Books

Talking about books (when I have time to read for fun)

READ THE WORLD – Hungary: The Door by Magda Szabó

Translated by Len Rix and narrated by Siân Thomas.

Emerence is a domestic servant – strong, fierce, eccentric, and with a reputation for being a first-rate housekeeper. When Magda, a young Hungarian writer, takes her on she never imagines how important this woman will become to her. It takes twenty years for a complex trust between them to be slowly, carefully built. But Emerence has secrets and vulnerabilities beneath her indomitable exterior which will test Magda’s friendship and change the complexion of both their lives irreversibly.

The Door was an interesting read. From the very beginning you’re captivated by the relationship between the two women and how it developed over time. Magda narrates the story of their relationship. She and her husband are quite privileged and so they can do their writing and not be bothered by such trivialities as housework, they employ Emerence as their housekeeper. That is after Emerence interviews them and deems them suitable employers.

From the outset, the relationship between Magda and Emerence was interesting because they had such different personalities. Emerence was secretive and had her own way of judging what was important or not. Magda was more “normal” and often cared about how things would appear to others. A lot of the times they clashed was because neither of them were very good at communicating what they were feeling or wanted.

At times, neither of them were particularly likeable and they were both so set in their ways it was frustrating to see them not try and understand the other. Over time, Magda learns to understand Emerence and her moods, but Emerence never seemed to understand or appreciate what was important to Magda if she saw it as frivolous.

The title refers to the door of Emerence’s home. She is an incredibly secretive woman and lets no one inside her home, including the police. Her refusal to do such a normal thing as welcome others into her home confuses Magda and adds to the mystery of Emerence.

The narrator of the audiobook did a really good job, changing their voice slightly for key characters and the pace they narrated really added to the haunting tone of the book. Because The Door is generally a melancholy read. Emerence has had a difficult life and the way she slowly opens up and describes events makes both Magda and you as the reader, wonder if everything could possibly be true. The Door is set in Hungary from around the 1960s and spans a couple of decades, and there’s often references to World War II and its effects on the country and the people, and also the government rules. It often seems like it was a difficult time for everyone and even Magda and her husband struggled at times, but then there is also a clear class divide between Magda and Emerence.

The Door was a fascinating read about two very different women and how they eventually found a common ground. It’s nice to see such a complex friendship where they both make mistakes and aren’t always clear about how they feel. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Turkey: The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

Sixteenth century Istanbul: Jahan is only a boy when he arrives in the city bearing an extraordinary gift for the Sultan. He has no family or possessions to his name except Chota, a rare white elephant destined for the palace menagerie. There they learn to guard against the scheming of animal tamers, gypsies, deceitful courtiers and the mischievous Princess Mihrimah. Jahan travels on Chota’s back to the furthest corners of the Sultan’s kingdom and back again. But one day he catches the eye of the royal architect, Sinan, a chance encounter destined to change Jahan’s fortunes forever as it enables him to enter the marble halls where the treacherous plot.

I found The Architect’s Apprentice a really slow read. That’s because it is more of a character study of Jahan and while there are incidents in his life, they are like a footnote in how he grows as a person. There’s really not as much action as I was expecting, especially with the blurb mentioning lies and deceit – I thought there would be a lot more political intrigue than there was.

A lot of time passes in The Architect’s Apprentice, it spans decades of Jahan’s life, and it really took me a while to realise that. I didn’t realise that Jahan was growing up because it seemed to take a long time for him to start maturing and evolving as a person. Plus, while things were happening to him, it just seemed like it was one event after the other and it was difficult to gage the passage of time.

For the most part I did like the writing in The Architect’s Apprentice. There’s some lovely passages and the descriptions of Instanbul and the various temples and buildings Jahan is involved with building and designing are vivid. It really does make the city feel alive and it often felt more of an interesting character than the human characters.

The relationship between Jahan and Chota the elephant was a big part of the story and one of the more interesting parts. They were incredibly close, and it frequently seemed like Chota understood what Jahan was saying and what was happening around them. The times when Jahan was with Chota made him feel like more of a real person as Chota seemed to bring out the best of him and he seemed more animated and not just a spectator in his own life when he was with Chota.

Perhaps it’s my fault going into The Architect’s Apprentice with vastly different expectations so what the book actually was, was a disappointment. Still if you like a slow-paced historical fiction novel set during the height of the Ottoman Empire then maybe try The Architect’s Apprentice. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Georgia: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.

Trigger warnings for rape, domestic violence, forced abortion, and torture.

At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian Empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste. Stasia learns it from her Georgian father and takes it north, following her new husband, Simon, to his posting at the centre of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. Stasia’s is only the first in a symphony of grand but all too often doomed romances that swirl from sweet to sour in this epic tale of the red century.

The Eighth Life is a sprawling epic, following one family through the generations for over one hundred years, spanning the twentieth century and beyond. It gives an insight into what life was like in Georgia when it was a part of the USSR and controlled by the powers that be in Moscow, and how the struggle for independence does not go smoothly.

The story of the Jashi family in The Eighth Life is told by Niza to her young niece Brilka. She recounts the family history, from her great-great-grandmother Stasia to her and her sister Daria, and all of the love and tragedy that befalls the family and their close friends in that time. The different members of the family experience so much heartache, it’s almost cruel or depressing how unlucky or sad their lives often turn out. Nothing ever runs smoothly for them, and there are so many instances when actions of previous generations have unforeseen repercussions on their descendants. Whether the tragedies that befall each member of the family is down to having a taste of the amazing yet potentially cursed chocolate, is down to you to decide.

This family saga takes place during the heights of communism. Various historical figures are mentioned either explicitly by name, or through their nicknames or other references. If you know more about the important figures in Russia and USSR’s history, they may be easier to pick up than if you don’t. Personally, I studied the Russian revolution in college and then only have a passing knowledge of Stalin and Lenin and know little about the other important figures of that time. I was still able to follow the passage of time, and with the Jashi family connected to the KGB and Moscow top brass, it was an interesting way to learn more about this period of history and how the extreme rules and surveillance could effect the everyday person.

At over 900 pages long The Eighth Life really is an epic novel. It takes its time to develop the many characters, but it also does a great job at keeping track of the family connections, and the little call backs to past events or conversations work really well. It’s an engaging read, and the writing is often beautiful. It’s fascinating to see how much can change in one person’s lifetime. How history can affect them in both big and small ways, and how events can shape a person so completely.

The Eighth Life is a fascinating yet often harrowing read. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of war or from how cruel people can be to one another, and how some people must close themselves off from feeling anything in order to survive. This might make The Eighth Life sound like a depressing read, and it can be at times as you wonder at how much suffering a person can take, but it also captures the many emotions people go through in life. There’s still love in its various forms, and hope, and freedom. It’s just unfortunate that those who are in love or free, can’t always experience it with the ones they want to the most. 5/5.

O.W.L.’s Magical Readathon 2020

The O.W.L.’s Magical Readathon returns next month! This month-long readathon is the brainchild of Gi at Book Roast on YouTube and it’s the third year it’s happened. Last year was the first year I took part and after successfully completing my O.W.L.’s and N.E.W.T.’s I qualified to be a Ministry Worker in the Department of International Magical Cooperation.

The challenge is based on the Hogwarts examinations in the world of Harry Potter, but you don’t need to know a lot about it or be a Harry Potter fan to take part in the challenge. The basic premise is that each Hogwarts subject has its own prompt, you read a book that fits that prompt and then you’ve achieved an O.W.L. in that subject. This readathon lasts the entirety of April so it gives you plenty of time to try and cram in as many O.W.L.’s aka books as possible. For more information on the readathon see Gi’s announcement video. It’s clear she puts in a lot of work into this challenge, she makes study guides and a career guide that has information on lots of magical careers and the subjects you need to study in order to be able to progress in that career.

This year there’s some new careers and bonus courses, seminars and training if you want to challenge yourself. I’ve decided that my chosen career this year is Mage of Visual Arts. This sounds like a fun career as you make the pictures and portraits move and it’s the most like the muggle world of film. The O.W.L.’s I need to earn are in Astronomy, Charms, Divination, and History of Magic. That’s four books I need to read but I would also like to push myself and do an extra training course. I would like to learn to operate locomotive trains aka the Hogwarts Express. I love driving cars, so as there’s no course on learning how to drive a flying car (yet!) it’d be fun to learn how to drive a train. The O.W.L.’s I need for that are Defence Against the Dark Arts and Muggle Studies. So, the total number of books I need to read in April is six. That’s doable for me.

I’ve had a look at my bookshelves and below are the books I plan to read to get my O.W.L.’s to become a Mage of Visual Arts. I’ve also got books for the other O.W.L.’s in case I do better than expected and can fit in a couple more books during the month.

Ancient Runes – Heart rune: heart on the cover or in the title
A Dream So Dark by L.L. McKinney
I’m reaching a bit here, but it has the word “heart” and a heart shaped key on the cover, so I think it counts. I read A Blade So Black last year for my N.E.W.T.’s so it’d be cool to read the sequel for my O.W.L.’s.

Arithmancy – Magical qualities of number 2: balance/opposites – read something outside your favourite genre
Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
I’m not even sure what my favourite genre is anymore (I’m going to probably do a blog post about that at some point) but a genre I don’t read that often is sci-fi so that’s the reason I’ve chosen Gemina.

Astronomy – Night classes: read majority of this book when it’s dark outside
Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki
This book is relatively short at 240 pages and is about sisters growing up in the countryside in Athens before the Second World War.

Care of Magical Creatures – Hippogriffs: creature with a beak on the cover
Infinite Son by Adam Silvera
After going through all my books because I really wasn’t sure if I had a book that had creature with a beak, I found one!

Charms – Lumos Maxima: white cover
The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan or The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak
The Bloodprint is a book I bought just because the cover was super pretty and all I know is it’s a fantasy. The Architect’s Apprentice is a historical fiction and is set during the Ottoman Empire. Both have white covers.

Defence Against the Dark Arts – Grindylows: book set at the sea/coast
Viper by Bex Hogan or The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
Both books take place on islands and heavily involve the sea. I think Viper is more of a pirate book while The Gloaming is more of a mermaid/fairy tale book – I think!

Divination – Third eye: assign numbers to your TBR and use a random number generator to pick your read
Hawkeye: Avenging Archer by Jim McCann, David Lopez, Duane Swierczynski, Manuel Garcia and Paco Diaz
Putting together all the unread books I have on my kindle, on audio and in my flat (there’s more unread books at my mum’s) I had 47 books for the random number generator to choose from. It picked number 17 which was Hawkeye: Avenging Archer which I couldn’t have picked better myself as comics/graphic novels are always a good idea in a readathon.

Herbology – Mimbulus mimbletonia: title starts with an M
Mama Hissa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi
Turns out I have one book that has a title that begins with the letter M so I guess I’m going to be reading Mama Hissa’s Mice.

History of Magic – Witch hunts: book featuring witches/wizards
Angel Mage by Garth Nix or Truthwitch by Susan Dennard or mystery book
This one was surprisingly difficult. I’m not sure if Angel Mage has witches or wizards in it but there is magic. Based on the title and the premise I’m pretty sure Truthwitch features witches. Or the last witchy-book I could read for this prompt is one I don’t have yet. I’ve ordered April’s Wildest Dreams book box and the book apparently has “Witches and scientists, sisters and lovers, priestesses and rebels” so that could work too.

Muggle Studies – Book from a perspective of a muggle (contemporary)
The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne
This looks like it’s a sad contemporary about a relationship that’s ending and it’s potentially wasn’t a healthy relationship either.

Potions – Shrinking Solution: book under 150 pages
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
I’ve got A Small Place on audiobook and according to Goodreads it is 81 pages long so definitely works for this challenge.

Transfiguration – Animagus lecture: book/series that includes shapeshifting
Downfall by Rob Thurman or The Invasion by K.A. Applegate
This subject was hard to find a book for as I don’t really read many books with shapeshifting in them and I don’t think any of my unread books have it in either. After looking at my bookshelves, the only book I could find that would fit was Downfall. It’s an urban fantasy and I remember earlier on in the series there were werewolves so that’d count. The other option is the fact I recently learnt that apparently all the Animorphs books are available online for free. Animorphs isn’t a series I read as a child but I have vague memories of the TV show, and as they’re children’s books they’re likely to be short and easy to read (which is always a good thing for a readathon) so I could pick up the first book in the series.

That’s my TBR for this years’ O.W.L.’s Magical Readathon. Are you taking part in the readathon and what career are you aiming for? In August there’s the N.E.W.T.’s which can be even more challenging and will be the final hurdle for achieving your chosen career. Wish me luck!

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Spring TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl. This week it’s what books we plan to read this Spring (and what with this coronavirus stuff, I might actually read all of these in the next few months if I can’t leave the house). The first five books are all audiobooks I’ve recently purchased. I go through phases of buying audiobooks – especially when there’s offers on – and they’re all for my Read the World Project.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Now I don’t really know much about this one, just that it’s set in Zambia and I think it follows a couple of families for generations.

United States of Banana by Giannina Braschi
This seems like a bit of an odd book but an interesting one. It seems like it’s an alternate history kind of thing, set post 9/11 the Puerto Rican prisoner Segismundo has been imprisoned for more than one hundred years, hidden away by his father, the king of the United States of Banana. But when the king frees his son, he makes Puerto Rico the fifty-first state and grants American passports to all Latin American citizens, causing an unexpected power shift with far-reaching implications.

The Door by Magda Szabó
The Door is about the relationship between two women of opposing backgrounds and personalities: one, an intellectual and writer; the other, her housekeeper, a mysterious, elderly woman who sets her own rules and abjures religion, education, pretence and any kind of authority.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
An expansive essay on colonialism and its effects in Antigua.

Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko
My read for Ukraine. All I know about this one is that it caused a stir in Ukraine and it’s very feminist.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
I received this via TBTB Santa (thanks again Jocelyn!) and I really want to read it sooner, rather than later. Especially as I think the sequel has recently been published so it’d be nice to read them close together.

Mama Hissa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi
This would be my read for Kuwait and it’ll be the first book I’ve ever read that’s set there.

What Would Boudicca Do? by E. Foley and B. Coates
This was a gift from my best friend and sounds like a great non-fiction read about gaining inspiration from powerful and resourceful women throughout history.

Viper by Bex Hogan
I got this book in a subscription box last year and I remember my friend Bryony reading it and liking it so it’s about time I got to it. It’s kind of a pirate/sea book I think and I can’t even remember the last time I read something like that.

Infinity Son by Adam Silvera
Another book I received in a subscription box. It’s been a while since I’ve read some urban fantasy (I think that’s what this is) or fantasy in general, and I’ve yet to read a book by Adam Silvera so I’m interested in seeing what I make of his writing style.

If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them. What books are you hoping to get to over the next few months?

READ THE WORLD – Angola: Transparent City by Ondjaki

Translated by Stephen Henighan and narrated by Sam Peters.

In a crumbling apartment block in the Angolan city of Luanda, families work, laugh, scheme, and get by. In the middle of it all is the melancholic Odonato, nostalgic for the country of his youth and searching for his lost son. As his hope drains away and as the city outside his doors changes beyond all recognition, Odonato’s flesh becomes transparent and his body increasingly weightless.

While the blurb focuses on Odonato, really Transparent City is an ensemble book as it follows the many people who live in the apartment block who have connections to it, whether that’s the postman or local politicians and tax inspectors. The male characters are the focus though, with the female characters being cooks, wives, mothers, secretaries and objects of the men’s sexual desire. It’s the men who have pseudo-narrative arcs

Transparent City is such a weird story. There’s the magical realism aspect with Odonato. He slowly becomes more transparent and weightless as he misses his son and he lose hope of seeing him again, or of seeing his city how it used to be. That part, while odd is understandable. It’s a lot of the other things going on with the characters that is confusing and farcical. Confrontations and conversations appear to go around in circles, as they do their best to befuddle whoever they’re talking to with rhetorical questions and agreeing to disagree. It feels like there’s little point to their actions and it’s difficult to gage whether the outcome is in their favour or not.

What is clear in Transparent City is that money talks in Angola and those who have it can pretty much do whatever they want. There’s also corruption and violence. The police will only help people if they are bribed, and the politicians are far removed from the everyday issues an average person may have. There are sparks of goodness and community though. The people who live in the apartment block help each other out, for the most part, and will give what they can to those who need.

I listened Transparent City on audio and to be honest, I found it a struggle to get through. I think that was mostly down to the narrator. There’s a lot of characters in this book, both male and female, and he doesn’t do anything with his voice to differentiate between the characters when they’re talking, or when he’s narrating the narrative. It makes it difficult to follow the story and to distinguish who is who. Also, I think how the book is formatted influences that too as there’s no chapters, instead there’s what I presume to be line breaks when the story goes from one characters point of view to another, but that’s hard to pick up on when listening to the audiobook.

It’s a shame that I didn’t get along with the audiobook, and maybe if I’d physically read the book I might have been able to understand it better, but I do think Transparent City didn’t work for me for reasons beyond the narrator. There often seemed little point to characters actions, and the story itself didn’t seem to have a beginning, middle or end. It was hard to become attached to any of the characters, and there may be somethings in term of the culture and politics of Angola that I didn’t understand or get deeper meanings of, but I should’ve been able to follow the story a lot better than I did.

READ THE WORLD – Taiwan: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Translated by Bonnie Huie and narrated by Jo Mei.

Afflicted by her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman who is alternately hot and cold toward her, Lazi turns for support to a circle of friends that includes the devil-may-care, rich-kid-turned-criminal Meng Sheng and his troubled, self-destructive gay lover Chu Kuang, as well as the bored, mischievous overachiever Tun Tun and her alluring slacker artist girlfriend Zhi Rou.

Set in the late 1980s, Lazi is at university in Taipei but the focus of Notes of a Crocodile are her romantic endeavours and how she tries to open herself up to love. Lazi is quite reserved when it comes to love, and it’s like she gets to a certain point in a relationship and then becomes shut off and terrified about whether she has the capacity to continue to love someone.

Lazi is an interesting character because it’s like she’s searching for love and security but is also fiercely independent. It’s how those two sides of her conflict feels very relatable. She also ponders gender and sexuality, the feminine and the masculine, and where she fits within those binaries and if she even wants to fit in them.

A lot of the conversations she has with her friends are about love and how people feel about themselves and others. Notes of a Crocodile probably has the most communicative characters I’ve seen in a book in a while. There’s still instances where Lazi or her friends don’t find the right words to say at the right time, or she talks to a friend rather than to the person who is breaking her heart, but at least they’re talking and trying to figure out their feelings.

Interspersed in the main narrative, there’s the story of the crocodile – a semi-human creature that the general human population of Taiwan are simultaneously intrigued by and scared of. The crocodile is a metaphor for queer people in Taiwan and how they were treated, and how they can feel isolated and unlovable. It took a while for me to understand these crocodile-segments and how they fit with the story and how they related to what Lazi was going through.

I listened to Notes of a Crocodile on audio and I think the narrator did a good job even though the story was a bit disjointed. A lot of the chapters end abruptly, and sometimes the narrative jumps back and forth in time so sometimes Lazi is with Shui Ling, other times she’s over her, and then sometimes she’s still coming to terms with their relationship ending. Then there’s her friend’s various relationships that you see at different points too. It’s a bit confusing but the main theme throughout is finding somewhere to belong and a lot of heartbreak.

Notes of a Crocodile was an interesting read about a time, place and culture that I knew little about. Lazi is an interesting, flawed and sometimes infuriating character but that makes her feel more real. 3/5.