4

‘The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin’ by Éric Faye (20 Books of Summer #1)

Written by Éric Faye and translated from the French by Sam Taylor, The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin is the third book in the ‘Walter Presents’ series published by Pushkin Press. Every book in the series is a standalone (so far), so there is no need to have read the others before delving into this one, although I would highly recommend you do if you’re a fan of mysteries from various corners of the world.

The novel is set in Prague in 1995, where Věra Foltýnova, a middle-aged woman claims to be able to see the ghost of Frédéric Chopin, the famed composer, who dictates some new music to her that he didn’t have time to compose himself before his untimely death. What makes Věra’s story even more intriguing is the fact that she has doesn’t have any particular musical education, apart from some piano lessons she used to take as a very young girl, and yet experts claim the music she produces (upon Chopin’s ghost’s dictation) perfectly fits with the rest of the composer’s oeuvre.

This story grabs the attention of everyone in Prague, and so the journalist Ludvík Slaný is commissioned to create a documentary about Věra and her story, although he doesn’t believe her at all. Set to uncover Věra’s purported fraud, the journalist enlists the help of Pavel Černý, a former secret police agent, who secretly follows the middle-aged woman and investigates her and her past. Is this all a very well thought out plot to deceive everyone, or is Věra truly capable of seeing Chopin’s ghost?

The novel is narrated through the point of view of both Ludvík Slaný, the journalist, and Pavel Černý, the police agent, each one of whom recounts their encounters and experience with Věra. Although it sounds completely fantastical, the plot is actually inspired by the true story of Rosemary Brown (1916-2001), an English composer who claimed that the spirits of several composers dictated their new music to her. It is a very atmospheric story, with the author transporting us to picturesque Prague, with its scenic views and mysterious stories, as we learn more about Věra and are led towards the solution of the mystery that surrounds her.

Delving deeper into Věra’s past, the author very eloquently blends her personal story with the history of Czech Republic itself, as the dissolution of the former nation of Czechoslovakia happened only a couple of years prior to the current events of the novel.

“We were all still in shock, I think, caught between euphoria and bafflement, astounded to wake up one fine morning in two countries when we had gone to sleep the night before in one.

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Faye’s prose is beautifully woven and I especially loved his descriptions, as I truly felt like I was strolling down the cobblestoned streets of Prague along with Černý, all while Chopin’s new musical scores resounded in my ears.

Overall, I really enjoyed this atmospheric mystery which transported me to autumnal Prague in a period where I can’t travel there myself. It’s definitely not a fast-paced mystery, but rather a mellower one, in which the journey of investigating takes the reigns and guides the reader through the characters’ lives and secrets.

This book combines a lovely writing style, an intriguing mystery and an encompassing atmosphere, so if you are a fan of any of those in your books, then you should definitely grab a copy as soon as possible.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

7

Akylina’s 20 Books of Summer 2021 TBR

We’re only a couple of days away from June (how did half of 2021 pass already?) and that means that it’s time for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge! Last year I did manage to read 20 books (albeit mostly not from my original TBR, which might happen again this year) but I didn’t manage to review/write about most of them. This year, I’ll try to be more consistent with my reviews and write about each one of the 20 books *fingers crossed*

After agonising about it for the past couple of weeks, this is the TBR I’m going for. I’ve included new books and old books, mostly fiction but also some non-fiction, short stories and poetry, translated fiction, a few ARCs and all my favourite genres:

  1. Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton
  2. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
  3. Toddler Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kono (tr. Lucy North and Lucy Lower)
  4. Edinburgh Twilight by Carole Lawrence
  5. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
  6. Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages by Gaston Dorren
  7. Star by Yukio Mishima (tr. Sam Bett)
  8. Killing Kanoko/Wild Grass on the Riverbank by Hiromi Ito (tr. Jeffrey Angles)
  9. And Then by Natsume Soseki (tr. Norma Moore Field)
  10. A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
  11. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  12. Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge (tr. Jeremy Tiang)
  13. Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan
  14. The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo
  15. Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan
  16. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  17. The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin by Éric Faye (tr. Sam Taylor)
  18. The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura (tr. Lucy North)
  19. The Wrong Goodbye by Toshihiko Yahagi (tr. Alfred Birnbaum)
  20. Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

June is my birthday month, and although I’ve already included some of the books I’ve ordered ahead, if the circumstances allow I will be visiting a bookshop near that time, so there might be a few changes in my list (who am I kidding, there will definitely be changes because I can never stick to a list).

Thankfully Cathy’s challenge is as flexible as it gets! 😉

Are you participating in 20 Books of Summer (or 10, or 15?) this year? If yes, I’d love to know what you’ll be reading during those three scorching months 🙂

13

20 Books of Summer Wrap-Up – Akylina

The very last day of summer is upon us (where did the time go??) and that brings the 20 Books of Summer event to a close. If you had seen my TBR post for this event back in May, you will (not) be surprised to see that only 4 books out of that list actually made it to this wrap up. I find it very hard to stick to a set TBR list, and I also acquired a few new books for my birthday in June, so the list just re-arranged itself!

Without further ado, the books I read for 20 Books of Summer are the following:

1. The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley
2. The Tea Dragon Tapestry by Katie O’Neill
3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
4. The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao
5. The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah
6. Hometown Tales: Glasgow by Kirsty Logan and Paul McQuade
7. Ellery Queen’s Japanese Detective Stories, edited by Ellery Queen
8. The Test by Sylvain Neuvel
9. Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh
10. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart
11. Shaman King: Red Crimson Volume 2 by Takei Hiroyuki
12. The Yogini by Sangeeta Bandyopadhay, tr. by Arunava Sinha
13. The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong, Greek tr. by Amalia Tzioti
14. Language by Xiaolu Guo
15. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, Greek tr. by Efi Giannopoulou
16. Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, tr. by Sam Bett and David Boyd
17. And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness
18. The Fall by Albert Camus, tr. by Justin O’Brien
19. Σώσε Με [Save Me] by Dimitris Simos
20. Hidden Places by Sarah Baxter

Although I did manage to read 20 books during summer, I’m afraid I haven’t been able to keep up with my reviews. I only posted 2 reviews of the above mentioned books, but I do have most of the rest planned, so I’m hoping to catch up during September – so I guess I only managed to complete half the challenge after all!

Since August was #WITMonth, I read 4 books by women authors in translation: The Yogini by Sangeeta Bandyopadhay (India), The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong (Korea), Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina) and Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Japan).

I also read several shorter books such as The Test by Sylvain Neuvel, a novella that offers a very interesting and very scary version of the test immigrants have to pass to become UK citizens. Language by Xiaolu Guo is a Vintage Mini that includes excerpts of the author’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, in which she recounts her story as a young Chinese woman relocating to the UK and facing the issues of language barrier and discrimination, but eventually finding solace in love.

There were also some disappointments like And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness, a story inspired by the tale of Moby Dick with a wonderful premise and great messages but sadly sort of poor execution in my opinion.

Hopefully I’ll be able to expand more on some of these books in their respective reviews soon, but all in all I’m very happy with my reading for this year’s 20 Books of Summer 🙂

Those of you who also participated, what books did you read? Did you manage to reach your TBR goal?

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3

‘The Majesties’ by Tiffany Tsao (20 Books of Summer)

Ever since I first heard of The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao, I’ve been intrigued by the novel’s plot and underlying mystery. Published by Pushkin Press and characterised as a ‘riveting tale’ of betrayal, revenge and family bonds, The Majesties is a haunting read about the dark side of wealth and the lengths people with power are willing to go to maintain what they have.

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The plot follows two sisters, Gwendolyn and Estella, heiresses to the Sulinados, a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family and their journey to unravel the deep-seated secrets that their family harbours. The novel begins in quite an eventful and shocking manner, as the entire family has just been poisoned by Estella while attending a wedding. Gwendolyn (affectionately called ‘Doll’ by her older sister) is the sole survivor of this incident and she is currently in a coma, trying to piece together the events that led her sister to commit such a heinous act.

As Gwendolyn lies in the hospital bed, unable to move or speak, she delves deep into her memories taking the reader along, recounting various events such as their university days, her sister’s meeting with her future husband, their aunt’s sudden disappearance, while attempting to understand and reveal Estella’s breaking point that led to this tragedy. Although seemingly perfect and superficial, the sisters’ lives are filled with deception, lies and abuse, and the novel depicts this slow escalation of the events until we reach the day of the incident.

Tsao has managed to build her plot masterfully and create a steady pace that gradually intensifies as more and more secrets are revealed and the Sulinados’ entire life is being deconstructed. The story starts with the mystery of finding out the reason why Estella resorted to poisoning the nearly 300 members of her family, yet the suspense keeps on building up as we discover more and more about this rich but deeply problematic family. Gwendolyn’s own narration of her recollections start as very simple, coherent and clear, but as the plot moves forward they culminate in a hazy and feverish recounting of the last conversations she had with Estella before the poisoning.

The Majesties combines the elements of a psychological mystery with a literary style, and, along with its fast-paced plot and suspense, it manages to keep the reader at the edge of their seat until the very last page. What initially appears like ‘rich people problems’, superficial worries about mundane things, quickly escalates to much more serious themes of abuse, both physical and psychological, deception, loss of freedom and, eventually, loss of identity.

The premise of two sisters, one of which ends up killing their family (and herself in the process in the case of The Majesties) initially reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in The Castle. Although they are two very different books in their respective plots and eventual execution, Tsao has crafted an equally intriguing psychological mystery, exploring the darkness that resides in one’s heart and the lengths certain people are willing to go to in order to keep up appearances and preserve their supposed image.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed The Majesties and Tsao’s portrayal of the seemingly ideal yet corrupt world of this Asian family, as well as exploring the psychology of both sisters and their attempt to cope with a reality that seems to increasingly suffocate them and entrap them.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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17

20 Books of Summer 2020 – Akylina

Summer is just around the corner, and although this year’s summer is going to be very different due to the pandemic, we can still find comfort and solace in our books. For this reason, I decided to participate in 20 Books of Summer, organised by the lovely Cathy at 746books.

I have chosen some books that I planned to read this year, an assortment of review copies, murder mysteries, Japanese literature, fantasy and translated literature. I love how versatile this challenge is, since it allows you to change the books you’ve initially chosen or even increase/decrease the number as you go. It’s still quite unclear how busy this summer will be for me at work, plus I have chosen some quite chunky books, so I’m always relieved at the idea that I can edit my TBR as I see fit. Also, June is my birthday month, and I do expect to acquire a few new books 😉

So, without further ado, my current TBR for the 20 Books of Summer challenge is as follows:

1. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier
2. The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
3. Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko, tr. by Polly Barton
4. 1793 (published as The Wolf and the Watchman in English) by Niklas Natt och Dag, tr. in Greek by Grigoris Kondylis
5. Murder in the Museum by John Rowland
6. The Other Mrs. Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis
7. The Yogini by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, tr. by Arunava Sinha
8. The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie
9. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
10. Hide My Eyes by Margery Allingham
11. Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami Mieko, tr. by Sam Bett and David Boyd
12. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, tr. by Ginny Tapley Takemori
13. The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao
14. The Muse by Jessie Burton
15. Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara, tr. by Cathy Hirano
16. A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
17. Strokes of Brush and Blade: Tales of the Samurai by Various
18. The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson
19. Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
20. The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo, tr. by Yumiko Yamazaki

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Are you participating in 20 Books of Summer? What are your summer reading plans?

9

A Homage to Greek Literature

A few months ago, I came to a dreadful realisation while I was browsing my bookshelves: the number of Greek literary pieces that I have read thus far is painfully lower than any English/American or Japanese ones. So, being in a slightly nationalistic mood, I decided to start mending this situation and indulge myself in some of the great literature my home country has to offer.

Do not let the title fool you, though. I will briefly talk about the 9 Greek books I managed to read this year so far, without it meaning these are the best among all Greek literary works. It is just a selection of 3 novels, 2 short story collections, 2 poetry collections, 1 play and 1 essay, randomly picked up from my shelves. I should also mention that, as far as I am informed, some of these works have not been translated to English (or any other language I guess), but I still thought spreading the word about them could probably benefit some people.

A quick disclaimer before I begin. The translations of the titles of all the untranslated books I present here are my own. By no means does it mean that these are official (or even entirely correct) translations of the titles.

I will begin with the novels first:

The Demon by George Theotokas

First and foremost, the title can refer to both a ‘flair’ someone may have towards something and a ‘demon’, as in the supernatural creature that supposedly exists to create trouble in our lives (I’m pretty sure the title would give any translator a major headache as to how it should be rendered as). Having said that, I immensely enjoyed this novel. It’s a first person narration of a boy living his teenage and early adulthood years in a Greek island, Chios, where he meets the family of one of his closest friends and falls in love with his sister. Everyone in this family seems to have a flair for something (the father is a distinguished mathematician and the sister adores the works of Shakespeare and aspires to become a stage actress) but they also act strange (as if they are possessed) and a lot of trouble ensues. The novel is written in beautiful language and the descriptions of both places and the characters’ feelings are glorious. It tackles themes such as dreams, death, family relations and friendship and it leaves you wondering whether this ‘demon’ that possesses all of us is truly responsible for everything that happens.

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Now, this is what I call great crime fiction. The author is Greek, but he lives in Sweden and so his novel gives off a very ‘Scandinavian’ aura. The premise is quite familiar to all crime fiction readers: a police detective has undertaken the task of cracking the case of a serial killer who has gone berserk. It sounds simple and like something that has been done so many times before, but it is worth every single minute you invest reading it. I loved the plot, I loved the twists and, most importantly, I loved the writing.

Ecstasis by Menelaos Lountemis

Another beautifully written piece of literature. The plot is quite simple and at times it resembles more a philosophical or biographical text rather than a novel. The story starts with the chance encounter of the protagonist with a writer. The protagonist invites the man to his house where they eat their meals and spend their time talking and analysing a plethora of different topics concerning life. A great and fairly short book.

Next are the short story collections:

It’s Time for Chocolate by Loty Petrovits-Androutsopoulou

This is a collection of short stories written for children, but these are some of the most beautiful and moving stories I have ever read. They take place at around the time of World War II in Athens, in the neighbourhood where the author grew up. She has taken some of her own memories from the time of the war and how she experienced everything through the eyes of a child and transformed them into stories. The title is very cleverly explained in one of the stories – since chocolate was very rare to find during the war, whenever the author and her friends were treated to some they were ecstatic. Thus, eating chocolate became their happy moment, and whenever in their later lives they felt the need to feel happy again, it simply meant that ‘it was time for chocolate’.

Black Pearls by Fotis Thalassinos

I really liked the ideas behind those short stories, but I felt that their execution on paper was not as successful. The language was nice in general, even though at times it seemed that the author was trying too hard to sound lyrical and poetic, which resulted in a prose that seemed forced. I wouldn’t say that these stories are like pearls, as the title suggests, but they surely are something different from the greek literature that I usually encounter.

Continuing with the two poetry collections:

The Time In-between by Mira Nileou

 I stumbled upon this marvellous poetry collection on a used bookstand in the centre of Athens. It was a very slim and very cheap book with an interesting-sounding title, from an author I had never heard of before (and about whom I have still not found absolutely any information), so I simply had to purchase it. I haven’t read much poetry in general, but I can tell when a gem lands on my hands. This book definitely belongs in that category. All the poems were marvellously written in the most lyrical manner. Needless to say, it became an instant favourite of mine.

Emotions Mean the World by Marika Lamprou

Another great poetry collection which I read at the beginning of summer, but which also, in retrospect, didn’t leave me a very lasting impression.

The play I read was:

Plutus by Aristophanes

I tried to read this in the original language, but I failed miserably, so I reverted back to my modern Greek translation. I really enjoyed reading this play. I hadn’t read an entire play of Aristophanes so far, just bits and pieces here and there, and I feel so satisfied that I finally read this in its entirety. The satire was sublime and the allegories so excitingly brilliant. This might actually be the first book on my list that has been translated to other languages.

And, last but certainly not least, the essay:

The Saviors of God (Ascetics) by Nikos Kazantzakis

 Probably one of the most well-known modern classic Greek authors, Kazantzakis’ works have been widely translated. His name might ring a bell to some of you, even. This book is in essay form and he discusses and analyzes various philosophical and existential problems among other topics. His writing style is superb and reading this book has wet my appetite for more of his magnificent writing.

I hope you enjoyed this post. I also hope the fact that I included mostly books that haven’t been translated in English yet didn’t upset you much.

10

‘Snakes and Earrings’ by Hitomi Kanehara **

Snakes and Earrings is a short novella written by Hitomi Kanehara and it has won the Akutagawa Literary Prize in 2003, one of the most prestigious and well-recognised literary prizes in Japan. The story revolves around Lui, a nineteen-year-old girl who, after meeting Ama, a guy whose body is full of tattoos and who also has a snake-like forked tongue, becomes mesmerised by this body transfiguration process and embarks on a journey to evoke it on her own body as well.

922711I was initially quite excited to read this novella, as the plot sounded rather intriguing and I had also heard it being praised by some literary people I admire and respect. Haruki Murakami’s brother, Ryu Murakami (whose writing is rather darker and more provoking than his world-famous brother’s) was a member of the critics team who chose the Akutagawa Prize winner and he characteristically said that Kanehara’s story was immediately recognised as the best among all works that had been submitted for the prize that year – a statement which certainly creates some expectations and raises the bar at a rather high level.

To my own disappointment, however, this book was nowhere near as good and gripping as I expected it to be. The writing seemed flat and immature, the dialogues were rather poorly written (one could argue that they were ‘realistic’) and I could not like or even empathise with a single character throughout the entire story. There is some mystery towards the end of the book, when a murder occurs and the plot gets a bit more complicated, but it sadly was not anything mind-blowing.

I understand that this book is targeted towards and tackles the issues of a specific generation of Japanese youth, but it just did not work for me. Instead of feeling the struggles of the characters and the hardships they had to overcome I only kept thinking how all the characters in this book belong to a specific category of people (the ‘rebels’ or ‘non-conformists’ or however you want to call them) who had nothing to do in their lives and just let their time slip away with drinking, having sex and the like.

Another issue I had with this book were the descriptions of the processes of getting different parts of your body pierced or stretched or, even worse, split, like Ama’s forked tongue. Now, I’m a very squirmish person when it comes to graphic descriptions of the sort, and so I really did not appreciate the way in which the author seemed to describe those processes, as if she was talking about a simple recipe or something.

Since it is a very short book (my edition was 126 pages) and not difficult at all, it makes for a very quick read. I can see why this book may have caused an uproar as a shocking tale, but I believe it had more problems than redeeming qualities for it to become such a best-seller and a prize winning novel. I admit it kept me thinking about the events and the characters for a quite a while after I read it, but the feelings it left me with were pretty much those of sadness at the realisation for one more time that this world can be such a dark and desperate place and disappointment because I expected so much more from this story.

I read this book as part of the 20 Books of Summer challenge and the Japanese Literature Challenge 9.

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13

Finding Reading Challenges… Well… Challenging!

I have been an awful reader of late.  Rather than getting through tomes at my usual pace, I have been rather busy, and have let my reading slide in consequence.  I was away for half of August, first in France and Belgium with my parents, and then in Oslo with my boyfriend – and reading was, understandably, not my main priority.

Perhaps predictably, then, I have failed with my 20 Books of Summer challenge.  I am also struggling to keep up with my Virago and Persephone lists; I had not set myself numeric goals to get through a prescribed number each month, but I have not been purchasing books, and have fallen behind somewhat.  The same can be said for mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women Challenge.  I have had to reschedule some old posts to keep up with the aforementioned, and there is no way that I will meet the target by the end of the year.  I am fully resigned to the fact that I probably will not meet my Classics Club target either, as University reading obviously has to take priority.

From now on, then, I am not going to be subscribing to any reading challenges.  Whilst I love creating the initial lists, and beginning to read from them, I never find that I am entirely satisfied with my reading pace.  I am going to be completing my Classics Club list, but may need more time in which to do so.  I will also be finishing my Virago and Persephone lists, but these are evidently longterm goals, rather than those which I will be able to complete soon.

Here ends this rather depressing post; I can only cross my fingers that my reading picks up a little in future.

11

‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen ****

I read this book as part of the Austen in August challenge, the 20 Books of Summer challenge and the Reading England 2015 challenge.

First of all, I enjoyed Sense and Sensibility almost as much as I thought I would. Having read Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion, right before reading this one, some changes in style and in the maturity of the writing were more than apparent to me. (I’m really bad at differentiating among styles, so I was happy to notice this change). sense-and-sensiblity

Sense and Sensibility had some elements that took me by surprise. Despite the novel’s (and Jane Austen’s in general as far as I know) initial cheerful tone and atmosphere, it ended up containing some scenes that described heartache and the feelings of abandonment and being deceived in a pretty accurate manner. Still, the anguish of lost love is nowhere near as harrowing as that in Persuasion.

I loved the characters of both sisters, as I think that both their basic traits (Elinor’s sense anf Marianne’s sensibility) perfectly combine and complete each other. Edward was also a character I seemed to like from the very first time he appeared, though I couldn’t say the same for Willoughby – his wicked attitude couldn’t really be amended in my eyes, despite his initial prince-like appearance.

The descriptions of the English countryside, as well as of London, were as delightful as ever in all of Austen’s novels. The landscapes themselves might have not been described in much detail, but they were affected by the sisters’ feelings of the time as well as by the people inhabiting or simply associated with the places described each time.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this book a lot and the typical Austen way of wrapping every mess up in the end was more than redeeming.

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5

20 Books of Summer: An Abandoned Book!

I was so looking forward to reading everything on my 20 Books of Summer list – yes, even the more daunting titles which I included.  One which sounded fascinating – Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love – disappointed me so much, however, that I was unable to complete it.

I hadn’t read any of Forna’s work before, but was really looking forward to doing so.  I adore contemporary literature, particularly when it introduces me to time periods and countries which I have not personally experienced. Sierra Leone in the late 1960s and 1990s, the setting which has been utilised here, is one such example.

It surprises me that I could so dislike a book which has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize), and which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book.  It has been incredibly well reviewed too, by authors whom I very much admire (Kiran Desai, I’m looking at you).  I sadly found the whole so disengaging, and the third and first person perspectives which have been used alternately throughout are flat and rather lacklustre.  The Memory of Love, for me, was nowhere near as good as I was expecting, and as I did not find Forna’s writing very strong at all, I doubt that I will pick up another of her books in future.

Purchase from The Book Depository