Saturday, August 19, 2017

Middle Grade Fantasy Review: The Girl of Ink&Stars

Set on the imaginary island of Joya, in an imaginary world, The Girl of Ink&Stars is a middle grade fantasy book recommended to curious and ready for adventure youngsters on the way to becoming teenagers. 
First and foremost, it not only has a dream-inducing cover - if you read my blog you might know already how interested I am in the cover of books as well, besides the writing of books -, but also has fine graphic inserts on the pages.
Daughter of a cartograph, Isabella is living on an island dominated by a heartless governor, whose daughter is her friend. When a girl school colleague of them is found lifeless, the monotonous life on the island is disrupted and the layers of magic and fantasy are invading the space, not always with benefic effects for the humans inhabitants. After the daughter of the governer herself disappears trying to bring light into the murder, after a fight with Isabella to whom she is trying to prove she is not 'roten', an expedition starts to find her, headed by the governor himself. The entire journey is unpredictable, with cruel episodes when the chance of survival seems to be impossible.
The book, aimed at readers between 10 and 14 years old, has elements typical for this genre, such as a moral challenge or the confrontation with death. The elements of dreams and fantasy are wrapping the story as cotton candy clouds, whose slow pace infuses the story with an outerwordly fragrance. 
However, I had a couple of issues with the book. For instance, I had more than once the feeling of deja-vu - or, deja-lu, to be precise, which for a beginner reader doesn't count maybe, but still would have expected more originality. Another critique is that if you are expecting a fast-pacing story you are in the wrong place. There are a lot of descriptions, most of them beautifully written, but they often overweight the chain of events as much as you can feel the narrative being caught somewhere between two sequences. Overall, I felt that the book has a bigger potential than achieved.
It is a recommended read for a long summer day, for poetry and fantasy loving kids.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

I rarely read a book which is beautifully written, emotionally challenging - even draining - with complex characters but with the main story completely deceiving. 
The love story which started when Wavonna Quinn was eight years old with a man at least 17 years her senior might be break taboos, but in fact it is the weakest point of the entire story. The evolution of the romance is so predictable that sometimes I was tempted to skip the pages describing the details, convinced I was not supposed to miss anything. Except that actually I was missing the short rhythmic polishes sentences bringing the emotional turmoil of the characters into your life.
When there is so much emotional weight, and characters out of the normal world, the choice for a different kind of romance makes sense, but the romantic story as such should be more than your soap opera adventure next door. When everything fails and humanity fails too, the search for wonderful things makes sense, but it could rather be friendship or anything else but not that upside down grotesque relationship. It doesn't have to do with the underage sex, but with the way in which the reader is offered the story, like you really have to like it and consider it the best thing that can happen in the book. And it probably is, but not without encountering the risk of creating a stereotypical predictable story. It is so easy to ruin a book with the potential of being a good piece of literature.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, August 14, 2017

Book review: The Accidental Apprentice, by Vikas Swarup

After the world-acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire, Vikar Swarup used the same background - the intricacies and often deceiving slums of the Indian life and society - creating a page turning novel with a bit of all: adventure, thriller, love, social meditation. 
Like in an average Bollywood movie, masks fell down, the hidden drama enfolds and there is not always a happy ending. Sapna Sinha, a young lady is randomly selected by an eccentric billionaire to be his next CEO if she passes 7 challenging tests aimed to reveal her leadership and human values. 
The ways in which the trials and challenges are described opens the eyes to the daily Indian realities, and this is one of the things that kept me reading the book until its very end. However, after a couple of 'tests', the pace slowed down and the stories became more than predictable. After all, not all Bollywood movies are equally entertaining.
At the end, after a long last trial, I felt a bit betrayed, as too much set-up completely damaged the good story, which at the end looks more as a succession of pranks than a novel. Hovewer, the portrayal of Sapna is very good and she is a character with depth, humar and an interesting personality. The kind of persons you might love to meet in the real life too.
Although I only give a modest 2-star to this book, those interested in Indian histories might find it interesting and entertaining, and Vikas Swarup definitely has something more to say on the literary front. 

Rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Book Review: Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The stories between mothers and daughters are never easy to be told. The literary shape is only a polite way to create meanings and sometimes to offer excuses.
Three generations of women, two of them were born in India, are coming at age, longing for a sense of home and emotional belonging. Recently I was suggested that we, in fact, might replicate, more or less consciously, the family relations and patterns we already witnessed. I am not convinced it is like that - and I refuse to believe that things are so simple in life.
For the simplicity of the narrative, this story actually follows such an unrealistic pattern, but fortunately, the developments are less predictive. Through betrayal and abandonment - who else but your mother can forgive you for those - strive for independence and nostalgy when it is too late to say 'good bye' or 'I am sorry', the heroines of the novel are revealed in their emotional, although unusual emotional complexity.
Regardless if they lived in India all their life, left the country to never see it again or never had any direct connection with this culture, the longing for home is the red line painfully overpassing continents and failed relationships. Also stereotypically - especially when it comes from non-European cultures - the remedy for sadness and alienation is food, which predictably is savourously described - but not recipes though although at least for some puddings I wish they are as I am stereotypical enough myself too to be an easy pray of such culinary intermezzos.
Despite my relative disappointment with some literary approaches, I still enjoyed the book because recurrent or not, all of us we can find ourselves sometimes in episodes of mother-daughter relationships. After all, maybe life is simpler as we try to convince ourselves it is.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Book Review: The Return by Hisham Matar

I knew more that Qaddafi was the clown-dictator of Libya and for different reasons I followed the 'opening' of the West to the Libyan (oil) regime, started by the then-EU member Great Britain. In various circumstances, the gossips about his excentricities as a human and the abuses of his sons were known at many levels of the international organisations, including those with a certain 'soft power' impact, but it was outrageous how the situation in this country was rather taken as a joke instead of seriously being considered as a reason to increase the pressure for democratization. As in the case of other dictators, it seemed that Qaddafi will most probably die peacefully in his tent.
The Return, by the American-born Libyan author - the first literary work I ever read associated to this country - Hisham Matar is the beautifully written story of his desperate search of over 2 decades of his father, Jaballa Matar, an anti-Qaddafi dissident kidnapped with the conivence of the Egyptian secret service and brought to Libya where he probably was murdered. 
Part of the book is dedicated to retell the story of Libya through the personal histories of his family members, starting with the grandfather who fought against the Italian occupation, and continuing with his uncles and cousins and father. If he would have lived in a 'normal' country, he would have been part of a political family, but instead, once back to Libya after most of his life spent in 'exile', he is searching for traces to re-create the last years and even moments of life of his father. In those moments, he is no more the journalist and the well-balanced and factual journalist, but a child searching for his memories, searching for his father and building the relationship with him again and again through the despair of knowing that despite all the political activism and desperate searches from the last years, he is dead and it is almost impossible to know about his end. 
The memory lane has ups and downs, it repeats itself, sometimes the same memory taking completely different shapes. The memory re-writes over and over again the past and the present. Those fragments of the memoir are directly personal, slow, reierative. More than once I couldn't wait for the factual information, also because I felt overwhelmed by the proximity and the impossibility to see a way out of the labyrinth. 
Those who grew up, even for a short while, under dictatorships can easily relate to the stories. Those who are reading it and never encountered other than democracy, might take notes and understand to praise their freedom gifts much better.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: The Girls, by Emma Cline

The Girls is a book with many ups and downs, both emotionally and from the point of view of the writing but raises many deep questions about age and being a girl, regardless the decade and the country. 
For instance, it has many meditative paragraphs about the fate of the girls as such - 'That was part of being a girl - you were resignet to whatever feedback you'd get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn't react, you were a bitch' - and it does give account about growing up - but not yet old - in the 1960s, but from the point of view of the events related in the book, some of the emotions and the rational of the story do not go well together or somehow, the connections are lost while telling the rest of the story. 
After a while, from the descriptions of the youngest heroes of the story - Sasha's friends -, we are told that the 'girls' used in fact to be part of a cult, but besides some sexual details and a dictatorial behavior of the 'leader' other descriptions regarding the practices of the cult are completely absent. Most of the book is a torrid slow description of coming to age, from the first sexual experiences to breaking up rules and borders, therefore, the violent crime which in fact changes completely, at least for a while, the pace of the story, might be an interesting episode which could bring some mystery thriller into the story, which does not happen. 
The life of the girl telling the story, who had her rebelious moment of joining the cult, only because attracted by a hippie girl she saw begging and stealing around her school, her alter-ego she will never be, remained basic and normal. 'Suzanne and the others would always exist for me; I believed that they would never die. That they would haver forever in the background of ordinary life, circling the high ways and edging the parks. Moved by a force that would never cease or slow'. The short time she spent with this strange group looks like the most eventful episode of her life until late in her mature age. 
Based on event descriptions and other story details we realize that the episode takes place during the summer vacation, but the time sequence is so hard to define that period of time otherwise. It could be one month or one week or only a couple of days, it is hard to estimate if you take into account only the way in which things are taking place within the commune. 
Despite some flaws, this book is an interesting and thoughtful read. If you are into psychological introspection and coming to age books, I recommend to not forget to take it with you for your summer vacations.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, July 28, 2017

How to Juggle with Social Media to Promote your Writing

The main reasons many intellectuals and writing people I know refuse to use social media, despite understanding the advantages for their brand and books is its assumed 'time-wasting' features. Once you are in - on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram - they say, your time dedicated to research and writing is dramatically diminished and it is extremely unclear at what extent this activity will convert to book sales. 
Social Media Just for Writers is a crush course in the main social media channels, from Facebook to LinkedIn and blogging or visual marketing. Besides the introduction to those channels, it offers useful advices about how to create an online brand as a writer, by being available, sharing your interests - not exclusively your book-related information - and answering the requests of your potential and current readers. A recommendation good not only for writers, anyway. 
I particularly liked the way in which the advantages of different platforms are outlined, as for instance the case of Twitter, which is for years a good medium for writers and readers. Personally, I made a lot of friendships with writers via this microblogging tool, many of them I've met in real life too. Useful too is the list of hashtags to be used for those conversations aimed at bookish audiences. 
On the other hand, it was completely new to me the appeal of LinkedIn for writers, particularly non-fiction authors. Especially if you are also doing consulting and editing work, you might have the opportunity of visibility among your peers and potential clients. 
Another positive aspect of the book is the focus on the culture of images, promoted particularly via Pinterest, which doesn't have to be considered detrimental to the quality of the writing, but a smarter and interesting way to promote the writing word culture. I personally prize the good looking intelligent covers therefore Pinterest is worthy more than a mention. Frances Caballo has detailed suggestions in this regard for both fiction and non-fiction writers. The same goes for Instagram and Snapchat, although once Instagram introduced the live stories features, this medium is losing its relevance among many non-millenials users. The mention of Tumblr, also with a high visual dimension is equally relevant, as I see it as a perfect tool to reach YA readers, among others. I personally used to have also a Tumblr blog, but didn't update it for years, so maybe once in a while I should reconsider my decision. 
The book is a very good read for the writer interested to reach new audiences and readers, and has the advantage of offering systematic information about different tools, targeted at a special niche and readership.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review