Monday, August 29, 2016

Book review: Counting Chimneys, by Sandy Taylor

At first, I was curious about the choice of the time set of the novel - the 1960s - but shortly after I realised how interestingly the author explored this era. This is the time when girls dream to marry Paul McCartney, relationships evolve and the choice of living as a couple together without being married is about to become a high occurence and when women are considering having a career or just staying single. Those where the days. 
But always people fell in love or out of love. Dottie Perks tries to run away from the ghosts of her past as far as London, but for years after she realizes that her heart still belongs to her childhood beau, Ralph. But he is the single father of a daughter with her best friend, that died - the reader will realize - in a previous book (this is the second installment that starts with The Girls from the See Saw Lane, but anyway, you can still understand most of the story without reading it). Despite his weaknesses and even cowardice, as he run after Dottie the day he was supposed to marry and move to Australia, only to finally relocate there due to the conflict between Dottie and the little girl, the love stays strong despite all odds and disappointments, and even betrayals. Some strong feelings are bigger than life. And when things look bad, just 'look up and count the chimneys' as the interesting character of Rose adviced Dottie in one of her darkest times. 
The dialogues between the characters are well crafted and despite the ongoing drama unfolding most of the time, there is a pint of humour and hope too. Both the topic and the writing are transporting the reader into the world of the book in a complete way. I ended up not only betting about Dottie's choices but you end up but either loving or hating or just disapproving deeply some of the characters. 
Her final choice might be problematic, but is the decision of an independent character that you cannot stop admiring. 
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book review: The Sugar Planter's Daughter

Set in the British Guiana at the beginning of the 20th century, The Sugar Planter's Daughter is more than a chronicle of social and race equality, but a novel about love, betrayal and hope. 
The story is told by episodes by the main protagonists of the story, each assigned a particular voice and role in the narrative. This choice creates a very interesting dynamic of the development of the story, building the conflict and creating the context for possible solutions. As a reader, you are introduced in a complex and always surprising story, that at some times leads you through a dramatic emotional roller coasting. 
Although the book is the continuation of a previous episode, focused on the story of the Winnie's father - where the daughter. the sensitive yet hard fighter against racial prejudice contributed to bring him to justice in a case of racially motivated crime -, the reader doesn't suffer, as important details of this first story are skilfully introduced into the current story. I particularly liked the way in which the historical and racial background interwins with the story of love and betrayal. You do not feel you are lectured about a particular aspect, but offered useful hints to understand the context, through the voices of the main protagonists: Winnie, her sister Yoyo, their mother, Ruth and George, Winnie's husband, the fighter for equal rights. George himself is an example of the switch of mentality in the English Guiana and elsewhere, that took more than a century to get accomplished: talented, ready to prove that his intellectual qualities are the same as of the 'white' majority, assuming the risk of marrying a woman from the oppressive majority. Personally, I had big expectations from the character if George and eventually went disappointed with his decision to give up political militantism in favour of a bourgeois pursuit of wealth and economic stability for his constantly growing family. 
The end is maybe not as dramatic as expected, but still surprising, the conclusion of a very emotional literary outbursts that makes you believe that everything - on the worse side - can happen every moment.  
This is a book I recommend for its intelligent writing, interesting questions challenging the reader and the charming story.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book review: The Atomic Weight of Love, by Elizabeth J. Church

Love comes in different shapes and weights. It can be easy as a feather or heavier as a pile of books, it can bring freedom and happiness and a new life, or it can hurt the heart deeply the heart and bring it to chains. In this exceptional debut novel, it seems that everything has a weight and you can even feel, at least at the beginning of the story, how words and feelings and objects are just flying from a part to the other of the page, in a blink of a thought. 
Meridian is a promising scientist whose life is supposed to be a dedication to intellectual journeys. She hopes that her encounter with Alden Whetstone will push further her dedication for science, particularly ornithology. She accepts to marry him while finishin her BA, but she will have to put on hold indefinitely all her scientific dreams for a life together with her husband in the community of atomic scientists from Los Alamos. She keeps studying crows aiming that one day she will publish her thesis, but this will soon become a kind of hobby and a distraction from her housekeeping duties. Love changes into resentment, routine is as heavy, even the crows will disband and leave the colony. Years are passing and Meri is nothing from what she dreamed of. She will have an adventure with an ex-Viet veteran hippie that will bring her closer to her real self, but she is not strong enough to leave everything behind and follow him to Berkeley. They will keep in touch through letters without meeting again, until the end of her life.
The lifespan of the protagonists crosses dramatic evolutions in the contemporary history: WWII, the atomic bomb, Vietnam war, the flower power movement, the pressure towards more rights to women, including the right to vote, the television. The historical background is probably the weakest part of the book, with a relatively low reflection of the times in Meridian's life, if not through the observations and mentions of other people part of the story. Does she not read a newspaper, at least?
Wish Meridian was strong enough to leave love and chose science. This is what effectively annoyed me in the first part of the story, when everything seems to settle into a self-destructive routine when year after year passes without any counter-reaction of her side. Other women at Los Alamos, more educated than her, did the same: left behind any dream of professional achievement to follow their husbands. A marriage of minds looks as uneventful - plain boring - as when other considerations matter in chosing a mate.
The raw realism of this book is that it shows how actually women had to life for most of the human history, and our boldness and courage to pursue a career dream, with the price of loneliness and singularity still remains exceptional. 
A well written book, with an exquisite knowledge about the world of birds - each chapter is accompanied by a specific bird whose symbol and short behavior description is the motto - that is more than a feminist pledge. It tells a particular story and it does it well.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher via NetGalley.com

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: The pros and the cons

I was a very big fan of the original Harry Potter series, that I've read in a fast-forward mode, in just a couple of weeks, many years back. I loved the writing, was caught by the story and until the end I felt as a very part of it. It has all the ingredients of a cult book, and has many interesting ideas for not-so-younger adults about the fight between good and evil and the limits of magic.
I did not plan to read the newest Harry Potter installment, but this Friday I've found the book available to loan at my local library so I haven't think twice before taking it at home. In just a couple of hours, I was done. I wanted to wait some time before starting to read the review, due to the mixed impressions generated by the book.
The story follows the 40-year old Harry Potter, bureaucrat, head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Father of three, he is married with Ginny, editor of the Sports page of The Daily Prophet. The troubles are back into his life after his son, Albus, freshman at Hogwarts, is about to challenge the whole Harry Potter story as we know it, after stealing and using a Time Turner to correct an episode from the old history. Overwhelmed by the fame of his father, Albus is having his Oedipian moment, that will be overcome, after some emotional and suspense episodes.
I haven't read any previous reviews about the book before and wasn't sure what to expect. The result is a mixture of impressions, as such:

The pros

- The quality, flawless writing. Adapted for a play, it has many visual moments described by well-chosen words strong enough to create an accurate image. Like, for instance, the functioning of the Time Turner: 'And there is a giant whoosh of light. A smash of noise. And time stops. And then it turns over, thinks a bit, and begins spooling backwards, slow at first...And then it speeds up...'. Based on this description, you can imagine how it works as you are about to start your journey through time. 
- The continuation with the other books from the series is made smoothly, with small details brought elegantly into the story.
- There are many events and surprising twists that keeps you interested until the end of the story, although there are some dull moments, particularly in the first part. The relatively peaceful and uneventful pages - like for instance, when it is about the discussions at home between Ginny and Harry, not too much magic here, sorry - are followed by some small or big events. For instance, the talking books suggesting a riddle, or the pumpkin pastry turning into a grenade.
- I definitely love the idea that things are meant to be and not even the good intentions or the time travel can change them for good. Things happen and you cannot do anything against it. Realizing this is Albus growing up moment.

The cons

- Why writing a play and not a real story? Why? Why not a cartoon, or a poem...If you are a real Harry Potter fan I think you just may feel betrayed because instead of a long eventful story, you are left with some short scenes and action sequences...I understand that there is a play in London and this is how things were chosen to be, but still, I would have prefer a big story with details and a larger scenario.
- Harry Potter is so worn out in this sequence...At 40 he behave just about to retire, like an annoyed bureaucrat, predictable and too self absorbed to pay attention to the emotional needs of his children. It doesn't make justice to the original character at all. Thanks to the apparition of Dumbledore he is guided into his mission as a parent: 'You're supposed to teach him how to meet life'.
- The story is disbalanced, with an almost boring to tears first part and a very eventful second one. The format - play - may be guilty for this discomfort. 

The conclusion: If you have some free time one afternoon, read the book. But don't expect too much and just keep in mind that it might be very different from any of the other Harry Potters.

Rating: 3 stars book



Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Children book review: Darcy Moon and the Aroona Frogs

Darcy Moon is not very happy with her current life. Her hippie parents are too eccentric to be seen with in public. The life she is living at home does not have the usual amenities the other children in her class enjoy, such as TV. She is not popular and her budget is usually limited. 
Everything is deemed to change one night when she stumble upon some frogs - after a day out in the swamp with her father gathering worms - who need her help. Why her, out of all the other human beings in the whole world? Because, upon her birth, she was secretely given the mission of being an Earth Guardian. It means that she has some extra powers that can be used in special emergency situations. The situation of the frogs from Aroona Wildlife Reservation is anything but normal. Night after night, the frogs are mysteriously disappearing and the whole wild life balance is in danger. 
At first, Darcy refuses the savior's mission - she has enough of out of order situations and talking frogs is not what she needs to deal with when there are so many problems to cope in her everyday child life - but after learning in school about wildlife and its enemies, she changes her mind. At night, she run away of home secretly to join the frogs. Just in time to catch the one and only who is guilty for the dissapearance of frogs. A multi-rich local personalities, the creator of a very successful chips brand needed the frogs as the secret ingredient of his potatoes. 
Through a special rescue mission, Darcy suceeds to save them from extinction but it remains to reveal the perpetrator to the world. This will happen a couple of hours later: a role-model presentation he was supposed to hold in the front of the children from his former school ends with a frog invasion, during which he is showing his first colours.
After so many adventures, Darcy is really happy with her lot. So what if her mother doesn't wear a bra or her father doesn't use a deo? She've found herself and she does not have any reason to be ashamed of what she is now.
I loved this book from many points of view: the writing is entertaining and dynamic; the story is inspiring; there are many lessons learned about nature and relationship with peers and parents. Last but not least, I also liked the illustrations.
Recommended to curious children with a love for nature and ready for a reading adventure!
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Monday, August 8, 2016

Discovering Maurice Sendak

I must confess that I did not know too much about Maurice Sendak, besides his Jewish background and that he wrote Where the Wild Things Are, a book that I discovered and fell in love with as a young adult. I suppose I am not the only one, and Conversations with Maurice Sendak, a book edited by Peter C. Kunze makes justice to this author and illustrator. Without being an authorized biography, this collection of 12 interviews with and articles about him outlines his sensibilities, his hobbies and, more than anything, his deep sadness and nostalgy. 
The disadvantage of this format is that many details are repetitive. The advantage is that you are offered an overview of Sendak's activity and thoughts. The reader will discover, among others, that Sendak loved music, particularly opera and Mozart, and that he worked also for theater, opera or television. Music influenced him greatly, hence his opinions on illustrations that 'should have a sence of music and dance and are not something glued onto the page'. He was also an avid literature reader, with Melville and Kleist on his inspirational list of authors.
More a self-made author than an educated one - 'studying is doing' - Sendak was a complex personality who contributed to the redefinition of the children illustrations and literature in general after WWII. In his opinion, reading must be a complete experience to children: 'I've seen children touch books, fondle books, smell books and it's all the reason in the world why books should be beautifully produced'. The ideas of his books is based on a different understanding on the relationship between childhood and adulthood: 'Children do live in a fantasy and reality, they move back and forth very easily in a way that we no longer remember'. However, writing should be just writing, not necessarily writing for children: '(...) I write books and I hope that they are books anybody can read'; 'I don't believe in people who consciously write for children'. 
Drawing and writing are for him two distinct activities, that may complemelt each other: 'I find myself writing things that I don't like to draw, as if I where two separate people'. 
This book is an inspiration to read more by Maurice Sendak, but also to think more seriously about children books and literature in general.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Deciphering the puzzle of The Cairo Affair

In  my opinion, a good spy novel is when at the end of the first half of the book everything is even more blurred than at the beginning and the truth, if any, is revealed only in the very last pages of the book.
The Cairo Affair is such an example. For me, it was a real page turner as I was more and more impatient to find out what was actually going on. But I had to wait another 100 of pages in order to discover it. A spy affair at the US embassy in Egypt, in the confused days of the "Arab Spring", that started during the Balkan wars and continued with the killing of an American diplomat in Budapest. It is an intricated game of lies, denial and hidden truths, when the movement to topple the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi meets the Serbian mafia. Impressively, the author is very familiar with many details of both the Balkans and the Arab turmoils, as for instance the fact that pro-democracy activists in Egypt used the example of the young anti-Milosevic Otpor militants from Serbia. The entire political and social context is accurate, which gives more authenticity to the fiction story as such. 
A merit of the book is that avoids the temptation of using conspiracy theories and other kitsch fireworks that many spy and thriller authors use just to win easily an audience. Rather the opposite, it shows the normal weaknesses of the American power and of intelligence in general. In the words of the CIA chief station in Cairo - in the book -:"Intelligence is a pseudoscience, like astrology. Sometimes the outcome seems to prove that your methods and techniques are infallible. Other times, it proves the exact opposite".
However, I found some flaws , especially when it comes to the character of Sophie Kohl, the one who actually puts into movement the all intelligence row and who, innocently sold American secrets in order to save the skin of her husband for a dark episode from the times of the Balkan wars. She is portrayed as the perfect victim for such a blackmail - in fact, the secrets were sold to the Egyptians and leaked to Gaddafi, not to the Serbians, as she assumed - but sometimes she behave too stupidly that her husband would have pass the basic security clearance. For instance, the meeting between Sophie and Zara Balasevic, her Serbian handler, in Cairo, was quite pathetic and does not have anything to do with intelligence, although can offer a couple of explanations for the treason.
In the writing style category, the action descriptions are very good, with the right choice of words to create both suspense, bringing the reader as part of the action.
As for now, I am looking forward to read more books by this interesting author.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Girls wanna catch ghosts

Melody is 27, in love with superheroes and Sicilian sweets - who isn't ? - still looking for her own hero and ready to start her new life. But there is something else that makes Melody so special: she can see and communicate with ghosts. Maybe is not such a big deal, because both her mother and grandmother are into such a business, turning a natural gift into a daily work. Not your 9 to 5 idea of work, isn't it?
I am not at all into ghost books or supernatural hippy episodes, but this book was just too funny for not finishing it. In fact, the ghosts business goes along so well that you can end up by accepting that, maybe this is quite  a good source of humourous inspiration. In fact, I loved so much Melody's determination to fix her life that even a ghostbusting agency sounds good for a successful beginning. On the other hand, I did not approve the magic ball obsessive questioning, for even very basic decisions. Melody, are you an independent woman or what?
The book promises to be part of a longer series covering Melody's adventures, and this would be a good decision, as after finishing the book I had the feeling that I really want to follow she and her Scooby Doo kind of team for another book. And maybe another book too.
Her first assignment that she will successful finish, was of 'piecing together the history of a family fractured by jealousy and lies', and I liked the idea a lot too. However, I was a bit disappointed that this mystery part was quite slow down and not necessarily the focus of the story. Actually, in the middle of the book, when I usually expect more tension and excitement to keep me go until the end, I felt that the stories part of the bigger story were just getting lost in different directions: Melody's search for love with a handsome, more bitter than sweet local journalist while fighting the business competition of her ex-, also into the psy business; making light into the mystery ghosts' story and the efforts of setting up the business project. In fact, I accepted the ghosts' story because I love mysteries, regardless of the real nature and physical consistency of the protagonists and thus, I was waiting much more focus on this part of the story. 
Still, finding the truth of a long-hidden murder that brought more family tragedies and suffering is mission accomplished and Melody Bittersweet can congratulate herself for her first success. To be continued..
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review