Monday, November 28, 2016

A different perspective on Mata Hari

The controversial and exotic story of the spy woman Mata Hari remains a fascination for those interested in conspiracies and secret histories. Based on recent documents released by MI5 and German intelligence, the newest novel by Paulo Coehlo is changing the angle regarding the codename H21. 'I am a woma who was born at the wrong time and nothing can be done to fix this', seems to be the motto underlying the story.
Using different time frames and voices, including Mata Hari's, the different aspects of her personality - less of her apparently irrelevant intelligence activity - are revealed. She is portrayed as an independent woman faced with difficult choices, free - 'Though at the moment I am a prisoner, my spirit remains free'. This freedom seemed to overpass love, contrary to the usual love story and heartbreaking associated with her. 'Because that's what I always sought: freedom. I did not seek love, though it has come and go. Because of love, I have done things, things I shouldn't have, and traveled to places where people were lying in wait for me'.
Escaping an abusive marriage and following a forced sexual relationship with one of her teachers during her school years, Mata Hari completely reinvented herself as a do-it-yourself hobby Javanese dancer and mesmerized Europe, particularly France, with her charms and innovative Orientalism. 'I decided to be what I always dreamed. And the price of a dream is always high'.
But she is caught in the WWI circle of events and may accept to be part of some spy-related opportunities, both for France and Germany, by using her extensive network of acquaintances, admirers and lovers. Her freedom to move between countries and worlds is closing to the fatal end as she will be arrested and send to prison, and condemned without clemency to death. Although concerned about the gravity of her situation, she moves through facts as a bird, somehow before ever touching wings to the ground. This is probably something rarely expected from a fatal woman and also a trained spy.
In the book, there are often made comparisons between her case - condemnation without appeal - and that of Cpt. Dreyfus, outlining the lack of popular demands and intellectual debate regarding her case. As a woman, she is a victim of justice and machinations and will go straight forward to the last steps towards execution.
I've found the writing a bit cautious, a fine balance between the need to cover properly historical facts and the need to let the imagination fly and create a literary work. Otherwise, it is an interesting approach and another work part of the literary works I had the opportunity to read this year dedicated to free women.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Book review: The Visitors Book and other ghost stories, by Sophie Hannah

I wish I didn't like this book at all. That I keep the memory of it as one of the my reading adventures of this year, of discovering new authors and exploring topics that I am not necessarily passionate about but that landed on my to-read-list just because I need to use my spare free time and my mind as much as possible for books. Regardless what kind of books, even ghost stories can be good for a short read.
My indifferent plan was foiled dramatically. From the fist story (The Visitors Book) until the last (All the Dead Mothers of My Daughers's Friends) I devored every single page. The sentences are so well crafted to create a story that I hardly noticed that once in a while, there are some ghosts popping up in the story, either at the post office or while crossing the street (Justified True Belief), or at the end of a children birthday party (The Last Boy to Leave). There is no shock and awe or traces of blood or terrible apparitions in the middle of the night, preferably near an abandoned building - castle, anyone?. Every story goes to naturally, with intense dialogues and conversations - like in The Visitors Book - that the reader hardly acknowledges terrible realities. Nothing kitsch or Gothic, just simple facts of the everyday life, when extraordinary things are interwoven naturally with the uneventful routines. 
An excellent read recommended to faithful lovers of good books, like you - and me.
Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A political thriller with a taste of reality

Forget about the similarities with the latest American elections, and even the name of the main candidate-characters, not by accident called - Ronald Drump and Valery Clayton. Before to start reading, it is recommended to leave aside all wishful thinking, as it is only a book and it is too well written to miss the real writing experience. 
According to the saying, every dog has its day, meaning that everyone gets a chance during some period a time. From the presidential candidates, to the paid assassins and accidental killers, everyone in this book is playing with chance and luck, more or less successfully. Like everyone in life, but at the high-end of politics, life has a different price and the survival charges are significantly different. Two life-long billionaire friends decide to pay $10 million to an ex-Marine to eliminate the Republican candidate, considered too clumsy and trouble-makers to win the elections against Clayton. 
Regardless of the political choices, the book is well written, page-turner and meticulously researched. Clayton sounds even more credible and articulated than the candidate it - probably - emulates. The dialogues are smart, the action is well crafted and the entire story and discussions sound authentic. 
For my own reasons, I preferred to read the book at the end of the electoral campaign, assuming that it is a good book, regardless of what is happening and the results, it should remain a good read, and in this case, my choice proved to be right. It resists the test of time, which is a good indicator of the quality. 
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Vacationers: Writing about the simple things in life

Some writers to have the special gift of outlining the extraordinary in the ordinary lives, to explain and explore simple facts in life, revealing hidden meanings and normal ways of being not always visible at the first sight. A middle-class US family is heading to an impossible-to-pronounce-correctly place in Spain for the usual summer vacation. Two family friends are also invited. On the lifespan of 14 days, hidden dramas and personal struggles will be revealed. 
Every chapter is structured as a day, covering the various events taking place in the life of the characters. The novel is slow-paced, not with many events taking place, with a lot of food hints, food being not only the writing topic of the main woman character Franny, but also the common denominator bringing people together. Sounds stereotypical, but there are the facts of life. 
From teenage drama to midlife crisis, age difference in couples or gay marriage, all the simple facts of the everyday life are covered, explained and scrutinized. Like many of us, at least once in a while, the characters in this book learn to ask questions or wonder why they didn't ask the right question earlier on. In the words of one of the book characters, Lawrence: 'Life would be so much more interesting if one could ask all the questions one wanted to and expect honest answers'. Hence, the enormous inspiration for the writer who is able to play with the interstices between questions. 
In the comfort of the big Spanish holiday house, they learn to listen to their silences and remake commitments. One of the most difficult things, despite the easiness we sometimes assume them or take them for granted, at least for a while. 'There was nothing in life harder or more important than agreeing every morning to stay the course, to go back to your forgotten self of so many years ago, and to make the same decision'. 
Another plus of the book is the fine irony and the humor of some episodes, again simple things in life outlined under a different angle. My favorite so far is the moment when Franny 'hit herself in the head with the butt of her tennis raquet and briefly knocked herself unconscious'. 
Families might be mysterious - 'Other people's families were as mysterious as an alien species, full of secret codes and shared histories' - or just equally unhappy, but they may offer infinite inspiration for the good writer. 
Rating: 4 stars

Friday, November 4, 2016

Writers secrets: Monica Bhide about writing and her beautiful new novel

Monica Bhide is not only a beautiful writer, but also an inspiring person. Writer of cookbooks, novels, short stories and poetry, she is sharing on my blog her experience with words and the publishing process. If you haven't read it yet her books, you can start with her last book, Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken. As usual, I am honored by her kindness and for her precious time for answering my questions about the challenges of being a full time writer and the process of writing Karma.

How did your love story with writing start?

I have always loved to write. Even as a young child, I would write poetry and create “worlds.” Whenever someone would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say “story teller.” The practical world beat me into submission and I stopped saying that for many decades. But, here I am now, a story teller! 

What inspires you most to write? Do you have any model writers?

Oh, everything. I love writing about things that surprise me, questions that I want answered, demons inside my head. Everything!
Model writers? There are so many! I love the work of Yasmina Khadra, Vaddey Ratner, Amish, Rohinton Mistry and so many more.

What is the most challenging part of being a writer? What are your recommendations for the aspiring writer?

I love the writing aspect. The marketing aspect.. not so much! That is the most challenging part for me. My recommendations: write. That sounds simple and silly but most aspiring writers will talk about it, discuss it, read about it, worry about it but will not actually DO IT! So sit down and write. That is it!

How do you find inspiration for your books, for instance, for Karma…?

Karma is largely based on a dear friend, a chef in Washington, DC, who works relentlessly to end hunger. I so admire what he does and it inspired me to create a young character who also aspires to do the same!

What is your next writing project?

I am working on a couple of different books. At this time, looks like my next novel will be based in Washington, D.C. and the genre is fantasy!

How do you spend your time in-between books?

Marketing the last book! Obsessing about the next one!

Photo: Courtesy of Monica Bhide

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Guest post: Marie Benedict about writing The Other Einstein

Marie Benedict, author of The Other Einstein
Today, I have the honor of hosting a guest post by Marie Benedict, the author of the beautiful novel, The Other Einstein. In her post, she shares her experience in doing research and preparing the background for the novel.

The fact that the setting of THE OTHER EINSTEIN consisted of scientifically-minded Zurich at the cusp of the twentieth century nearly turned me away from writing the novel. History, not science, had always been my passion, and initially, this seemed an insurmountable barrier. But once I dug into the electric developments in physics occurring at this time and in this unique place — understanding it on a high level only, of course — I overcame my hesitation and embraced the excitement of the world in which Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein lived and worked in their early years as a couple.
Using this scientific and historical knowledge, I constructed the story of the young couple, linked by their feelings and their passion for physics but ultimately torn apart by personal tragedy. I utilized whatever factual informational I could gather to act as anchors in the story. But because it is the historical research that draws me into stories of the past — in fact, I could not imagine writing a novel without that as a major component — I tried to stay close to the historical record. In the nether spaces where research could not answer questions about the tale, I used a blend of logic and fiction to narrate Mileva’s life as I imagined it must have been. These nether spaces are the reason why THE OTHER EINSTEIN could only be a work of historical fiction, one of the first of many I hope to write about women forgotten by history.
Photo: Marie Benedict archives