43 Following

Hanne, reading on Cloud 9

Avid book reader. Lover of fantasy, contemporary fiction, short stories and non-fiction. This blog is a work in progress - and it will likely always be that way.

ARC Review: A Different Kingdom, by Paul Kearney

A Different Kingdom - Paul Kearney

This book was first published in the UK in 1993, but it seems it got pretty much lost in obscurity (except by second-hand book store owners it seems). Being re-published 20 years later, it gets a chance at redemption – and I hope it gets it, because I enjoyed reading this lyrical coming-of-age fantasy book, that often takes a darker, grim turn too.


Michael Fay is a young boy growing up in rural Northern-Ireland, quite sheltered from what happens in the world itself. The acquisition of a new tractor is more newsworthy than the British army being brought in to settle the ‘usual outrages in the city’. Time-wise, I’m guessing that puts us at the end of the 1960s when The Troubles started. But for Michael, that’s far from his bedside as he considers “the farm, the river, and the fields and woods about his home; these are his kingdom.”


One day he is running down the forest and slips right into another world. A kingdom of wolves, fairies and goblins. If this storyline sounds somewhat familiar, it definitely is, and the author is very open about that: there are straight references to Alice in Wonderland: “That face, the grin. Cheshire Cat, and his trip through Wonderland.”
But as the author remarks in the book: every dreamer needs a Wonderland:


“Michael had the feeling that he had gone deeper, had travelled down some tunnel into a more far-away place, and he knew with sudden certainty that there as an infinity of such places, one for every dreamer in the world, perhaps.


What is wonderful about the book is not so much the Alice in Wonderland-like plot, but the writing. Sometimes it is dreamy, other scenes are dark and grim, but at all times it is lyrical and wonderful to read. I highlighted a few dozen passages that are absolutely gorgeous to read.


“He remembered tall walls rearing up in sunshine, white as chalk. There were battlements and flapping flags, and men in bright armour mounted on huge horses. There was a bridge spanning a wide, glittering river with girls plashing and diving, sleek as salmon. And there was a vast hall hung with golden tapestries and gleaming weapons, its long table set with silver goblets and sparkling crystal.”


Michael’s pointless quest and his disappointment that the Other Kingdom isn’t what he thought it would be, are really present : “I told you before: I didn’t think it would be like this. I didn’t know what it would do to me. Christ, Cat, I thought it would be some sort of fairy tale complete with knights and castles.”



It’s not all perfect though: I got a bit lost on the time-jumps along the way, and I wasn’t really fond of the ending. But amongst the things I liked are all the nods to other books along the way: apart from Alice Wonderland, there are for instance nods to Tolkien (with Cat being called ‘Teowynn, the Tree-Maiden’) and many reference to the Bible: (“The journey continued without ceasing, like a forty-year stint in the wilderness, with no Canaan at its end.”). I also thought there was a Robin Hobb nod when Michael is wondering about countries “where eels were dragons” but the timing on that one doesn’t work out (Ship of Magic was only published 1998), so that must be a coincidence.



Lastly I wondered exactly how much to read into the storyline. The story is set in Northern-Ireland, a region torn between the UK and Ireland, and many wounds to prove just that. Just like in the region (especially at that time), religion marks the characters in the book: you are this, or you are that, and that means there are places you cannot go. But even more so, both Michael and Cat are in between two worlds, and as Michael himself remarks at one point: “It cannot be easy, being caught between two worlds.”
For those who don’t like books with political messages: don’t let that stop you though, the Northern-Ireland references are barely there and for many times I even wondered whether I was reading too much into it. And perhaps I am, that doesn’t really matter, because it didn’t take away the pleasure of reading this book.




Disclaimer: This book has been provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This review reflects my own experience and opinion with this book. All quotes are taken from the pre-published copy and may be altered or omitted from the final copy.

Review: Girls in their Married Bliss

Girls In Their Married Bliss (Country Girls Trilogy 3) - Edna O'Brien

If ever there was a sarcastic book title – this one is a winner.

After reading the last book in the trilogy, it seems that Edna O’Brien read a lot of Thomas Hardy growing up. Already from the very first page, as a reader you think ‘Not again!’ and you doubt this will end well.

It is still a well written book (I wouldn’t expect anything else from Edna O’Brien), but I do think it’s the weakest book in the series. The main reason for liking this book less is that I constantly wanted to shake the main character Kate, how many stupid choices can a girl make in just a few years’ time? How many times will she stumble over the very same ‘Eugene’ stone?

Stylistically this book is different from the previous in the series. No first person narrator anymore, but two swapping third person narrators: Kate and her friend Baba. Perhaps this is the reason why I felt much more distant from this book?

The other element that contributed I think, is that out of the three novels this one is the hardest to place into its historical context. It certainly must have been another scandalous book when it was released at the time, but it’s harder to place it.

Review: Perfect

Perfect: A Novel - Rachel Joyce

I absolutely loved Rachel Joyce’s debut novel ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, so I was excited to start her latest one. And as it often goes with books you’re really excited about: some of my hopes were satisfied, some a bit less. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a really nice book that many people will enjoy reading.


Two alternating stories are being told in this novel. The most interesting one takes place in 1972, the year that two seconds were going to be added to the clock because time was out of joint with the movement of the Earth. The thought terrifies Byron Hemmings, an 11-year-old upper class boy: Time is not something to be tampered with.


“The addition of two seconds was extremely exciting, said James. First, man had put a man on the moon. Now they were going to alter time. But how could two seconds exist where two seconds had not existed before?”


One morning everything goes wrong: shattered glass at the breakfast table, traffic jams and to avoid being late they drive through Digby Road, a place the upper class doesn’t go. And just then, Byron notices his watch go one second back and then one second forward again. Time was being added right there, and in two seconds a lot can happen.


“Nothing happened by itself. And even though it was not his mother’s fault, even though no one knew about the accident, there must be repercussions. He listened to the clocks all over the house, ticking and tocking and chiming their passage through time.
One day – if not now, then in the future – someone would have to pay.”


I loved the way this part of the story was written: Byron’s unease about the two seconds, his stunted attempts to right the wrongs, the daily visits of people who don’t seem to belong there and the stubborn refusal of his sister to accept them.

There is a second story being told in current time, and though this additional storyline brings some depth to the novel, it still failed to grab me and all I wanted was to go back to 1972. The second story’s ending also didn’t really work for me: the sunshine breaks through the skies a bit too bright and sudden. I would have been happier for it to end with just the suggestion of rainbows and sunshine ahead.



In many ways, I think this book has more mature plot and theme than her previous novel did. The opposition of upper class versus lower class works out really well for instance, but I thought it was less strong on the characters.  There are some really intriguing ones especially in the back story with Byron, Lucy and their mother, but none of them grabbed me like Harold Fry did.


The biggest grievance I have is about the title though: ‘Perfect’ is such a weird title for a book like this. First of that word has been overused by chick-lit and romance novels and many people who would enjoy this novel might not even consider it because of that title; but above all – I don’t think it covers the book really well.

I’ve noticed that nearly all translations have changed the title, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence, because all of these titles (which I clumsily translated - except for the Icelandic, that’s all google translate's work) would work so much better for this book.

Dutch: ‘The day time stood still’
French: ‘Two seconds too much’
German: ‘The year that brought two seconds more’
Italian: ‘The bizarre incident of stolen time’
Icelandic: ‘When two seconds were added to time’


Perfect collection


But in the end, a title is just that: a title. It doesn’t change the story itself, and I think that anyone who loved reading about Harold Fry, will enjoy reading Byron’s story as well.



Disclaimer: This book has been provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This review reflects my own experience and opinion with this book. All quotes are taken from the pre-published copy and may be altered or omitted from the final copy.

Review: Girl with Green Eyes

Girl with Green Eyes - Edna O'Brien

This trilogy was banned in Ireland when it was first published in the sixties. If the first novel wasn’t fully clear on the reason why, the second one will make that very clear: a young girl living together with an older and previously married man, whose wife is still alive. As the priest who comes to preach on Kate indicates: ‘divorce is the biggest sin in the world’. A man drunk and aggressive is normal, it’s just because of the bad climate. But divorce is a sin bigger than words and living together unmarried is the ‘the path to moral damnation’.


O’Brien still played nice in book 1, but in this one she is pulling out all the stops, attacking the repressive, catholic world she grew up in. Our narrator, Kate, is now a young girl who left her village behind and is living in Dublin, rooming together with a friend from her village. Going out in town, they meet many boys and men, but Eugene captures Kate’s interests – and yes, becomes the previously mentioned ‘path to damnation’ for her.


I like the perspective the story is told in: it clearly attacks the hypocrisy of the ruling catholic Irish world at that time (and not only Ireland might I add), but at the same time it doesn’t colour Kate in a rosy light either. The girl makes some pretty stupid choices, and the author doesn’t try to deny that. They are all Kate’s mistakes to make though. We can help her, but we shouldn’t leave her behind for making different choices, nor should we hunt her down.
If only religion was that human in the sixties. A book like this makes me wonder how many lives it ruined, how many people it isolated after they were swept up by a number of events, and couldn’t tell what way their life was going.


“The sea was calm, the waves breaking calmly over the boulders and a strong, unpleasant smell of ozone in the air. I could not tell whether the tide was coming in or out. It is always hard to tell at first.”


This book was originally titled ‘the Lonely Girl’. I do not know (I also didn’t try to research it) why it changed title, and whether it was the publishers or O’Brien herself who made the change. I do think the first title covers the book so much better.


“I could see his brown eyes as I had last seen them in the hotel, full of sadness, and full of knowledge that I was not the girl he had imagined me to be. A stone, he’d said. I thought of stones bursting open in the hot sun and other stones washed smooth by a river I knew well.”

Review: Dragon Haven

Dragon Haven  - Robin Hobb

In the past 12 months or so, I finished more than 10 books by Robin Hobb. She’s brilliant, but writing so many raving reviews gets pretty boring and repetitive, so I got a little creative again.




My blacked out review poem:


It is lovely, like the light [shining] through.
It just got brighter and [more] beautiful.


Don’t worry,
you’ll fly.



This review was inspired by what Austin Kleon does in his book ‘Newspaper Blackout’. Only he spends more time on it than I did so he manages to get grammatically correct sentences. Sorry about that :)



EDIT: For those who worry about it, no books were damaged during the making of this review. It all happened on a copy of that page.

Review: The Country Girls

The Country Girls - Edna O'Brien

I love O’Brien’s writing. She writes with such vivid imagery: it is impossible not to see Ireland while you are reading it. This story is set in rural western Ireland, county Clare (or Limerick perhaps) going by places mentioned in the book, a place I spent some time in the past as well. In fact I was one of “these eejits who come over to the Burren to look at flowers.”


And yet, though some of the descriptions make my mind go on holiday and make me long for a walk in the Irish countryside, most of what is described is no holiday picture. The book was published in 1960 and tells the story of a young girl growing up with a drunken father she fears, and a mother she adores but dies when she is young. Then, going off to boarding school with another village girl where they are taught by the nuns that “You are not alone in your loneliness. Loneliness is no excuse for disobedience.” A lesson they both struggle with for years to come.


This Wikipedia quote sums it all up really:
“O’Brien’s works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men, and to society as a whole. Her first novel, The Country Girls, is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War II.The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, and O’Brien left Ireland behind.”


O’Brien’s ability to write vividly doesn’t only work with landscapes, but also for people or events: I love the picture she paints of that girl on her bicycle going through town, fearing that perhaps her father had returned, but day-dreaming about Mr. Gentleman in his white house on the hill at the same time. Or all the smothered crying in the dormitory of the convent school on their first night there.

Some characters of her short stories also make an appearance. I had to smile when I discovered that there was a help called ‘Hickey’ in this book as well, and there was a similar reaction when reading about the idea of ‘going for tea with the Connor girls’.


I don’t often drink tea. But I have a craving for it whenever I read O’Brien. Even if there are no Connor Girls around here. Even if it’s not happy tea.

Review: Dear Life

Dear Life: Stories - Alice Munro

There are a lot of good things coming from Alice Munro winning the Nobel Price this year. First of all, she deserves it like there is no tomorrow. Secondly, more people than ever before are reading, or having a first taste, of short fiction. But also, it made ‘Dear Life’ the moderator pick in one of the book groups I participate in and we’ve had some brilliant discussions about every one of these stories, making the whole experience even better.

This collection features some fabulous stories, and I have some clear favourites this time: The image of the child sitting on the metal sheets between two train cars in ’To Reach Japan’ is stuck in my brain. In ‘Gravel’, grief and unanswered questions are a big theme when we find an adult looking back at a pivotal moment in her childhood when her sister decided to take a little swim ‘rescuing’ the dog. In the title story, ’Dear Life’, a mother is grabbing her daughter for dear life.

Choices and their consequences, and complicated relationships always have a big place in Munro’s stories. And that’s not different in this collection. In both ‘Train’ and ‘Pride’ we get to see some partnerships that last for years but officially do not have that name and are not being acknowledged as such by the people involved. It’s more a symbiosis between two people, one that formed quite naturally and only gets ruined if we, or they, try to classify it.

Even though this is not my favourite collection of hers (I still think more highly of ‘Too Much Happiness’ and ‘The Moons of Jupiter’) it is still a damn good collection. And I’m glad it is featured in all the book stores right now.

So, congrats again to Alice Munro. I gladly raise my glass to that.

Review: The Dragon Keeper

Dragon Keeper  - Robin Hobb

I don’t know how she keeps doing it; where she keeps finding the creativity and the imagination to flesh out yet another story, yet another set of characters that sound so real they could have been my companions on the tram today. None of those had any scales, but it was close. There was one man in particular that looked like he had washed his hair in acid river water. Not kidding!


This book continues on the story in Liveship Traders. (Ideally you read all trilogies before this one, but Liveships really is a prerequisite). The serpents have hatched but only deformed and stunted dragons have come out, incapable of taking care of themselves. The Rain Wild people want them gone, and the dragons themselves would like to be gone too, and so a new journey begins.


This clearly is a first book in a trilogy though; it doesn’t have any legs to stand on its own. And given that this is not a trilogy but a quadrilogy (is there a name for this?) I wonder why it was done that way. (I guess publication is as much a game as most other businesses, and not necessarily the lovely dovey world of art us readers would love it to be?)


Overall though, the book shows that the bigger story has a lot of promise. There’s a new set of characters: some of them I will be cheering for, others I already find utterly despicable. There’s a new journey with a promise of a better future. Knowing Mrs Hobb, she’ll probably put them all through hell first, but they might get there after all.

There’s one part of this story that hit me as a literary critique on society today, something I hadn’t noticed that much in any of her previous books. This idea to put any new-born that doesn’t fit the perfect-human-mold out with the garbage. We don’t do that exactly, but we do a battery of testing on fetuses before they are born to make sure they fit the mold. And what if they don’t? Do we take them away, cry about our bad luck and try again? Or do we do what Thymara’s father did and give her a chance? I loved the observation that Thymara made all the other Rain Wild people nervous, because they wonder whether it was possible for them to live normally after all.


On top of Thymara, we have a whole bunch of deformed dragons, of no interest to anyone, dragon or human. Let’s prove them all wrong, shall we? Let’s show them that the one-eyed can be king in the land of the two-eyed too!

Review: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson

Bonkers, complete mad, cuckoo, crazy, mental, wacky, moonstruck… As the protagonist in this book remarks himself: there’s only a subtle difference between madness and genius.


“Allan admitted that the difference between madness and genius was subtle, and that he couldn’t with certainty say which it was in this case, but that he had his suspicious.”


For me, this book flirted with that line quite frequently. There are parts that are magnificently done, so utterly crazy, completely unbelievable and yet absolutely genius. But there are parts that it went to the other part of the line and became a bit ridiculous too.


There are two stories being told here: first the title story, about a centenarian who jumps out of the window on his 100th birthday and decides to take a spontaneous little journey, and the second which is the story of his life. The latter is a totally absurd lesson in 20th century history, but often went completely overboard. The first few events in his back story were really funny, but after a while it became a bit boring as the general gist of it was always the same. I even wondered why it was needed on occasion. That becomes obvious near the end in the interview with the prosecutor, but even then, I’m not sure that all of it was needed.


All in all though, I enjoyed reading this book. It’s original, light and funny, and can perfectly be slotted in between some heavier books.

Review: Exactly Where They'd Fall

Exactly Where They'd Fall - Laura Rae Amos

The best I can describe this book is that it is like a realistic chick-lit: It doesn’t have the foofoo dust or the general Merry-Go-‘Round-feel a lot of chick-lit books have, but it explores some of the themes you generally find in the genre: complicated relationships, intertwined love and friendships, unrequited love, the girl who refuses to bind herself, etc.


It was a good light read for a friday evening, but there were nonetheless a few things that just didn’t work for me. First of all, that there was little flow of the words. It sometimes felt like trying to ski when there isn’t enough snow: too much friction, and not enough gliding from one sentence to the next. It did improve tremendously in the last thirds of the book, but perhaps I just got used to it.


The second thing is that some things just didn’t seem to add up. I didn’t go fact checking this book like an editor would do, but some things just stood out to me while reading. They immediately made me scratch my head and browse back to see whether I had read something wrong, but I hadn’t.
At the start of the chapter called ‘December’ it is mentioned that Ruth is eight weeks pregnant. By Christmas time (so, roughly 11 weeks pregnant), she is described as following:


Ruth eased herself onto the couch sighing heavily and arranging her shirt around her plump belly. “Eric is just out picking up dinner. You know, I’m not much use in the kitchen these days.”


Poor Ruth! She hasn’t even finished her first trimester and she sounds 8 months pregnant. Must be triplets – at least.


Another one, while at a bar with friends, Jodie notices all of a sudden a diamond ring on Amelia’s finger that catches the light over and over. “Jodie wouldn’t believe nobody else was wondering about it. Unless everyone else already knew.” So as a reader, I assume this is where Jodie discovers the engagement. Piper slightly later tells Jodie that she only just found out as well.
Later, in a different POV chapter (but earlier in timeline), we’re at a dress fitting and Piper is whirling fabric around Amelia, when this happens:


‘Piper stopped then, dropping the fabric… “You’re getting engaged too,” she squealed and turned to her sisters. “She’s getting married too,” she told them, declaring this now as if she’d only just heard the news.’


First of all, Piper did just find out, so there isn’t really need of this ‘as if she’d only just heard the news’ turn in the sentence. But more importantly, Jodie is in the same room, together with all those sisters. She has a dialogue with them just before and after this scene. So I would assume she would hear the squealing and shouting as well? So Jodie finds out twice?


There are some things really nice too though, as I said I liked the realistic sphere of the story and it brightened my Friday evening. The nicest characters in the bunch are the two mothers, one of them speaks the wise words that eventually lead to the title:


“Her mother said, “Amelia, sometimes I don’t think you make decisions so much as fall into them.”


And the other just made me smile:


Drew asked his mother, “Do you think my life has lacked tragedy?”
His mother considered him with a look of such complete bafflement it bordered on horror. “Drew honestly, what a ridiculous thing to be disappointed in.”


Disclaimer: A review copy was provided to me by the publisher, but does not sway my rating either way. This review reflects my own experience and opinion with this book.

Review: Essentialism

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less - Greg Mckeown

It must be tough to write a book about Essentialism because people will be watching like a hawk to see whether you stick to your own advice – and sadly I’m not sure that he did.

But first things first, I didn’t have a name for it but ‘Essentialism’ is what I have been doing for a while now – at work at least. I have yet to tell any of my family or friends that I wasn’t positively answering their invitation because it wasn’t essential to me and my goals for the near future.
But at work, I am a strong believer in this principle. It’s way too easy to get enrolled in everything, meaning you won’t be able to actually achieve anything. So pick carefully and focus on that, just that. And yes, sometimes you can’t pick yourself, because it’s something you have to do. But even then, be mindful about what is important.

In this book, Greg McKeown gives sound advice. Unless you are over the moon enthusiastic about a new possible project, say no. Don’t ever say yes, just because you fear people will like you less. Because even though saying no will sometimes result in some frowning from the other party, I strongly believe that how you say your no is more important. I know people at work who will almost shout back a brisk and severe ‘No, not now!’ and I don’t like them much indeed. But saying in a friendly way that ‘now is not a good time’ hasn’t hurt any relationship yet.

There are two things I liked less about the book. The first is that he uses a lot of examples that have been used to death so to speak: I cannot even begin the count the number of non-fiction I read lately that uses the example of Rosa Parks’ bus ride and the ‘No school today’ essential journalism lesson of Nora Ephron. Then on top, he uses many examples of other books I (unfortunately for the author) recently finished: d.school’s babywarmers from Creative Confidence (Tom and David Kelley) and Michael Phellps’ swimming routine from The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg). None of these examples are bad, but they felt like old material to me.
But then again, anyone who rarely reads business or popular psychology books won’t mind because they probably won’t recognize the stories and find them just as insightful as I did, the first time I read them.

The second one is that I think the author did not stick to the essentials. Or better said: he didn’t stick to the essentials that would serve everyone. Take his chapter about planning for instance: He gives the example of a speech you will have to give in a few months’ time. His advice is to start now, and spend 4 minutes daily to draft the speech, and then put it away until the next day.
I can imagine this working for some people, but Mr Greg Mckeown has never been inside my brain: If I even start thinking for 30 seconds about something like that, my head will be bubbling and fizzing with ideas for the next 24 hours at least. Meaning that my brain will be too busy with possible speech scenario’s to get anything else done. Some people are planners, some are not – I don’t think this has anything to do with trying to stick to essential things.
There are a few chapters like that in the second part of the book, where Mr Mckeown described processes that work for him, but in my opinion are not necessarily linked to this philosophy of essentialism, and even make them sound a little elitist in his many overviews of how Essentialists are different (better?) than other people.

Net, I believe in the philosophy, and the book describes it very well while giving good advice, especially in the first half. The second half might not serve everyone as he mixed too many other things into it that might not work for everyone, but unfortunately the way he writes it he leaves no option: you either do it all and be part of the Essentialist club, or you don’t.
Having said that, I think us readers are smart enough to pick and choose and not be bothered about whether Mckeown will think we do it properly or not.



Disclaimer: A review copy was provided to me by the publisher, but does not sway my rating either way. This review reflects my own experience and opinion with this book.

Review: Caught

Caught - Lisa Moore

I know Lisa Moore best as a short fiction author. I think that is a style that suits her perfectly, and one that she cannot completely shake off in this novel. The precision with which she writes, all the hidden metaphors and images throughout the story, they all look like they come out of short story. Only I’m not sure that it really works in a full scale novel. You just read novels a different way, or at least I do.
Sometimes there is paragraph that really catches your attention though, like this one about a hen while our protagonists are sitting in a crowded bar in Latin-America about to order some chicken for dinner:

Out on the cobblestones, a hen was testing the pool of light under the street lamp, touching it once and then again with its claw, jerking the inert lump of its blazingly white body forward by the neck, taking teensy steps. The hen froze in the centre of the light, full of trembling.

The book opens with David Slaney escaping from prison, where he found himself due to a drug smuggling charge. His goal is to get back to his old friend and drug-smuggling buddy who avoided his stay in prison, take a boat to sea and start smuggling drugs again.
Slaney is pretty much like that hen testing the pool of light in front of him. He picks at something he thinks is important to try and snatch for himself, but he might end up being food for someone else’s gain. Also, his new-found freedom is in the spotlight of the police men who are searching for him, and it’s hard to taste freedom when you’re not sure it'll last. The relativity of ‘freedom’ is what’s being explored in this novel. Are we free, or are we only left to think that we are, like the bees in the quote below? Did we escape the net, are we stuck in it, or are we just not aware of how big the net is?

The bees escaped, he said. Last summer. They get it in their heads.
You got them back? Slaney said.
I just had to wait for them to settle down somewhere, he said. Then I snuck up on them with a net.

I’ve tried to put this book into a genre but that’s a pretty difficult thing to do. I saw some book blurbs about this being an adventure story, which I don’t think it is, because they tend to be much more fast-paced, nor does it have the twists and turns you’d expect.
The cover art doesn’t really work either, i don't know why it was chosen, it just doesn’t seem to fit with the book at all. Yes, there is a moment when a woman in a red bikini comes out of the sea, and the sea plays a very important role in the book both as the sea itself and as a symbol of freedom. But the atmosphere created with the art just doesn’t fit with the book in my humble opinion. It’s missing something simple to change the tone of it, to add some mystery, perhaps something like this?

The other thing that disturbed me was the lack of dialogue punctuation. Despite it being a direct dialogue there is no punctuation and no structure with everyone getting a line to themselves either, so it sometimes hard to keep track of who is saying what. Example:

The things you see in retrospect, she said. He’s bald, for Christ’s sake. You don’t understand it, you couldn’t. You think I haven’t been in love? Slaney said.

I’ve tried to figure out why Lisa Moore would have done this, but I can’t find a reason except to slow down the pace of the reading overall, which would be an odd reason anyway.

There were, at first, only two splats, the size of quarters, on the giant windshield and they trembled like things with a consciousness, things trying to hold together against a terrible force of entropy, and then they ran sideways and a drumming began on the roof and the world.

Perhaps none of it matters; perhaps dialogue punctuation deserves some freedom to not be where they are supposed to be too, just like Slaney does.

Disclaimer: This book has been provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: A constellation of vital phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel - Anthony Marra

“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” With that sentence, Anthony Marra starts weaving a beautiful, but also hard story staged in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004.

There are a few things remarkable in this work. First there is the topic: the Chechen conflict isn’t one us Westerners are very familiar with, but very artfully the author makes us understand at least one side of the conflict, without becoming a history lesson or needing any quick Wikipedia-style research.
The second is that despite the heavy topic, he manages to get some rays of lightness into the story: there are conversations especially in the first part of the book that are actually kind of funny. And yet, most of the time, it’s only funny because it is too absurd and tragic to be true, and once you realize that you probably will stop smiling.
“It must be pay-day soon,” one of the character dryly comments when they hear a lot of gun shots all of a sudden. It seems the Russian soldiers’ pay was linked the amount of munition ‘used’, leading to them blindly shooting around to empty their guns. Just the idea that anyone would measure a soldier's performance and efficiency by a certain amount of munition used, is making me a little nauseous.

What Marra does really well is painting powerful images. Two in particular have stuck with me:
The first, the image of a village covered in upside down toilet bowls. We learn that the Chechens used these unbreakable Sovjet toilets to protect them against unexploded artillery shells the army left behind.

The second, eight year old Havaa receives a Barbie doll from the doctor taking care of her. This particular Barbie is dressed in a ballroom gown and has a tiara, and Havaa wonders why the doll is smiling. The explanation that perhaps she is a black widow who went to a Moscow theatre to take hostages, hence also the dress and the jewelry, is mentioned very innocently. As if it really isn't a big thing. But it triggered something in my mind: the Moscow theatre hostage crisis, where 40 armed Chechens took more than 800 Russians hostage for more than two days. More than 150 people died during this siege, most of them due to a toxic gas the Russian forces used to end it.

Overall, this book is a beautiful story about survival and loyalty. The Chechen conflict is a heavy topic, but it is written with a lot of grace, and some very realistic characters. There’s a doctor who spends most of his time making portraits of missing people, and his colleague needs to buy the essential first aid supplies from the black market. There is a father who teaches his daughter to bucket things into –ists: you are minimalist, or empirist, or socialist, or communist, or obstructionist, or terrorist. In a world like theirs, it’s important to bucket people and to know what people are.

This might just be the best book of the year.
I highly recommend it.

Review: Pigs Can't Swim

Pigs Can't Swim: A Memoir - Helen Peppe

Helen Peppe grew up on a farm in Maine as the youngest of 9 children. With many siblings much older than her, there are a lot of things going on that she cannot grasp. She’s an innocent and gullible kid, and the combination of taking things very literal while also having an active imagination, makes the world a hard nut to crack. Not that anyone is helping, because the child’s questions are generally ignored. As she remarks herself: “It was, it seemed, my family’s intent to keep me uninformed and confused.”


It never becomes a tale of misery or drama though. I think of this more as a feel-good book than anything else: no one is normal, but Peppe’s childhood takes the cake. I'm still smiling at the thought of many scenes, but one of my favourites is when her father asks her mother: “Why in God’s name does Helen think we’re related to chimpanzees?”


Despite most of it being funny and charming, there are some darker parts that are harder to take. One in particular had me gasping in disbelief at her parent’s non-reaction, and her own belief that nothing was said about it because ‘she didn’t want to go to jail’. No-one apparently had protected the child against something in which she was the victim, and not the wrongdoer.


The book starts very strong, loses some speed in the middle but picks up again when Peppe retells her teenage years. Throughout the book, her use of language is excellent though, resulting in a large amount of highlighted sections on my e-reader.

I could however never quite shake the feeling that this is a collection of childhood stories, rather than a memoir novel. The chapters feel quite disjointed and even within a chapter I sometimes missed a certain flow. It felt more like a regular feature in a magazine – still, it would be one I'd read on a weekly basis with pleasure.



Disclaimer: A review copy was provided to me by the publisher, but does not sway my rating. The review reflects my own experience and opinion. All quotes are taken from the pre-published copy and may be altered or omitted from the final copy.

Review: Sound of Things Falling / Het Geluid van Vallende Dingen

The Sound of Things Falling - Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Anne McLean

Colombia 1980s-90s. There’s a zoo to which all the kids go to, called Hacienda Napoles, property of drug King Escobar. He also runs his smuggling operations from there, and plans assassinations from the very same headquarter. As the author notes in an interview with NPR :


"It's a center of gravity for those years in our memory, the place where the worse things were going on and at the same time the place that was visited by a whole generation of Colombian innocent children.”


The book opens with a hippo that escaped Escobar’s zoo, and has been terrorising fishermen and farmers ever since. But the hippo gets captured and shot. All of this becomes a remarkable metaphor for many things to come. Like armies of young Colombians trying to escape a poor life, wanting to make money in this easy thing called drug trafficking – which lead to an entirely new generation growing up with a parent in a foreign jail.


To be honest, I only came to appreciate this book a bit better when I stumbled on a NPR review , and more importantly the before mentioned author interview, just after finishing the book. I felt like there were many things I couldn’t place, and these pieces held the key for me. So I can only advise everyone to check out both links when you've finished the book. It might give you a new perspective on some of the things read.

It’s also a critique on the book though; it stumbles a bit when it has to stand on its own two feet.


My second problem with the book was the translation. Always a tricky point, because they have the power to make or break a book. Don’t get me wrong, I have all the respect in the world for translators and I appreciate how tough it is. Especially translating from a Roman to a Germanic language is the choice from hell: either you keep the phrasing as it is in the original, making the sentences nearly unreadable in the destination language, or you aim to make it very readable: shortening the sentences and eliminating half a dozen sub-phrases, but you completely change the spirit of the original phrasing which translators normally shouldn't do.


I had the Dutch version on loan from our local library, and the translator chose the first option, making many sentences completely unreadable in Dutch, sometimes even grammatically incorrect. I can’t fault Juan Gabriel Vasquez for that, but it’s also impossible to erase the link to my overall opinion of the book. Reading the comments around me, it seems that the English translation went smoother, so most of you might have less issues here.


Still glad I read it though, it’s been on my mind for two days now.

Review: How to deliver a TED talk

How to Deliver a TED Talk: Secrets of the World's Most Inspiring Presentations, revised and expanded new edition, with a foreword by Richard St. John and an afterword by Simon Sinek - Jeremey Donovan

To be honest, I just really misunderstood: when I saw this book I thought it was about advanced public speaking in general, using TED talks as best in class examples of inspiring talks. Turns out it really is about how to deliver a TED talk, full stop.
And I shouldn’t be surprised: it says exactly that in the title – I just didn’t take the title that literal.

The book is divided in 4 parts: Content, Delivery, Design and the last part is about what happens after your talk. Unless you really are scheduled to appear on TED or you have never done a presentation in your life, the last few parts aren't all that useful. It tells you what quality of pictures to use, whether or not you’d need a lectern, how to clip your microphone… it even has a tip on ‘arriving early’.

The Content chapter is the best part of the book, because there you do get some tips that can be used in general public speaking. Most of them are relatively basic, but I thought the part on structuring talks was really good. For me, the most useful element of the book was seeing the backbone examples of other people’s talks. They give you a good insight in general structure, and can force you to think about your speech in a focused way.

I think this book can be interesting for people with very little public speaking experience. But for those of us with basic knowledge under the belt, it doesn't cover a lot of new ground.

Oh, one more thing: This book really should come with a warning label that you will spend way too much time browsing through ted talks on internet though!

Disclaimer: This book has been provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.