A to Z Reading Challenge

REVIEW: Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung

A collection of short stories about A.J. Raffles, a cricketeer and gentleman thief, who doesn’t need to commit burglaries and steal money and jewels, but enjoys the rush of it, and his former schoolmate Harry “Bunny” Masters who he ropes into being his accomplice.

Written in the 1890’s, these stories are set in Victorian London and they’re a lot of fun. Raffles is a charming, loveable rogue, he likes to gamble and take risks. He’s a very cunning guy who can read people and is usually one step ahead of everyone else – especially, Bunny.

Bunny is the one downside to these stories. They’re told from his point of view I found him a bit wet as he kept flip flopping between enjoying his escapades with Raffles and then getting a conscience and panicking about what he’s involved with. Bunny is also not particularly trusting of Raffles when it comes to the crimes they’re planning to commit together. Part of that is because of a lack of communication between the two, Raffles rarely tells Bunny all his plans so Bunny then acts in a way that may put them both in danger, so you can see where Bunny’s frustrating is coming from.

Possibly because of the Victorian setting and how Raffles know London like the back of his hand, this collection reminded me of Sherlock Holmes – especially the films featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. There’s also the dynamics between the two main characters, there’s some similarities between how Holmes and Watson act and how Raffles and Bunny act, however Raffles definitely talks down to Bunny more than Holmes does with Watson.

All the stories are no more than 25 pages long so they’re fast-paced and get to the crimes themselves very quickly. The crimes are often clever and don’t go the way you’d expect. Naturally there’s some stories I enjoyed more than others and it took me some time to get used to the Victorian vernacular, but they were all engaging reads and I loved the adventurous and often over-the-top vibe these stories had. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Uzbekistan: The Devils’ Dance by Hamid Ismailov

The edition I read was translated by Donald Rayfield and John Farndon.

On New Years Eve 1938, the writer Abdulla Qodiriy is taken from his home by Soviet soldiers and thrown into prison. To distract himself from the physical and mental torture he experiences, he attempts to mentally reconstruct the novel he was working on. A novel about Oxyon, a Uzbek poet and queen who was married to three khans in succession, and lived how Abdulla now does, in constant fear of execution. As Abdulla gets to know his cellmates, he discovers more about the political intrigue that happened during Oxyon’s time, about the English and Russian spies, and how it has similarities with his own experiences. As Adulla identifies with Oxyon more and more, the line between fiction and reality, the past and present blurs, and his inability to trust his own mind could be his downfall.

This was a very interesting book. It’s a difficult book to describe as it’s a story within a story. There’s Abdulla’s life in jail, the fellow prisoners he meets, some of which he knew from life outside prison, and others he had just met. There’s the soldiers and interrogators that make his life hell, and he’s on a constant knife-edge, not knowing who he can trust or why he’s been imprisoned. Then there’s the historical story of Oxyon, her different husbands, her time as a part of a harem and her poetry. This story takes place in the 1800’s and as it progresses you can see how events then can be compared to life in 1930s Uzbekistan.

As I read The Devils’ Dance I figured out that Oxyon’s story and the different characters mentioned in that part, were real historical figures, though some of what was written may have been fictionalised. However, I didn’t realise until to the Translators Afterword, that Abdulla Qodiriy was a real person too. It’s documentary fiction, imagining what his experience in jail was like and how he coped. Learning this gave The Devils’ Dance a new meaning in my mind. It made it more sad and made me understand Abdulla and his actions more.

The Devils’ Dance was a bit hard to comprehend at times. As the story progresses, the jumps between the present (Abdulla in jail) and the past (spies, khans and poet Queens) became less clear. To begin with, the shifts between time and story were obvious due to the formatting of the book, but as Abdulla gets more and more lost inside his own head, these stories start to overlap. Also, as I have no knowledge of the khans, queens and political turmoil historically present in Uzbekistan and the surrounding area, it was new to me and it was sometimes hard to follow these historical figures and their actions.

That being said, I enjoyed how The Devils’ Dance showed me a part of the worlds history that I knew nothing about. The different people and how they interact was fascinating. Clearly a lot of thought and research had gone into this book as you follow Oxyon’s life and the traumas she faces.

The Devils’ Dance is well written. Not only is there the text but there’s a lot of poetry in it too. This poetry is from historical poets like Cho’lpon and queens like Oxyon and Nodira. The poetry adds another level of meaning to the book as characters, both with Abdulla in jail and with Oxyon in a palace, express themselves through poetry.

The Devils’ Dance is an interesting read. It’s tough to get through sometimes, because of the brutality Abdulla faces and how it merges two stories separated by 100 years together, but the language used in it is often beautiful. It’s a fictional take on real historical events, but with a basis in research as so many historians and writers are mentioned by Abdulla and others, each looking at evidence and having a different idea as to what truly happened. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Croatia: The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić

The edition I read was translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać.

She is nine years old when the Croatian War of Independence breaks out in the summer of 1991. She is sent to a seaside town to be aware from the danger. Meanwhile, her father has disappeared fighting with the Croatian forces. By the time she returns, everything has changed – her father is missing and she, her mother, ad her brother are displaced persons, fleeing the violence with nothing to call their own.

The Hotel Tito is written in first person and all the way through the story you never learn the young girls name. It wasn’t till towards the end of the novel that I realised it was based on author Ivana Bodrožić’s experience, that she was the young girl we were following for five years.

It’s interesting to see the fallout of war from a nine-year-old’s point of view. She doesn’t always understand what different politicians stand for, the political jokes adults around her say, and what could’ve possibly happened to her father. Even as she gets older, and being a displaced person is a part of who she is, she doesn’t always understand people’s resentment towards her and she takes on the attitude of us vs them in regard to her classmates.

The girl, her mother and brother have to live together in one room of a hotel for years. The hotel is for displaced people, with whole families to a single room. As she becomes a teenager it’s harder for her because both she and her older brother don’t have any personal space, they are stuck in one room that isn’t a home for years.

I knew nothing about the Croatian War of Independence before reading The Hotel Tito. I really mean nothing as it was a conflict that I had never even heard of. The fact that people had to move from one part of the country to another for their own safety, leaving their homes and belongings, and were often met with hostility from their own countrymen is hard to wrap my head around. These people were refugees in their own country, and their own politicians near enough abandoned them, with no home and little to no financial support.

The Hotel Tito is the story of a family who are stuck in limbo, and a young girl who not only has the usual struggles that comes with becoming a teenager, arguing with siblings, fancying boys and going to parties, but also having a sense of no real security. The Hotel Tito is easily accessible thanks to seeing such harsh realities of war through the eyes of a young person, but that makes this true story even sadder.

REVIEW: Zorro by Isabel Allende

A child of two worlds – the son of an aristocratic Spanish gentleman and a Shoshone warrior woman – young Diego de la Vega cannot bear to see the brutal injustices the helpless face in late-eighteenth-century California. And so, a hero – skilled in swordplay and acrobatics and with a persona formed from the Old World and the New – the legend known as Zorro is born.

My knowledge of the character Zorro solely comes from the films starring Antonio Banderas, especially The Mask of Zorro (1998) so this was a nice insight into the potential origin story of the masked vigilante. In the original stories, Zorro was already a hero for the downtrodden, so this book is more about the boy who would become Zorro.

I really enjoyed the historical setting of this book. It spans from 1790-1815 and takes place in both California and Barcelona. I knew little about the history and politics of late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century California and Spain, especially how the California was a Spanish territory and what happened to the Native American who lived there. The book is rich in the historical details without it ever really taking away from Diego’s story.

I enjoyed Zorro more as it progressed because you first see how Diego’s parents meet and I wasn’t too interested in that, but once Diego is born and you start to follow his adventures and how he slowly begins to learn about the good and evil in the world it became more interesting to me. Diego’s relationship with Bernardo, a boy who is more like his brother than a friend, is great because they have an almost telepathic connection. How their friendship develops over time is wonderful because Bernardo acts as a foil for Diego’s exuberance and his schemes probably wouldn’t be a success without Bernardo’s input.

The action, when it happens, is exciting and the sword fights are thrilling. Zorro is a mixture of a lot of different genres, family drama, romance, and action and adventure. The story is of Diego’s first twenty years and he fits a lot into them and it’s interesting to see that as he evolves, he is becoming the hero we’ve heard of before.

Zorro is a well-written story about an adventurous young man who is a purveyor of justice, destined to become a legend. It’s always fascinating to read an origin story of an almost mythic character and Isabel Allende does a brilliant job with this one. 4/5.

REVIEW: Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh

At seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to marry a man she did not choose, a man who is the son of the Emperor. But her journey is cut short when her convoy is attacked by the Black Clan – a group of bandits and thieves who were hired to kill Mariko before she could reach the palace. But Mariko survives and vows revenge on those who want her dead. Disguised as a peasant boy, she infiltrates the Black Clan, becoming one of them, impressing them with her wit and ingenuity. But as she gets closer to her enemies, Mariko begins to discover a web of lies and a history of secrets that will change everything she thought she knew.

Flame in the Mist is set in Feudal Japan but there’s also some magical elements in it too. I really in the liked how the historical was entwined with the magic and myths, both seemed very groundedses characters reality. When this book first came out I heard it was a Mulan retelling or inspired by Mulan, and it’s really not. The only similarity to Mulan is that the main protagonist is a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to further her aims. Mariko’s goals are very different to Mulan’s. Mariko is very smart in terms of academia and alchemy, but is incredibly naïve when it comes to life outside her gilded cage. She doesn’t know how to hunt or cook or fight and often gets into verbal sparring matches with those around her to try and hide her failings.

Mariko likes to think she’s good at reading people, and has learnt to be underestimated, being a daughter of a prominent Samurai, but when she meets Ōkami she has a much harder time getting a read on him. The dynamic between Mariko and Ōkami is an interesting one and they bounce of each other really well, managing to intrigue and unsettle one another at the same time. Ōkami is just the sort of character I end up really liking. He’s slow to trust but loyal, has a deadly set of skills and is smart. He and Mariko make an unconventional partnership.

Flame in the Mist was a bit slow to pull me in. While it kicked off straight away with the attack on Mariko’s convey, I found it took a while to connect with her and her story. As the story progressed, more characters began to reveal themselves, their political aspirations and loyalty, slowly showing that Mariko was caught up in plots much bigger than herself. The second half of the book sped along though. There was a lot of action, fights and secrets revealed and it became a proper page-turner.

Flame in the Mist is the first book in a duology so natural there’s a lot of threads left hanging, though there was some good character stuff throughout the book. While I won’t be rushing out to get it as soon as it’s released later this year, I will be picking up Smoke in the Sun at some point as I did end up enjoying Mariko as a character and am interested to see how all the plot threads are wrapped up, especially the political ones. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Australia: Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan

When a young Australian con artist discovers a book titled Gould’s Book of Fish, a book with paintings of fish as well as a man’s story as a convict on Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830’s, he becomes obsessed with it. And so, begins the story of William Buelow Gould, his adventures before and after his incarceration on Van Diemen’s Land, the people he meets and how he becomes a reluctant painter of fish.

Gould’s Book of Fish is a weird one. It’s funny and gruesome and fantastical and sometimes makes very little sense at all. William Buelow Gould is a witty narrator as he recounts his life and his exploits, the way he notes his limitations and then straightaway goes against any common-sense is often farcical and hilarious. The situations he gets himself in are almost like watching a car-crash in slow-motion, you cant look away and instead are captivated and horrified.

The historical setting is an interesting yet brutal one. The descriptions throughout the novel are incredibly vivid, for instance, the way the prisoners are punished is cruel and disgusting and it doesn’t shy away from the brutalities that the prisoners experienced. Also, the way the landscape of Van Diemen’s Land (what we now call Tanzania) is described makes the location seem just as harsh and unforgiving as the people who are living there.

A lot happens in Gould’s Book of Fish and it doesn’t always seem believable. In fact, the way the story ends leaves you wondering what’s real and what’s not and even if the character of William Buelow Gould was actually a real character in the story or was he a stand in for someone else. It’s a fantastical story, especially with the prominence of the fish, each of them being related to either a significant character or event in Gould’s life. The fish are a part of him and his connection to them ends up being an almost magical thing. Though, a magical thing that’s not always logical.

I listened to Gould’s Book of Fish on audiobook, which I think certainly helped me follow the story thanks to the brilliant narrator Humphrey Bower. I don’t think I would have got on with the book if I was reading a physical copy. So much happens, and not always in a linear order, that it would perhaps be a bit of a dense book to get through. The audiobook had a great narrator though and made the nonsense story just a bit more understandable.

Gould’s Book of Fish is a weird but enjoyable read. It’s got some bizarre characters and the situations Gould ends up a part of are often bonkers and farfetched, but they’re certainly not forgettable. 4/5.

Books of 2018

Here are all the books I’ve read this year. This year, to make things interesting, I’ve signed up for a few challenges; these are Beat the Backlist, A to Z Reading and Monthly Motifs and you can find out more about the challenges here. I will also continue to make my way through my Read the World Challenge this year and once again I’ve set my goal to read 50 books and to review at least half of what I read. You can find out more about what I’m reading on my Twitter or Goodreads.

Without further ado, here’s what I’m reading in 2018! Any titles with asterisks are rereads and if it has a link that goes to my review.

January:
Artemis – Andy Weir
City of Clowns – Daniel Alarcón and Sheila Alvarado
So Long a Letter – Mariama Bâ
Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish – Richard Flanagan
A Certain Woman – Hala El Badry
Flame in the Mist – Renée Ahdieh

February:
And the Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini
Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan
Zorro – Isabel Allende
Heidi – Johanna Spyri

March:
All Day at the Movies – Fiona Kidman
– The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
Reading the Ceiling – Dayo Forster
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami
The Hotel Tito – Ivana Bodrožić
– Animal Farm – George Orwell
– The Life and Loves of a He Devil – Graham Norton

April:
The Devils’ Dance – Hamid Ismailov
Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman – E.W. Hornung
– The Ask and the Answer – Patrick Ness
The Nowhere Girls – Amy Reed

Currently reading:
– Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness

Books Read: 21/52
Books Reviewed: 17/26

Book titles in italics are just suggestions for now as to what I might read for the challenge – it’s not set it stone.
The A to Z Reading Challenge is to read a book beginning with each letter of the alphabet during the year.
A – Artemis – Andy Weir
B – Brilliance – Marcus Sakey
C – City of Clowns – Daniel Alarcón and Sheila Alvarado
D – The Devils’ Dance – Hamid Ismailov
E – Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
F – Flame in the Mist – Renée Ahdieh
G – Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish – Richard Flanagan
H – The Hotel Tito – Ivana Bodrožić
I – I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
J – ???
K – Kartography – Kamila Shamsie
L – Lies We Tell Ourselves – Robin Talley
M – The Murders in the Rue Morgue – Edgar Allan Poe
N – The Nowhere Girls – Amy Reed
O – ???
P – The Power – Naomi Alderman
Q – ???
R – Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman – E.W. Hornung
S – Secret Son – Laila Lalami
T – The Time in Between – Nancy Tucker
U – Uprooted – Naomi Novak
V – Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash – Eka Kurniawan
W – Who Runs the World? – Virginia Bergin
X – ???
Y – ???
Z – Zorro – Isabel Allende

Book titles in italics are just suggestions for now as to what I might read for the challenge – it’s not set it stone.
The Monthly Motif Challenge is to read a book that fits a set theme each month of 2018.

JANUARY – Diversify Your Reading
Read a book with a character (or written by an author) of a race, religion, or sexual orientation other than your own.
So Long a Letter – Mariama Bâ

FEBRUARY – One Word
Read a book with a one-word title.
Zorro – Isabel Allende

MARCH – Travel the World
Read a book set in a different country than your own, written by an author from another country than your own, or a book in which the characters travel.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami

APRIL – Read Locally
Read a book set in, or a main character from, your country, state, town, village
Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman – E.W. Hornung

MAY- Book to Screen
Read a book that’s been made into a movie or a TV show.
???

JUNE- Crack the Case
Mysteries, True Crime, Who Dunnit’s.
???

JULY – Vacation Reads
Read a book you think is a perfect vacation read and tell us why.
???

AUGUST- Award Winners
Read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community.
???

SEPTEMBER- Don’t Turn Out The Light
Cozy mystery ghost stories, paranormal creeptastic, horror novels.
???

OCTOBER- New or Old
Choose a new release from 2018 or a book known as a classic.
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

NOVEMBER- Family
Books where family dynamics play a big role in the story
???

DECEMBER- Wrapping It Up
Winter or holiday themed books or books with snow, ice, etc in the title or books set in winter OR read a book with a theme from any of the months in this challenge
???