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review 2018-11-12 19:52
The Return of the Water Spirit by Pepetela
The Return of the Water Spirit - Pepetela

This is a brief novella that takes aim at the hypocrisy and arrogance of Angola’s ruling classes. The political situation is symbolized by a couple: Carmina, a communist youth leader who later embraces exploitative capitalism when political winds shift; and her husband João, a well-meaning but ineffective man who retreats into computer games as the capital city of Luanda crumbles around him – quite literally, as buildings mysteriously collapse, leaving their occupants unharmed.

Knowing nothing about the country going in, I found this a fairly engaging read, and the story is well-translated, but it would likely work better for readers familiar with recent Angolan history. Magical realist and absurdist elements – like the dispossessed protesting by going nude in public – obscure the actual history, leaving the foreign reader wondering what really happened. And while it is difficult to separate the personal from the political in such a short and pointed story, there is this recurring notion that all is right in the home when the husband takes the reins and publicly chastises his wife; I wasn’t sure how much Pepetela finds Carmina’s ruling the roost objectionable simply because she’s a woman, and how much because this specific woman is morally bankrupt.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting book from which I did learn a bit about Angola, and at 100 pages it’s a very quick read.

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review 2018-07-01 11:36
The Last Gods of Indochine- Samuel Ferrer

    Great writing, and an interesting use of historical fiction with two separate but ultimately connected storylines from the past. The first story is set in the 13th Century reign of the Khmer King Jayavarman VIII and the second between the 1860s and1920s. This is a well written quality read. I found every chapter to be entertaining in of itself and so maintaining a strong desire to read on. I would have liked an ending with a few less swirling dreams and rather more ‘facts’. Most of the characters names are borrowed from history but precious little that is actually known about them. With such a thin veneer of known history perhaps the ending had to be mysterious and ephemeral, leaving a host of possible paths along with the unsubstantiated assertion that science and not religions’ unprovable possibilities dictates our fate.

    I am critical of historical fiction that use long dead names but so little of the admittedly thin history. I can forgive such a high degree of storytelling in the ancient plot, but the use of real people from modern history with the employment of so little factual information about them is hard to accept. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine that many living relatives will find much to question. Ferrer avoids deformation of character and we are already a century away from their variously esteemed lives. The broad-brush strokes all feel to accurately reflect the periods, and magic aside, are very believable. Perhaps I am allowing my love of history to make me over critical of this historical fiction, and certainly many reviews suggest that I am.

    Ferrer’s descriptive writing is first class. I can imagine that all his readers entertain the same picture and social interactions almost exactly as I do. I could easily imagine myself to be an observer on the ’passenger’ boat, in the biplane, or climbing the walls of Angkor Wat. I could smell the gangrene, feel the shacking earth, hear the booming shells, recalled in the mind of the volunteer auxiliary nurse, from the front-line hospital wards of WWI. I could feel that I was amongst elephants, monkeys and exotic people in two distinctly woven times in Indochina.

    Why does the title use the word Indochine rather than Indochina, when it is written in English? I have no idea. I see no sign of a French language version of this book. And why the last gods, when that certainly isn’t in any way the case? Perhaps, once more my concern is isolated and obtuse.

    This is a very enjoyable read, especially for those that like to set their minds on travels through distant times and civilisations. Five stars, where those stupidly uninformative and variably indicative ‘likes’ are required. This book is strong on description that drives it plot rather than plot that needs description between its scaffolding. Good writers can take one anywhere in time, real or imaginary, Ferrer can do that with aplomb.

AMAZON LINK

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review 2018-06-15 15:54
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World / Haruki Murakami
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - Alfred Birnbaum,Haruki Murakami

In this hyperkinetic and relentlessly inventive novel, Japan’s most popular (and controversial) fiction writer hurtles into the consciousness of the West. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World draws readers into a narrative particle accelerator in which a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters collide to dazzling effect. What emerges is simultaneously cooler than zero and unaffectedly affecting, a hilariously funny and deeply serious meditation on the nature and uses of the mind.

 

I’m not sure what to say about this book, beside the fact that it is not really my cuppa tea. Not that I disliked it, I often found it amusing and I easily read to the end, no arm twisting necessary. But it certainly wouldn’t encourage me to pick up more of this author’s works.

It took me a little while to get into the rhythm of things, the chapters alternating between two narrators. Both story lines felt a bit odd to me, despite my love of fantasy fiction. But it was interesting in its nonconformity to traditional fantasy plots. Neither narrator is really very heroic, none of the women are portrayed as serious love interests, the reasons for the adventures are largely undefined, plus there is very little wrap-up at book’s end.

Interestingly, none the characters have names—they are referred to by title (the old man, the chubby girl, the librarian, etc.). Which I guess makes sense, as I assume that they are all parts of the same brain! At least it seemed to me that the point of the book was to explore the idea of the unconscious and how it interacts with the conscious mind.

Pluses? Unicorns! Even if they were kind of sad and decrepit unicorns, they were still unicorns. And who doesn’t love enemies like the INKlings who worship a large fish with violent tendencies? Also, the narrator’s fondness for the librarian. Good taste that.

Book number 287 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

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review 2017-12-29 22:16
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

This is a fantastic novella. It’s a parable of globalization, but its brilliance is in rendering real, three-dimensional characters even from a brief scene or description.

Exit West is set in the modern world, beginning in an unnamed Middle Eastern country on the brink of civil war, where two young people meet in a classroom and are propelled by circumstances into a premature intimacy. The difference between this book and the real world is that when Nadia and Saeed – and millions of others around the world – decide to flee or to immigrate, they do so by way of doors that randomly appear and allow teleportation from one part of the globe to another.

Some have criticized this decision for erasing the harrowing travel that is a hallmark of many real-world refugee experiences, which it does. But I don’t think telling the story of refugees is Hamid’s primary goal, though it is part of the book. The doorways allow him to speed up globalization, take the world’s growing interconnectedness to its breaking point in a brief span of time, and ask big questions about what how world will look in the decades to come, with ever quicker travel combined with massive disparities in wealth and security. How much sense do borders really make in today’s world and the world of the future? Can we afford to limit our focus to our own countries? What happens as people continue to flee from poor and war-torn parts of the world to Europe and the U.S. – how will richer countries respond and be changed?

There’s a lot packed into this short book, measuring over 200 pages only due to generous margins and spacing, as well as two blank pages between each chapter. But what holds it together is the vitality, complexity and humanity of the characters, our protagonists and the people they encounter as well as the characters we briefly meet in vignettes from all over the world. The book can sometimes be hard to read, especially for long stretches, because the characters’ circumstances are often tough, and when they are as real as people you know, it’s impossible not to care. Then too, the writing is excellent: not flowery, but assured, every word in the right place.

Overall, a fantastic book, with great characters, an involving story and a lot of food for thought. And while the subject matter can be difficult, it never becomes hopeless. I highly recommend it.

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review 2017-11-23 20:20
A great debut novel for those looking for a bit of magic and hope.
Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance - Ruth Emmie Lang

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This book is a joy. Readers need to be prepared to suspend disbelief more than usual, perhaps, but from the very beginning, you realise you are in for a ride where everything will be extraordinary. Weylyn, the protagonist, is born in circumstances that his doctor never forgets, and he grows up to be more than a bit special.

I will not repeat the description of the book, which summarises quite well the main aspects of the novel. Weylyn’s story is told, mostly, from the point of view of the characters he meets along the way, and who, somehow, are changed by his presence in their lives. The story is set in the present, with interludes where a boy who literally falls on Weylyn (who lives like a hermit in the forest, with a wolf as his only company) keeps pestering him to tell him his story, and then goes back to the past, and the story is told, always in the first person, by a number of characters. As all readers know, narrators have a way of revealing a lot about themselves when they tell somebody else’s story, and this is true here. None of the narrators are unreliable, but they tell us more of their own stories through their memories of Weylyn than they do about Weylyn himself. We get to know him by the effect he has on those around him (children, adults, some of the characters —those he is closest to— her revisits over the years) and he remains a bit of a cipher, perhaps because he does not know himself or can explain himself fully either. We hear from him towards the end of the book, also in the first person, but he is not a character who defines himself by his “powers” (if that is what they are), and he never gives his talents a name, although he allows people to think whatever they like (He even tries to hide his prowess behind a pig, Merlin, insisting that the horned pig is the one who controls the weather). Despite all these points of view, the book is easy to read as each point of view is clearly delineated and their stories and narrative styles are distinct and appropriate to the characters. The writing flows well and there is enough description to spur readers’ imagination without going overboard.

In a world where children and parents have difficulty communicating, where fitting in and appearances are more important than true generosity, where politicians are self-serving and corrupt, where people stay in relationships because they don’t know how to end them, and where the interest of big corporations always trumps the needs of the common man, Weylyn is like the energy and light he manages to harvest, a ray of hope and a breath of fresh air.

Weylyn is a great character, but so are most of the other characters in the book. Some are more memorable than others, but they are all likeable and changed for the better by their interaction with Weylyn.

Although there are magical and fantastic elements in the novel, in my opinion, it fits into the category of magic realism (as the world the characters live in is our world and that is precisely why people are touched and surprised by his skills, his “specialness”). It would also fall under literary fiction, although it is a much easier read than many books classed under that label (and I feel this is a book not exclusively for adults either. There is minimal violence, clean romance, and many young characters, all distinct and likeable in their own ways).

A story for readers who love great characters and like to let their imaginations fly, not always feeling the need to remain anchored to reality. This is one of those books that we feel sorry to reach the end of and are thankful because we know their memory will remain with us. A great debut novel.

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