Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A Bookish ChickLit for My Heart

A chicklit should not be cheesy, easy, stereotypical and necessarily ending up happily. If you have a story to tell, keep doing it and I will appreciate it if it is really worth reading it. 
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill is one of the best books included un this category I've read in a while. Yes, I have a weakness for such books because life is real, and romance is real and relationships are also part of the everyday life. The fact that some are not ending up well, is just another story, but at least you need to keep hoping.
A bookish lovely creature, working in a small bookstore in LA, Nina has a penchant for very well organised daily schedule - and I really love this as I am, myself, one of those people too - grew up independently with a single photographer mother most of the time away on work assignments and without knowing her father. Suddenly though, she will be contacted by a lawyer representing his dead father, that apparently knew about her but was convinced by her mother to leave them alone. From a lonely life, she is entering the intricated life of a very big family that she needs to cope with. 
And then, there is a handsome, non-bookish boy that she likes, not sure sure that she can fit him into her complicated life. She has anxiety attacks, and is about to give up more than once.
Nina Hill is so real, with her love of life, curiosity and attractive way of approaching reality as a curious bookish person. She's a good person, a millenial in her very early 30s trying to cope with the daily complexities. I really love her as much as I love her agenda mindset. Especially her way to ask directly very complex and complicated questions. 
The writing is very good too. The dialogues are vivid and full of turns that a bookish person will very much appreciate. The characters are complex and with personalities that you might easily find in real life too. The story has turns that make it worth reading in a one sitting - as I did myself.
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill is a book that will make you enjoy a late summer day, regardless what genre you prefer.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Book Review: The Hiding Place, by C.J.Tudor

At first, I am not sure what to write about this book. I am conflicted because during the reading, I had at least two different feelings, none of it strong enough to become predominant: 1. It is an awesome construction of a book, that keeps you alert until the very end and leaves you haunted, still looking for answers. 2. It is such a déjà-vu in the style of Stephen King that it really doesn't matter too much what happened in the story, because it looks like a set-up for the sake of answering the usual King-canon.
Still, not sure which of these opinions are really relevant for the final evaluation of the book. Still, it might be a third one - at least - that I haven't identified yet which changes completely the literary perspective.
C.J.Tudor's debut novel, The Chalk Man was a revelation though, and I was very excited to start reading her newest book, The Hiding Place - titled in the UK as The Taking of Annie Thorne
The opening is a description of a horrible crime site, a slow-down overview which outlines every single detail which sums up the horrible encounter. This punctilious focus on the smallest visual and audible information is the red line of the book, which creates impressive effects and builts up the overall suspense. You have to be careful to not miss any information if you hope to understand the plot.
An English teacher with a passion for gambling, Joe Thorne returns to his hometown, Arnhill, a dead former mining town. He is back because he was asked to, because strange events that took place during his teen years seem to come back. During those years his sister, Annie disappeared and when she returned she was changed for the good and shortly after she died in a car accident. 25 years after, he is keen to go deep into the labyrinth of secrets surrounding those times. 
The book is populated with morally ambigous characters and bizarre children, some of them ending up as creepy adults. The characters are not lovable, not necessarily the kind of people you love to hate. Most of them are just haunted, like Arnhill, the town where they live whose geography and topography plays an important role in creating the suspense. 
There is so much to be told by mining towns - former or still operating. People are harsh, used with going to work in a place that might be their grave. The minig places are often surrounded by a hallow of mysterious stories and urban legends with a high percentage of creepiness. Children growing up in such places are completely uninterested in learning as they assume that sooner or later they will follow the path of their parents. Families often made up of a semi-alcoholic father and a stay-at-home bored and sometimes depressed mom. 
The story is told mostly at the first person and until the very end, it remains ambiguous about every detail. After all, memory is betraying and willingly, we might want to hide some details in order to obliterate the truth. 
Personally, I am still undecided about the book and for a while, I leave it like this. Probably until I will read the third book by C.J.Tudor which I've heard is already done, The Other People. Because, definitely, she's a writer I would love to read more and more from.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Book Review: The Storm, by Arif Anwar

A couple of stories with characters whose destinies are often intertwined, starting from the time of the WWII, the Partition War and the post-9/11 America. People coming and going in the story, sometimes while carrying strong messages and stories, like the waves of a sea in the middle of the storm. Wars, some of them in the name of religions mistreated by humans. The Storm, by Arif Anwar is spanning a couple of generations and has as a main background the 1970 Bhola Cyclone in Bangladesh, that took the lives of half million people. 
It is during this storm that the life of Shahryar, that we meet in our 'days' in the USA, while trying to secure a chance to remain in the States with his daughter, changed tremendously. He lost his parents and was adopted by a childless rich family that chose to invest in his education. 
The stories are coming back and forth, some of them re-told in another sequence later, some not. For those events that are lost in the middle of the bigger story, it is a pitty because they create certain high expectations for an eventual follow-up. Such as is the case of the episode between Claire Drake, a British doctor service woman in Burma and the Japanese soldier Ichiro. Ichiro's tragic ending will be told a bit later in the story, but there is a feeling of a relative inadequacy of his presence into the bigger narrative. The present-time narrative, particularly the 'American story' is also unbalanced, compared to the strength and dramatism of the sceneries taking place in Asia in the time of WWII, or during the nascent conflict between Hindus and Muslims in the bigger India.
In subsidiary, The Storm is also a meditation about how small and narrow are human ambitions, especially the national and religious ones, compared to the enormous force of the nature, which is overpowering and overwhelming. Nature is blinder than the human ambitions. 
As a debut novel, The Storm has an impressive narrative architecture and Arif Anwar is an interesting literary voice to follow. He've found an unique way to create space for human individual stories in the complex context of the separation of Bangladesh from India - the Partition - but also taking into account the dramatic events of the Bhola Cyclone.
It is one of those books that make you curious about a lot of contemporary or less contemporary events, but also opens the heart to stories, with all the imprecisions those are told.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Having My Way with Science Fiction Books

I do have a relatively limited intellectual availability of dealing with science fiction books. Time travel, spaceships coming from the future, extra terrestrial creatures...all of those aspects are rarely an encounter in my usual literary timelines, and this from a very early age. I was not that kind of kid getting lost into the fantastic worlds but rather interested to find out how this world works and even today, I think it is enough for a literary concern.
However, I will never cease to challenge myself intellectually therefore forcing myself into reading once in a while books that are not part of my usual reading menu. According to all the reviews and recommendations I've seen, All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai was a relatively easy read. In fact, maybe a too easy for my tastes.
Let's start with the things that I really loved about the book: the writing is good, with sequential chapters - maybe it helped the fact that Mastai is a screenwriter. The information is relatively light, introduced in a very simple way which do not require additional scientific background. Besides the story itself: the history of the first time travel machine, created in July 1965 by Lionel Goettreider, that in 2016 Tom Barren, the son of a scientist whose life was dedicated to this machine is using for the first time in history - there is also an interesting discussion open up by the author regarding writing and the difference between novel - with an autobiographical aspect - and a memoir. The writing is what captivated me at the very beginning and kept me involved during the rest of the book.
Because, and now we are about to start reading about the part of the book that I did not enjoy it: the way in which story unfolds, with all the romantic element added does not do good to the sci-fi setting.Tom Barren is back in time to discover that his lost love is his and there to stay - in the first temporal sequence she committed suicide - and is doing everything in his power to keep her. The famous Goettreider is also using the time machine for love, in order to spend more time to a married lady he has an affair during his laboratory years. 
Although during the last 100 of pages I felt like giving up on the book more than once, I was brave enough to finish it. The book itself is not bad and as I said, there are interesting perspectives shared, the story didn't resonate with me at all, probably because maybe I was expecting something more spectacular and outwordly. I would probably recommend it and I am sure there are much more people enjoying it, but personally I've found it a bit too light for my usual tastes. 
Another positive experience of this last read is that after all, I might be more interested in sci-fi and right now I am looking for more serious, hard-core recommendations in this respect. PS. I've already read Dune and found it at the time relatively interesting.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Proof of the Honey

The average informed Western reader rarelly associates the Arab or Muslim areal in general with eroticism. And I am not talking about modern contributions by young courageous writers, most of them writing freely about eroticism and free world far away from their home countries. What I am thinking about is an old corpus of texts where the relationships between man and woman are extensively described in terms that have nothing to do with the inflexible extreme religious descriptions way to often encountered in the current media depictions of this part of the world - not necessarily geographical but as an intellectual realm.
Salwa al Neimi recovers this tradition in a short novel where women are sharing their erotic stories and sexual experiences, part of an academic assignment the storyteller - a Syrian academic living in Paris - about classic erotic literature in Arabic.
Thus, the academic background, the references are the support to develop the real-time experience. It is what you need to counter the official narratives and nothwithstanding, Al Neimi's book created a literary scandal. 
But denying eroticis and sexual experiences is similar with denying the existence of the Arab literary sources. You can try to opress the human beings searching for sexual liberalization and simple expression of it, or you can burn or forbid the books. However, they will always be there. 
The Proof of the Honey - which I've read in German translation - is a reading which opens a new perspective on Arab literature and the Arab intellectual real. It helps to make a difference and balance and counter the intolerant stereotype.

Rating: 4 stars

An Interesting Literary Experiment: Bitter Orange

Bitter Orange starts as a slow-paced story of loneliness. On her deadbed, Frances is visited by a vicar which is listening to her confession of a summer spent in the company of a young couple while commissione to catalogue the garden architecture of a mansion in the English countryside. 
It is an innocent story at first, of an old lady getting closer and closer to death as the days are unfolding. In the first three quarters of the story, one can hardly figure out the terrible ending once there is a final revelation of the narrative. At the beginning, there is only the lady in her end 30s, spying trough a small wall hole the couple next door, two Irish youngsters. She thought the young lady Cara is Italian, in fact she's not, only dreams about having an Italian life. Once the three of them are getting to know each other closer, there is a web of stories that builds up. But how much truth they tell, it is a different story which reveals partially in the next stages of the story.
There are moment when the three of them look so happy together, that one may think that this book is in fact about friendship and love in the English countryside. But little by little darkness takes it over. Because we acknowlege it or not, there is a darkness that resides even in the most kindest and gentle of us, humans. It is a Hobessian outlook of homo homini lupus which might not operate fully, but at least in this story, it makes sense.
Otherwise, how to explain the terrible crimes of a poor virgin which spent all her life being a caregiver of her mother - that she killed too.
I might confess that I was very much surprised by the ending. After the first half of the book, I accepted the fact that there is a book written beautifully, but wordings are not enough as I need a good story too, therefore sooner or later I will simply give up. Only when I started to figure out there is a different layer of the story, based on various obvious or just suggested hints, the reading headed in a completely different direction. The relative boredom was replaced by the excitement of the art of writing. 
It is a pleasre to read Bitter Orange, by Claire Fuller. It gives a chance to good literature, where bt the reader and the author are together on an intellectual journey.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Book Review: A Woman Is No Man, by Etaf Rum

'Let me tell you something. A man is the only way up in this world, even though he'll climb a woman's back to get there. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise'.
A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum is retracing the story of three generations of Palestinian women from back home to Brooklyn. Geography matters least in this case as 'Palestine or America. A woman will be alone', as one of the women characters, Isra, states. More than a story of dislocation and rootlessness, this book, beautifully told, is about going beyond the cycle of violence against women. 
The same pattern repeated over and over again, how can it be broken? Having girls might be considered a curse and marrying them out as early as possible it is the solution to get them out of the house. They are praised only when they procreate boys as those boys once grown up will not need a woman to get married with therefore girls shall be born too. When they do not fulfill this function, women are worthless, aggressed and put down. They are not allowed to leave the house alone, because it is against modesty, and even if they do, they do not know the language anyway therefore they will most likely make a full of themselves.
There is a similar way of thinking and approaching things which ignores reality. Some say it ignores religion too, as it is only a tradition which kept being repeated by default. Fact is that it is not unusual that in traditional settings, women are beaten to death by their husbands. The mothers of those boys rather prefer to offer supernatural explanations - he was, for sure, posessed by a djinn when he did it - instead of accepting their part of responsibility for preventing such a dramatic episode to happen.
The Palestinian women featured in A Woman is No Man seem to have to chance to escape their fate. They need to accept and hide the beatings beneath layers of makeup, do their best to accommodate their husbands even they are violent and drunk and make sure they marry their daughters as soon as possible, heading them to the same cruel fate. 
Is there any way out? The opression of tradition can be overcome radically just by leaving. Running away and starting anew and this radical solution is the hardest. Are the minds and souls changing nowadays allowing a midle way? The writer found a relatively mild third way. Learning, as the only way to control your destiny, once acknowledged by the other members of the family as necessary but not radically against tradition, can offer a chance. Educated women can still have a chance of meeting educated men belonging to their ethnic or religious group thus preserving the cultural identity, although at a different level - preferably minus domestic violence and with a certain openness towards the big world. Personally, I am not sure that once you are escaping the tradition you can still leave within the limits of the same pattern of behavior of thought, because mind is free and happy to enjoy the freedom of going each and every day one step further its previous limits. I only assume that each story is different and each tradition is different. 
Etaf Rum created that story which leads to infinite discussions. It was hard to say 'good bye' to the characters in this book. Although each and every one of them shared so many conflicting messages and stirs different emotions into the reader. The story is slow paced yet worded strong enough to cover a multiplicity of emotional and intellectual debates. 
There is so much to think and discuss about the topics raised, and this is why we have literature. Not only to save women from being murdered - like in 1001 Nights - or to project perfect worlds, but also to make us even more stubborn when we look for love and genuine intellectual experiences. 

Rating: 4.5 stars