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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-05-09 15:10
Tremendously atmospheric, despite some uneven patches towards the end.
The Invisible Guardian - Dolores Redondo,Emma Gregory
El guardián invisible - Dolores Redondo

A big shout-out to Locus Amoenus for recommending this book: it hit almost all the right spots for me.  As a result, it's one of the rare instances where a book that I'm rating 3 1/2 stars also goes onto my "Favorites" shelf (which usually doesn't happen with anything that I'm not at least rating 4 stars straight).


Dolores Redondo's El guardián invisible (The Secret Guardian) is the first book of a crime trilogy set in the (predominantly Basque) Baztán Valley in northeastern Spain, in the community of Navarra (whose capital, in turn, is Pamplona).  The book centers around Amaia Salazar, a homicide detective with the regional police force, who is sent back to her native Elizondo (the largest town in the Baztán) to investigate first one and ultimately a series of murders of girls just having entered puberty.  Amaia, upon returning home, is made to confront the ghosts of her own past, as well as that of her immediate family -- and what facially sounds like a much-worn cliché, in crime writing in particular, is delivered here with both great psychological sensitivity and very assured writing; this is undoubtedly one of the novel's strongest elements, along with its incredibly expressive atmosphere and sense of place.  Even if you've never been there, Elizondo and the Baztán really do come alive for you in the pages of this book.


The plotting is strong throughout the first 2/3 of the novel, but unfortunately fell apart for me in the final 1/3, with an ending that somehow manages to be at the same time rushed and sketchy (in the course of events, their delivery, and Amaia's sudden final "lightbulb" moment) as well as slow as molasses (in Amaia's thought processes while the plot is hurtling to its conclusion all around her).  I seriously could also have done without the worn-out "dark and stormy night" setting of the final "showdown" scene in a remote spot of the valley, complete with Amaia losing her cell phone (her only source of light),

and I don't entirely buy the explanation for what turns out to be a decades-long lag in the serial killer's activities, either.  (Also, continuity note: Either there is cell phone reception in that particular location or there isn't.  You can't have it both ways, depending on what your plotting requires at any given time.)

(spoiler show)


There is a strong undercurrent of superstition and the supernatural to the book, which again works well initially, in establishing the book's atmosphere: Most notably, the eponymous "secret guardian" is said to be a basajaun, a sort of Yeti-like local creature believed to be the guardian of the area's woods and hills.  But this becomes a case of "too much of a good thing" eventually: long spoilery rant to follow, listing my major grievances; on the superstition bits as such as well as their interaction with Amaia's (very real and painful) personal ghosts.

To begin with, the addition of voodoo into the mix in the final third of the book felt incredibly forced.  (OK, gotit, Amaia is Quantico / U.S.-trained, but for God's sake, leave it at that, it's causing enough of a [nicely-drawn] rift with some of her colleagues as it is.)  Also, note to Ms. Redondo, French ≠ Creole (neither in Louisiana nor in Haiti nor anywhere else); note to Emma Gregory [narrator of the English audio version]: a person from Louisiana would very likely still have an American, not a pseudo-French accent, even with a Creole personal background and with the odd French / Creole word mixed into the dialogue; and note to HarperCollins: for a book that not only includes English and Spanish but also French, next time please hire someone as the narator who has at least a minimal knowledge of French, so as to ensure an at least halfway convincing delivery of the mother tongue speakers' lines.


On a similar point: Note to the translator: "furthermore" is decidedly not a word that occurs repeatedly in spoken English, however common and prevalent it may be in the written language (particularly in academic / scientific, forensic, or other "high-brow" texts).  Ditto "moreover" and the like.  In virtually all of these instances, the more natural translation of "además" or "también" would have been something as simple as "besides" or "also".  I don't have major gripes with the translation, but this one began to grate after a while (and it's one of the reasons why I eventually ended up ordering a print edition of the Spanish original).


Next point: someone surviving completely unharmed not one but two run-ins with a brown bear *which is aware of them* without either having killed that bear or having made every effort of chasing it away -- are you f*cking kidding me, Ms. Redondo??  AND if that wasn't bad enough, two veritable "bear experts" called in expressly for this purpose aren't supposed to have recognized that brown bear for what it is when caught on camera, and they even go so far as too destroy the only tape available of the mystery creature (which tape might be crucial evidence in the criminal investigation) so as not to embarrass Amaia (and themselves) based on the notion that she might have had an encounter with the basajaun?  PLEASE.


Speaking of experts, I sort of liked the fact that Amaia's aunt Engrasi is a tarot reader -- unlike the extraneous voodoo business, this felt very much in keeping with the place where this novel is set.  Also, Engrasi's particular, mother-like care for and protectiveness of her niece feels natural as long as we only know that she actually raised her from age 9 onwards.  However, Aunt Engrasi's role (and character) completely falls apart when we learn in the final part of the book that she is actually a trained psychologist, bringing not merely motherly love and a tarot reader's amateur psychology (and superstition) to Amaia's personal ghosts, but clinical knowledge ... gained, no less, at the Sorbonne; after Engrasi had initially left Elizondo with the resolution never to return -- a 1960s flower girl who ended up marrying one of her professors and only returned to the Baztán after her much older husband had died and Paris suddenly stopped being fun and offering much of a perspective.  What a pity -- Engrasi had been so much more interesting before this bit of biographical detail was introduced.


(Side note speaking of Amaia's personal ghosts, I could seriously have done without her allegedy oh-so-fabulous American husband (a sculptor with exactly zero knowledge of PTSD or psychology in general) trying to mansplain her problem.  In the presence of a trained psychologist (aunt Engrasi), and in the face of the facts he had just been told, to boot.)


Lastly, Amaia's encounter with yet another supposed woodland goddess is never resolved, either.  Not "unsatisfactorily resolved" -- not resolved at all.  Not to mention that this encounter in and of itself, too, felt like waaayyyy too much of a (by this time) not-so-good-anymore thing.

(spoiler show)



So, a book that started out as a strong candidate for a 4 1/2- or even 5-star rating tumbled down to 3 1/2 stars in the final analysis, chiefly as a result of falling apart in the final third.  Yet, I think virtually all of the things that made the book stop working for me in the last part can be resolved -- and hopefully will be, with more experience.  So, I will very likely return to this series, even if not immediately: Redondo can undoubtedly write, and there is plenty to enjoy here in terms of atmosphere and character building.  I also genuinely enjoyed my armchair visit to a corner of Spain that I have yet to discover in person.


Elizondo (photo from Wikimedia)


The location of the Baztán Valley within Spain and Navarra, respectively, and of Elizondo within the Baztán (graphics from Wikipedia)

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review 2019-03-11 22:50
A Poor Man's (or Woman's) "House of the Spirits"
The House on the Lagoon - Rosario Ferré,Silvia Sierra

Ugh.  If this hadn't been my final "Snakes and Ladders" book I'd have DNF'd it.  This is essentially a Puerto Rican version of House of the Spirits minus magical realism, plus a plethora of characters and episodes that don't greatly advance the plot (think 500-episode telenovela) and a whole lot of telling instead of showing.  That isn't to say I learned nothing at all about Puerto Rico, its people and its history -- indeed, the island itself was by far this book's most interesting, believable, fully elaborated and just plain likeable character -- but by and large, I'd have accomplished more by reading a nonfiction history book or a travel guide about Puerto Rico ... or by going there to see it for myself.  (Which I'm still hoping to do at some point.)


Nevertheless, I've enjoyed my "Snakes and Ladders" run enormously -- a huge thanks to Moonlight Reader for her spur-of-the-moment inspiration in initiating this game!


(Charlie and Sunny also say thank you for the exercise and all the snacks along the way.)


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review 2015-01-20 18:43
After London, Or Wild England by Richard Jeffries
After London Or, Wild England - Richard Jefferies

Another early example of post-apocalyptic writing, albeit 60 years after Shelley's "The Last Man". Stylistically this is a lot easier to read. For a Victorian era writer, Jeffries has a distinctly clean and clear "let's get on with it" style. 


The book is divided into two parts, and the first relatively short part "The Fall into Barbarism" beautifully describes the destruction of England due to some unknown catastrophe, and the effects as the wilderness reclaims the land. Jeffries was a naturalist and nature writer, and this part simply sparkles. If the whole book had been like this, I might even have given it 4 or 5 stars. This first part has been widely compared to Alan Weisman's "A World Without Us", which itself is an expanded version of this article in Discover Magazine. Jeffries concludes nature would have retaken most of England a scant 90 years later, while Weisman predicts it would take a little longer, but given the relative density of settlement and durability of building materials and architecture, I think as thought experiments, they come to pretty much the same conclusions. Anyway this part is a lot of fun to read.


Unfortunately, the second, longer part, is just not nearly as much fun. It's still quite readable, and in fact a fast read. It's also a bit confusing. The few remaining people have formed a completely feudal society. And we have a petty tyrant prince in charge of the whole shebang, the Welsh and the Irish constantly invading and trying to wipe out the hated "Saxons" as revenge for centuries of history (I can actually believe this part - except, where are the Scots? You'd think they'd be all over it!). 


So our hero, a minor lord named Felix Aquila decides to rather pointlessly take off in a boat and go exploring the middle of the UK, which has now been turned into essentially a giant lake. The problem really is, Felix is a bit of a jerk and not particularly cool, and the plot is kind of pointless. And it ends in the most random way possible, to the point I went looking if there was another chapter or two that my copy was missing. There wasn't.


Even this second part, is not totally without redemption, particularly in the description of the society as it now remains, and the occasional wandering back into the scenery which Jeffries can't help himself with. But it's at best "it was ok" compared to the opening.


In summary, I think I would very much like to read more of Jeffries nature writing, but as a novelist, not for me. 


Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/13944 among other places

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review 2015-01-19 12:58
The Last Man, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
The Last Man - Mary Shelley

My fortunes have been, from the beginning, an exemplification of the power that mutability may possess over the varied tenor of man's life


tl;dr version: More interesting as an artefact of early post-apocalyptic literature, and perhaps for the lightly hidden portraits of Shelley and Byron by someone who knew them very well. Hard going as a leisure read, but definitely interesting.


This is no doubt, one of the earliest of the post-apocalyptic novels (although the post-apocalyptic tradition itself is immeasurably older). From that point of view it's fascinating. The book is set in an early 2000's that looks remarkably like the 1800's, other than England is a republic, the king having abdicated. Otherwise, there is still a war going on in Greece, class is still the biggest societal divide, and really, the society portrayed is more of a portrait of what was going on when it was written than any guess at how society itself may have changed in the future. 


Plotwise... well there's about 20 different plots going on at once here. It's very convoluted and involves many complicated love triangles and squares and possibly other polygons. Until, rather later in the book than I expected, tragedy strikes, as a vicious plague starts to kill everyone, everywhere. England, at first thought immune, quarantines itself, but eventually even that falls. It's terribly tragic, and awfully romantic (in the period sense, definitely not in the modern genre sense). As is typical of the time, and of Shelley's writing itself, it's quite dense. Here's the first paragraph:


I am the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole; and yet, when balanced in the scale of mental power, far outweighed countries of larger extent and more numerous population. So true it is, that man's mind alone was the creator of all that was good or great to man, and that Nature herself was only his first minister. England, seated far north in the turbid sea, now visits my dreams in the semblance of a vast and well-manned ship, which mastered the winds and rode proudly over the waves. In my boyish days she was the universe to me. When I stood on my native hills, and saw plain and mountain stretch out to the utmost limits of my vision, speckled by the dwellings of my countrymen, and subdued to fertility by their labours, the earth's very centre was fixed for me in that spot, and the rest of her orb was as a fable, to have forgotten which would have cost neither my imagination nor understanding an effort.


It doesn't really get any lighter from there either! I found I could only stand a chapter or two a day, before I had to go hunting for some lighter fare. It's also really really long. 


You'll need either a classical education (which I don't have) or wikipedia on speed dial I think, to even make sense of a lot of the allusions. For instance the prologue is a tale of a journey to the sybilline oracles cave (and you are expected to know all about her already, which I didn't, much), and contains multiple quotes in several foreign languages. Personally I find that kind of thing fun if I'm in the mood for it, ymmv.


It's also fascinating reading if you're interested in Byron and Shelley. Mary was banned by her father-in-law from writing about Shelley in a real biography, so she wrote him into her novels instead, and here a main character (Adrian) is heavily modelled on him (albeit unwittingly, according to her own letters.) Meanwhile another major character, Lord Raymond, is apparently suspiciously like Byron, the original mad, bad and dangerous to know character. Raymond is certainly all three of those.


Readily available from Project Gutenberg among other places. 

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review 2013-11-29 14:04
Unexpectantly satisfying
The Summer Book - Tove Jansson,Thomas Teal,Kathryn Davis

Looking at the cover, I easily dreamt myself to an island to spend my summer holidays on. Love it!


my thoughts

I picked up "The Summer Book" when the summer was already over and autumn greeted me with leaves falling from the trees. I was not quite ready to believe that the summer was over and therefore wanted to read "The Summer Book", as a reminder of summer.

As life goes and stuff happens I got sidetracked and found my way back to this little gem in November. It's almost winter now and the first snow fell already. My mood has switched and I want to read cozy or holiday themed books or so I thought. It's not at all fair to the book that I have those thoughts.

It is a cute little island in Finland where the story takes place. It needed some time but Sophia and her grandma have wormed their way into my heart. I felt that I've been welcomed in the midst of the family while reading. Each day chapter held a new adventure at the ready.


Finally, I can say: dear book, I will see you next year.

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