Sunday, January 29, 2017

Book review: Blood Virus. A Pandemic by Design, by L.A.Hollis

In less than 12 months, this is a second book I've read dealing with the risks of a pandemic by design. Apparently, this is a specific genre developed, covering the risks and challenges of misusing genetic medicine. 
The author has a minor in microbiology and the book has a serious scientific yet readable background, nothing to do with various speculations and pseudo-scientific scribbling. A genetically engineered virus designed to kill by race was created by a team of scientists working for a mad individual imbued by the Third Reich ideology. He sees himself as the future master of the world, after his extermination plans of 'inferior' races are accomplished. The experimental field of his plans is the Western African country of Benin, where the population is affected by a mysterious pandemic. A special team is sent from Washington DC in order to find a possible explanation and to work out a vaccination.
It is the kind of story when you know the suspects and who is in the good, respectively in the bad boys team, and what matters is how the investigation will unfold. The author succeeds to save some surprising moves and events, and the end remains mysterious - maybe a continuation of the book will be necessary. The story is round up, interesting and entertaining read. After all, it is not an easy task to cope with so many scientific and narrative details: when writing such books, one needs to keep in mind to maintain both the scientific and fiction credibility and such tasks are not always easy to juggle.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in a thriller dealing with some sad realities of our present times, with a taste of adventure and the hope that the good guys might at the end of the story, always win.

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

Book review: Ways to disappear, by Idra Novey

After the beautiful Good on Paper, by Rachel Cantor, dealing with the ironies and humorous challenges of the translator, Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey approaches a similar topic, but from a more magical and tragic perspective. I had the book on my To-Read book for a couple of months and was really happy to finally have it on my reading pile of books - which is in fact a mountain soon to reach the level of Everest, and even higher.
Beatriz Yagoda a Brazilian cult writer disappears one day mysteriously: she just climbed into an almond tree while carrying a suitcase and smoking a cigar. Her American translator, Emma Neufeld who dedicated her whole life to translating Yagoda is taking the first flight to Brazil in order to find out what happened with her author. Meanwhile, information about an online poker addiction and a huge debt appear owed to the mafia threatening to cut the ear of Beatriz son - the ear eventually appeared in a sport brand box. There are a lot of events going on, at the end of which, Yagoda will mysteriously die in a fire provoked by one of her cigars. Emma will leave her American life for Brazil and will start teaching at a local university. 
Interestingly, against this turmoiled background of the story, there are many provocative ideas to discuss and think about it: what does it mean to be a successful author? how the author can be appropriated by a culture or a country (one of the descriptions of Yagoda was that she was born in South Africa)? what are the means of a translator to offer the best interpretation of the words of a writer? (the book also has a short interview explaining contextually some of the words used, as one needs to go beyond the literal form of the word in order to really understand the text) The meditation on the meaning and limits of language and the author(ship) is accompanied by a finer reflection on the role of the words and their meaning, in and outside the translation process itself. (Novey herself is a translator of the special author that lived in Brazil Clarice Lispector).
I really loved the book and its challenges, but somehow, I felt that the narrative was overcharged by too much action and too much thinking. Probably, intensively thinking and intensively living aren't always going au pair. 
But the book is an unique composition and the questions asked more or less openly deserve a more serious consideration regarding the relation between author and translator, and original work and translation, among others.

Rating: 3 stars

Interview with Barbara Beck, author of The Future Architect's Tool Kit

The Future Architect's Tool Kit is one of the books I've read the last year that inspired me to see differently the ways in which books for children are written. In this interview for Wild Writing Life, author Barbara Beck answers a couple of questions about the book and her writing process.

- How can a child fall in love with architecture - otherwise than by being told that he or she should learn a lot of maths and geometry - which may be a deterrent anyway?

Children are extremely visual, attracted both to beauty and what I call the “wow” factor. Taking a child for a walk to see one amazing building or simply opening a book about architecture may be all that’s necessary to trigger their interest. In addition, I was never told I needed a lot of math or science in order to be an architect. I was just told to draw. In fact, many architects chose the profession simply because of their love of drawing, not math. Encourage children to draw. Draw anything. Draw everything. It stimulates the brain, and then, the sky is the limit!

- What was your inspiration for The Future Architect?

While studying for the architectural licensing exam, which required reviewing everything that goes into designing a building, I had one of those cosmic, “aha” moments. I saw the design process unfold in front of me and I remembered myself as a child drawing floor plans. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and my parents didn’t know how to help me. This is the book I needed when I was nine years old and wanted to create. It might have helped that first year in Architecture school too.

- What is the most difficult part of writing for a young and very young audience?

Writing is writing, no matter who the audience is. Word choice must be concise and descriptive in order to engage the reader. It’s hard to keep complex ideas clear and simple, yet not preachy and that’s the hardest thing to do in children’s literature. Kids know when they are being talked down to. I try to keep it fun. Often, placing a child in the narrative helps a young reader identify with the material. I always try to remember what delighted me as a child and how I felt. It helps that I’m not terribly mature.

- How can a child be inspired to find a profession?

I think the best way for children to discover a career is through exposure to all sorts of different professions, whether that’s through books or a parent or friend or even social media. The STEM program in schools and libraries is an excellent introduction to scientific professions. In my case, I saw a photograph of Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright when I was probably about eight, and absolutely fell in love with buildings.

- What was the feedback from your little readers so far?

So far, the kids are really engaged and like the books. I have received pictures of some of their projects, which are pretty amazing.

- What are your writing plans for this year?

“The Future Architect’s Tool Kit,” which is the companion piece to “The Future Architect’s Handbook,” was released in November (2016 - WWL). It builds on the ideas presented in the Handbook and includes drawing tools for the budding architect. I seem to be doing a lot more architecture these days and that has cut into my writing time. I am, however, currently working on a Young Adult novel about sailing, but it is still very conceptual.

Photo: Archives of  Barbara Beck

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Book review: A Gentleman in Moscow

This book took me a long time to finish, not because I didn't have time for it, or because it was too boring, but simply because is so beautifully written that even me, the book-addict, need some time to think about some pages or just fully taste every word. For its style and elegance of writing and the flow of words, it is one of the most beautiful books I've read in a long while - and if you watch this blog, it is easy to guess that I spend most of my free time reading. 
Count Rostov is condemned by the newly installed Soviet power  - more precisely the Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs - to life house arrest at the Metropol Hotel, in the center of Moscow. His fault, a poem labelled by the 'people's leaders' as reactionary. (In fact, the truth about the authorship of the poem will be revealed at the end of the story). The count accepts its fate with stoicism, and starts a life in a 100 square meter room, with the world events unfolding outside the hotel - including the WWII, Stalin's death and the dramatic changes underwent by the Soviet society. The time spent in confinement - with a schedule including eating at the restaurant or chatting with the personnel or guests or reading Montaigne's essays - is a permanent remembrance and re-enacting episodes from the past, from trips abroad to morsels of civility and noble behavior, a rara avis in a society without solid roots, as the newly built Soviet world.
Nurtured by noble love towards Russia - asked about commissar Vyshinsky at the trail why he returned he said that he 'missed the climate' - , which he refused to leave, his story is a static version of the usual night train stories of the Russian literature, when during the ride, complete strangers share the deepest feelings and life episodes never told to anyone. In this case, count Rostov is careful to keep his life episodes in different baskets. He remains a master of the old world, but he remains faithful to himself and his independent spirit, fully proficient in mastering the circumstances with dignity. 
At Hotel Metropol, he experiences love, is visited by his old friends, is making new friends, can practice his foreign languages, he even get permanent updates about the 'outside world' through the various communist leaders visiting the premises. It is a world in itself, an interior universe where the choice for life is strong enough for giving the motivation for making the best of each day.
The book is also well documented, with chosen references about Russian literature and society and political evolution. I've read many books dedicated to Soviet life, including literature, and I may say that this one is completely different. Not only it covers a completely different angle, when you were afraid that after so many years, the result is either another account of gulags and Siberia, or a self-sufficient predictable story but it uses a mix of Russian and British classical literary art, skilfully pondered and creating a very interesting unique literary work.
It is a philosophical book, based on history, but first and foremost, an excellent book. Last but not least, the ending and the last part of it is surprising. In a book where there are not too many 'events' taking place, one can expect a certain monotony, but in the real life of spirit one episode is never similar with the other. The ending is like no other endings, and it made me happily smile. After the thriller-like rhythm and some spy story, it settle down beautifully. 
It is a book about love of spirit, a world that used to be and the loyalty towards its one's values. It makes the reader enjoy the pleasure of the lecture and seriously reconsider the intellectual pleasures. For some, there could be the only ones that really matter.  

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Book review: Transmission by Hari Kunzru

I am interested in novels dealing with current cyber or geek topics, because I am curious about approaches of unfolding realities. Transmission by Hari Kunzru is one of the few novels that I have on my reviewer shelf and has actually enough twists to make the reading enjoyable, with some surprising twists and some unexpected literary wanderings. 
Arjun Mehta, a mediocre computer geek from India is one of the many winners of an interview for relocation in the US, for an eventual contract in Silicon Valley. In fact, he would be just subcontracted for low-paid jobs in American companies. As the financial crisis hit hard, he lost his latest position at an Internet software firm. As a revenge, he creates a virus named after his favourite Bollywood star Leeila that will create major disruptions in the US and the whole world. Things are going out of control and he becomes a most-wanted FBI target whose fate will remain, until the end of the book, unknown. Many think he was joined by Leeila who mysteriously left her filming location in Scotland. Arjun Mehta went out of his American dream but remained faithful to his Leeila fantasy which, miraculously become reality.
The book approaches, sometimes in a cynical ironic tone, many topics of political and social current interests: the dynamics of Indian family, the European immigration policies, the differences of perspective between 'Orient' and the rest of the Western world.  The enumeration of all these sounds very boring, but the way in which those topics are interwoven into the big story is interesting and makes you take things more seriously. Or just have a cynical smile, because it is oh, so true. The pace is alternating between the face run of the bytes on the screen and the slow moving up out of a dream. The cyber reality complicated relationships and made us vulnerable of any unexpected disruption. This is our kind of inter-connected life it is almost impossible to escape, unless you are a IT magician as Arjun and his peers.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book review: Point of No Return, by Martha Gellhorn

I rarely read war novels, maybe because I think that the reality itself is enough raw for not looking further to fictional war stories. However, the recommendation of the author - Martha Gellhorn, a much praised war correspondent - was an encouragement to make an exception. 
The novel starts slowly, covering the advancing of the American troops on the German territory during the last months of the World War II and their dramatic encounter with the remains of the Nazi Army. A dark ambiance when things are slowly moving, if at all, while the soldiers are trying to fill their time with the pleasures of the flesh and non-sense activities, such as eating glass or throwing knives. People of different backgrounds, without previous military training and sometimes with a minimal life experience are brought together for fighting the enemy and liberating Europe. There is a feeling of inadequacy and pessimism, balanced only by the hope that war will finish soon and everyone can return to their previous civilian lives. Although, many of them will make it back home, and even those lucky enough to make it, will for ever be haunted by their experiences. 
Such as, for instance, Jacob Levy, a Jew whose weak identity is relatively badly received among some of his American peers. Despised or pitied, he is the most interesting character of the book, developing not only as a man and human, but becoming aware by his identity, particularly after the dramatic encounter at Dachau - a camp about which Gellhorn herself was among the first to report. If previously Levy was rather indifferent about his Jewish identity, after Dachau he decided that: 'He was not going to abandon the people. He had joined himself to his race and to all those who were destroyed as his own were'. His radical decision to enter with the car in a group of Germans chatting freely near the camp and subsequently kill them was the consequence of the revelation he had while visiting the remains of the camp. It is hard to imagine anyone else's feelings after such an encounter, but we are operating in an environment which challenges any remnants of human logic.
Simply written and with long static paragraphs describing the smallest details of the fights and set-backs, this book is a valuable reference for the WWII literature, for its realism and focus on identity transformation and personal challenges.

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

The art of turning reality into a story

As I previously wrote, when the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, I was relatively surprised by the choice. The fact that I was not familiar with the name of the lucky writer was not my big issue, but the fact that she was not a writer of novels and works of fiction in general, but a journalist by education and profession. As I would discover myself later on too, her books are samples of cold - as the reverse of subjective - accounts of realities that faced the Soviet and post-Soviet world. The Secondhand Time, for instance, which I just finished today, is an account of oral history of memories about the post-WWII Soviet Russia and its 'democratic' aftermath. You may recognize there all the common places of Soviet 'nostalgia', from the regret for the reduced place of literature and theatre in the everyday life until the job safety and the 'low and order'.
In 'Voices from Chernobyl', a similar oral history project is done in order to give voice to the witnesses of the nuclear catastrophe. Days and events are reconstructed hour-by-hour in an efforts which outlines the layers of feelings and shock specific for those times. 
You may say that it is not too much creativity in those books and with a recorder anyone can really coordinate such a project. The art of the author and her main asset is the ways in which the questions are asked and the angle is set. As a journalist myself, I recognize the tremendous effort of looking for the right questions that can not only bring you more truth and authenticity and a competitive advantage to your story, but to offer equal foot to the participant at the discussion. Awarding such an effort with the highest literary reward is a recognition of the merits of quality journalism and the hard work of the journalists themselves, of recording facts and being the servants of truth. In a time when we are talking so much - maybe obsessively - about 'fake news', the world disclosed by Svetlana Alexievich and her life-long dedication for journalism are an encouragement and a hope that the hard work and pursuit of truth is a duty, and not just a fashion. Making the choice for quality journalism, regardless of the circumstances - and Alexievich as a journalist that worked and published most of her work during Soviet times knows it the best - is not a subject of negotiation, but a deontological obligation. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Controversial topics: The Association of Small Bombs

I developed an awkward relationship with this book. I started by being curious to read it, then stumble upon some reviews and decided that actually I don't have the patience for such approaches. Then, two weeks after, I started it again and finished it within a couple of hours. 
The good news: I was definitely in love with the writing. Unpredictable, with interesting twists and some ironic-dadaistic irresistible interventions - 'Delhi has no bird-watchers, only machine-listeners'; 'One session was called off because a stray dog wandered into the court and bit a policeman'. As a reader, you are introduced to a completely different reality, with its own norms and codes and meanings, where irony and drama are just names given sometimes to the same reality. 
The complicated news: The topic as such is highly complicated with a high risk of ending up in stereotyping, especially if you have already some own thoughts about terrorism - meaning completely rejecting it, on all possible grounds. This was the main reason why I decided to give up the book at first. The idea of understanding how someone turns into a terrorist is appealing and particularly in the light of the last decade of terror in the middle of our Western world is appealing. However, terror was part of the history of our modern world long before there were Facebook symbols to add to your profile (nothing wrong with this, anyway). What I am afraid of when I have in my hands a book about the motivations is to deal with the common tiers-mondiste approach according to which someone turns into a terrorist because of oppression. (The book mentions en passant Carlos the Jackal and 'Palestine' as part of the discussion between terrorists). The people who end up placing bombs in public places in The Association of Small Bombs are not radical Muslims but operate in an environment where Muslims are victims of discrimination and the partition continues to be a cruel reality of the everyday corrupted political environment. In two places is quoted Gandhi according to which Jews faced with the Shoah would have decide to suicide en masse - a completely wrong approach as, sorry Mr. Gandhi but the Jews survived, although coping for more than a generation of trauma, but they, they survived. 
In a world completely upside down criminals are heroes and everyone is a potential terrorist, but this is not the world we, normal people want, but they, the terrorists and there is no justification for it. 
The book creates an interesting investigation into the ways - more or less subtle - in which a terrorist attack can destroy and challenge lives. 
The Association of Small Bombs was worth reading and offers a long list of topics to discuss and approaches to challenge. We are living in a world that needs new concepts and perceptions for a different understanding of old realities and such a book can be a good incentive for the ongoing much needed conversation. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, January 6, 2017

How to better market your book

Once your - first or second or thirds...- book is ready, the next step start writing your next one. With a little break in-between, wisely spent on marketing. Beth Revis, whose advice on writing I highly appreciated in a previous review, continues her journey with a book fully dedicated to marketing.
I've read a good bunch of book dedicated to book promotion strategies lately, but this one stand out for its honest perspective. First, it encourage the writers to get out of their well-deserved intellectual clouds and consider promotion as a necessary chore. 'The artist has a worth' and you may be keen to show it to the world. With such a high incidence of writers without a bit of effort, you may risk to stay happily unknown for the rest of your writing life. Which is nothing wrong either, but seriously, why not give yourself a bigger life chance. The choice is yours. 'If you have the choice between writing and marketing, write'.
Second, it doesn't promise you that from tomorrow on, based on this advice, and in general, any kind of advice, your sales will sky rocketing and you can already start checking the real estate market for buying your castle where to be more creative. Being successful at marketing it's a matter of hard work - what isn't nowadays, although the easiness of social media might lure us into a some different, yet unrealistic, view on life. For instance, the high number of followers doesn't mean too many sales anyway, exactly as the big number of negative reviews doesn't discourage people to read your book. I particularly loved the final section of the book, helping the writer to deal with various negative reviews. After all, it is a free world and everyone is free to express his or her opinions, more or less fair about your work. What you should do is to go on and keep writing. 'Aside from writing a brilliant book, you can't control who sees it'.
The advices are tailored both for traditional and self-published author, with many useful tips about how to set up a book tour and create awareness, particularly as a YA and MG author, including fees and how to pack for a tour. 
A book strongly recommended to new - another advice is to never brand yourself as a 'wannabe' - or older authors, curious to find what social media channel works better and why, oh why, having your own website is so important. Particularly if you have so many time constraints and you want a stronger focus on writing, this book brings you the ready made package of useful tips. Take three hours of your time to learn about it, consider the right strategy and go back to writing. You can see clearly now and this is a big merit of the book.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A lovely chocolate story

This book was waiting me to be finished from 2016. Although I was decided to finish up - as it happens for over 95% of the books I start reading, even I may not like them - I was not sure that I have enough thoughts to share as a review. Now, a couple of minutes after a marathon reading that started early in the morning, I definitely enjoy the idea of having this book as my first serious review of the year.
It is recommended as a chick-lit, as it seems that everything that has to do with Paris involves chocolate, globe-trotting lovers and, eventually, some drama of impossible love plus a lot of good food, whose flavors are described at length. After all, it is quite difficult to be creative and unique when it comes to Paris - unless you are Henry Miller or Hemingway. This book, despite using some common places - or the common places usually appearing in books taking place here - about the city, impresses by the writing. It has some drama, and youngish love that went lost and some last wishes to meet again the lover, and a lot of food, and gorgeous chocolate descriptions. But it has humour (British this time) - like when addressing the otherwise dramatic accident when Anna lost a couple of toes - and interesting twists of the story and a special art of sharing feelings that impresses the reader. Where else, if not in Paris, such things are happening, a city that steals your heart and where extravagant opera singers are non-stop partying. 
The tensions - between son and father, between stepmother and son, between dying Claire and her estranged late husband, between Anna and his experienced colleagues - melt perfectly as chocolate and love and understanding are taking the floor. 
It is a great merit of a book to reveal feelings and surprise you by discovering corners well hidden and sealed deep into your self. The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris is one of them and I am glad that I finished it. One of the 'loveliest' lessons of the book is to always be faithful to yourself and enjoy every moment of life, either life may have other plans with you. If you really have a dream, you can slightly and stubbornly challenge your destiny and maybe you can win over. It is important to not give up.
Rating: 3 stars