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‘The Singing Bones’ by Shaun Tan ****

In his inspired and unique take on the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, Shaun Tan presents seventy-five of their stories, each with an accompanying sculpture.  He has photographed each of these interpretations beautifully, with light and shadow coming into play almost as much as the objects themselves. 9781760111038

The Singing Bones includes an introduction by fantasy aficionado Neil Gaiman, and an insightful essay by Jack Zipes, entitled ‘How the Brothers Grimm Made Their Way in the World’.  Tan himself adds an afterword, which, despite its brevity, demonstrates his passion for his interpretation.  He has chosen to take extracts from Zipes’ 1987 translation of the Grimm tales; his text feels fresh and modern, whilst still getting across the horror of many of the stories.

Tan has focused upon both well-known tales – for instance, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and ‘Snow White’ – as well as the more unusual.  Tan’s accompanying sculptures are beguiling and strange; some of them are even creepy.  Despite their differences, there is a marvellous coherence at play here; details have been followed from one sculpture to another, from the set of the eyes of particular characters, to their absence in others.  He has a style all his own.  Of his work, Gaiman says: ‘His sculptures suggest; thy do not describe.  They imply; they do not delineate.  They are, in themselves, stories – not the frozen moments in time that a classical illustration needs to be.  These are something new, something deeper.  They do not look like moments of the stories: instead, they feel like the stories themselves.’

In his introduction, Gaiman writes: ‘People read stories.  It’s one of the things that makes us who we are.  We crave stories because they make us more than ourselves, they give us escape and they give us knowledge.  They entertain us and they change us, as they have changed and entertained us for thousands of years.’  This sums up Tan’s achievement perfectly; he has worked with a slew of stories which we are all familiar with, but has managed to make them entirely his own.  The way in which Tan has managed so seamlessly to translate his distinctive style from illustrations and graphic novels into the three-dimensional form shows that he is an incredibly talented and versatile artist.  The Singing Bones is a marvellous choice for all fans of fairytales, or for those who want to see how the same story can be so differently presented.

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Highly Anticipated Releases

As I do around this time every year, I thought that I would make a list of ten highly anticipated book releases which are coming out (and will hopefully be on my shelves) within the next few months.

1. Winter by Ali Smith (02/11/2017; Hamish Hamilton) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
‘The dazzling second novel in Ali Smith’s essential Seasonal Quartet — from the Baileys Prize-winning, Man Booker-shortlisted author of Autumn and How to be both.  Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer’s leaves? Dead litter.  The world shrinks; the sap sinks.  But winter makes things visible. And if there’s ice, there’ll be fire.  In Ali Smith’s Winter, lifeforce matches up to the toughest of the seasons. In this second novel in her acclaimed Seasonal cycle, the follow-up to her sensational Autumn, Smith’s shape-shifting quartet of novels casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter.  It’s the season that teaches us survival.   Here comes Winter.’

 

9781594634901_29a7f2. Awayland: Short Stories by Ramona Ausubel (06/03/2018; Riverhead Books)
An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.  Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.  Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online—never mind that he’s a Cyclops.  With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.’

 

3. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (23/01/2018; Penguin Books) 9780143128793_af956
From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at the local cafe—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of horrendous-looking criminals who, though shot, cannot be killed.  Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. As the violence builds and Hadi’s acquaintances—a journalist, a government worker, a lonely older woman—become involved, the Whatsitsname and the havoc it wreaks assume a magnitude far greater than anyone could have imagined. An extraordinary achievement, at once horrific and blackly humorous, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures the surreal reality of contemporary Baghdad.

 

9780143132004_c2ca34. Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson (10/10/2017; Penguin Classics)
For the first time in one volume, a collection of Shirley Jackson’s scariest stories.  There’s something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial  killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the crumbling country pile, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods…

 

5. I Was Anastasia: A Novel by Ariel Lawhon (20/03/2018; Doubleday) 9780385541695_eae33
Ariel Lawhon, a rising star in historical suspense, unravels the extraordinary twists and turns in Anna Anderson’s 50-year battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov. Is she the Russian Grand Duchess, a beloved daughter and revered icon, or is she an imposter, the thief of another woman’s legacy?  Russia, July 17, 1918: Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.   Germany, February 17, 1920: A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.  Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.
As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory: the nature of identity itself.
The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.

 

9781524732776_a1ec76. Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya (20/03/2018; Knopf)
Ordinary realities and yearnings to transcend them lead to miraculous other worlds in this dazzling collection of stories. A woman’s deceased father appears in her dreams with clues about the afterlife; a Russian professor in a small American town constructs elaborate fantasies during her cigarette break; a man falls in love with a marble statue as his marriage falls apart; a child glimpses heaven through a stained-glass window. With the emotional insight of Chekhov, the surreal satire of Gogol, and a unique blend of humor and poetry all her own, Tolstaya transmutes the quotidian into aetherial alternatives. These tales, about politics, identity, love, and loss, cut to the core of the Russian psyche, even as they lay bare human universals. Tolstaya’s characters—seekers all—are daydreaming children, lonely adults, dislocated foreigners in unfamiliar lands. Whether contemplating the strategic complexities of delivering telegrams in Leningrad or the meditative melancholy of holiday aspic, vibrant inner lives and the grim elements of existence are registered in equally sharp detail in a starkly bleak but sympathetic vision of life on earth.  A unique collection from one of the first women in years to rank among Russia’s most important writers.

 

7. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (10/04/2018; Hogarth Press) 9780553419054_66497
Set in the 1970s in a run-down, rainy industrial town with low employment and high crime, Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth centers around a police force struggling to shed the incessant drug problem. Duncan, chief of police, is idealistic and visionary, a dream to the townspeople but a nightmare for the criminals. The drug trade is ruled by Hekate, whose illegal cultivation of substances, known as “the brew,” is overseen by her crew, “the sisters.” A master of manipulation, Hekate has connections with the highest in power, and she plans to use them to get her way.  Hekate contacts Inspector Macbeth, popular head of the Emergency Response Group, to tell him that one day he’ll be the chief of police if he cooperates with her. When Macbeth’s love interest, a casino owner named Lady, hears of Hekate’s prophesy, she calculates who lies between Macbeth and the top job: Duncan and the assistant chief, Malcolm. Under Lady’s pressure, Macbeth does what he believes needs to be done, making sure the blame is pointed at his best friend and colleague, Duff. What follows is an unputdownable story of love and guilt, political ambition, and greed for more, exploring the darkest corners of human nature, the aspirations of the criminal mind, and whether or not free will even matters. In his retelling of Macbeth, Jo Nesbø brings the gritty, powerful procedural gusto that made him an international New York Times bestseller to William Shakespeare’s most timeless tragedy.

 

9780062685711_622b88. The Vanishing Princess: Stories by Jenny Diski (05/12/2017; Ecco)
‘Jenny Diski’s prose is as sharp and steely as her imagination is wild and wondrous. When she died of cancer in April 2016, after chronicling her illness in strikingly honest essays in the London Review of Books, readers, admirers, and critics around the world mourned the loss. In a cool and unflinching tone that came to define her singular voice, she explored the subjects of sex, power, domesticity, femininity, hysteria, and loneliness with humor and honesty.  The stories in The Vanishing Princess showcase a rarely seen side of this beloved writer, channeling both the piercing social examination of her nonfiction and the vivid, dreamlike landscapes of her novels. In a Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale turned on its head, a miller’s daughter rises to power and wealth to rule over her kingdom and outwit the title villain. “Bathtime” tells the story of a woman’s life through her attempts to build the perfect bathtub, chasing an elusive moment of peace. In “Short Curcuit,” the author mines her own bouts in and out of mental institutions outside London to question whether those we think are mad are really the sanest among us.’

 

9. The Twelve-Mile Straight: A Novel by Eleanor Henderson (12/09/2017; Ecco) 9780062422088_01d24
‘Cotton County, Georgia, 1930: in a house full of secrets, two babies-one light-skinned, the other dark-are born to Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter. Accused of her rape, field hand Genus Jackson is lynched and dragged behind a truck down the Twelve-Mile Straight, the road to the nearby town. In the aftermath, the farm’s inhabitants are forced to contend with their complicity in a series of events that left a man dead and a family irrevocably fractured.  Despite the prying eyes and curious whispers of the townspeople, Elma begins to raise her babies as best as she can, under the roof of her mercurial father, Juke, and with the help of Nan, the young black housekeeper who is as close to Elma as a sister. But soon it becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have ever imagined. As startling revelations mount, a web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the painful truth.  Acclaimed author Eleanor Henderson has returned with a novel that combines the intimacy of a family drama with the staggering presence of a great Southern saga. Tackling themes of racialized violence, social division, and financial crisis, The Twelve-Mile Straight is a startlingly timely, emotionally resonant, and magnificent tour de force.’

 

9780062676139_129e310. Census by Jesse Ball (06/03/2018; Ecco)
‘When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.  Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach “Z,” the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son?  Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.’

 

Have you been lucky enough to read any of these already?  Which are your most anticipated forthcoming titles?

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Reading the World: ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve ****

2017 seems a fitting year in which to read The Beauty and the Beast, as Disney released its live action blockbuster just a few months ago.  I did love the cartoon film as a child – my particular fondness, of course, was for the tiny chipped teacup and the glimpse of Belle’s library – but was very underwhelmed by the new interpretation.  Regardless, I had never read Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original story before, and made up my mind to do so, tying it in with this year’s Reading the World Challenge.9780062456212

I’m sure everyone already knows the story of The Beauty and the Beast, but if not, I will offer a short recap.  The tale of a merchant opens the story; once prosperous, he has lost his fortune due to one catastrophe after another.  He moves his sizeable family – six daughters and six sons – to a secluded house which he owns, one hundred miles away.  Of the effects which this has upon the merchant’s largely spoilt and self-obsessed daughters, de Villeneuve writes: ‘They thought that if they wished only for a husband they would obtain one; but they did not remain very long in such a delightful illusion.  They had lost their greatest attractions when, like a flash of lightning, their father’s splendid fortune had disappeared, and their time for choosing had departed with it.  Their crowd of admirers vanished at the moment of their downfall; their beauty was not sufficiently powerful to retain one of them’.  The girls have no choice but to ‘shut themselves up in their country house, situated in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, and which might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.’

The family’s youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Beauty, is the anomaly.  She has so much compassion and empathy for her family, and is a refreshing addition to a brood of rather horrid, vain girls.  She in fact shows strength in the face of the family’s new-found adversity: ‘She bore her lot cheerfully, and with strength of mind much beyond her years’.  When her father has to undertake a long journey in the hope of reclaiming some of his former possessions, her sisters clamour for new dresses and finery.  Beauty simply asks him to bring her back a rose.  Her father is subsequently caught in a snowstorm which disorientates him, and seeks shelter in an enormous, grand castle.  He finds no inhabitant, but regardless, a meal is presented to him in a cosy room.  He – for no explicit reason – decides that, with no sign of an owner about, the castle must now belong to him.

The merchant becomes rather cocksure, and decides to kill two birds with one stone, taking a rose for his beloved younger daughter from the castle’s garden.  It is at this point that he is given his comeuppance, and reprimanded by the Beast, the castle’s owner: ‘He was terribly alarmed upon perceiving at his side a horrible beast, which, with an air of fury, laid upon his neck a kind of trunk, resembling an elephant’s…’.  The Beast pardons him only in exchange for one of his daughters.  When the merchant describes his plight, five of his six daughters are, unsurprisingly, selfish, and believe that he should sacrifice himself for their benefit.  Beauty, however, steps up to the mark, and is taken to the castle to live with the Beast.

The Beauty and the Beast has been so well plotted, and has many elements of the traditional fairytale in its favour.  Despite this, it goes further; its length allows de Villeneuve to really explore what could be termed magical realism.  The vivid dreams which Beauty has are beautifully depicted, and tension is built at times.  I found The Beauty and the Beast just as enjoyable as I would have as a child.  The magic which weaves its way through the novel cannot fail to draw one under its spell; there are talking animals, enchanted mirrors, and things which appear and disappear.  The talking crockery and candelabra are very much Disney additions; the novel reads as a far more fresh, and less gimmicky, version of the story.

I am pleased that I chose to read the unabridged version of de Villeneuve’s story, which was published in its original French in 1740.  This particular edition has been translated and adapted by Rachel Louise Lawrence, who has very much retained a lot of its antiquity.  The sentence structure is quite old-fashioned – charmingly so, in fact.  The writing and translation here are fluid and lovely.  I would urge you, if you’ve not seen the film, to pick up this delightful tome instead.  There is so much substance here, and it should definitely be placed alongside children’s classics such as The Railway Children and Mary Poppins.

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2017 Reading Goals: An Update

It seems like high time for an update as to how I’m getting on with my 2017 reading goals.  When I made my list last November, I was aware that I was being very ambitious, particularly with a PhD thesis to write, and trying to cut down on the number of books I’m purchasing.  Still, the organised bookworm inside me could not be stilled, and I came up with rather a large list, comprised of a series of authors and a list of standalone books I wanted to read, as well as a French and Scottish reading project.

I’ve not done fantastically thus far, truth be told.  I was relying on the library to provide most of the outlined tomes when the year began, but many copies have been lost, or the previous borrower hasn’t yet returned them.  A few have been incredibly difficult to find through other avenues.

If we look at the authors and distinct books list, I haven’t done too badly.  Out of nineteen authors which I wrote on my list, I have read books by thirteen of them; the only ones which I have outstanding are Amelie Nothomb, Lydia Millet, Joan Didion, Leena Krohn, Ira Levin, and Gunter Grass.  I am going to aim to read one book by each of these authors before the year is out, but Nothomb and Krohn are eluding me rather at present.  With regard to the books which I outlined, I have read fourteen of them (unlucky for some!), and have nineteen outstanding (not so good!).  Two of these are on my to-read pile, but the others I’m not having a great deal of luck with finding.  I’m hoping to be able to get to them all by the end of the year (although I may leave the M.R. Carey by the wayside, as Fellside was largely disappointing).

I am doing relatively poorly with my geographical reading projects this year.  Of the thirty books on my Reading France project, I have read just seven of them, and have two on my to-read list.  A lot of the books which I was very much looking forward to have proved almost impossible to get hold of, which is a real shame; I may have to add them back onto my TBR list, and tackle them at another time.  With regard to my Reading Scotland list, I have read twelve of twenty-nine, and only have one of them on my to-read list (it’s actually my boyfriend’s book).

Looking over my lists, and the progress which I have made (or not!), I have decided that it’s probably not a good idea to be so ambitious going forward.  I have one project in mind for next year, but it’s free choice, so I will definitely have no trouble getting my hands on elusive tomes.

 

 

 

How are you getting on with your reading challenges this year?

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Books About Bulgaria

My boyfriend took me on a surprise birthday trip to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city, at the end of May.  We had the most excellent time, but I could not help think that I have hardly read any literature set within the country.  I am aiming to remedy that, and have chosen ten Bulgarian books (those either written by Bulgarian authors, or set within the country) to feed into my reading as and when I can find them.  I have copied their blurbs, and will ask of you two questions; firstly, which of them have you read, and secondly, which is your favourite book set in Bulgaria

110762441. East of the West by Miroslav Penkov
‘A brilliant debut from a rising talent praised by Salman Rushdie, among others.  A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the waters of the river that divides their village into East and West. These are some of the strange, unexpectedly moving events in talented newcomer Miroslav Penkov’s vision of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his extraordinary debut collection.  In East of the West Penkov writes with great empathy about 800 years of tumult in troubled Eastern Europe; his characters mourn the way things were and long for things that will never be. But even as the characters wrestle with the weight of history, the debt to family, and the pangs of exile, the stories themselves are light and deft, animated by Penkov’s unmatched eye for the absurd. In 2008, Salman Rushdie chose Penkov’s story “Buying Lenin” (which appears in this collection) for that year’s Best American Short Stories, citing its heart and humour. East of the West reveals the full realization of the brilliant potential that Rushdie recognized.’

 

2. Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova
Kassabova was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and grew up under the drab, muddy, grey mantle of one of communism’s most mindlessly authoritarian regimes. Escaping with her family as soon as possible after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, she lived in Britain, New Zealand, and Argentina, and several other places. But when Bulgaria was formally inducted to the European Union she decided it was time to return to the home she had spent most of her life trying to escape. What she found was a country languishing under the strain of transition. This two-part memoir of Kapka’s childhood and return explains life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

 

3. Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov 599370
Gospodinov flits and buzzes among various subjects — from graffiti in public toilets to the movies of Quentin Tarantino — in this tale of a young Bulgarian writer who decides to create his own version of a “natural novel” assembled from the bits and pieces of everyday life. At its center is a poignant story about the narrator’s divorce and the fact that he isn’t “the author” of his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s pregnancy. Maybe he’s suffering from attention deficit disorder; maybe he’s just stuck with a skewed if stoic appreciation of life’s messy flux. Whatever the cause, his monologue turns into a quirky, compulsively readable book that deftly hints at the emptiness and sadness at its core.

 

4. The Elusive Mrs Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
While waiting for a view of her night-blooming cereus, the mild-seeming Mrs. Pollifax received urgent orders for a daring mission to aid an escape. Soon, the unlikely-looking international spy was sporting a beautiful new hat that hid eight forged passports….

 

81846255. Solo by Rana Dasgupta
With an imaginative audacity and lyrical brilliance that puts him in the company of David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, Rana Dasgupta paints a portrait of a century though the story of a hundred-year-old blind Bulgarian man in a first novel that announces the arrival of an exhilarating new voice in fiction.  In the first movement of Solo we meet Ulrich, the son of a railroad engineer, who has two great passions: the violin and chemistry. Denied the first by his father, he leaves for the Berlin of Einstein and Fritz Haber to study the latter. His studies are cut short when his father’s fortune evaporates, and he must return to Sofia to look after his parents. He never leaves Bulgaria again. Except in his daydreams—and it is those dreams we enter in the volatile second half of the book. In a radical leap from past to present, from life lived to life imagined, Dasgupta follows Ulrich’s fantasy children, born of communism but making their way into a post-communist world of celebrity and violence.  Intertwining science and heartbreak, the old world and the new, the real and imagined, Solo is a virtuoso work.

 

6. Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates the European world of 1934–45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944. Night Soldiers is a scrupulously researched panoramic novel, a work on a grand scale.

 

7. The Making of June by Annie Ward 1536476
At first, June appears to be the ideal California girl-blond hair, blue eyes, a production assistant at a film company, and married to a hot property about to get his doctorate-but she abandons her home and job to follow her husband to Bulgaria. Within a month of their arrival, June turns thirty and her husband leaves her for a young local girl. As difficult as it is for her to be without him and virtually friendless in a country on the verge of civil war, June doesn’t run home. She drinks too much, falls into the arms of a Mafia kingpin, gets caught up in the revolution, and little by little revels in her new vision of the world outside the American periscope. She survives and learns that loss can be an opportunity and that loneliness gives a person time to change her life.  More than just a compelling story, The Making of June offers an authentic portrait of the Eastern European political landscape by an author who lived in Bulgaria for several years.

 

8. Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni
Life in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1980s is bleak and controlled. The oppressive Communist regime bears down on all aspects of people’s lives much like the granite sky overhead. In the crumbling old building that hosts the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, inflexible and unsentimental apparatchiks drill the students like soldiers—as if the music they are teaching did not have the power to set these young souls on fire.   Fifteen-year-old Konstantin is a brash, brilliant pianist of exceptional sensitivity, struggling toward adulthood in a society where honest expression often comes at a terrible cost. Confined to the Music School for most of each day and a good part of the night, Konstantin exults in his small rebellions—smoking, drinking, and mocking Party pomp and cant at every opportunity. Intelligent and arrogant, funny and despairing, compassionate and cruel, he is driven simultaneously by a desire to be the best and an almost irresistible urge to fail. His isolation, buttressed by the grim conventions of a loveless society, prevents him from getting close to the mercurial violin virtuoso Irina, but also from understanding himself.

 

136683209. A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov
After deciding to take a semester off their studies to think about future plans, long-time friends Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus decide to hitchhike to the sea. Boril Krustev, former rock star and middle-aged widower who is driving aimlessly to outrun his grief, picks them up and accompanies them on their journey. It doesn’t take them long to figure out they’re connected to each other by more than their need to travel—specifically through Boril’s daughter, whose actions damaged each of the characters in this novel.

 

10. And Other Stories by Georgi Gospodinov
Wildly imaginative and endlessly entertaining, Georgi Gospodinov’s short stories provide a hint of the narrative complexity of Borges and a whiff of the gritty realism of pre- and post-Communist life in Eastern Europe. These stories within stories and contemporary fables-whether a tongue-in-cheek crime story or the Christmas tale of a pig, a language game leading to an unexpected epiphany or an inward-looking tale built on the complexity of a puzzle box-come together in unique and surprising ways, offering readers a kaleidoscopic experience from one of Bulgaria’s most critically acclaimed authors.

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Reading the World: ‘The Longest Night’ by Otto de Kat **

I was lucky enough to travel to beautiful Amsterdam in February, and whilst Otto de Kat’s The Longest Night is set largely in its sister city, Rotterdam, I felt that it would be a good choice to read before I set off.  Published in the Netherlands in 2015, it has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson.  I had heard of de Kat before selecting this tome, but hadn’t read any of his work before.

The Longest Night begins in an intriguing manner, which makes one want to read on: ‘Emma knew exactly what day it was, and what time, and what was going to happen.  Her questions were a smoke screen, she wanted the nurse to think she was already quite far gone’.  Our protagonist is Emma Verweij, is now ninety-six, and is suffering from memory problems.  Whilst she is unable to remember anything which has happened to her recently, her past memories are vivid to her, and thus, a structure unfolds in which we travel back with her – first to Berlin, and then to the Netherlands – through a series of fragmented chapters.  Interestingly, whilst she feels alive only when searching the recesses of her mind for past memories, Emma is aware that she is reaching the end of her mortality.  In this sense, the retrospective positioning of the omniscient narrator works well; we really get an idea of how muddled her mind is as the novel goes on: ‘Her life had shattered into fragments, crystal clear, light and dark, an endless flow.  Time turned upside down, and inside out.’ 9780857056085

Essentially, then, we can see The Longest Night as a reflection of Emma’s life, and how she lived it.  De Kat has handled the sense of historical significance very well indeed; the past comes to life through a series of descriptions of place and weather.  During the Second World War, Emma’s husband, Carl, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is arrested, and she has no option but to flee to safety.  She ends up in the Netherlands.  This is de Kat’s starting point; Emma then goes forward in regard to her memories, and those whom she conjures up from the annals of her past existence are vivid.  There is, however, little chronological pattern between the memories.  This technique serves to make Emma’s story more believable; we as readers are encountering the past as she remembers it.

Watkinson’s translation has been deftly worked; the prose is fluid and as vivid as I imagine the original is.  De Kat’s approach is relatively simple, but it has been well executed.  Despite all of the positives, what really let the book down as far as I am concerned is the dialogue.  Only the minority of conversational patterns appeared as though they could realistically be uttered; for the most part, sentences were awkward and almost robotic.  I’m loath to believe that this is a translation issue.  Regardless, it did put me off rather, and I found myself enjoying the story less as it went on.  In terms of the plot too, there are definite lulls as one reaches the Netherlands alongside Emma.

There are some profound, and almost quite moving, musings upon life and death within The Longest Night, but the loss of momentum really made the whole suffer.  When I began, I was fully expecting to give the book a four-star rating.  As I neared the quarter point, however, my mind changed; I became far less interested in both story and characters, and I found myself even disliking some of the chapters.  There was an odd and rather jarring repetition to it at times too.  I have opted for a three star review, as the beginning was so engaging; there sadly just wasn’t much of the consistency which I was expecting of it, and I will thus be less keen to pick up another of de Kat’s novels in future.

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‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

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