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‘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.

Location 905 (Kindle version)

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.

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2017’s Yearly Challenge: Round Up

I decided to put together four lists this year – one of authors I wanted to read, another of books which had caught my eye, and projects made up of French and Scottish-set books.  I have not done anywhere near as well with my yearly challenges as I had anticipated.  I overstretched myself rather; although I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year, I have neglected these lists over the last few months, and have been reading at whim instead.  I thought that I would just write a relatively concise post about how I did with my challenges in terms of numbers, and which books were particular highlights for me.  You can see my full list, with all of the titles, here.  On a brighter note, I did manage to complete my Reading the World challenge, where I scheduled a review of a piece of translated literature every Saturday.  My full list can be found here.

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George Sand

With regard to the authors, I actually did rather well.  Out of nineteen pinpointed, there were only four which I did not get to (Amelie Nothomb, Lydia Millet, Leena Krohn, and Gunter Grass).  Wonderful discoveries for me from this list were George Sand, John Wyndham, Ira Levin, and Anita Desai.  It was lovely to revisit some favourite authors too – Rebecca West and Agatha Christie, to name but two.

With regard to my book list, I fared worse.  Out of quite an extensive list of titles (thirty-four in all), I only managed to read seventeen.  There were a few books which I was disappointed with (The Shining by Stephen King, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn), but I found some new favourites too.  Amongst those which I rated the most highly are the beautiful, quiet Welsh novel The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (review here), the gorgeous and immersive This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell, the perfectly paced The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, the haunting and strange Fell by Jenn Ashworth, the hilariously funny Where Am I Now? 9780143128229by Mara Wilson (review here), the profound and beautifully poetic The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (review here), and the downright creepy The Dumb House by John Burnside.

My efforts for my French reading project were paltry; I only read nine books out of a list of thirty.  Particular standouts for me were the lovely non-fiction account by Peter Mayle of his move to France, entitled A Year in Provence, Julia Stuart‘s terribly charming The Matchmaker of Perigord, the wonderfully bookish A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, and the beautiful Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide.  Of my rereads, I very much enjoyed revisiting Irene Nemirovsky, whose books I adore, as well 9781933372822as Elizabeth McCracken‘s searingly touching An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination.

My Scottish reading project was a little better.  Out of twenty-nine books, I read eight, and gave up on four.  I was particularly charmed by Anne Donovan‘s Buddha Da, my reread of Maggie O’Farrell‘s wonderful The VanishingAct of Esme Lennox, and Jenni Fagan‘s engrossing, and awfully human, The Sunlight Pilgrims.

I have set my sights a little lower for my 2018 reading challenge, choosing only to participate in the Around the World in 80 Books group on Goodreads.  I will be reading books from, or set within, eighty different countries around the world, and could not be more excited about what I will discover.

How did you get on with your 2018 challenges?  Do you always set reading challenges, or do you prefer to read without any restrictions?

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‘The Life of Elves’ by Muriel Barbery ***

The Life of Elves, originally written in French, slots in rather wonderfully with the Woman in Translation month which is going on around the Internet during August. I was excited to begin this, very much enjoying, as I have, Gourmet Rhapsody and The Elegance of the Hedgehog9781609453152

This novel immediately had an incredibly different feel to it from the aforementioned; it is almost fairytale-like in its telling. It has garnered rather a split opinion from reviewers thus far; some call it ‘stunning’, and others ‘overwritten’ and ‘confusing’. I did find some of the sentences a little (okay, sometimes very) long, and it was necessary to read them a couple of times over at points to ensure that I was getting everything. This isn’t ordinarily something which I have to do whilst reading, but parts of The Life of Elves felt a touch saturated.

Another unusual factor for me was that whilst I was reading, I had no idea how I felt about the book. Ordinarily, I have a very good idea about which rating I’m going to give a particular piece when I’m around two or three chapters in. I decided on three stars after much deliberation; there were parts which I really admired – the fairytale feel, and some of the phrasing, although I do tend to agree that the whole is rather unnecessarily overwritten – and others which I did not – the pseudo-Narnian battle which came quite out of nowhere, and involved both talking creatures and children. (Reepicheep, anyone?)

The Life of Elves is intended to have a sequel; whilst I did enjoy reading it, on the whole, I can’t say I’m overly interested to see what happens next. It is both a strange and interesting book, and like the best fiction, it made me think an awful lot.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘All the Way’ by Marie Darrieussecq **

‘All the Way’ by Marie Darrieussecq

The blurb of French author Marie Darrieussecq’s All the Way promises that it ‘offers an extraordinary insight into the language and obsessions of adolescence’.  It goes on to say that the author ‘offers fearless observations on sex, desire, adolescence and the moment when childhood drops away’.  Darrieussecq is the author of various books, including Pig Tales, which was published in thirty four countries.  This volume, which was first published in France in 2011, has been translated by Penny Hueston.

All the Way introduces us to a teenage girl named Solange, who is at once ‘intrigued, amazed and annoyed by the transformation of her body’, and longs to be just like everyone else around her, all of whom profess that they have already ‘done it’.  To go with this general theme, the novel has been split into three parts – ‘Getting It’, ‘Doing It’, and ‘Doing It Again’.

Solange lives in the town of Clèves – ‘where we don’t have the sea but we have a pretty lake’ with her parents.  When her mother is not working in a shop, she is ‘always in bed’, and her pilot father frankly embarrasses her.  Indeed, she believes that one of the reasons as to why she is targeted at school is because of ‘her father’s extroversion’, which seems to solely consist of his becoming naked in rather a shady incident.  A strong sense of foreboding is present throughout; nothing is quite as it should be, particularly with regard to the way in which Solange spends so much time with the family’s next-door neighbour, Monsieur Bihotz.

Whilst we learn a lot about Solange, she still feels quite distant as a protagonist, and her obsession about sexual practices and the way in which she succumbs to peer pressure feels rather overdone.  Her parents, and the other characters who come into the novel here and there, feel rather flat too.  It is as though more importance has been placed onto the arc of events in the plot, rather than those imagined beings who cause such things to happen.

The novel’s structure is relatively contemporary.  There are no chapters as such; instead, small, separate segments of writing, many of which are entirely separate from those which come before and after, make up each part.  Some of these are odd little fragments of memory; some occur in the past, and some in the present.  The story is told in a mixture of first and third person perspectives, which alters from one section to the next, and does take a while to get into.

All the Way is well written, and whilst Darrieussecq’s descriptions are nice, the whole does tend to be rather too blunt in places.  Solange’s naivety is portrayed well – for example, the times in which she looks up words which she does not understand in the dictionary – but it is lost all too quickly and abruptly.  Whilst the novel provides an interesting window into adolescence, it does sadly feel a little too predictable at times.