Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Captivating Middle-Grade Novel: The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

Based on real facts that took place in the 19th century, The Elephant Thief is also a beautiful story of friendship between the elephant Maharajah and the pickpocket Danny. From the slums of Edinburgh until Manchester, he will be part of a race against all odds to save a menagerie and gentlemen's honour. 
Slow paced yet not missing adventures and page turning events, this middle grade book has an elaborated plot which reminds a bit of the Dickensian novels about children from unpriviledged environment, faced from an early age with the hardship of outlaw adulthood. The writing is simple, accessible for the mindset and reading habits of a child outlining though creating an easy to grasp authentic historical ambiance. 
There is a big array of characters appearing more or less suddently in this story, often with doubtful intentions and problematic character features. The human mosaique as portrayed in The Elephant Thief is really diverse and complex and a challenge for a mid-grade child although it offers a good knowledge about the human diversity in itself, regardless of the historical location of the story. Personally, I've learn a lot about human nature while reading at the same age the novels of Balzac and Dickens, both outstanding artists of humanity with all its lows and highs. 
In addition to the human story, there is another part of the story which is highly sensitive and well done from the literary point of view: the wordless communication between Danny and the elephant Maharajah and the deep connection built in a relatively short time between the two of them. 
Although not the audience target of this book, I've found it highly enjoyable and the smart writing makes it a good reading choice for everyone. The way in which historical facts were researched and used further for creating a good story that stands the test of time is an example of how far you can go when you do your historical homeworks while filling the episode with quality writing.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Runaway Amish Girl Memoir

I am personally fascinated by Mennonite/Amish stories, as I am curious about the possibilities of surviving as a very recluse community in a world which is very fast moving forward. As the members of the communities themselves are closed and without access to modern tools - Internet, edition houses - to share their stories, the information about everyday life are predominantly coming from people that leaved the fold. 
Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape, by Emma Gingerich is such a story. Growing up in what she described as the 'group of the least modern and uneducated Amish people on the planet' - the Swartzentruber Amish a group created following a split from the mainstream at the beginning of the 20th century - she decided to run away from her Missouri community finding her own path as an educated, modern free woman. Speaking mostly a local German dialect, with a very restricted use of technology use and refusing to accept hot water or plumbing into the house, the Swartzentrubers (named after a religious leader) look indeed very reclused and my later documentation about them outlines their insularity among other Amish groups that they refuse to mix or inter-marry with. What for me was extremely awkward was the description of some of their dating habits sleeping and hugging together in a bed while fully clothed. 
Once away, Emma is having a lot of challenges understanding the modern world, not only from the technological point of view, but also in understanding human relationships and intentions. Some of her tragic episodes reminded me of accounts shared by Leah Vincent in her excellent memoir Cut Me Loose, of leaving the strictly religious Jewish life. The transition is never easy and time will only help to alleviate the pains of the cultural shock. 
The story in itself has a certain anthropological and cultural value but when it comes to the literary aspects, the shortcomings are evident and bothering sometimes. The style is linear and lacks any literary appeal, mostly following the memory lane, without too many serious personal insights from the author. The story is simple, predictable and self-focused, which makes it into a healing confession but with a very limited literary value.
My interest for reliable interesting reliable Amish stories will continue, as it helps to put many things into the right cultural and history of religions' perspective. 

Rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Who is on Your Dinner List?

The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle is the second book in less than one week that I wish I liked, give it 5 star and heartly recommend to other people. The writing is gentle, emotional and connecting the dots between characters, but I couldn't heart the idea itself - of bringing together at a birthday dinner dead and alive people, among them Audrey Hepburn.
The love story between Tobias and Sabrina - the main character at whose birthday party the people are invited to - although a typical young relationship, with all the innocence given by age - is by far one of the most beautiful I've read lately. Sabrina's struggle to reconciliate with her now dead father who left her when she was a little girl is also worth a literary mention. The writing flows and the intertwinning of the temporal streams iswell-braided. 
However, as much as I tried, every couple of pages at a time, I couldn't stand the idea. It was not because I might not like magic realism or because my imagination is limited. All the time, I felt that it is such a good story told in the completely wrong context. Therefore, I was left with the strong impressions about character looking for connection that ended up in a spiritist-kind of session. I also wished that Audrey Hepburn was not on the list - among the possible guests, there was also Plato - only because it become such a omnipresent character, with all its kitschy downsides of such an overuse and often abuse of the brand. 
I would definitely read something else by Rebecca Serle as I was won over by her writing style. However, I wish for myself there is a different spin of the story. 


Rating: 2 stars

Friday, November 30, 2018

Feeling as a Literary Outsider

I rarely feel completely as an outsider in the literary world. I love a good story regardless the topic - with only one exception, the vampire stories - and I always appreciate a skillful storyteller. I am not too much inclined to taste the supernatural stories, with djinnis and other strange mythical creatures but a strongly emotional story like Carrie, by Stephen King is for me a fundamental read in terms of literary achievements. In the last years I've almost devoured many of Stephen King's books, one of my latest favorite being Mr. Mercedes. It is almost not impossible not to learn something from his books that might help improving the writing skills, regardless how far you are on the way to achieve as a published or not-yet published writer. As just a reader, you are entering a world of suspense, surprises and where good and evil are often notions empty of any moral value. I am far from reading all his books, but at least most of those I've had the chance to read were a good lesson in how to create a very suspensful plot, almost always with a very surprising ending - rarely a happy one.
The Outsider was published this year and I decided to start reading it without a previous research. After all, it is the King who wrote it and regardless the topic, it might be something interesting about it. For over 50 pages though, I've felt that the writer is actually playing with his charming position as a literary star and is slowly slowly bringing the story in. He can do that because after all, you know something is waiting for you, regardless after how many pages.
Personally, I have nothing to say against this book: complex plot, surprising page turning episodes and a lot of suspense surrounding some hard to describe crimes committed against children in a deep American town. Although the perpetrators are obvious, yet their alibis are strong and their innocence is also easy to prove. The answer is belonging to the supernatural register and therefore, this is the very moment when I am usually leaving as a faithful reader. There is nothing kitsch about the explanation and the urban myth is smoothly introduced into the narrative, but once the revelation is brought to light, little by little, there is nothing to expect further. I personally lost any interest and after over 300 pages, I think I was having enough of moving in circle over and over again only for waiting for the final - predictable revelation.
That's all about this book. I wish I did read a bit more about what it is about. The fault is all mine.

Rating: 2 stars  




Thursday, November 29, 2018

Exploring Germany's Booktown


This year was not blessed with too many bookish travels, as most of my travels were rather focused on culture and travel, but without a clear touch on the local bookstores (there are still some good weeks left, so many I will achieve something meanwhile). One of the most memorable bookish adventures was a visit to a very bizarre destination: Waldsdorf-Wündsdorf. A bunker city where over 40,000 soldiers of the Red Army were living until 1994, it also has a cultural character, and not only for the historical traces of the old times.


This relatively modest city both by look and by size was the first German city to be declared 'city of books' or 'booktown'. The project of awarding such titles to cities all over the world was started back in 1962, by Richard Booth from Wales. that created such a city in 1962, in Hay-on-Wye. The condition is to create a coherent complex of cultural locations, antique books stores and restaurants.


And Wünsdorf is a place where the cultural offer is generously shared. Besides tons of old books, mostly in German and from the time of the former Communist Germany, there are also plenty of cultural locations where book readings or other cultural events are taking place. With rows of books from the floor to the ceiling, the visitors are invited to take a seat, check the offer of books, take one or two and eventually leave the amount in a piggy bank. Book readers should always be trusted, isn't it?


Although this time I didn't take any book, spending so much time surrounded by books is always a good time. With so many open spaces ready to host authors and their works, I would actually love to come back at least once soon to check the local cultural vibe as well. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Story of the American Panda

I am glad that more and more books are focused on the Asian/Chinese, but also Vietnamese - American identity and the challenges to tradition. Asian societies are very traditional and especially for the first generation living abroad for various reasons - mostly for political reasons - the pressure on their, eventually, American-born children is enormous. The children should be respectful towards their parents while getting the best education - doctors and lawyers mostly - and marrying another successful-educated child - doctor and lawyer mostly - wthin the tribe.
The American Panda by Gloria Chao tells the story of the very smart Mei who with 17 she joined MIT, in preparation of a medical school program, but who little by little gets the strength to tell her parents that she has a path to follow and a life to live. A life that she wants to - finally- chose by herself. Her adventures into getting control of her own life are sometimes hilarious, sometimes too childish for my taste, but what's important is the genesis of her strength.
She is not completely on her own though as she has the example of her brother, Xing, cut off from the family already 4 years before, because he refused to comply. From a naive, dominated by her authoriarian mother, Panda-like girl, Mei is little by little getting out of the family chains and start thinking completely by herself. Thereatened to be cut off by the family, she has at least her brother. 
The making off of Mei's character strength is for me one of the most interesting part of the book and really enjoyed the literary achievement. Mei's naivity and her childish episodes were not my favorites but it makes sense for her way of being, although sometimes they were stupid enough to not concur with her apparently high intelligence. But after all, you can be intelligent and still lack a basic knowledge of how the world is and functions. 
If you are interested in stories about Asian-American identity, with a touch of YA, this book is a good and easy way to start the exploration. 

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Windfall, by Diksha Basu - About the Indian New Money

In the line of the Singapore-based trilogy by Kevin Kwan, Windfall, by Diksha Basu delves into the adventures of an Indian family into new money. After a life of hard work, Jha family is overwhelmed by the chance of starting anew, in a new posh neighbourhood, where they can order a sofa from Japan with Swarovski crystals - not so comfy for your back - and fly business to visit their son which is theoretically study for an MBA in Ithaca - not Cornell. 
The Jhas are not completely 'new money' type - that kind of people who are so overwhelmed by their success although they can hardly can write and read. They are middle class and belonged to a knit-tighted - maybe too much - 'normal' Delhi neighbourhood. They are not turning their back to their former neighbours and friends - although clumsly doing their best to come along to their new acquaintances from the posh areas, so extravagant that they ordered to a painter to make a copy of the Sixtine Chapel - men dressed though - for their living room's ceiling.
The contrasts are hilarious when it comes both to the characters and the situations. It involves also some good for nothing sons, perhaps also the victims of too much wellbeing and money to reach at least for two generations, but also a realistic reflection on the place and role of the women, regardless of the financial stability of their family and success of their husbands. Did money changed the traditional society? It rather only challenges the status for a while, but changes are still at least one generation away.
Although the story is well told, I felt more than once that it was quite predictable and without any page-turning events. A slow yet reflective read, about a world on the move, but changing more slowly than the way in which money is changing hands. 

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, October 19, 2018

Ali Smith's Seasons: Autumn

It is the late autumn of life for Daniel Gluck and the autumn of reason for England. 
A former refugee child from Germany who survived the war while on a boarding school in England, now a bit over 100 he is deeply delved into his sleep before the big sleep. A film of sensations and figures and stories are running in the front of his closed eyes.
His former child neighbour, Elisabeth Demand, is the only one visiting him. Every day, she reads him from her books she carries with, once from The Brave New World. She also remembers various episodes of the past, especially how her talks with Gluck, once familiar with the rebel artists of the 1960s-1970s, influenced her professional choices.
Torned between past and future, our projections and memories of the memories, we often - if not always - experience the human imprecision of the moment. Our memories are shaped by others, the media impact and context and our subjective personal histories. We may forget names but we keep in mind encounters, or the other way round. Memory in Autumn reminds of one of the well elaborated collages of the pop artists mentioned in the book. Highly selective, random, unfair and a matter of very personal choice after all. What we actually experience as 'present' is the vital outburst of the second, we are rarely fully aware about.
The book is taking place on different temporal layers, which may intertwin, contradict each other or simply go on parallel lanes. Although the story in itself is minimal, and there are maybe too many details of stories wasted into disparate allusions (like the Brexit suggestions which are welcomed for creating the context but not always in my opinion in the right narrative place; I've liked the strong sarcasm of this quote though: 'But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running of the side of a cliff), I've found the temporal exploration both fascinating and revealing. It raises questions about memory and what it is made of, and especially how. 
I'm curious to explore the other writings by Ali Smith, and Winter is already waiting on my shelf. 

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

History in the Making Explained to Children

'I can't help but think how much easier it is to live in one place your whole life. I will never know that feeling'.
Zomorod is a curious teen from Iran, that moved to America with his parents, after her father received a work offer in the oil industry. We are in the end of the 1970s, without social media, smart phones and selfies and the communication between teens is completely different. She has to leave one place for another, leaving behind friendhips, school mates and teachers. Plus, with a name hard to pronounce and his parents hardly speaking any English the integration is even more difficult. Plus: 'Speaking Persian in America is like speaking a super-secret language that no one understands'. Teenagers all over the world want to be part of something, of a community and not to be outrageously different. It's time for Zomorod to make a change: from now on, she will be Cindy, she will go to the usual events American teens go, including summer camps, she is even getting a job. I've found very interesting how New York Times bestseller author Firoozeh Dumas created the main character, as a curious child learning through comparisons with the world of adults.
Meanwhile, the situation in Iran is going through dramatic changes and his father lost his job. They are living on savings and planning to return back home, despite the rapid pace of Islamization the open minded Persian society is going through. Although Zomorod is assumedly living in an area of middle-class Americans, the fact that a 12 years old is asked repeatedly about the situation in Iran, as she is a political analyst sounds a bit forced and unrealistic to me. The book is supposed to have a serious historical content, to be further used for discussions about Iran and other cultures, but more than once I've found this part a bit exaggerated, from the teenagers' point of view.
It Ain't So Awful, Falafel is a slow paced, insightful mid-grade novel appealing to curious children, open to learn about cultures, trying to adapt to new cultures while building their strong identity based on their full acknowledgment of their roots and traditions. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Fine Psychological Thriller: The Chalk Man, by C.J.Tudor

Everything started as a children's game: creating a secret language by drawing chalk man of different colours and sizes, with meanings familiar only to the 4-member of the 12-year old gang. Each has a special colour to use. Life in the small English town of Anderbury isn't spectacular: everyone knows everyone, what they do, where and especially with whom. 
But it seems that the closer the community the harder to understand what really happens sometimes. Especially when young people die or are killed, a reverend is beaten to near death. Almost three decades later, the mystery remains and some members of the old gang would love to find the truth. Each of them has his or her own version of truth, and more than one assumptions. Are those assumptions a step forward to the truth or just an unreliable variant of the truth?
'There are some things in life you can alter - your weight, your appearance, even your name - but there are others that wishing and trying and working hard can never make any difference. Those things are the ones that shape us. Not the things we can change, but the ones we can't'. There are no spiritual mysteries, including in what it is assumed to be the House of Gd - but in this book assumptions are approximations, never leading to the truth - in The Chalk Man. The plot and the development of the characters are so carefully and finelly built that one can rarely predict what to expect. Who is really the criminal? Why the crime was committed? In a way, more than once the story reminded me of Twin Peaks: twisted minds, bizarre characters, meteoric presences whose meaning cannot be understood not even after the 10th sight. 
I've read some reviews where there were complains that the plot is very slow paced but I think that instead of a car-racing development, C.J.Tudor rather built a puzzle made of very small pieces, one by one. The fact that after the book is over one might think a bit more if it really grasped what is the final verdict is an excellent example in this respect. 
I can only be very curious about the author's next book. If for the debut the writing is so elaborated and entincing I allow myself to expect only good bookish things. 

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, October 12, 2018

How to Read More...and More...and More

Only a couple of months left from 2018, and my Goodreads challenge is going smoothly, although I am a couple of books behind the schedule. Until now, it was a busy year, with many professional and personal challenges, with a lot of planning and new assignments in sight, but also beautiful bookish discoveries that I am happy I have the chance to share it on my blog.
However, you may ask, how it is possible to juggle so many balls in the everyday life and still have time to read? Actually, for years, I regularly spent at least one hour reading, in more than one languages, every day. Meanwhile, I had to take care of two kids, mostly on my own, have jobs, a social life, personal friendships and many many interesting trips all over the world. How can this be done?
First and foremost, I am an avid reader from a very early age. I've learned to read only when I went to school, but books were my companion and my background all my life. I've spent my childhood in a house full of books - with four rooms full of books and the kitchen too. My bookish education included French classics like Balzac and Proust, classical of world literature like Dickens, Galsworthy, Tolstoi, Dostoievski and Pushkin - and a lot of crap Russian/Soviet literature as well - Kafka and Thomas Mann. To be perfectly honest, until around 17 years old, I was able to fluently talk literature with people that used to do literature for a living. So, one of the reasons why I am reading so much every year - at least 250 books, plus various academic articles - is because I am used to. Reading so much during times created special abilities and skills that are just part of my way of being as eating.
With a very busy schedule every day, which often involves commuting and children management, how I can find time to read though? As my life was never easy in time of schedule, I've developped special time management skills and methods, and this helps me a lot to create small islands of reading paradise in my life. This involves getting out of bed a bit early in order to have my long coffee and at least 30 minutes of reading, but also to use the best of my time for learning and, obviously, reading something too. For instance, while waiting for my train, or in the metro. This is usually how I am filling in my waiting time - either at the doctor's office, at the metro, or in the park. 
But books need time and a special mood to read, and sometimes you are just not in the mood for reading a special type of - heavy, thoughtful - books. It is a rightful question which makes sense. During time, my interests splitted between different literary styles and approaches, domains and authors. Actually, except vampire books, I am open to any kind of literature and literary approaches. Therefore, when I am not in the mood for something, I only have to browse my Kindle or library to find what I am looking for. Today, it can be that I want to read some poetry and a self-help book, but tomorrow it is a classical literature giant that I am into. A children book or an YA novel might follow, but also a graphic novel. I am very well into memoirs, but also political science and economics book. And I don't feel guilty for reading more than a book at once. 
What is important, is that you find your own pace and your bookish styles. After all, you have to read as much as you want and when you are not in the mood for, find a different way to enjoy your time. And, the kind of book that you enjoy reading, as it brings you more knowledge and beauty into your life.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

'The Magnificent Esme Wells'

'(...) I knew who Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen were long before we met them, men who made their own way, like my father. Jews who stood up for themselves, refused to be peddlers, pushed back against the world that wanted to hold them down'. 
Esme Wells is magnificent by its simplicity and realism. There is nothing to romanticize when it comes to the Las Vegas of the 1940s. Las Vegas itself is a wild place where money are exchange and outbreakers are punished, especially those among your 'own people'. They were wrong because did not understand the chances offered, cheated their peers and tried to run away with money. 
It is a sense of emergency among the male characters of this book. They run against time, they are always out of resources and fearful that things will change. Which happens very often. Killing is the last and easiest resort. You can be either one of the big ones, like Bugsy Siegel or Meyer Lansky, or a small pawn, like Esme's father, Ike, who always dreamed to build a future for him and his sad family. But Ike is born a 'luft Mensch' and will die one, killed because he played with dirty money. He wanted to make it his own. 
Esme is telling the story of her family which happens to intervow with the history of Las Vegas and Hollywood, with the Jews who refused to be peddlers trying to build their own way in the wild part of America. With back and forth down the memory lane, she is a quiet witness of all the changes as well as to the broken destiny of her parents. Her mother always wished to be an artist but ended up as a second raw dancer, and her father just a tool used for the other people businesses and supposed to never challenge his role. 
But Esme, herself caught up in the lures of bad boys and glittering dances in the Las Vegas casinos, is more than a witness of her times. She is a woman which compared to her mother, was strong enough to leave everything behind, including her father and rich much older lover. She, she can start a future of her own. She is magnificent.
The book is well researched but created autonomous characters, which although historically less relevant than the big bad bosses, offered to the author of freedom of creation. 


Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the published in exchange for an honest review 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Innovative Writing: 'Her Body&Other Parties', by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body&Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is a collection of complex explorations of bodies and sexual journeys. The stories are populated with wild desires, uninhibited acts and courageous body experiments, that are elevated to the level of art and vital source of inspiration. It is the act vividly described through the sights and words enhancing and challenging the physicallity of the body-focused experience/experiment.
And it is more than that for the literary adventures. The stories are surrounded by a hallo of imagination and fantasy, mind projections of the body in the world of magical thinking. Such layers of extra-experience augment and beautify the physical experience. It adds to the writing an extraordinary strength and potential, which diversifies the details of the sensual experiences. 
This complexity of the writing and different literary approaches within the same short story were for me the most interesting part of the reading. I may reckon that more than once I've  felt that the sexual explorations in themselves were not unique or mind blowing. 
The literary approaches are and promise a special unique voice. It also saves at a great extent the world of desires which is relatively worn out and risks by intensive use to end up as a simple casual encounters. The brilliance of the innovative style saved it.


Rating: 3.5 stars


Why 'We Should All Be Feminists'

'The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizingh how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn't have the weight of gender expectations'.
A short essay based on a TED-Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists is a simple yet insightful explanation why the current gender attribution in life, social assignments and professional projections is wrong. The 'We' from the title means that me, and you, and your neighbour and your son all of us, we need to challenge those narrow restrictive roles because are simply obsolete. The mindsets persist through, perpetuaded through the daily cultural and educational stereotypes. 'A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much'
'I am trying to unlearn many lessons of gender I internalized while growing up. But I sometimes still feel vulnerable in the face of gender expectations'. More than in other historical moment, we have more freedom to define ourselves. 'Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture'. 
However, very often the gender gap is the result of educational patterns. 'If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporation, it starts to seem ''natural'' that only men should be heads of corporations'. 'We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don't teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or though which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons'. 
Regardless how advanced and progressive one might consider him or herself, assuming a challenging positive role in the gender determination process means going through an inner process. We need not only think repeatedly about it, but being strong enough to assume the role and become a voice of change yourself. 
'My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says. ''Yes, there's a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do it better''. Which means a definition in progress, whose content is made by every man and woman who is challenging the traditional role setting. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a 'Happy African Feminist Who Does not Hate Men And Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels For Herself and Not For Men'. What Feminist are you?
Many of the ideas outlined in the essay need definitely more development and focus, and I would have to follow-up with other writings by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but maybe it is up to each and every one of us to write our own feminist manifesto(es).


Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review: 'Goodbye, Vitamin'

In the style of Jami Attenberg's All Grown Up, Good bye, Vitamin features the voice of Ruth, in his early '30s and never coming to age. 
Moved temporarily with her mother to stay with her as her father, an university teacher, is showing the first signs of Alzheimer's, never going over of the cruelty of being left by her boyfriend, who naturally breaking up in the day they were supposed to move together, with no career plans, Ruth is observing. Anchored in the present and haunted by the past, she is trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle which is the life of her parents. Through their story, she seems to start discovering what adults are all about and how they cope with main life decisions and betrayals. 
Unfairly and for obvious marketing reasons, the book was often described as 'humorous'. I would rather say it is an ironic pamphlet about never growing up, confused ages and not assuming responsibility. Ruth is simple, not judgemental, happy to have friends but doing nothing against existential inertia. She is an interesting character of our ages, having a bit of everything but actually nothing of her own. 
The book is written in a diary format, with often divagations to the past. It includes short notes of the diary of her ailing father, ironically, with referenecs to her early childhood, the first existential questions and the mispronunciation of words. Ironical, because the father himself is entering a stage where not only the short-term memory is disappearing, but also the capacity of remembering some words and their meaning. 
Overall, Goodbye, Vitamin is a subtle meditation about aging in our times, obsession with healthiness that couldn't predict our fate though. Personally, I don't like characters like Ruth in books and in real life, but the book is worth reading for its unique style and approach to modern life and its craziness. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, September 30, 2018

When Everything Fails, Backpack and Book That Ticket!

Tired of your 9 to 5 life? Not sure where your life is about to head? In need of a break from your current relationship? Looking to find your other half? Trying to escape an abusive relationship? Or freshly separated from the man you spent decades with?
For those and many more questions, the answer sounds very simple nowadays: get your passport, book that flight and run! Hopefully you have enough funds into your account or a job which allows you to work remotely. Doesn't matter your age, relationship status and mortgage situation. Take a break from the everyday chores and look for a beautiful island to soak under the sun sipping your coconut from your hammock. It is amazing how many books and memoirs are on the market lately encouraging wanderlust and taking risks far away from home and I (at least partially) support such mindset.
The hour after Lorraine discovered she is betrayed both but her husband and her best friend, she is leaving behind her quiet family life to embark on an adventure on a lifetime. It starts in Thailand and continues with a happily ever after. It doesn't matter that she was '(...) homeless, redundant and my marriage vows are void'. She flipped a new page of her life and I can only support such people, either in real or literary life. What matters is to be happy and purposeful, especially after living a lie for such a long time. 
The author of The Backpacking Housewife, Janice Horton is a traveller and travel writer herself, therefore many of the descriptions of places in the book sound authentic and based on her own inspiration. Targeting mid-aged women, in a difficult personal situation, travel looks like the proper answer to overcoming a complicated time. Especially if you are looking for a purpose and your account is fat enough to help you finally make your dreams come true.

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

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Desperate Search for The One

I am coming from a culture obsessed about matching, finding the right one, the one and only soul mate meant for me in the Heavenly Courts. Wouldn't it be so easy to find a marvelous mathematical - or other - solution which will just get that 'someone made for you, rather than leaving it to chance'?
The One, by John Marrs, was as hard to put down as my first encounter with this author a couple of months ago. Five people are followed through short, suspense-filled episodes, as they are discovering love following being matched via a scientific system Match Your DNA. Among them, the founder of this company, the success driven business woman Ellie. Their adventures finding and conquering the hearts of their matches are as weird as the idea in itself. Some of them are so strange to get match-trapped into getting inseminated with the sperm of a purposelly dead half, only because he was designated as such.
However, who would refuse the call of genetics when such an opportunity is offered? Nowadays, we are more than never potential victims of algorithms, scientific illusions of comfort and system aimed at being our life easier because a certain projection created that possibility. Playing Gd is easier than never but the results may still be the random choice of feelings or chemistry. Which no DNA-related match can't replace. Would it have been a different fate for each of the five matches if not a hack into the system have altered the results? 
There are twists and changes of situations - and sometimes of minds too - on every pages, and Marrs succeeded in The One to build a great story of hope and deceit, with a lot of thriller and mystery outlines and surprising endings. You can't predict where everything is going to lead and this makes this book a perfect match for any lover of good books. 

Rating: 5 stars

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Story of a Convenience Store Woman

In his recent introduction to the Penguin Book of Japanese Short Fiction, Haruki Murakami openly declared his lack of interest in the so-called 'I stories', a very popular section of the contemporary Japanese literature. 
However, for someone who is not living in Japan but interested in the literary phenomenon, among other things, such approaches reveals interesting aspects about the inhabitants of this country, the intellectual reaction to everyday social facts and cultural artifacts. 
The 36-year old Keiko Furukura is happily enjoying her work at a convenience store. First a part-time job she started during her university studies, it turned into a full time professional assignment. She doesn't want more than that and the mechanical behavior learned through her practice in the store are a personal staple nowadays. She has security and comfort and relies on her close family to offer explanations about why she is, after all, still in the same job for over a decade and happy with it. Why, for instance, she is happy being unmarried and without any history of personal intimacy, and not interested in romantic relationships. She always was 'strange', she confessed, and her lack of normality is nowadays mostly reflected through the open disaproval  of her next to kin.
In a subtle way, Sayaka Murata openly put into question the normality in the Japanese society, the ways in which the projections and expectations affects the personal perception on others and self-perception of individuals not necessarily conform to this view. Keiko has a stable job and is successfully conforming to what is expected from her at work, but her personal life is not, therefore  she is considered a falure. 
The social pressure means full conformity, and even she is not doing anything, trying to be as anonymous as possible, the society at large doesn't accept her. There is no place for half-ways. 
Although Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is slow-paced, told in a very introspective way which is not always equally interesting, the social landscape it is carefully painted has the strength of a stroke. It asks the reader to think and reconsider the previous thoughts about women in Japan, especially single women which do enjoy their mechanical professional life in a convenience store (the author herself is working as one of them).


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

Saturday, September 22, 2018

'Things Are What You Make of Them'

Either you are a creative writer or a creative business owner, inspiration and support are something that you need regularly. You need it because once in a while, more often than you've expected, things are going wrong, or not how you expected them to turn out. 
Personally, I can't have enough of such books, explaining the basic principles of a creative everyday life, over and over again. Sometimes, you need confirmation that the right mindset is on, or just that you have to finally make that change.
Things are What You Make of Them. Life Advice for Creatives, by Adam J. Kurtz is a welcomed addition to my collection of such inspirational books. If you are already a couple of miles away from the start, do not expect too much novelty, but otherwise, there are some daily shoots that you need because life is not looking always as you planned to be.
My favorite part of this book has to do with the way to approach failure. Instead of considering it the end of the journey, the author's (and mine) advice is to take it as a challenge. Take your time, as much as you need, think about everything again, reconsider your options, and be ready to start again (preferably in a different way). Of course there are a lot of desperate moments of agony in between - especially if you have a mortgage to pay and children to feed - which are also real, but the mindset should be this and helps tremendously to reboot and keep working again - to your projects, to a specific job assignment. 
Although old on the market, there are still lots of things to keep in mind and wake your interest, therefore my recommendation for this book, preferably consumed in small installments, because you need to return to your projects to check if you are following the right path.
The graphical presentation of the book is special, but personally was not too much impressed with it. It is different than other books for creatives and sometimes it might just be enough.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, September 20, 2018

My Poetry Fix: The Nectar of Pain, by Najwa Zebian

'You see, in love you don't ge what you want
You get what you think you get'.
A poetry obsessive exploration of painful hearthbreak, The Nectar of Pain is a journey through the lows and highs of relationships with no future. Most of us been there at least once and going through the diversity of feelings ignited by such encounters is what a writer can offer as an alternative to being stuck in desperation. 
'Homes stay
But you walked away'
After all, a heartbreak may be just the acknowledging of the fact that nothing stays the same and saying - or being said - 'good bye' is all for the good. It's what saved your self from being completely obligerated, changed, transfigured, desfigurated, destroyed by someone else's intrusion.
Feelings are often projections of our own wishes and expectations, hopes and dreams. Feelings are delicate butterflies and we suffer, but understanding what are we going through and how to use this experience as a way to know ourselves and the human world in general is what poetry can do. There are many poems in this book which simply helps you better see and understand a full range of feelings that heartbreak tends to obliterate. At first, there is only suffering and that feeling that your heart really broke. But hearts are strong muscles though that can overcome bigger life shocks. Hence, the name of the book The Nectar of Pain, as it has to do with that secret pleasant feeling at the end of a heartbreak where you are far beyond the suffering, a new person, ready for more, better, different. 
Besides being a trustworthy companion through hearthbreaks, The Nectar of Pain reveals hidden meanings and different, unique interpretations and a hopeful, yet realistic approach on dramatic life events. Maybe after you go through half of the book you may think it is a bit too much and there are only different variants of the same thing, but you don't have to read this book in one sitting. Take your time, one heartbreak to heal at a time. 

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

Where is Wolfsburg?

Jan loves Lina and for love he relocates from the bubbling Berlin to Wolfsburg. City of wolves, or what? Best known among the locals as 'Volkswagen' City or 'Autostadt', Wolfsburg is less than two hours away from the new capital city, offering a mix of anonymous late 1960s architecture - not good - and a luxurious Autocity area and a very interesting Museum of Science designed by the famous architect Zaha Hadid. 
But the poor Jan, a freelancer artist of words, can hardly survive here, is often depressed during the long time when his girlfriend is at work, at a hospice. This is what the book is all about: coping with deep boredom in Wolfsburg. Meanwhile, Jan is often getting drunk, befriending a fireman, buying himself a car from a guy in love with Nana Mouskouri's music. 
As a resident in Germany for 10 years and counting, I often noticed the supreme disgust of 'city people' when I mention some obscure countryside place when I am spending my weekend. Not impressed or deterred, I keep going on with my Germany off the beaten track agenda and happy with the discoveries. But the feeling that big cities with recognizable names - like Munich, Cologne, Berlin (not too many in fact) - are worth, and the rest - thousand of them - not, is real and Wolfsburg! breath this mindset. 
Which is a pitty because although the book is well written and with nice language turns and plays - which does a lot of good to my German -, the plot doesn't exist, the characters are self-sufficient, that translates as completely not interesting, there are hilarious episodes but the book in its entirety is a book about nothing. The nothing is having a name: Wolfsburg! I bet that there are worse places to live in Germany and anywhere else, but still they can make it into a good story. This one is really missing the story point and I can only be sorry for it because there is not bad literary material.
Although I am not so knowledgeable in matters about contemporary German literature - work in process - I noticed a relative big gap between the entertainment books - well written but lacking completely any story point - and the very high end which features novels that are really impressive both in terms of language, plot construction and trendmill of ideas. Wolfsburg! belongs to the first category and although I am grateful for the language lessons self-taught through reading while commuting, I may rather make an effort and take more time to make more acquaintances among the contemporary elitist literature. Search in process for the best German contemporary novels. 

Rating: 2 stars

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The American Age of Memoir

In opposition with the European literary mindset, in the USA you can write a memoir regardless your age and your professional and personal achievements. As long as you have a story to tell and you enjoy a certain notoriety in your profession, age doesn't matter. On the other side of the pond, you don't have to reach a very ripe age to share your story to the whole world.
Amy Poehler is a comedian, with a long list of roles, a professional partner of Tina Fey. Her Yes Please memoir tells her story as a woman, mother and comedian, through small energetic essays which cover both her personal life - from childhood on - and her encounters as comedian to famous politicians, music stars and actors. With a lot of humour and self-irony she makes you laugh and think and it is already enough for reading this book. 
Truth is that sometimes you may ask why exactly you need to read a specific encounter or not, as I didn't find all - or most of the - adventures necessarily relevant, but being famous sells and I bet there are people in the States who really consider it relevant. For us, Europeans, it may not, as the distribution and the roles are  mostly foreign to us - thanks Gd there is Netflix which bridges the trans-atlantic cultural misunderstanding gap. 
But justice to be done to the book, there are also interesting advices about career and women in show-biz, and some family inspiration. Enough to fill some columns in some women-oriented publication but not realized always why this should be a book, rather than a collection of essays. The writing flows too and if you want to fill your afternoon with some not-challenging, not-so-bad kind of writing, this is a wise way to use your time. 

Rating: 2 1/2 - 3 stars 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Mothers and Daughters of Halsey Street

In the Bed-Stuy Brooklyn's neighborhood, Penélope is haunted by the failures of her own art life and her parents' break up. By nature a rebel without a cause, she rather prefers the accidental relationships to the long-term commitment because afraid of the disappointment of being left behind. An only child, with both her mother and father loving her, she is looking for something that didn't have yet but it's too lost in her failures to look for.
Halsey Street uses the sociological reality and media-hype about gentrification in Brookyln and generational shifts, especially in the predominantly non-white neighborhoods to create a story which moves by its simplicity, natural, non-sentimental way of expressing feelings and the relatively simple plot. The small human stories within the story are circling around the need to belong, either to a group, country, neighbourhood or social category. Such an inclination lives within the deep hidden layers of our self, surviving all our attempts to 'normality'. 
We belong to a family, the racial and ethnic heritage of both our mother and father, that in addition instilled in us their wishes and failed dreams too.
Ralph, Penélope and Mireille are three particular destinies featured in this debut by Naima Coster, that may be some of the many residents of Bed-Stuy, children of children that once went to school hungry. If they were been to school at all. Themselves waiting for their sometimes first generation of American-born children to outperform personally and professionally. Such a pressure may get results but it can also create anything at all. Especially when their parents' dreams are breaking, like in the case of Ralph, whose music store, his greatest life achievement that fed his family for decades, become obsolte faced with the rabid competition of bio/eco stores. 
The estranged relationship between Penélope and her fugitive mother Mireille, that escaped the bubble of the American dream to quietly enjoy the solitude in her native Dominican Republic, is deeply cruel and one of the most dramatic moments of the plot. Very often, it is what happened when unfiltered raw feelings are left free. Often, it is just how life really is. 
The slow-paced stories told by the characters of Halsey Street require the attention of the reader for its genuine human simplicity and drama. Especially if you are interested in racial stories, this novel offers a direct literary approach, without subtelties or convoluted messages, just by using a natural art of storytelling. 
Maybe I stumbled upon this book and appreciated it as I was in the mood for a micro-society focus and in a different set of personal and literary circumstances I would have been hesitant to finish it. However, I am glad I did, as it open up the window to a special writing style and approach.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, September 16, 2018

YA Book Review: Words on Bathroom Walls, by Julia Walton

''I really didn't want to be crazy. Nobody wants to be crazy, but now that I know I know what's happening to be, now that I understand what's going on in my head, I don't want to think about what it means to know you're crazy. To know that your family knows you're crazy'. 
Adam was a boy entering his teens years, when after some medical checking was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although it usually manifests later in life, he was unlucky enough to show signs and an fast progress which require proper medication. He has a supportive mother and step-father on his side, but his friends left him and had to change schools. In his new (Catholic) environment, he is slowly making new friends, while on medication with a new drug, which limits the period when he is hallucinating. But once the drug administration diminishes, he is haunted again and risks to loose his newly acquired friends and girlfriend. 
Written as a diary where he is observing the effects on the drug, to replace the talking therapy during which he refuses to talk, the book is a fine investigation about what does it mean of being haunted by your own mind. 
I personally think it is a very sensitive, yet welcomed discussion. Living with someone with a mental disease is hard and needs time to accept a condition. For children, as pure and innocent as they are, abnormalities and strange behaviors are automatically rejected. Does education and understanding of various sides of the malady change this situation? Hardly, because sharing personal medical details is not always desired by the patient's family and explaining the different nuances of the malady - in Adam's case that compared to the Sandy Hook shooter he is not manifesting an aggressive form - is sometimes too much. 
'Cancer kid has the Make-A-Wish Foundation because Cancer kid will eventually die, and that's sad. Schizophrenia kid will also eventually die, but before he does, he will be overmedicated with a plethora of drugs, he will alienate everyone he's ever really cared about, and he will most likely wind up on the street, living with a cat that will eat him when he dies. That is also sad, but nobody gives him a wish because he isn't actively dying. It is abundantly clear that we only care about such people who are dying tragic, time-sensitive-deaths'.
It is a sad reality that Julia Walton reveals beautifully, through a life story that moves you to tears. The simplicity of the story touches both teens and adults, both with a resonsibility in creating a mindset which rejects an individual, especially a child, with a mental disability.
Did you ever happen to observe how children or teens, but also adults react to someone - sometimes a homeless - person haunted by his own mind? They frequently make fun, laugh loudly, when not provoking themselves the poor being. Such books may help a better understanding of the everyday world of someone dealing with such a burden and at least open the gates of understanding and compassion. It may make things better for everyone.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, September 3, 2018

Blog Tour: Summer at Hollyhock House, by Cathy Bussey

Life hasn't been too exciting lately for Faith. At 26, she has a boyfriend that bores her to tears and a job which is not too demanding either. She dreams of taking some classes for learning gardening, but there is no time or encouragement on behalf of her life partner. 
After refusing her boyfriend's proposal, she decides to spend some time in the countryside, at her parents', catching up with her girlfriends. But she has a well-kept secret that no one knows and this secret has a name: Rik, which happens to also be around at the same time, after an absence of almost 9 years. 
Slow paced, brought to life by complex characters exchanging elaborate dialogues, Summer at Hollyhock House is a well-written summer or weekend story read, about taking decisions, questioning relationships and falling in love again. Most of the action is going back and forth down on the memory's lane, with Faith recalling the moments that lead to the dramatic break up with Rik and her long heartbreak thereafter.
Although the story follows a frequent scenario - the escape back to the childhood place, after a big disappointment, job vacancy or dramatic, mostly sentimental event taking place in the big city - this story is filled with attractive actions and likeable characters making the story pleasant to the reader. However, it is good writing you are filling with your afternoon at the beach or elsewhere and therefore it is worth reading it. A simple story, with a happy ending and a moderate course of events. No glamour but down-to-earth characters, likeable for their realistic description. After a start which did not promise anything surprising in terms of narrativel, slowly slowly I got into the story and couldn't put it down until it ended. It was mostly due to the writing and the lively dialogue between the characters.
The end is predictable too, but somehow one may need predictable stories which are not too often happening in real non-literary life.

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

Saturday, September 1, 2018

In the Heart of the Cold War: Gleisdreieck Berlin 1981

I wish I have more time to read graphic novels. Especially when it covers a topic I am well familiar with, the graphic illustration is a delight for both the eyes and the curious mind. Besides the classical children graphic novels, I am particularly interested in those with a political layer. As I noticed already in previous reviews, there are an important tool to create meaningful stories and bring near areas located far not only geographically, but from a while mentality standpoint. 
However, a more than basic knowledge about a topic is necessary. Gleisdreieck. Berlin 1981 is about a policeman infiltrated into the anarchists from West Berlin and a terrorist returning to his comrades from Syria. Their ways predictably intertwin. But a lot is requested to know about the topic so dramatically escalated in the last decade of the Cold War: the KGB-East German connection with the anarchists movements (ecologist/against nuclear plants/occupy-type of actions); the generous help from former Nazis hidden in Syria and other Middle Eastern corners to the RAF militants, both as a training basis and a safe haven, as well as for help when counterfeit papers are needed; the lack of neutrality of most of the actors involved in the pro-socialist movements in the capitalist Germany. 
With the dark background of the images - the architectural details deserve a thumb up, for the precision and sense of perspective - and the conflicted stories, the episodes of the novel unfold. Sometimes, you have a long succession of images, with only a couple of words at the end of the page. Enough to get into the ambiance of a place without thinking too much. You are just being drawn into the story and for a graphic novel it is a great achievement.  
An interesting historical episode from the everyday life of the West Berlin citizens in 1981. Some bank robberies, street fights, Molotov cocktails and former RAF comrades. An useful lecture for anyone interested in the visual and literary transpositions of the Cold War.
The novel was initially published in French, by Des ronds dans l'O. A playlist with contemporary 'revolutionary' hits is also provided.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, August 26, 2018

An African Thriller: Nairobi Heat by Mukoma wa Ngugi


Nairobi Heat is more than a simple thriller about an investigation taking place between USA and the African continent: is about coming home or rather longing for it, about tragic histories and pathetic human weakness and the relativity of good and evil.
Ishmael is in charge with discovering who is the blonde girl found murdered on the footsteps of the house of a famous Rwandan war hero. Following an anonymous call suggesting vaguely that the answer might be in Kenya, he is taking the first flight and starts a counterclock investigation. (Honestly, I doubt that bureaucracy is so weak in the States that you actually can convince anyone to pay the cost of a trip based only of a very unclear hint). What Ishmael will find there is enough for a lifetime: he fell in love, is always challenged to define his own identity as although Black himself he is obviously took for a mzungu - a white in local slang, is dangerously entering a spider web of corruption, crime and genocide guilt. Killing is a local sport, life does not count when even a little amount of money is involved. Good sensitive people are in fact with a black heart, individuals only looking to steal a little bit to survive. And survival is differently defined from a person to another. 
The thriller is following its program and so do the human stories behind the characters. The multiethnic and racial divide both in Africa and America are hunting Ishmael. In the USA, the fact that he was a 'black cop arresting black people' cost him his marriage, but in Africa, black people killed millions of other black people based on an assumption of theoretical race purity. When it comes to corruption, it does not matter what is the colour of the hands the money are exchanged through. 
At a great extent, the background - corruption, deep wounds left by the Rwandan genocide - is predictable and unpleasantly stereotypical and although the thriller story has some interesting twitches it is relatively secondary in my opinion. What I personally found interesting was the human dialogue and philosophical suggestions which are really a great topic of discussion about identity and human nature in general. 

Rating: 3 stars


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Trap of Tradition in Challenging Times: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Although my strong black-and-white opinion that a terrorist remains a terrorist and there is no excuse or mercy for the fanatics killing in the name of a religion, the ideas revealed through the characters and events in Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie added a lot of nuances and angles to the discussion. And this is what good books are all about: raising awareness and changing the direction of sight through words.
There are plenty of ideas and even more questions about Muslim identity and challenges of citizenship, assuming responsibility and the relative choice between good and evil. Should terrorists with double citizenship still considered citizens of a democracy they aimed at destroying through their acts? Is terrorism a kind of pandemic, which might be transmitted from father to son? What is the impact of terrorist activities on families? Should the members of the family considered accountable for the acts of their relatives? What loyalties should come first: family or state? 
The life of the main characters in the book - the siblings Isma, Parvaiz and Aneeka and the family of the 'Lone' Wolf the newly appointed Home State Secretary - are pending between tradition and modernity, adapting their cultural and religious habits to the democratic frame, rejecting democracy altogether or religion. Their interactions and discussions are displaying different shades and nuances of what are the challenges of Muslim identity, but personally I think that finding the right balance between tradition and modernity, particularly adapting traditional ways of dressing and behavior in the modern world is specific other religious identities too. This observation by Auntie Naseem in the book outlines those aspects: 'In my days, either you were the kind of girl who covered your head or you were the kind who wore makeup. Now everyone is every thing at the same time'.
The challenges facing the second or third generation of immigrants are relatively new, especially to the Muslim minorities in Europe, facing the interaction with modern, rationalist state settings only in the last decades. What does it take, for instance, for being the member of the British government as a Muslim? Should the person in charge with this position be completely against his religious background? (Ironically, Kamila Shamsie created a Home Secretary with Muslim background that will be later a political reality)
From the literary point of view though, I've found that despite the rich ideological and philosophical background, the characters are very often lost in the intricacies of the story. You may know their thoughts on certain issues of interest for the story, but the chance of knowing them as complex humans is very limited and they are very fast abandoned for switching of to another character which may be more or less raising similar issues.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is an important book for those interested in an in-depth knowledge of the last decade intellectual discussion about terrorism, civil liberties and religious and democratic identity. I would personally be interested to keep reading more books, especially literature, about those challenges.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Decadent Charm of Asia: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

'That's what happens in Shanghai. People say it's the size of a small country, but it is not, it's bigger, like a whole continent, with a heart as deep adn unknown as the forests of the Amazon and as vast and wild as the deserts of Africa. People come here like explorers, but soon they disappear; no one even hear them as they fade away, and no one remembers them'. 
Five characters: Phoebe, Gary, Justin, Yinghui and Walter Chao. One common treat: been born in Malaysia. One destination: Shanghai, the big city of all wonders and wanderings. Born more or less under a lucky star - mostly not - aiming to forget their past, hoping to build a new future. 
In Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw created a captivating story made of life stories. The destinies of each of the characters may intertwin at certain moments of the story and all of them might be blinded for a little while by the glamorous city lights. The characters are all tragic in their struggle with their past(s), illusion of recreating new lives and destinies, when in fact they might follow a well beaten destiny path. Even when they are on the top of their career and finally welcomed by the sophisticated Shanghainese elites , the characters are unable to escape their past, and the weight of the past will finally take its toll. Some might resist and turn this old obsession into a new creative project some might simply buy a one way ticket back to their country. 
Besides creating captivating human stories, Aw has a special art of creating ambiances, with a cinematic precision. Words are powerful enough to paint worlds and settle photography-like moments. 
The literary work is based upon various researches on studies not only about corruption in Malaysia and China, but also in issues related to foreign workers and other sociological aspects facing the New China and this part of Asia in general.
I've personally found hard to say good bye to the book. The story was becoming so real - that perfect mixture between an interesting socio-political part of the world made alive through an unique storytelling - that I was simply expecting to see more episodes from the lives of the characters. The way in which the book ends is not perfectly satisfactory - some endings were predictable, some not, but it is completely in sync with the specific behavior of the characters. 

Rating: 4 stars


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A Thriller with Algorithms: The Silicon Jungle by Shumeet Baluja

The Silicon Jungle predicted long before the humongous Cambridge Analytica scandal - when private data of Facebook users were passed over to a private 'consulting' company to model voting behavior and political prefernes - the trecherous game of the algorithms. When global companies like Google or Facebook are storing billions of details of their users, allowing tracing everything from their personal preferences to consuming behavior, all you need is a good algorithm to know way too much about any one of the users.
Stephen is an enthusiastic intern with a good brain that landed at the famous - for the logic of the book - Ubatoo (a mixture between Google and Facebook) in the Silicon Valley. In less than 3 months he will acknowledge not only the big advantage of having the world's most powerful database as a playground but also the temptation of intruding into private lives. Who would not do it, after all, as you can only by curious about what other people are doing and thinking and eating. There are moral limits to this curiosity, but mathematically speaking, you can build a model and put it on trial and take it as a purely theoretical approach and experiment. McLuhan's observation that information is power still operates in the new 2.0 environment, it only gets even more powerful.
Stephen will enter into trouble by pure naivity and too much trust into the power of algorithms when he offers himself to help an activist for civil liberties. But there is no something like neutrality and being helpful when it comes to information. Depending of whom is using it, it turns to be a weapon of mass and self-distruction. And a thriller story where special intelligence - but not as intelligent as a young intern with lots of data at his disposal - agencies and terrorists also some academics naively believing that they can change the world as we know it through theoretical speculations only.
The book has a heavy informative technical algorithms-based background but in most cases succeeded to introduce it into the narrative. Although the risk floated in the air, it was avoided the impression of reading an academic research on algorithm and data instead of a work of fiction. 
There are so many characters in this book, not few of them greedy - either for money, for information, fame or both - but skilfully, the author outlines the good and bad side which resides in everyone of us. Sometimes, you only need some special circumstances to leave one part or another outshine. 
Although the future doesn't look always rosy, especially for the Internet users, Baluja avoided to use a dramatic pessimistic tone about what the future has in stock. It doesn't make predictions or allows deep - to be or not to be kind of meditations about life and how transparent our lives are becoming. It is a story using the modern background but it still stays a story, not political or futuristic and even less intelligence projection. But it seems that it made big media stories like Cambridge Analytica seen it coming. A good use of literary skills, anyway. 

Rating: 4 stars 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Memories of a Diplomatic Wife: Vodka&Apple Juice, by Jay Martin

It happened often lately to have on my reading list memoirs written by wives of diplomats, sharing their impressions, frustrations and challenges of their life abroad. Trying - often unsuccessfully - to cope with the liguistic barriers, the sadness of being taken away from their jobs and former social and family responsibilities, with their marriage in a limbo. Maybe it should be created soon a new literary category of 'diplomatic wives memoirs'. At least, they lived to tell the story and almost created a special genre. 
Jay Martin's memories of her 3 years accompanying her husband during his diplomatic assignment in Poland on behalf of the Austrialian embassy doesn't differ too much of previous works I've read. Wives able to write a memoir - and even knowing the local language - are obviously a step and a half further than the frustrated housewives spending their time calling their friends and relatives at 'home' and hardly going out of the appartment and appearing at embassy events only to complain about their precarious expat life. But besides the literay add on, the experiences as such are overwhelmingly boring. We all take decisions in life, some bad some good, and we need to get the best of it. More than one episode about the diplomat of husband coming back home early in the morning after spending the night who known where doesn't make it as a story for me, unless there is really something interesting that happened during this time. Or the wife reacted somehow, or whatever can be relevant to a story you share with the world...
But besides adopting a worn out perspective on diplomatic encounters and daily life - 'Poland is cool. It's just that my life here sometimes seems like an endless round of cocktail events with complaining expat wives...' - Jay Martin really used her experience to get the best of it. She went all over the country, revealing travel destinations unfortunately mostly unknown outside the country, learned a language known for her relatively high level of complexity and explored Europe and even the badly famed Kaliningrad. Those part of the book are the best and I really enjoyed in their fullest, before another couple of pages of complaining and experiences of couple alienation.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you are interested in European and particularly Polish history and if you are a diplomatic consort that would love one day to write a better memoir. 
I personally liked the cover - joyful and appealing to someone curious about Poland and with a call for wanderlust.

Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review