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Reading the World: Europe (Two)

The second part of miscellaneous book recommendations around Europe!

1. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Ukraine) 9780141008257
‘A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a “blind” old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive – a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down…’

2. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (Ukraine, England)
‘For years, Nadezhda and Vera, two Ukrainian sisters, raised in England by their refugee parents, have had as little as possible to do with each other – and they have their reasons. But now they find they’d better learn how to get along, because since their mother’s death their aging father has been sliding into his second childhood, and an alarming new woman has just entered his life. Valentina, a bosomy young synthetic blonde from the Ukraine, seems to think their father is much richer than he is, and she is keen that he leave this world with as little money to his name as possible.If Nadazhda and Vera don’t stop her, no one will. But separating their addled and annoyingly lecherous dad from his new love will prove to be no easy feat – Valentina is a ruthless pro and the two sisters swiftly realize that they are mere amateurs when it comes to ruthlessness. As Hurricane Valentina turns the family house upside down, old secrets come falling out, including the most deeply buried one of them all, from the War, the one that explains much about why Nadazhda and Vera are so different. In the meantime, oblivious to it all, their father carries on with the great work of his dotage, a grand history of the tractor.’

97800995077893. The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine, Paris)
‘Ada grows up motherless in the Jewish pogroms of a Ukrainian city in the early years of the twentieth century. In the same city, Harry Sinner, the cosseted son of a city financier, belongs to a very different world. Eventually, in search of a brighter future, Ada moves to Paris and makes a living painting scenes from the world she has left behind. Harry Sinner also comes to Paris to mingle in exclusive circles, until one day he buys two paintings which remind him of his past and the course of Ada’s life changes once more…’

4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain)
‘The discovery of a forgotten book leads to a hunt for an elusive author who may or may not still be alive…Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘cemetery of lost books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out ‘La Sombra del Viento’ by Julian Carax. But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from La Sombra del Viento, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Carax’s work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.’

5. Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic (Bosnia) 9780140374636
‘Zlata Filipovic was given a diary shortly before her tenth birthday and began to write in it regularly. She was an ordinary, if unusually intelligent and articulate little girl, and her preoccupations include whether or not to join the Madonna fan club, her piano lessons, her friends andher new skis. But the distant murmur of war draws closer to her Sarajevo home. Her father starts to wear military uniform and her friends begin to leave the city. One day, school is closed and the next day bombardments begin. The pathos and power of Zlata’s diary comes from watching the destruction of a childhood. Her circle of friends is increasingly replaced by international journalists who come to hear of this little girl’s courage and resilience. But the reality is that, as they fly off with the latest story of Zlata, she remains behind, writing her deepest feelings to ‘Mimmy’, her diary, and her last remaining friend.’

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Flash Reviews (10th March 2014)

‘And the Mountains Echoed’ by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini ****
I absolutely adore Hosseini’s work, and have been very much looking forward to reading And the Mountains Echoed ever since I first heard of its publication.  I requested several review copies of it but nothing came to fruition, and I was finally rewarded on Christmas Day with the beautiful hardback edition which I could not wait to begin.

The novel begins in Afghanistan in 1952, and its premise has the power to both warm and break the hearts of its readers:

“To Abdullah, [his sister] Pari… is everything.  More like a parent than a brother, Abdullah will do anything for her, even trading his only pair of shoes for a feather for her treasured collection.”

Hosseini is a marvel.  I adored the different narrative perspectives which he made use of throughout, and the way in which he followed many of his characters – in such a way, in fact, that the first impression of many of them was not the one which would linger in the mind after the final page had been closed.  He has such skill with addressing prejudices and with changing perceptions, and the entirety of the novel’s plot was rendered so vividly in consequence.  So many layers have been placed upon one another to create the whole, and such a rich book has been created.  As one may expect from reading the blurb of And the Mountains Echoed, it is tinged with sadness from the start, but the beauty within its pages is prevalent too.  It is a novel which is well worth reading, particularly if you have a day to spare, for it is a very difficult book to put down.

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‘The Septembers of Shiraz’ by Dalia Sofer

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer ****

I so enjoyed my literary foray into Afghanistan in the aforementioned And the Mountains Echoed that I was longing to go back immediately.  I sadly did not have any books set in the general area on my to-read shelves, so I plumped instead for reading a novel which I first read some years ago, and which I did not really enjoy.  Rather than Afghanistan, The Septembers of Shiraz is set in Iran, but it provides a marvellous continuation from Hosseini’s work.

Upon re-reading this great novel, I struggle to see why I failed to like it the first time around.  The only thing which I can think of is that I read it during my A-Level examinations, and was therefore unable to fully immerse myself within it.  I am so, so glad that I thought to pick it back up.  The Septembers of Shiraz is set in Tehran in 1982, in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution.  It takes as its focus the character of Isaac Amin, a Jewish man living in the city with his wife and daughter.  At the very start of the novel, he is arrested, under the incorrect assumption that he is a spy.

Sofer’s descriptions are lovely, and her use of colour particularly is glorious.  It enables her to strongly create the sense of place throughout.  Despite this book’s length, I found it a surprisingly quick read, and will certainly be picking up more of the author’s work in future.  The Septembers of Shiraz is a highly recommended historical novel about one of the most pivotal periods in Iranian history.

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‘The Midnight Palace’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon **
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s author note in The Midnight Palace states that the novel is the second in a series, but nowhere does it say what it is a sequel to, or which series it makes up.  (NB: I am still clueless about this).  Judging from its blurb, the story looked relatively well contained, and so I decided to go ahead and read it anyway.  The book is billed as a ghost story – to be more precise, as ‘a haunting story for the young, and the young at heart’ – and I suppose it is one of sorts, but as it is aimed within the young adult market, any suspense or creepiness which Zafon is quite capable of building up feels lost in the slightly cushioned choice of genre.

The Midnight Palace begins in 1916 and takes Calcutta as its setting.  The Midnight Palace of the book’s title is an abandoned mansion, where seven boys from an orphanage meet.  The sense of place is well drawn throughout, and the first few pages – and, indeed, the blurb – definitely hold intrigue:

“1916, Calcutta. A man pauses for breath outside the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station knowing he has only hours to live. Pursued by assassins, he must ensure the safety of two newborn twins, before disappearing into the night to meet his fate. 1932. Ben and his friends are due to leave the orphanage which has been their home for sixteen years. Tonight will be the final meeting of their secret club, in the old ruin they christened The Midnight Palace. Then Ben discovers he has a sister – and together they learn the tragic story of their past, as a shadowy figures lures them to a terrifying showdown in the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station.”

Sadly, I found that the intrigue which was well built up at first was not consistent in the novel, and I soon found myself drifting away from the story and unable to get really ‘into’ it, as I have been able to do with the rest of Zafon’s tales. The pace was well realised, and I enjoyed the plot, but the distancing – made particularly apparent by the choice of a third person narrator – really held me back with my reading of the book.

The mysteries throughout are introduced at intervals, so I occasionally found that my interest in the book was piqued, but the entirety did not hook me as I expected it to.  I had no problems with the execution of the book or its storyline, as such, but I found its characters so flat and distinctly lacking in substance.  Even though The Midnight Palace was quite a quick read, I personally found it quite a slog to get through.  Those who already enjoy his books for younger readers, however, are sure to very much enjoy it.

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