Monthly Motif Challenge

READ THE WORLD – Albania: Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku

Translated by Ani Gjika.

A collection of poetry from Luljeta Lleshanaku examining the space between objects and people, how things balance together and the different human emotions.

I’m not someone who knows a lot about poetry, but I found a lot of Lleshanaku’s poems beautiful yet bleak. There’s a loneliness to a lot of them, when someone is the subject matter of a poem they often can’t connect with others and there’s a distance between the subject and what they’re doing. Many of the poems aren’t tied to one specific place or time, instead the “story” flows from different perspectives, almost always focusing on the mundane.

Most of the poems here were about a page long, but there were a few that almost played out like short stories – Homo Antarcticus and Water and Carbon are two examples of this. They are both sad, haunting poems about people who are at a distance from others, through they choice or not. I enjoyed the poems that were more like short stories rather than the page-long ones as they naturally had more depth to them.

The poems in this collection are quiet peculiar and haunting. Whether it’s because they have been translated into English or because they’re from an Albanian poet, they don’t quiet fit with what my preconceived notions of poetry are. It makes reading these poems an interesting experience and I could see myself going back and rereading some of them to see if they have a different affect on me.

This is my pick this month’s Monthly Motif “Read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community” as Negative Space is the winner of the English PEN Award and Luljeta Lleshanaku received the 2009 Crystal Vilenica award for European poets.

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REVIEW: A Thousand Perfect Notes by C.G. Drews

Beck hates his life. He hates the Maestro, his mother who will except nothing but the best when it comes to playing the piano. Beck is forced to live out her dreams and expectations and nothing is every good enough – it makes him hate music. That is Beck’s life. That is until he’s partnered with August on a school project. August is bright and carefree and can’t stand to see anyone or anything in distress. Beck begins to see that there is more to life than music and fear, but can he take the steps to rescue himself?

Trigger warnings for emotional and physical abuse from a parent to their child.

A Thousand Perfect Notes is often heart-breaking. It’s told from Beck’s point of view and his fear; confusion and the glimmer of hesitant hope he has deep down are all palatable.

To say Beck’s mother is horrible would be an understatement. She is angry that she can no longer play the piano, so all her energy and passion is directed at making Beck love the music she claims to love. Nothing but perfection is good enough for her and she can always find fault with Beck’s playing. And when she finds fault she can be cutting with her remarks or violent with her hands.

Beck’s little sister Joey is the one bright spark in his life before August, and his mother knows this and threatens Joey in order to make him practice and be on the piano. Joey and Beck’s relationship is just lovely. She’s such an authentic young child, who manages to be wiser than her years but also really sweet and loving.

August is like a breath of fresh air for Beck. Their friendship grows organically as she’s stubborn but sensitive to Beck’s moods as he doesn’t know how to act around her, or how to act around anyone who is kind to him. Watching their relationship develop, and how Joey fits in with the two of them, was great.

A Thousand Perfect Notes is a tough but brilliant read. Having it be a relatively simple story with its focus on Beck and his life makes it a sad read but that focus allows you to get to know Beck so well that you can’t help but put yourself in his shoes and want his life to be so much better. One thing I really liked about A Thousand Perfect Notes is that it never says Beck is a victim, he has an inner-strength that even he doesn’t necessarily realise is there to begin with and the story allows him to use that to rescue himself. It’s not that once August is around, everything becomes OK – it’s so much more than that which is wonderful as anything less would’ve been a disservice to both Beck and August as characters. 4/5.

I chose A Thousand Perfect Notes to be my pick for this months Monthly Motif Challenge “Read a book you think is a perfect vacation read and tell us why” as I always think it’s easier to read and enjoy a hard-hitting story when the sun is out and you have little to worry about when you’re on holiday.

REVIEW: I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjork

When the body of a young girl is discovered hanging from a tree, the only clue the police have is an airline tag around her neck. It reads “I’m travelling alone”. In response, seasoned investigator Holger Munch is charged with assembling a special homicide unit. That means tracking down his former partner – Mia Krüger – a brilliant but troubled detective who’s plans are to die. Reviewing the file, Mia finds something new – a thin line carved into the dead girl’s finger nail; the number 1. This is just the beginning. To save the other children Mia must push aside her own demons and see the bigger picture before the murderer becomes a serial killer.

I’m Travelling Alone is told from multiple perspectives meaning that the action never really lets up and while you may have more information than the detectives, that doesn’t mean you can see how everything’s connected straight away. There’s subplots that on the surface don’t look to be related to the main case but slowly the people become connected and the way everything is interwoven together is very natural.

The chapters are very short, often less than 10 pages, and they nearly all end on a mini cliff-hanger which makes this over 500 pages story a quick read. I’m Travelling Alone is often tense and it definitely has some unexpected twists and turns as the case develops and it becomes clear that there’s something seriously disturbing about the killer.

Mia and Holger are very different people but the way they work together is great. There’s the mentor-mentee relationship but Mia is so good at seeing patterns and the connections between things that she’s often smarter than Holger. That doesn’t mean Holger’s an idiot though, they each bring something to the partnership and the scenes when they bounce ideas off each other are enthralling. The whole team is great and it’s clear why they have been brought in on this case and they all bring a unique perspective to the team.

I’m Travelling Alone does end somewhat suddenly. Everything’s been building and building, and then it doesn’t really have the closure that I was expecting. Besides from that, it is an enjoyable and engrossing detective story. 4/5.

REVIEW: Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

After the Secret Service is informed that the Bank of England’s gold is being stolen, 007 James Bond is put on the case to track down the mysterious Auric Goldfinger and find out how he’s been accumulating so much gold. But as Bond delves deeper, he discovers Goldfinger’s dangerous connections and that he has much bigger plans when it comes to gold.

While I have watched the film version of Goldfinger a number of years ago, enough time had past that I didn’t remember much of the plot, and even if I had the book was it’s own unique thing compared to the film adaptation.

After having the physical book on my shelves for years, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hugh Bonneville who did a great job. Goldfinger is a fast-paced story and Bonneville did a great job at getting inside Bond’s head. The action sequences were exciting but the slower, spy stuff was just as compelling.

I love the character of James Bond in this story. He’s a mess, and an argument could be made for him being depressed when we’re first introduced to him in the opening chapters. He’s sick of his job, the travelling and the killing and he’s so very tired of it all. The thing I loved about Bond is that while he is a good spy, he is human and makes mistakes. Also, when times are tough and he’s in real mortal peril, his inner-monologue is emotional and reflective. James Bond also has a sarcastic sense of humour which I loved and there’s so many times he uses either wit or sheer luck to get by. For instance, at one point he blames a cat for something in the hopes that Goldfinger doesn’t figure him out.

Goldfinger and his trusted bodyguard Odd Job are both intimidating foes in different ways. Goldfinger is very smart while Odd Job is deadly. The language used to describe Odd Job and the other Korean workers Goldfinger employs is definitely racist and can be sometimes uncomfortable to listen to. I guess that’s the sign of the time it was written in.

The same it can be said of the way women are presented. Pussy Galore is a lesbian and the book states this multiple times. However, by the end it’s alluded to that she was only a lesbian because she hadn’t met a real man like James Bond yet. It’s eye-rolling stuff. That being said, while Bond is a self-confessed womaniser, there are moments, especially at the start of the novel, where it does show he can and does respect women. There may be some rather outdated views of them, but on the whole there’s less than one might expect from a James Bond story when all you’ve seen previously are the film adaptations.

I enjoyed Goldfinger far more than I was expecting to, to be honest. It’s a fast-paced thriller and Bond is much more interesting, funny and layered character compared to the almost archetype that’s seen in the various film adaptations. 4/5.

If you’re interested, as a part of my Bondathon three years ago I watched and reviewed the film adaptation of Goldfinger, along with every other Bond film. You can read that review here.

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.

READ THE WORLD – Japan: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

The edition I listened to was translated by Phillip Gabriel.

Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends at school, they were a solid group of people, three boys and two girls. By chance all their names, bar Tsukuru’s, contained a colour. One day Tsukuru Tazaki’s friends announced they didn’t want to see or speak to him ever again – giving Tsukuru no explanation. For years Tsukuru floundered without the support of his friends, unable to make meaningful connections with anyone else. But then he meets Sara, who tells him its time for him to find out what happened sixteen years ago that made his friends shut him out.

This is a book that’s been sitting on my shelves for years but after borrowing the audiobook (narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens) from my library, I’ve finally read it – audiobooks are a gift and I didn’t figure that out till 2018.

I found there to be a distance between Tsukuru and myself as the reader, I couldn’t connect to him and I didn’t really like him much either, and there’s a few possible reasons for this. Firstly, I feel the narrator might have been a factor, I wasn’t too keen on how his narration was quite monotone, so I’d sometimes find myself not really listening to what he was saying. I think the way it’s written as well was very matter-of-fact and there’s little room for emotion. And thirdly, I think maybe you’re supposed to feel that way about Tsukuru. The major point of his story is that he can’t form intimate connections with people and maybe that extends to the reader as well.

I’ve never noticed this in any book previously, so that’s either because I don’t tend to read adult fiction written by a man, or I was just unaware until social media pointed it out, but the way women’s bodies are described is just eyeroll-inducing. The way a woman’s neck, breasts and legs were described was just over the top and almost creepy at times, which was probably another reason I couldn’t take to Tsukuru. He seemed very much like the typical “nice guy” that wasn’t so much a nice guy.

The mystery of why Tsukuru’s friends shut him out and never attempted to reach out to him over the years is a sad one, though while Tsukuru gets an answer, it’s not a fully satisfying one. it is interesting to revisit his old friends, seeing how they and he have changed over the years, and how some friendships can survive the test of time and conflicts while others cannot.

Tsukuru builds railway stations and enjoys learning everything about them. The scenes where he’s sat in a station, people watching, were very enjoyable as not only are you given the facts and figures of Japanese railway stations and the people who pass through them, it feels like a snapshot at every day life for the average Japanese commuter.

This was the first book by Haruki Murakami I’ve read, but if Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is an indication of Murakami’s writing style and the type of characters his stories are about, I doubt I will be reading any more of his work. 1/5.

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.