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03 December 2013

'Are We Nearly There Yet?' by Ben Hatch

I remembered trips I had forgotten, for very good reasons...

'Are We Nearly There Yet?' provides plenty of laughs.  It was also a surprise that it provides plenty of tears.  I do not know why I was surprised since in my vast experience as a passenger and driver in long, long (long) road trips (Dad is a big fan) I have laughed plenty and cried plenty.  And there you have it, Ben Hatch may have been talking about this particular journey in his own country, his own family, his own marriage and bless them, his own children but what he was in fact doing was talking about all the road trips all families have taken since the invention of the car.  I remembered trips I had forgotten, for very good reasons... Ben, we are going to talk about this some day.  You cannot just dig up people's traumas like this and not expect consequences or even revenge.

 I was in a spectacular car accident, because of the scenery, not the injuries.  We spun one and a half times when we were struck and stopped just by the edge of a cliff in the Andes.  I stepped out of the car as my mom kept repeating "nos chocaron, nos chocaron" which means "they hit us, they hit us".  I had to edge around the car like a crab, sideways because to step forward was suicide and that would have been a waste of the excellent brakes on that Land Cruiser.  By the time I was in safety my mom was out too.  My father was doing what all men do in these circumstances, he was inspecting under the car...can't imagine why.  Then, and here is the traumatic part, my mother told me to go ask the people in the other car if they were ok.  WHY?  I mean they hit us.  They were coming down hill at speed through the winding mountain road and decided to cut a curve, as one does, if one is all alone on a mountain road.  My father saw them and tried to avoid them.  Thanks to his maneuver they hit our back left wheel which means we spun.  I guess it is better than if that over filled Suzuki (OMG. I still remember the make of the other car) had hit a heavy Land Cruiser head on.  Injuries would have ensued, their injuries, not ours.  Ok, so no one was hurt but my mother's voice, the view down that mountain as I slowly got out of the car, and then the task I was set, have stuck.  Should have cured me of road trips but nothing deters my father...

But then Ben Hatch did something worse.  He reminded me of the heat only possible in a metal box attached to a hot engine.  When we were not in the high Andes we might be driving through quite a bit of Mexico.  This was long ago.  My memories include a burning neck as the sun struck us through the window from behind.  My sister and I would try to sit lower and lower, risking car sickness as we could not see out the windows (seat belts were not mandatory back then).  Our legs would stick to the fake leather seats and we would beg for some cool air.  This is standard in any Summer road trip from before "climate control".  Stops were heaven especially if there was air conditioning.  My father assured us that the next stop had great food.  We were in a desert somewhere or other.  On the side of the road was a large wooden structure with no windows downstairs.  There were tables inside with long backless benches.  We all ordered a Coca Cola, no glass or ice as my mother did not trust the water.  My memory is of these rapidly warming bottles, with pathetic, limp straws as my father enjoys the house specialty, goat head...including the eyes (the trick is not to eat the brown part).

As you can see, the damage here was done years ago but it was fun to compare road trip horrors with someone else.  The 'stepped on poo' story is not to be missed in this book or the marriage that seems to balance itself with humour and love.  I know I have not spoken much about Ben Hatch's excellent book but my joy came from the release of my own memories of which I only shared two.

Ben Hatch  
ISBN: 9781849531559 

28 November 2013

'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Sebold

In this book the author Alice Sebold gave me a workout

I picked up this book and put it down at least twice a year for ten years in different shops, airports and countries.  As a mother with a powerful imagination, I did not have enough courage to read this book.  Recently, I received it as a gift from .  I watched the movie a year or so ago with my daughter so I felt prepared.  I was not prepared... The movie is lovely, heaven is captured just right and the antagonist is also perfect but, as is often the case, the book is better.  I am so glad I read this book though.  Sometimes, if I read about something I fear, like the murder in this book, I do not stop fearing it but I gain depth and faith.  Faith in my own strength is hard enough but, at least for me, faith in other people's strength is even harder.

Heaven, murder, grief and time are themes often explored in literature.  Alice Sebold makes them all fresh.  Heaven in particular is such a believable and comforting place.  Comfort and love are surprising words to use about a book that starts out with such a horrible crime.  This crime is my worst nightmare.  While the narrator was a dead 14 year old girl, as a reader I felt both the suffering of the parents and of the child.  Like I said, my imagination can be quite strong and even insert appropriate smells; in this book the author gave me a workout.  My imagination was not stressed or stretched to the point of disbelief.  Quite the contrary.  I felt that I lived all these confused, unexpected emotions.  Heaven itself was a comfort to my senses and not just to the narrator.  My heaven includes youth, health, mountains, open spaces and my favorite flowers and scents.  Pets are allowed, company when I want it and vast, wonderful, magical libraries.  I bet I missed a few things but this feels right for now.

Life does go on, through grief, horror, violence or even those bullies in high school.  I do not think forgiveness is necessary to move on.  I think the effort to forgive focuses too much on the perpetrator of the offense.  It is better to look to your own strength and towards those you love, who often love you too.  Forgive if you want but always move on.

Alice Sebold 
ISBN: 9781447202653 

08 November 2013

'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' by Neil Gaiman

I was sad to put the book down.  I even forgot my tea. Neil Gaiman is improving in his art.

Sometimes books have no beginning, middle or end.  Well, obviously they do... after all  most books are not infinite or worse, 'War and Peace'.  But sometimes books, their authors and by that mysterious alchemy called imagination, readers tap into an on-going story.  'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' is such a book.  It catches a paragraph or two of a much greater story about humanity, belief, faith, love, temptation and nightmares.  In fact, it captures a glimpse of the creation of humanity... we all suspect we are only half baked anyway; we are still in the process of becoming.

'Boneland' by Alan Garner is also such a book.  In fact, I felt 'Boneland' is the male counterpart of 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'.  Neil Gaiman tapped into a feminine side of the great story that is us.  The Hempstock women superficially represent the well known aspects of the feminine archetype, the hag (grandmother), the mother and the virgin (daughter).  On a deeper level, they point the way to, and protect us from, different realities.  They even protect us from ourselves.

I am a little afraid of the Hempstock ladies.  I sense real power there and finite patience.  I should mention that they feel familiar, which is probably why they frighten me a little.  I am certain I met them before, maybe in books or maybe in person.  I can even tell you what I think they smell like, so yes they feel real.  I was sad to put the book down.  I even forgot my tea.  I had to say goodbye to them like the protagonist.  And like the protagonist, my memory has faded... I know they are out there somewhere when a book like this reminds me of my own story.  Reading this book is like going home.  Neil Gaiman is improving in his art.

Neil Gaiman 
ISBN: 9781472200310 

16 October 2013

'The Best of All Possible Worlds' by Karen Lord

Karen Lord struck the best of all possible balances between a planetary catastrophe and individuals who want to live worthwhile lives

I won this book on Twitter from Jo Fletcher Books, @JoFletcherBooks.  I answered a question correctly.  I was excited as I rarely win anything and books are way up there on cool things to win.  I read this book in one day.  In other words, I loved it.  These days it is rare that I will turn off electronic devices to avoid distraction.

First let me tell you about my love of Science Fiction.  And please do not stop reading because you do not like SciFi, bear with me... I started reading SciFi around the age of 12 or 13 when my father gave me 'I, Robot' by Isaac Asimov.  One of those books I love to reread.  I went on to read quite a bit of Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan amongst many others.  There are some wonderful writers out there.  Unfortunately, over the years I found that not all SciFi was as entertaining.  I thought maybe I outgrew it.  Ironically, I was still reading Fantasy... Now I realize  I was reading the wrong kind of books for me.  I have never been keen on the technology side of things.  I do not need pages and pages of a ship design and launch.  Ok, a bit is interesting but lets face it, I do not even know how my phone works.  I do not need quantum theory based propulsion systems described once 20 Newtonian objections are quickly discussed and then dismissed by imaginary future scientists (sorry Sheldon).  I want to know about the people who live with, and in this technology.  I want to know their fears, loves, problems, solutions... I want to relate and not just sit and envy them because they have a propulsion system that gets them to other planets in safety and within a reasonable time span (can you tell space exploration was a childhood dream?).

'The Best of All Possible Worlds' was such a book.  With the sudden destruction of a home planet, survivors have the multi sided problem of continuing to survive in the long term.  I like the idea that other groups try to help them.  Assimilation is not an ideal option because then an entire culture is lost.  The solutions suggested in this book are interesting and grounded.  I felt that technology is an aid or a curse but people are still people.  In this setting technology cannot cure the cultural stresses and gender imbalances experienced by people.  The solutions reached favoured groups but not always individuals.  Karen Lord struck the best of all possible balances between a planetary catastrophe and individuals who want to live worthwhile lives in the aftermath.  She also adds some satisfying poetic justice in there to the instigators of planetary destruction which made me smile... I know she has written another book, so it is on my Christmas list.  Karen Lord can write.

Karen Lord 
ISBN: 9781780871660 

04 October 2013

'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling

Cormoran Strike; funny, meticulous, thoughtful, awkward, strange, cautious, flawed, clever, insecure and interesting.

I could not finish 'The Casual Vacancy'.  It dragged, I just did not care, so I dropped it.  Which is completely the opposite from my Harry Potter experience... The point I want to make is that I was not in a hurry to read 'The Cuckoo's Calling'... Crime novels are not my favorite and well etc etc.... Right, awkward... as my teen sometimes says, because Beloved Proof Reader brought it home.  He read it first and announced that I should read it too.  Nah, don't feel like it, have a pile to do here... So I finally picked up this book. Ehem.  I loved it.  Now I have to tell you why.

I will start with the only problem I have with this book.  The protagonist, Cormoran Strike (fantastic name) stumbles into pubs quite regularly and always orders a pint of Doom Bar.  I am in Germany.  I can find certain bottled ales but variety and quality are not great.  My favorite ale happens to be Doom Bar.  I love to walk into a pub and order two pints of Doom, one for me and one for BPR.  My BPR is well aware of my preference and laughed quite loud when I complained that for the first time in years I want something different than tea to drink while reading.  There is no cure for this thirst however until I next visit the UK.

The story, it grabbed me.  It made me care.  It made me smile.  And very important, unlike several other crime books, it was not an obvious "who dunnit' by chapter 3, which is one of my pet peeves with these kinds of books.  Now I have to go back to Cormoran Strike, who happens to be a gift.  He is funny, meticulous, thoughtful, awkward, strange, cautious, flawed, clever, insecure and interesting.  In other words, he is an engaging character that I want to know better.  This book feels like the start of a series, I hope it is too...

The story line itself is basic, with a body, a grieving family, surprising twists and turns and at least one serious hangover.  London was explored well.  The weather, the pubs, the neighborhoods felt real and familiar.  As I reflect on this book I realize that Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) did not make any of it feel like a cliche, which is a talent given the genre and the premise.  Some of the side stories regarding Strike's life were perfect as side stories.  In all a well balanced book that I would recommend to crime novel fans but especially to those who are not crime novel fans.  Oh and do have something to drink while Strike is at a pub, you will enjoy the experience more...

J.K. Rowling 
ISBN: 9781408703991 

09 September 2013

The Seven Sins of Reading

Share your sins, you know you want to

 As most of you know, I am on Twitter.  I have some fantastic followers and I follow some fantastic people.  Most of them happen to have blogs, a fact which both fascinates me and depresses me but that is beside the point.  It turns out the magnificent Anne-Marie @ChildLedChaos writes a great blog ( and she tweeted her Seven Sins of Reading.  Immediately, she informs me (the reader) that she stole the idea... great precedent because I liked her answers so much I will steal the idea too, though not the answers... Please forgive all the links, as I am writing in essence with inspiration found on Twitter, of all places, I feel it is appropriate.    One more thing, there are also links to my blog posts if I have written about that book... 

GREED: What is your most inexpensive book? What is your most expensive book?
My cheapest book comes from someone who left it in a serviced flat in London.  If you mean paid, I paid 1 euro at a charity book shop for 'Chocolat' by @Joannechocolat as the dog had eaten the original.  My most expensive books hover around the 100 euro mark give or take 20... These books include architectural tomes bought directly from the publisher at their warehouse and a special edition 'Lord of the Rings' that I received from my BPR for Christmas some ten years ago.  I have no problems in buying hardback editions of authors I love 'Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure' by @Joannechocolat bought from @Hatchards, for instance, but I will look for bargains when available.  

WRATH: What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?
At this moment I hate a book by Ian McEwan, though I have never met him... at least he can write and still make me angry.  For true disgust it is the 'Twilight' series by Stephenie Meyer.  She cannot write.  There are a few others who make me anxious to read them but not because I hate them, rather I love them.  Reading these writers often leave me drained so I have to be in the correct state of mind. Amongst them are China Mieville, Toni Morrison and Haruki Murakami but there are several others.  

GLUTTONY: What book have you deliciously devoured over and over with no shame whatsoever?
This is not a short list.  There are several books I read annually and several books I read as the mood takes me.  'Pride and Prejudice' requires little explanation.  Readers either adore it or are indifferent.  'The Blue Sword', a horsy romance set in some fantasy desert land with magic, swords, wars and the like.  I read it around the age of 13 and still do because it takes me back and it is quite good fun.  'The Hitchhikers's Guide to the Galaxy'. When the unexpected death of Douglas Adams came to light, I cried.  He made me laugh and I expected him to make me laugh for many more years... I still miss him.  Quite a bit of Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob), not strictly a book but when I am down I pick him up and I realise that I am right to be down.  There are so many things wrong in the world, (like the movement for equal heights which is weird) but then he makes me smile and twists my points of view into solutions.  He is a treasure.  'The Lord of the Rings', I am not sure why I read Tolkien so much.  Perhaps, it is the depth of his books as well as the breadth, moreover he has an exquisite use of language.  'The Elegance of the Hedgehog', intelligent, charming, life affirming; read once and call me in the morning.  'Let the Right One In', reminds me of who the real monsters are sometimes.   'The Count of Monte Cristo', good grief, Dumas is just so much fun.  'Afrodita' by Isabel Allende (@isabelallende), usually I read her with caution but this book confirmed two things I suspected all along... 1. Never pass up a piece of cake, 2. Never pass up the chance to make love.   And 'Harry Potter' well written, fun, loads of great words... 

SLOTH: What book have you neglected to read due to laziness?  
This one is easy, 'The Casual Vacancy', it did not grab me and then I just could not be bothered.
But I am sure there are a few others....

PRIDE: What book do you most talk about in order to sound like a very intellectual reader?
Pride? me?  Recently, at lunch or coffee I have mentioned 'Sex and the Citadel' by Shereen El Feki (@shereenelfeki) more than is necessary.  Having said that, it mixes sex and intellect so it is a win/win without looking pretentious, right?  I talk about books (or films) until someone physically stops me.  I love to read and I love to talk about books, hence this blog.  I am not a snob about what I read though.  If I read it, I will talk about it.  

LUST: What attributes do you find most attractive in male or female characters?
I do not have a favorite type of character.  I have some favorite characters in literature,  Ford Prefect, Death, Dumbledore, Eliza Bennett, etc.  There are books that have ensemble groups that I love, 'Angelmaker' by Nick Harkaway (@Harkaway) comes to mind but a type I love? No.  I have been thinking about it and I realise that it has to do with the type of story.  I will say that I do not like books with a useless damsel in distress.   But, an annoying, whining woman can be perfect, Mrs. Bennett from 'Pride and Prejudice' is an example.  She is perfect where she is but put such a character in a James Bond novel and she would be terrible. Of course, that is an opinion, someone else might love the idea.  

ENVY: What books would you most like to receive as a gift?
Most books will do, though recently I have discovered signed books, thank you @Hatchards and @Waterstones.  If you must, get it signed please...

P.S.  I started out just linking the lovely Anne-Marie and things got out of hand...  If it is any consolation I added them after the post was written and not during because that would have driven me crazy... By the way, please leave your own answers in the comments box, I would love to know your naughty book sins.

30 August 2013

'Revenge Wears Prada' by Lauren Weisberger

This sequel to 'The Devil Wears Prada', which I loved, disappointed me for several reasons

I did not like this book.  I read 'The Devil Wears Prada' ages ago and liked it.  I also enjoyed the film.  When I heard that after ten years a sequel would be published, I marked it in my calendar.  I was disappointed for several reasons.  I am almost embarrassed to write this blog post because I usually find Lauren Weisberger entertaining.  But my mind was made up when a friend whom I had not seen in two months commented (without my asking) on how much she also did not like this book.  Too bad.  All authors have low points in their careers when a book is not as good as previous or expected.  It is a pity that it has to be this one.

Ok, ok... I am getting around to saying it.

Andy was annoying.  As a character, she was all over the place.  Not only had she not grown in ten years, she may have grown backwards.  I want to state that until she made that final decision about her marriage, I was certain that her backbone had been removed and put in a jar somewhere in an editor's basement.  The ending redeemed the rest of the story until that syrupy reunion.  It just all seemed forced.  Her friends and persons of influence were somehow measured by Andy with supremely rose colored glasses; so rose colored, she may have been seeing them in a completely different spectrum.

Having said all that, the one area that I liked was Andy's pregnancy.  From beginning to end it felt real and not glossed.  The pregnancy was unexpected and many women can relate to that.  Her reaction to the pressures of work versus her own changing body were true to life.  Finally, once she had given birth and had to return to work, her emotions, her exhaustion and her collapsed body image were so familiar and honest that I thought maybe there was hope for Andy after all.  Perhaps in ten years time when parenthood has taught her the importance of consistancy, and self trust as well as speaking her mind, she could be interesting once more.  After all, when we last saw Andy ten years ago, she had learnt the value of standing up for herself, speaking her mind and acting on her principles.  So what happened in the last ten years that she had to learn the lesson again?

Next is the horrid Devil herself, Miranda Priestley.  She was her magnificent, superior self, I was relieved to see.  What I did not see, were any signs of a premeditated, flawless revenge.  The more I thought about the whole situation the more I realized that any failures in business or fractured and collapsed relationships happened due to the protagonists themselves.  Sometimes it became obvious why Miranda had fired some of them.  Miranda Priestley at the top of the food chain does not need to take interest in insects.  Two small flies circling a rather small cake are not worthy of her notice.  If anything, the paranoia and greed of those beneath her did all the destruction she could want, had she truly taken an interest.  From the title of the book, I had expected Miranda Priestley to have a more central role like in the first book.  She was ever present but often in people's memories, nightmares and shuddering flashbacks... She was rarely active and when physically present, flawlessly professional.

I am disappointed.  It happens.  Not the end of the world but I wanted to like this book.  I cannot.  It will not discourage me from reading Lauren Weisberger though.  She has made me laugh and smile often enough to know she can do better.

Lauren Weisberger 
ISBN: 9780007311019 

18 August 2013

'This House is Haunted' by John Boyne

This book has the magic to expand its atmosphere into your life

This is a signed book I won on Twitter from  ...  I had, of course, heard of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' and both my children read it.  I received 'This House is Haunted' with some concern as I do not like scary stories, but I have gained courage in my maturity. And from the first few paragraphs... I liked it.

I think that there is nothing as melancholic as a rainy evening in London.  Having walked through several rainy evenings in London, I know what I am talking about.  I was put into a cold, wet, creepy evening in Victorian times, Charles Dickens included.  In the beginning the narrator blames her father's death on a walk to a book reading by Charles Dickens.  Her father had been ill and the cold rain and chill made him sicker.  See, immediately I could relate because I would absolutely leave a hospital to go hear some of my favorite authors.

John Boyne's book reads like a good old fashioned Victorian ghost story.  I enjoyed the atmosphere and the characters.  The protagonist had some quirks which made her real; she was grounded enough to be a believable witness.  I had some moments of creepiness, though no absolute horror.  It was the atmosphere and the sense of mystery that I enjoyed.  The predictable evil ghost had an unpredictable enemy.  I won't give it away but once it is revealed, it seems a logical solution to the problem of a murderous ghost.  'The crazy lady in the attic' literary device added a pleasant twist to the story.

Boyne used some of the classic expectations to his advantage.  Just when I thought I knew what was going to happen next, I failed.  What I am trying to say is that formulaic stories, to me, regardless of the evil of the monster, are still predictable and often end up being boring... but not this time.  My glass of wine had to be refilled several times while reading, always a good sign.

What a brief post but I already feel I have given too much away.  'This House is Haunted' is perfect for a rainy evening in the Fall.  I read it at the height of Summer in Southern France and still I could feel the chill in the air.  The evening felt darker and muffled, as if by thick curtains.  In short, this book has the magic to expand its atmosphere into your life.

John Boyne 
ISBN: 9780857520937 

14 August 2013

'I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman' by Nora Ephron

 It turns out I am eight hours a week from looking like a bag lady on the street.

I received this book as a 40th birthday gift from someone I usually consider sensitive, tasteful and intelligent.  I had not read anything by this writer, but I had enjoyed her films so I was excited.  Nora Ephron published it in 2006, six years before she died.  She was not young and she certainly knew it.  I laughed and laughed and then I was paranoid.  I am not quite there in terms of age, that is my late 50's to mid 60's but I see them looming, like that massive tidal wave in the movie "2012".  To my friend, the giver, I will say this... thank you, I have so much to look forward to... my consolation is that you are on the same path.

So back to the book.  The book is about female urbanites I can relate to very much. Nora Ephron discusses vibrant topics like handbags, marriage, flats (apartments in cities), children and the topic that made me laugh, pause, consider, worry... "Maintenance".  Yes it deserves the capital letter.  It turns out I am 8 (eight) hours a week from looking like a bag lady on the street.  Nora says so in this book and after doing some personal math, she is correct.  Eight hours a week times 52 weeks in a year is 416 hours.  Say I have been doing all this grooming consistently since the age of 15 (more or less depending on babies), that is 25 years times 416? That is 10,400 hours of my life doing some painful, occasionally humiliating things for the sake of vanity and social convention.  So far I have spent more than a year plucking, dying, scrubbing, painting, washing, exfoliating, waxing, blow drying, polishing, smoothing, soothing and toning... I am sure this list is not exhaustive.

So back to the bag lady who does not get professional haircuts, dye her hair, moisturize her face or (heaven forbid) wax her legs.  Have a good look because it could be any of you if you skipped it all for ONE week.  "So?" you may ask, "Who cares?"  My husband, Beloved Proof Reader,  says he loves me.  Yea right. That is the same husband who wholeheartedly approves of my sky high Louboutins... and try stepping out in those with hairy legs, dry feet and un-groomed toes.  If I did not care about what others thought, I could step out with my Louboutins and my bathrobe.  Usually, I only care about what BPR thinks and he makes approving noises when I make an effort (i.e. 8 hours he does not often see).  Is it worth it? Yes because I feel good... I hope I look good... but that is another topic.  But it has taken me a while to reach this decision.  At first, I was shocked at the time and effort.

Some of my friends shrugged their shoulders when I mention my latest read and some of the fun numbers in it.  In fact both my über-groomed European friends and the au naturel European friends said, "of course".  Shocking to think about it because after 10,400 hours it is natural.  Truth is that I had thought I was beyond those teenage obsessions and concerns.  Teens can be quite cruel about your looks and personal grooming, I know from personal experience.  But I outgrew those fears and insecurities.  I am a confidant, beautiful woman.  This funny book gave me some serious moments of deep self reflection about the most shallow of topics.  There are some depressing things about growing old.  There are some frustrating things about growing old.  But those 8 hours loving myself (painful sometimes, but love hurts) are in fact a weekly conquest of my self love, love of metropolitan cities, love of my husband and love of my children (who are glad to have a youthful mother)... though I'm not sure this is the result Nora would have expected from other women reading this book.

Nora Ephron 
ISBN: 9780552773812 

09 August 2013

'Seoul Survivors' by Naomi Foyle

Naomi Foyle did surprise me with twists and turns  and the way she captures the bustle of Seoul.

I enjoyed the first three quarters of this book. It was a prize Miriam won in a competition on twitter from ; a specialist science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint of Quercus Publishing, publisher of 'Seoul Survivors'. This first novel by Naomi Foyle is a near-future Sci-fi story set in Korea - which sadly is still divided in North and South Korea - with high tech fashion, sex, underground clubs, robotics, bio-engineering and interesting yet strange and sometimes twisted characters.

Mostly with science fiction, I find myself either liking or hating the book. This was different. I enjoyed the way in which the main characters developed and how all their stories started to weave into one another as the book progressed. The Canadian model, the British fugitive, the American-Korean scientist, Mr. Sandman the psycho and the North Korean idealist are all in unfamiliar territory trying to survive in different ways. And with a huge meteor threatening to seriously impact life on earth ... what would you do?

I did not particularly like the ending though - for me it left some key questions unanswered and seemed to end rather suddenly.  Then again the impact of a meteor is probably not much different. It is a shame because this is not a bad debut. Naomi Foyle did surprise me with other twists and turns.  She captures the bustle of a futuristic Seoul and I can imagine how it would feel. What really bothered me about the last part of the book is that the synopsis on the back cover gives too much away.  I wonder if authors write their own back-cover summaries. It should entice you and spark your interest, but when I was two thirds through the book, there were still specific parts of the story which were 'unknown' while they were already revealed on the back cover. It is very difficult to stay interested in the build-up and suspense of a story line if you know the outcome. Call me strange, but I like to be surprised.  Part of the attraction of sci-fi is that anything can happen.

Maybe I am a special case.  I don't even like to look at trailers of movies, because I like the surprise elements, the wow-factor. If I know I want to see a movie because it is a sequel to a film I've liked before or I have read a review and the story seems interesting or I like the cast, then I avoid watching the trailer and go watch the movie. It makes the experience so much more enjoyable. A while after I have seen a film I tend to forget how it ends, which means I get to be surprised again. Aging isn't that bad. I guess I have to rip the back cover off 'Seoul Survivors' and read it again once I can no longer remember how story ends.

 If you are interested in reading this book avoid the back cover and read the abstract on the publisher's website instead.

Guest blog by BPR

Naomi Foyle 
ISBN: 9781780875989 

03 August 2013

'How to Think Like a Neandertal' by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge

The only "pure" humans around here come from Africa which really ought to teach some people a lesson

This book states that Europeans have 1-4% Neandertal genes, which would explain a lot... And the three children sitting behind me at this cafe may have more.  In any case, this book is all about getting rid of these kind of prejudices.  It tries to give us, non-scientific readers, an idea of what Neandertals were thinking while pursuing mammoths.  This book keeps its promise and delivers a lot more.

The authors, together, study and write about something called paleoanthropology.  Thomas Wynn is an archaeologist and Frederick L. Coolidge is a psychologist.  Paleoanthropology sounds cool but vaguely reminds me of a certain crime + science tv show... In any case, I looked up paleoanthropology (I love this word).  It is the study of the origins of current humans using fossils, tools etc...  Then I read this book.  I found it fascinating as it opened my eyes to how anthropologists and archeologists draw conclusions about civilizations and cultures in the distant past.  I do not mean the obvious ways, you know, with a shovel, a brush, a whip and a cool hat.  The most exciting aspect for this reader was how they tried to get rid of personal biases... and we all have biases about Neandertals.  They found ways of comparing, contrasting and measuring ... thought... without tainting it with our own ideas of intelligence and thought.

As a contrast let me point out all those 19th century and early 20th century gentlemen who dug up most of Italy, Greece, Turkey, northern Africa and Arabia.  They had ideas of what constituted intelligence and applied it accordingly.  If they thought that Greek culture was advanced then they (or we) were the natural descendants and improvements on the originals...  If a culture was deemed backward, (non Christian, too Eastern or too strange) then it was labeled savage, barbaric and belittled in writing and in history.  Something similar happened to Neandertals in common culture.

Neandertals were not so different from us and the authors prove it.  Moreover, I can follow the explanations, tests, evidence and logic.  I am excited.  I am excited because I feel a door has opened on a side of ourselves (yes I admit it, but not more than 1%, probably) that is often denied. To know how Neandertals thought brings us closer to understanding how we think.  Philosophy, science and divinity come closer together.  If you are the kind of person that gets excited when 6000 year old funeral mounds are discovered or new pyramids are found in distant deserts then this is also a book for you.  Those poor souls out there breathing dust and acquiring wrinkles are not making it up as they go along.  'How to Think Like a Neandertal' shows you not just what the Neandertals were thinking, but ironically, what the scientists are thinking.  By the way, Asians also have Neandertal genes.  The only "pure" humans around here come from Africa which really ought to teach some people a lesson... if those were the kinds of people that read these books...

Thomas Wynn  
Frederick L. Coolidge 
ISBN: 9780199742820 

24 July 2013

'The Proof of the Honey' by Salwa Al Neimi translated by Carol Perkins

A book that celebrates female sexuality, desire and self determination. The language used to describe the search for words that describe female desire and passion was like eating a box of my favorite chocolates

'The Proof of the Honey' seems to talk about sexual discovery but that is only at first.  Then the book's focus changes to the language of sex (personal and public) as well as eroticism and how they are all linked to long neglected Arab erotic works.  Funny enough, it was not the sex that caught my attention, it was the author's language.  Carol Perkins is a sensitive woman, if this translation captures the feeling and rhythm of Salwa Al Neimi.  The language used to describe sex and passion is elegant and straight forward.  Even the language used to describe the search for words that describe female desire and passion was like eating a box of my favorite chocolates.

The author soon introduces us to a sexual partner she calls "The Thinker".  At first he may be a real man and then I realize that he need not be a real man, but rather thoughts, intelligence and memory.  Never the less, Salwa Al Neimi is gentle and explicit at the same time with herself and with her reader.  She takes nothing for granted and questions everything about her own sexuality.  In this way, I too questioned and probed my sex life.  It is a feminine book.  It is a book that celebrates female sexuality, desire and self determination.  One of the first conversations I had with my husband as I read this book was about the adequacy of language today when it comes to women and sex.  I felt it was lacking but my husband argued that what was lacking was the courage for women to use out loud what is available, even in western Europe.  How delicious that such a slim book would take my knowledge of my marriage further by encouraging a new conversation with my husband of many years.

The book is a confession of an Arab woman's sexual discovery.  She is led by beautiful literature and language, though she admits that modern language is not always adequate to describe or explain a woman's desire and experience.  'The Proof of the Honey' is courageous in that it takes back what has been taboo for the past 40 years from Arabs of both sexes, sexual freedom; this includes sex in the bedroom, on the streets, in language, literature, academia and in the mind (creativity, imagination).  As she says in the end... "sex is not the scandal, the secret is the scandal".  How true.

A friend of mine read the book around the same time I did.  She told me she had a difficult time not thinking of the narrator as a whore.  I had two replies to that.  First, if the narrator were a man, no one would call him a whore (or the male equivalent... is there a word?)  Second, then we are all whores.  We all have an imagination and most adults have a sex life, satisfactory or not.  We all have curiosity, desire and the wish to know and be known.  Moreover, most of us would like to seek sexual satisfaction without shame.  Literature explores with us some of these paths as Arab erotic literature and erotic works from other cultures can attest.  Humans both male and female may then explore sex in their own lives without shame.

Salwa Al Neimi 
ISBN: 9781933372686 

11 July 2013

'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' by Alexander Solzhenitsyn translated by Ralph Parker

Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes to a writing style that is simple enough to let the story move, but a story that is vast enough to encompass the human condition

I read this book when I was 17 years old, which is a long time ago... I liked it very much and found it dynamic and touching.  My memories of this book included the rhythm of Ivan laying bricks in order to build a wall and keep warm.  I was curious to see how my perspective would have changed and if I would enjoy it as much as I did the first time.  I plunged in and enjoyed.  This book is straight forward, unadorned and unsentimental. By this description I would be tempted to call another book boring but not this book.  Many people who write soon learn one of the best pieces of advice is to tell it (action) not describe it.  Well this book is all action, every gesture and shiver is real and necessary, no extras...

On my first reading, 22 (more or less) years ago,  all I could think of was the cold in Siberia and how Ivan treats the cold.  All the work the prisoners in his camp do is to be able to keep warm through labor.  This time around I notice all the blessings Ivan feels he has received in this day.  He has dignity and gratitude.  His pragmatic approach to life in the Gulag is in keeping with the diminished life he has in terms of love and goods.  But, instead of bitterness or groveling he arranges his life so that he harms none and survives at the same time.  On the other hand, Ivan is no hero. He will steal, cheat and avoid jobs if he can, after all, he must survive.  I am proud to report that I went from noticing the physical deprivations to noticing the inner strengths.

The world was changing at the time I first read this book.  The Cold War was ending, the first Gulf War was going on and young people around me felt extremes... some thought it was the end of the world and some thought it was the beginning of peace, a fresh start.  Five years later I had an email address and was communicating with my family cheaply and quickly over long distances.  We all learnt to type (more or less... ehem...)  Perhaps the horrors of the Gulag and others like it were coming to an end.  Now I look around and wars are still going on, crimes against humanity are still occurring and governments all over the planet are killing their own citizens.  On the other hand, people are coming together worldwide in ways that I could not have imagined, this blog is an example.  Then I look at Ivan Denisovich again.  I realize that the human condition is a personal, private balance between hope and despair.  Technology, guns, fences, mad dictators, ecologists, government agencies etc. are in fact herding cats.  Cats are self contained, you can train them in vague ways but a cat is a cat.  I use cats as an example because dogs have been bred over the millennia to favor certain traits and to look certain ways, but cats, well, in spite of considerable effort cats are the same animals the Egyptians were mummifying several millennia ago.  You see my point?  Human nature remains the same, technology or dictatorships change.

'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' shows all kinds of characters.  There are leaders, cheaters, criminals, young, old, powerful, weak, sad, happy, confused, angry... Ok I'll stop now.  My amazement is that one cold, hard day (in a mercifully brief book, I mean I did read 'The Cancer Ward' but it took forever) can illuminate humans at their worst and at their best.  Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes to a writing style that is simple enough to let the story move, but a story that is vast enough to encompass the human condition.  Camps like those in Stalinist Russia still exists.  There are still multitudes suffering torture and humiliation; sometimes governments justify these detention centers, camps or reeducation centers with the protection and safety of the same citizens incarcerated.  Weird.  Humans do not fundamentally change.  People will be cowards or rich or greedy or dishonest or (horror) disagree with current authority, but mass extermination and torture will not change humanity one bit.  A book like 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' is one of the many signs that this is so.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn 
ISBN: 9780141184746 

24 June 2013

'The Elephant Vanishes' by Haruki Murakami translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin

Murakami's art is to make terrifying magic believable by making the feelings of the characters believable

Sometimes, when I latch on to an author, I read the books in chronological order.  Even if I started in the middle, as is the case with Terry Pratchett, I go back to the beginning... rather like Inigo Montoya in 'The Princess Bride'.  I like to see how an author develops and changes over time. In spite of the fact that Murakami has written for many years, I did not rearrange my books once I had started.  I read his works as the mood takes me.

'The Elephant Vanishes' is the second short story collection of his that I have read.  It is copyrighted in 1993.  I mention it because he has written several books in the last 20 years and these short stories seem to be the seeds to some of those books, if not in themes then in feeling.  While reading these old stories, I often caught glimpses of some of his books and my heart skipped a beat... imagine bumping on the street into a loved one you thought dead... talk about disconnected from society...

Short story collections by their nature are a mix of themes and characters.  Sometimes something unifies them but most of the time the stories can stand on their own.  This particular collection has many characters that disconnect from modern society, often in true Murakami style, like in the story, 'TV People', a magical element is combined with self doubt and confusion.  It is a fascinating and frightening read.   But I will not go into details, his art is to make terrifying magic believable by making the feelings of the characters believable.

Anyway, I liked some stories and I liked some stories less.  But... then... suspicion, mistrust, as my weakness (one weakness amongst many) overwhelms me. You see, there are two (2) translators to these stories.  Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin.  So, I wonder if my like/dislike has any correlation with the translators.  I am going to go look.


Well, that is interesting. There is no correlation between translators and the the stories I dislike, which is comforting.  Out of the 17 stories in 'The Elephant Vanishes', I do not like 6.  They are evenly split.  3/9 Alfred Birnbaum and 3/8 Jay Rubin.  I know that J.R. has one less story but that does not mean that had there been an 18th story, I would dislike it.  So my time was wasted.  You see, I am a fan of translators.  Without these women and men, I would miss out on Murakami, for instance.  Do take a peak at another one of my posts, 'Is That a Fish in Your Ear?',  a book about translation written by a translator...interesting and enlightening.  Quality, of course, does differ amongst translators but my experience is that modern translators are reliable and often know their authors well.  So I am disappointed in myself for doubting.  I am sorry, I will never doubt again...probably.  Forgive me Great Editor in the sky (NYC highrise) for I am weak.

Haruki Murakami 
ISBN: 9780099448754 

20 June 2013

'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Tracy Chevalier

This book is about what people see or perceive through art, through love, through hate, through bigotry, through blindness and through hunger

Most of the time, I read a book long before I watch the movie.  I can think of few exceptions.  'Girl with a Pearl Earring' is one of them.  I thought the film was lovely.  I did not even think about a novel as I did not realize there was a novel.  In any case, that was several years ago.  And now I have read this wonderful book.

I think, like most people, I take for granted that what I see and what I perceive are the same thing.  Even the blind can see with their other senses.  But do I understand, feel what I see?  Not every day.  This book is about what people see or perceive through art, through love, through hate, through bigotry, through blindness and through hunger.  Habit and emotion filter what I see into what I perceive.  Then I assume that this perception is truth.

An artist can see beyond the emotions and experiences (habits) to then invoke a new feeling.  This alchemy lets me see the familiar anew.  An old familiar street becomes a passage to adventure; a common, shy woman becomes beautiful and intelligent.  Vermeer, of whom this books speaks, had this magic, which is why he is known as a master.

I saw Girl with a Pearl Earring, the painting, in Mauritshuis about two years ago along with several other of Vermeer's works.  I was shocked by its size (small) but I was also shocked by the size of the earring.  In real life the painting should be called 'Earring Wearing Girl'.  That magnificent pearl ennobles the girl but it is also a heavy burden.  The look in her eyes and the expression on her face seem fleeting, insecure compared with the solidity of this pearl by her slim neck.

This painting arouses the desire to explore further.  The girl's slightly parted lips, the reflection on the pearl and her clothes tease the viewer with a story... a fantasy.  And so Tracy Chevalier explores and paints her own picture.  Art inspired by art.  Vermeer himself used every day utensils and furniture as well as every day people.  This tradition is continued by Chevalier as the object of her story and the painting becomes a maid in Vermeer's household... a pretty, pragmatic, intelligent maid...

Tracy Chevalier 
ISBN: 9780007232161 

14 June 2013

'The Piano Teacher' by Janice Y.K. Lee

Evocative. Janice Y.K. Lee has a vivid imagination which she shares with grace and elegance, like her heroines

There is so much sadness and regret in this book.  Doomed love is cliche in many stories but this book makes it immediate and heartbreaking.  What is the antonym to nostalgia?  The two story lines are set more or less ten years apart.  I like that because I can see the direct consequences of actions and betrayals.  As the book speaks of war, greed, envy, racism and lust women become central to the story.  No glorious fighting here; it is the women that are the greatest losers.  The men make a show of power, regret, vengeance or even remorse but it is the women who die in humiliating ways and lose so much more than freedom.  Nothing much has changed in war or in literature but that is another topic.

Books are often driven by dialogue, action or information.  In this book the settings, that is, the houses, weather, perfumes, cocktails and food showed me more than some of the action.  I am a fan of books that invoke so many senses.  The atmosphere surrounded me almost immediately.  The perfumes, smell (pleasant and unpleasant), heat and humidity were present for me.  I think I even heard a mosquito buzz by as I read.  The subsequent contrast between before the war, war and invasion and ten years after the war were striking.  The invasion of Hong Kong by the Japanese stank of death and fear.  Janice Y.K. Lee has a vivid imagination which she shares with grace and elegance, like her heroines.  The story itself lingers in my mind but I am certain it lingers because it is tied to the smell of jasmine.

I caught myself breathing deeply as I read this book.  I tried to catch the scent that she described sometimes.  Books sometimes make me nervous or angry or happy, but they do not often give me a physical reaction.  'Chocolat' did for the same reason this book did.  Scents release memories, suddenly this book I have somehow lived because I can smell it and remember it.  I think women will not prefer this book because it is a story of doomed love but because women often have more sensitive noses.  Go on walk with these heroines through the Hong Kong markets, go have a cocktail at an elegant party and enjoy strange new foods.  Evocative, beautiful book.

Janice Y.K. Lee 
ISBN: 9780007286379 

11 June 2013

'I Hunt Killers' by Barry Lyga

My son picked up my book and said: "This looks sick!" which is a positive comment

I often have to beg people to read a book I have enjoyed.  This time, though, my son picked up my book and said, "This looks sick!" which is a positive comment.    My BPR is next in line to read it over the Summer break and at least three others have said something along the lines of "you can't go wrong with a good serial killer book."  Or "Ooooo, I love a good crimi".  I do hope all this enthusiasm turns into sales for the author.  But still, I am mystified by this reaction... how weird is this?  Is it cathartic or voyeurism?  Maybe people like to imagine others behaving worse than they do?  In any case, even our bedtime fairy tales used to have buckets of blood and witches nailed into barrels of boiling oil, so this phenomenon cannot be blamed on modern media violence...

I know people who claim never to read such frivolous, violent books because they are a waste of time, without art or value.  I disagree.  To make a story with a monster, once again, interesting and entertaining is art.  A writer with skill is indeed required.  Moreover, I sense hypocrisy when someone reads only classics or serious books (for a given definition of serious... I mean, a serial killer seems quite serious to me).  It is all very well to read 'El Mio Cid' and imagine respect, loyalty, courage... then to quietly reflect on your own weaknesses and strengths of character, or the beauty of the Spanish language (if you read it in the original... beautiful).  But, and this is maybe just me, thinking about something I read 20 or so years ago, I remember the battles, murders, betrayals, rapes and famous corpses.  I also remember Sofia Loren looking amazing in a wedding dress, but that was the film, they don't make them like that anymore, do they?

It is quite a trick to get inside the head of a serial killer. To glimpse the seduction of power without conscience and at the same time not be put in a position where you sympathize with the murderer.  Barry Lyga knows this nasty topic, well, too well, mmhhhh... On to the humor.  The humor is teenage humor as the protagonist is 17 years old.  It was an easy book to read, but not so easy that I breezed through it either or put it down.  I wanted to follow Jazz and his friends and see what they were up to...  Naturally, there is a twist at the end but it is a good twist.  By a good twist, I mean something I found exciting and frightening.  Too often these kinds of books have twists that seem to belong to a different book.

So 'I Hunt Killers' does not only have my attention but also the attention of a large number of relatives and acquaintances.  If I think too deeply about this I might become not just worried but paranoid as well.   By the way, if you read my blog you may notice that I do not usually announce "This is a YA book" of some such statement unless unbelievably important.  If it is good story, I will enjoy it and I do not care who the 'intended target audience" is.  This book has an interesting point of view and humor, I like it...

Barry Lyga 
ISBN: 9780316125833 

05 June 2013

'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor's angels and monsters are new and refreshing

Now, I am an old hand at reading fantasy... I am no snob and love themes I know well retold, transformed and re-imagined. Laini Taylor takes angels and monsters and tells me something new about them.  She took a risk with such familiar literary characters.  Every reader, I imagine, has a litmus test for stories.  As a reader I pick up a book and willingly suspend my disbelief; I hope it stays suspended.  Let me explain how this works for me when I read fantasy...

Say an author tells me about angels amongst us.  She uses the word angel to describe this character.  I make some assumptions based on this word.  She then adds something new to my personal angel lore.  If I believe it and happily add it to my angel file then this fantasy is a success. If, on the other hand, I argue, snort in sarcasm and get annoyed then she should have used a different word to describe the character.  This is a simplistic explanation but that is more or less how it works for me.  There are authors that in my small reading universe add to my fantasy files, these authors include Jasper Fforde, John Ajvide Lindqvist, JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett, and Jim Butcher amongst others.  You see, it is important to know lore and literature well when you chose to describe your character as a wizard, vampire, elf... Each conjures a picture, an incomplete picture.  Talented writers fill in some spaces in harmony with the rest of the picture.  Clumsy, uninspired writers graffiti annoying initials on the frame.

Fantasy is deceptive. Most writers do not just make it up.  For example, one cannot get rid of certain features of the vampire without transforming it into something else.  Moreover, one cannot add certain features to a vampire without diminishing it somehow.  The success of this give and take depends on the art of the writer, the talent if you will, and how this vision of a vampire is then presented to me.  Often old familiar fairy tales, legends, sagas, traditions or religions are the foundations of the fantasy genre.

I am cautious when I pick up a new author (new to me, by the way, I mean I can't know everybody).  I am tired of finding out the object promoted to me is number 3 in a 5 part trilogy (yes, I used trilogy with irony).  And like I have said (shouted) before, a good editor could have cleaned up these sagas into two decent books.  It is my luck that Laini Taylor knows how to write.  She has thought about her characters and her worlds.  It is funny how her description of celestial armies and the angels' inherent sadness has been on the edge of my own musings for some time... She colored these musings in for me.  Her instincts in this fantasy are excellent.  Moreover her angels and monsters are deep and knowable at the same time. I look forward to the rest of the trilogy (no irony).

Laini Taylor 
ISBN: 9781444722659 

31 May 2013

'Angelmaker' by Nick Harkaway

Intelligent, full of action and the best ensemble of characters I've met in a long time

What a fun book this is.  It is intelligent, full of action and the best ensemble of characters I've met in a long time.  The humor was 'laugh out loud' funny several times.  Did I mention mystery and sex?  In essence it is a familiar story... a thriller with a reluctant hero, Joe Spork, who has to save the world.  What happens to Joe and the nature of the danger is original and at the same time not too far from machines created for our betterment in our society.

Who I want to talk about are the women in this book.  I am impressed and elated.  No women with their mouths slightly open waiting to be rescued in this book.  Women can be beautiful, sexy AND intelligent, which is fair enough  but not good enough in this witty story. In 'Angelmaker' the heroine is almost 90.  Edie Banister is memorable.  She sets the action in motion and keeps it under control.  Yet, she is not evil, she is the complete opposite.  But like evil, goodness without measure can also be dangerous.  It is the art of Nick Harkaway that makes Edie's goals, means and growth so believable and entertaining.  Other women in this book are of different ages and sexual orientations, brave, inventive and cunning.  Women take the initiative and have ideas.  Yes, that's right good ideas...  They are even funny!  It is a joy to read.

Sometimes writers will find The Man a partner who can keep up with him.  So as a reader I encounter one woman who complements The Man.  She is often intelligent, beautiful and fit, maybe exotic for added sexual interest. In 'Angelmaker' the women have no need of men and have often done jobs that men could not do.  If they help men it is out of love or duty.  Refreshing?  Yes!  Joe could only save the world with the women that chose to help him.  There were men as well, good and evil... also interesting, but Nick Harkaway felt no need to pair everyone off to justify the presence of these amazing women.  They were amazing first and women second. Does that make sense?  Go on read it, perfect for the Summer.

Nick Harkaway 
ISBN: 9780434020942