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review 2018-02-08 17:37
El Tiempo entre Costuras/The Time In Between by María Dueñas
El tiempo entre costuras - María Dueñas

This is a fun, lively work of historical fiction, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It follows the adventures of Sira Quiroga, who in the 1930s is a young, immature Spanish seamstress from a working-class background. She makes some poor life decisions which leave her alone in Morocco, indebted and unable to leave the country, and through a combination of dangerous adventures and hard work, manages to grow up and open a high-class dressmaking business. Which comes in handy for the Allies in World War II, when she is recruited as a spy.

I am typically less critical of books I read in Spanish, since the language requires much more concentration from me than English; this book I enjoyed almost entirely for its fun and sometimes exciting plot, rather than for any exceptional character development or insight into human psychology. But it is a lively and enjoyable plot, and I was quickly immersed in Sira’s struggles. The book provides a satisfying balance between lighter and darker elements: unlike in a lot of historical fiction, which focuses on the wealthy and privileged, the obstacles Sira faces are major and the stakes often high, but at the same time she builds a support network that keeps her story from ever becoming too dark. Similarly, most of the book takes place against a backdrop of war, but Sira waits out the Spanish Civil War in Morocco and spends WWII in Spain, so never encounters war firsthand. It’s a balance, in other words, that allows the story to be gripping without being brutal, and fun without being frivolous.

It’s also a good choice for readers who like to learn about a historical place and time through fiction: even while Sira has her own personal struggles, the book is engaged with its historical milieu, and real historical figures play major secondary roles. It does tend to assume (at least in the Spanish edition) some knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, prompting me to do a little of my own research. And I certainly learned from it; I had little knowledge about the bond between Franco and Nazi Germany, for instance, nor how close Spain was to entering the war on the Axis side. The author’s background is as a professor, and she does an excellent job of combining rigorous research with great storytelling.

Overall, this isn’t a life-changing book for me and it’s one I’ll remember more for its enjoyable plot than other literary accomplishments, though in terms of writing style and especially doing the research it is a cut above the general run of historical fiction. I enjoyed and would recommend it.

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text 2018-01-25 12:58
Spanish

I´ve been trying to learn Spanish on my own for a couple years now and haven´t gotten very far.  I do know some basic stuff that is a little useful but not enough to say much or have a conversation.  I got this thing in the mail before I went on my trip to California and just happened to pick it up just before the sale was over.  I ordered a Beginning Spanish course and I´m already very happy with it.  I haven´t received the DVD or the book in the mail yet but I can access the material online.  I finished the first lesson and feel pretty good about it.  I´m going to practice that lesson more for a few days and see if I can keep more of it in my head without leaks.  I may need some corks.

 

Anyway, if anyone cares I ordered it through The great courses.  There are many other classes but I honed right in on what I wanted.  It is taught by an actual professor dude from the University of Alabama.  I looked him up and found him on their website.  Can you tell I´m a skeptic?  

 

One thing I was always frustrated with when trying to learn with other apps, sites and misc other things was organization of the material.  I have learned a lot with Duolingo but they throw verbs out but don´t really teach how to know which form to use well.  I wanted a book that laid out which to use is a chart.  I learn best from books.  Go figure.  

 

This course teaches using video, audio, and a book.  The dude is very easy to follow and doesn´t talk to fast.  I listened to the audio portion which had the vocabulary words and practice phrases etc.  There were a few things I didn´t get but the book helped with that.  Now I hope to be able to understand all of it when I listen again.  

 

There was another app that I was using that was teaching greetings and responses.  It went through the conversation way too fast for me and I was so confused.  After just doing the first lesson of this I understand it so much better.  

 

I sound like an infomercial.  I am not just a student, I´m also not the president.  

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review 2018-01-24 12:55
Historical fiction with a difference. One story, two narrators, two styles, and many questions.
Tearagh't - Craig Newnes

This is a puzzling book. On the one hand, there is the story it tells, that is fascinating but not complex to explain and summarise. The book is divided into three parts, and tells the story of two lovers, living in XVI century Spain, both conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism, although, at least in their case and that of their families, they remain Jews, only they practice their religion in secret, to avoid the Inquisition and the risk of being expelled from the country). The man, Isidore, enlisted in the Spanish Armada, to see the world, although he was never convinced of the logic of that war. The first part consists of a partial diary of his adventures, both at sea and later in Tearaght (an Irish island, the westernmost of the Blasket Islands), that was recovered by a sailor and translated into English, a peculiar English (that I understand the author acknowledges is his own creation and a reimagining of how the Old English mixed with the original Spanish might have sounded like). The second part is the story of his lover, Beatriz, pregnant when he leaves, and her life back in Spain, constantly wondering where he might be and waiting for his news. In contrast, her story is told in modern English, and is very modern indeed, with plenty of detail of what her life is like, her lifestyle (including going out with female friends, drinking, talking about sex a lot, and thinking about it, later having a baby boy, and being pressurised into a possibly advantageous marriage), and a third part, much shorter, again written by the woman, who must make a decision when she discovers her lover’s diary. Will she go after him and try to find him? Or will she marry a rich man to make sure their son is safe and has the best possible start in life? This brief part is written in a similar style to the first.

Isidore’s story is heart-wrenching. It is a story of adventures, male friendship (international, as there are men from everywhere aboard the ships, and they even meet friendly English men later, and also men from all walks of life such as sailors, soldiers, writers (Lope de Vega makes an appearance, Cervantes is mentioned more than once, and later on Kid and, of course, Shakespeare). Rather than a factual and aggrandising story (HIStory), there is much discussion about emotions, confidences, feelings, and much self-doubt. Although there are funny moments interspersed in the narrative (mostly because it does not follow a chronological order), there are, mostly, terrible times. Death, disaster, and sadness abound, and it seems that all that keeps him alive is his hope to see his beloved again. There are incredibly sad and touching moments in this part of the book, and although, as I said, the language is mock-Ole-English, once we get used to it (saying it out loud in your head helps), it is easy to follow, even taking into account that it is not in the right order and we jump backwards and forward in time. And, although he does refer to his lover often, the style and the discourse seems to be in keeping with what readers would expect of a well-researched historical novel set at that time. However, the style is more intimate and personal, and more emotional, than what we would expect in a male narrative of the period.

I think most readers will wonder why the woman’s story is written in such a different way, as the change feels like a jolt, and at first I wondered if it was set in a different historical period, but as we read on it is evident it is the account of Isidore’s lover, Beatriz.  A common thread of both stories is the need of the protagonists to write. While for the man, although he questions his merits, it is more acceptable (and they even call him a writer), the woman describes how, sometimes, her need to write makes her stop what she is doing, her chores, to write, even if it is only about her chores. She does not have great adventures to write about, indeed. Does that mean she should not write? Both stories also talk about camaraderie, in the case of the men between those defending a mission and a vision, even if they don’t believe in it. The women talk about women’s things. Men, childbirth, marriage, romance, sex… A women’s sphere, especially at the time, was more personal and intimate (although, of course, Elizabeth I was the Queen of England, so there were some, very few, women in high places). The modern style Beatriz’s story is written in and the fact that it contains topics we find difficult to imagine writing about at the time, especially when the writer is a woman, seem designed to challenge our prejudices. Are old-style writing (more in keeping with what we imagine a historically accurate discourse would be like, even when we know it is, at least in part, invented) and a male protagonist immediately given more authority than a narrative of the period written in a modern style by a female protagonist? (The subjects discussed and the openness of the talk about sex between the women gave me pause. I am aware that personal letters, and in this case, a diary written for her lover, can be much more open and direct than we would expect of the period, although I wondered more about some of the other topics, like the fact that single mothers seem fully accepted and she is not short on offers of marriage, even after having had a child out of wedlock). She describes her process of analysis, the way she decides to study her thoughts and feelings, and indeed her lovers, and also mentions that other women do the same, therefore challenging gender expectations (women are supposed to be romantic and not be open or matter-of-fact about love or sex). We also have the writer becoming the reader later on when she gets hold of her lover’s diary. The third part, although penned by Beatriz, is written in the same language as the first. Is this a way of connecting with him, of communicating her official decision, of gaining authority? Knowing the field of study and work of the author (Critical Psychology) one can’t help but wonder. (And, perhaps overanalysing things, as I am Spanish I could not help but think that some of the expressions she uses and discusses in detail, like “falling in love”, that she feels is very apt, would not work in Spanish. Could that mean she is writing it in English, or rewriting it later? Does she indeed go looking for him, even after the ending? Or is it another way the author uses to remind us it is a story and to make us pay attention to the process of reading?)

A book that contains a fascinating story (with a fascinating historical background and some fabulous characters, both real and imagined) written in and an even more fascinating narrating style(s). Although the first part, once one gets used to the language, will grip most readers, quite a few might struggle to see how the two parts fit together (even if the characters do). A novel for those who want to try new reading experiences and check non-conventional types of writing. A word of warning, there is plenty of explicit violence, swear words, and discussions of sexual matters. An author a publisher well-worth keeping an eye on.

Thanks to the publisher and to Rosie’s Book Review Team for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I gladly chose to review. (Authors, if you are interested in getting your books reviewed, check here).

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review 2017-12-26 20:42
We can learn from books...even forgotten ones!
The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Occasionally it can fun to take a punt on an ‘unknown’ book, from a public library, charity shop or friend’s shelf, but when such a lottery yields an unexpected pearl it can be all the more rewarding. ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ was one such absorbing read, by an author (Carlos Ruiz Zafόn) unfamiliar to me, but this story is made all the more intriguing by its draw on several genres. Set in post-civil war Barcelona, there are elements of historical drama, echoes of gothic mystery and romance, thriller and even comedic moments. It’s a heady cocktail, yet the layering of the narrative is so expertly written that the reader is skilfully drawn into the complex lives of the interconnected characters. Central among them is Daniel, who, aged ten, is introduced to the strange ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, where he is fated to choose ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ written by Julian Carax.


“…few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart…”and so it proves for Daniel, as his ownership of the rare book triggers his curiosity about the mysterious author and burgeons into an ardent adult need to solve the puzzle that is Carax.


Along the way, Daniel’s relationships with his father, friends, neighbours and those close to Carax offer vivid insight into the dark days of Franco’s Spain. None more so than a vagrant, the ebullient Fermin Romero de Torres, who befriends Daniel and though exposing him to the unwanted attention of his former police torturer (Inspector Fumero), also protects Daniel and infuses him with a romantic verve for life. By contrast, a rather sinister character disfigured by fire is also lurking, bent on relieving Daniel of his book. Peril it seems is never far away.


Still, notwithstanding the well-defined Spanish social strata and the distribution of power across wealth, family and state lines, Daniel navigates a courageous path, which challenges the status quo and unashamedly asserts the capacity of love to breach such man-made boundaries.


The various strands of the plot are woven together seamlessly to create a highly satisfying whole and Zafόn’s attention to the detail of his creation ensures there are no ‘loose ends’, which I rather liked. All in all a very entertaining read, though as Mr Carax suggests, “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.” I hope not.


As an aside, this novel was translated into English by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert Graves, whose books about Emperor Claudius are among my earlier reviews. However, we should acknowledge that the quality of Ms Graves work has ensured that this novel seems to lose little in translation.

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photo 2017-12-20 17:04
Award-winning children's author Karl Beckstrand
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