of this experience doesn’t matter. They way she describes the fathomlessness of loss and grief was exceptional. And I just loved the way her ancestors guided her and spoke to her. Like grown-up Lion King.

It could so easily be pretentious, with all of its literary focus but it really isn’t. I know that people have found it to be entirely pretentious, but I think you have to accept early on that you won’t know every single literary reference and just need to go with it. I haven’t read half of the books that are quoted but the human experience that she discusses are universal and easy to relate to.

I shouldn’t have looked at Goodreads as I feel fiercely protective of Zebra and love her like a slightly unhinged but kind-hearted sister. I get it, Zebra can be quite out-there but I never thought that it goes too far off the rails. I’ve definitely read books that are far more up their own arse than this one (ahem, Twilight of the Eastern Gods). I just loved Zebra’s spirit and chutzpah and all that. She’s fab and I want to be her friend, even though she’s the sort of friend that you would have to apologise for a lot, and keep away from the good wine.

I’ll shut up now because I’m so clearly biased on this one and have nothing to criticise it for. Read it. But contrary to all of my pleas for comments, please don’t tell me if you don’t like Zebra. It will hurt my feelings and I’ll never get over it.

Kelly

 

Update

No Review-ish this week as I haven’t finished my current book! So a few updates instead.

At time of writing, I am ploughing my way through a thoroughly enjoyable book but its so deep and thought-provoking that I only get through a couple of pages before I fall asleep. So its taking me longer than the last few books have. But more on that the moment I finish it, I promise! It’ll be a really gushy review as I’m loving it so much.

I’m getting there with setting up a physical version of the Offbeat Book Club in Cardiff, which I’m super-excited about. Progress is being made and I’m hoping to be able to shout about it from the rooftops very soon. It was always my intention to run a book club in Cardiff that is all about getting together with some like-minded readers to diversify our reading, the blog was a bit of a side-project, so I’m pleased that its becoming a reality.

I’ll be posting about the book club regularly here, so you can follow along if you’re not local, or not able to get to the meetings. Please read-along with us and join in the discussion in the comments section.

With that in mind, I really want to reach as many people in Cardiff, and beyond, so I have a few favours to ask… have you read my blog and enjoyed it? Fab. Please can you tell other people about it? That would be nice. Have you got any thoughts on what I have written? Pop me a comment. Or just tell me what you’re reading. I am always interested. Or just tell me about your pets, holidays or good sandwich experiences. Cheers!

Kelly

PS. I went to Hay-on-Wye for the first time this weekend and obviously found my spiritual home. Managed to only walk away with four books which I think showed amazing restraint.

 

Review-ish: Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare

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‘Artashez Pogosian, nicknamed ‘The Masses in Their Tens of Millions’ because he identified with them all at the drop of a hat, apparently delighted to have dumped his wife, swept in with the other students from the Caucasus. They were all drunk, except Shogentsukov, who had come on his own on a later train, and turned up looking slightly drained, his face exhibiting what Pogosian jokingly called his post-prime-ministerial melancholy.’

Not a favourite quote by any means. More of an example. This paragraph makes no more sense if you’ve read the book than it does on its own.

I feel so ‘meh’ about this book, I very nearly didn’t do a review. Or even finish it. But I was away for work this week and knew it would help me to sleep.

I was so up for it, based on the blurb, but it turns out that I can’t relate in any way to a young Albanian writer living in Russia in the late 50’s. He’s terribly angsty. I was also interested just because it translated from French into English from its original language (Russian/Albanian?) and I thought it would be so very worldly of me. Nah.

There’s a lot of Russian names thrown around haphazardly, but I’m sure that if I was more into it, I could have made more of an effort to follow then. But nah. Even with a genuinely interesting Introduction, written by the translator, David Bellos, it still lost me more often than not. The narrative just wasn’t engaging enough to encourage me to struggle through the Russia names, places and assumed prior knowledge.

I would recommend if you have a very specific interest in mid-century, Soviet Union authors. I mean, its not a long book, like, under 200 pages, so if you fancy it, why not give it a crack. It helped to put me to sleep regularly over the last week. Even At 4pm on a Sunday.

Kelly

Review-ish: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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‘Identity problem? I dinnae have an identity problem – I dinnae have an identity, just reflex reactions and a disappearing veil between this world and the next.’

To start this post, I have to say, major big up’s to Splott Library, part of Cardiff Libraries. All three books reviewed so far were picked up on a whim whilst browsing the shelves at my local-to-work library, with one eye on trying to avoid the authors I usually go for. They don’t have the largest range in the world, but I am enjoying the new-ness of it all. The message here is that even if you CAN afford to buy books new, please go out and use your local library so those who can’t access these amazing books, have the chance. Check your book-privilege.

Last night, my adult boyfriend (co-habiting life-partner, I dunno) asked me if I liked this book. I found that really hard to answer. I think part of it is because I really hate to dislike a book. I’m ok with absolutely hating something (looking at you, American Psycho), but if there’s a redeeming feature, I will find it, and there’s much about this that I liked; the hard Scottish dialect (flashbacks of Trainspotting), the message of the book, the well-developed central character. But there’s a lot I struggled with as well.

Like a few others who reviewed this book on Goodreads, I found the name of the institution The Panopticon, and the fact that Anais actually finds good friends and support systems there to be quite dissonant. Someone else mentioned that its beyond implausible that a social services institution would house children in a building designed for cruelty but I could look past that.

I always struggle with books that rely on shocking the reader to make a point. I think that there are very clever authors out there who manage to raise very important issues and/or discuss terrible subjects without needing to be explicit. I think it just felt like quite an onslaught of misery and tragedy; a microcosm of a larger, very broken system. BUT this is a very personal response. I think other readers may have a better tolerance for this than me so don’t be put off. I have to watch the Care Bears after each episode of The Wire.

All in all, it’s a good read that I smashed through very quickly (skim-reading the hard bits, again. Naughty) that you would enjoy if you like Irvine Welsh or Melvin Burgess, with the caveat that this is in no way Young Adult fiction, even if it reads like it at first. After a quick browse of her other books, I would definitely try others. Anyone have any thoughts on shock tactics in fiction? Anyone had a good sandwich today? Comments below please.

Kelly

Review-ish: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

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‘Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.’

There must be a whole slew of people who read To Kill A Mockingbird in school as children, and then read Go Set A Watchman as adults. So I know my experience can’t be unique with these books. I have been meaning to read this since it came out in 2015 but had all intentions of re-reading TKAM again first. That didn’t happen. But I don’t think it mattered in the end.

I don’t know whether I have perhaps over-simplified TKAM in my mind but it felt so clear in its depictions of right and wrong, perhaps from Scout’s childish innocence and the pedestal that Atticus is put on. So GSAW feels more grown up, more nuanced.  The characters have developed into 3D and flawed human beings and Scout’s idealism and fervour resonated with me so much (who here wasn’t an angry, blinkered 20-something, determined that they were right??)

According to some accountsGSAW was a rough manuscript, written in the 1950’s, before TKAM, dug out of obscurity by a Ms. Carter who acted as Harper Lee’s personal representative. To me, when the book was written is important, as I found a lot of the vernacular quite hard to read. If this was written in the 1950’s and represented attitudes at that time, then I would understand Lee’s use of language more, even if it didn’t make it more palatable to me. Did anyone else have a similar response?

I am a delicate flower when it comes to books and tend to skim past things that upset me, although I am trying to break that habit. So obviously, some of the views portrayed by the main characters in this book cut me to the core, but I’m sure that was Lee’s intention. What better way to show Scouts development into adulthood than the fall of her hero?

This book is short and powerful, and I think it should be compulsory reading (alongside TKAM) in schools. There, I said it.

It’s taken me a week to write this; I felt so conflicted by the language and how divisive it has been (check out the Goodreads comments here) but I think that it’s an important lesson in the hurt and fear in the South and that well-meaning liberal-minded people can be as narrow-minded as those they oppose.

Thanks, Dr Finch, for reminding me of what a dick I was in my teens and 20’s. An important lesson learnt.