Saturday, 24 May 2014

I Remember You: Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland)

An unmanned luxury yacht crashes into the harbour wall in Reykjavík. What happened to the crew, and to the young family who were on board when it left Lisbon? Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by the father’s parents to investigate. What should she make of the rumours saying that the vessel was cursed? Where is Karítas, the glamorous wife of the yacht's former owner? And whose is the body that has washed up further along the shore?

I have read all of Yrsa's books, who is rapidly becoming my favourite Icelandic author and each has been better than the last. Most feature the lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir an Icelandic woman who lives with her German partner and two children from her previous marriage in downtown Reykjavik and is a partner in a small law firm which takes on some unusual cases. In common with Icelandic literature in general, one has to know and understand the country a little to really get to grips with these books, not least the characters names and the places described.

At the start of the book I got the feeling that like its predecessor, I Remember You, this would be a ghost story, but as the story began to unfold it became clear that this was more of a mystery. When an unmanned yacht crashes into Reykjavik harbour Thora is approached by the parents of a couple who were travelling on the yacht with their 2 young daughters, bringing it back to Iceland to be sold as a repossession, to help them ascertain what happened. We learn that the yacht belonged to a bankrupt businessman and his Icelandic socialite wife, but when a body is washed up off the coast of Iceland and another is found on board the yacht the plot thickens.

The tension is palpable as the story unfolds - this is a book of two halves told in alternating chapters from the perspective of both those on board and Thora herself as the investigation unfolds and we gradually learn the identity of the bad guy and his motives. The two skilfully move slowly together in an orchestrated dance, first towards each other and then further apart as they gradually come together. The action is well paced but never drawn out with just the right amount of humour woven in to at times lighten the load - this is one of the things I like best about Yrsa's work how she manages to bring the mundane into some very exciting and sinister reads.

Although not as good as her previous work I Remember You, which inspired me to visit the remote village of Hesteyri in which it is set, this is a pretty close second.

The King Who Saved the King of Sweden: Jonas Jonasson (Sweden)

As delightfully wry and witty as his bestselling debut, ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’, this is a tale of how one woman’s attempt to change her future ended up changing everything.
Nombeko Mayeki is on the run from the world’s most ruthless secret service – with three Chinese sisters, twins who are officially one person and an elderly potato farmer. Oh, and the fate of the King of Sweden – and the world – rests on her shoulders.
Born in a Soweto shack in 1961, Nombeko was destined for a short, hard life. When she was run over by a drunken engineer her luck changed. Alive, but blamed for the accident, she was made to work for the engineer – who happened to be in charge of a project vital to South Africa’s security. Nombeko was good at cleaning, but brilliant at understanding numbers. The drunk engineer wasn’t – and made a big mistake. And now only Nombeko knows about it …
The 100 Year Old Man was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Jonasson has done it again with this uproariously funny tale that somehow manages to poke fun at well, almost everyone. The first book covered many different nations - North Korea, China and Russia among others while this one covers mainly Israel and South Africa. One has to wonder which nations will be the butt of Jonasson's humour next - a dry humour which I have to say is not unlike my own, or so I have been told. Maybe this is why Jonasson's books seem to have such universal appeal, for all we like to take the piss out of those in control, and he writes very much like many of us speak - straight to the point with no punches pulled.

The book starts very much as it means to go on with the young Nombeko, a shit carrier by trade, who soon progressed through the ranks to be in charge of all the other shit carriers - well I guess, someone has to do it. When she is run over by a drunken fool masquerading as a nuclear engineer, she has a stroke of luck that ultimately (depending on how you look at it) destines her for greater things. Forced to work as cleaner for this man she is transported to his home to live out what can only be described as her sentence, she meets a trio of Chinese girls, who like Nombeko herself have been forced to work for said engineer to pay off their own debts to him - for selling him fake antique geese.

Nombeko who unsurprisingly has more sense that her drunken boss soon realises that this is a nuclear facility where they are building bombs - officially six, although there is a seventh one that it not listed. She decides that she has to somehow get rid of this extraneous bomb and so begins her journey to exile in Sweden where she meets a pair of identical twins one of whom like the bomb and Nombeko herself (by now an illegal immigrant) doesn't exist, an elderly potato farmer and a very angry young woman. Add to the mix 2 Mosad agents and an American potter who thinks the CIA are out to get him and you get one extremely strange, but extremely funny farce. It all comes out in the wash, as all good tales do and they settle down and live happily ever after, but not before more than a few outrageous gags, pretty much everyone's expense.

This book took a bit longer to get going than the first and the humour was perhaps more hidden, but in writing it Jonasson has reaffirmed his place as one of Europe's funniest writers in a long while. One wonders what he will come up with next. If you like a good laugh and have even a passing interest in political satire, you must read this book. In one fell swoop it manages to tackle the serious subjects of racism, illegal immigrants and political corruption and somehow make them funny. It should be compulsory reading for all existing and would-be politicians.

Panama City to Rio de Janeiro: Jason Smart (Panama, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay)

From the grime of Asuncion to the tango houses of Buenos Aires, Jason Smart and his wife travel through the vast continent of South America on an eye-opening adventure. Beginning in Panama City and ending in Rio de Janeiro, they try to see as much as they can without succumbing to altitude sickness or over indulging in prime steak.

The pair seek out a sloth amid the skyscrapers of Panama City, then head to Machu Picchu to see the Lost City of the Incas. Travelling by bus to Lake Titicaca, they cross the border into Bolivia, where they witness a strange spectacle known as the Blessing of the Automobiles. Next, they head to La Paz to see llama foetuses for sale in the Witches' Market.

Panama City to Rio de Janeiro is a travelogue covering seven countries in South America. Join Jason Smart in Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay
, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

This may not be the best or the most detailed travel book I have read, but along with author Jason Smart's other works, this presented an excellent opportunity to cover 5 more countries in a short space of time. Like the first book I read about his travels through the Balkans, this presented a whistle stop tour around some of South America's gems with Smart and his wife spending in most cases no more than 2 days in the countries they visited.  

As with the first book, Smart and his wife embark on a multitude of adventures, experiencing snippets of the countries they visit - highlights include Machu Pichu, Lake Titicaca and the aforementioned Witches Market. Lowlights (for me) were the preponderance of beef (South America is not veggie friendly),  Paraguay and well, altitude sickness. What more can I say. As a short read, this is a great introduction to travel writing and the countries visited, but don't expect to come away knowing these places inside out.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Where the Hell is Tuvalu: Philip Ells (Tuvalu)

How does a young city solicitor end up as the People's Lawyer of the fourth-smallest country in the world, 11,000 miles from home?

 Everyone dreams of ditching the rat-race, jumping off the treadmill, turning their life on its head and doing something worthwhile, but Philip Ells turned that fantasy into a reality. Imagining turquoise seas, sandy beaches and lush tropical trees, Ells flies off to the Pacific island state of Tuvalu armed only with his Voluntary Service Overseas briefing and his hopes of finding paradise...
Nothing, however, could quite prepare him for the reality of life on Tuvalu. Housed in a filthy, humid bunker, Philip learns to deal with the heat, rain, murders, incest, recalcitrant islanders, bizarre constitution and the unforgivable crime of pig theft, along the way realising that you never look a shark the eye or ask the octogenarian Tuvaluan chief why he sits immobilised by a massive rock permanently lodged in his groin.

In this hilarious dramatic and insightful book, Philip Ells describes with self-deprecating wit the collision between himself and the Pacific Islanders' sometimes extraordinary behaviour.

Part travelogue, part biography, this is the often hilarious tale of how a city lawyer ditched the rat race to live on the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu as people's lawyer for a little over two years. Ells kept a diary of this stay in Tuvalu and this forms the basis for the book. It is a relatively short read of around 278 pages, and a colourful tale filled with humour at the often non-sensical ways of the Tuvaluans. During his stay Ells also travelled to neighbouring (relatively speaking as the nearest other island group is 1000 miles away) nations of Kiribati and Fiji and he tells of his time there as well, filling in for the people's lawyer there during periods of absence. What makes this such an interesting book is the colourful characters and the way in which island life is described, which really brings it to life.

The Dove Flyer: Eli Amir (Iraq)

When his Uncle Hizkel is arrested, Kabi and his family face an uncertain future as do all Jews living in 1950s' Baghdad. Each member of Kabi's circle has a different dream: his mother wants to return to the Moslem quarter where she felt safer; his father wants to emigrate to Israel and grow rice there while Salim, his headmaster, wants Arabs and Jews to be equal, and Abu Edouard just wants to continue to care for his beloved doves.

There have been quite a few books written on the effects on the Palestinians of the formation of the state of Israel, but this is the first book that tackles its nemesis - namely, the effects that the formation of Israel had on the Jews, in this case those living in the city of Baghdad, Iraq. I was surprised when I first came across this book to realise that there had in fact been a Jewish population in this country, until of course I remembered that this was the birthplace of that religion, as home to the Biblical Abraham.

The narrator of the story is the teenage Kabi, and the story is set as the blurb states, in the aftermath of World War 2 and subsequent persecution of Jews across not just Europe, but also the Middle East. The voices of many of Kabi's extended family and friends add to the story with their own hopes and dreams - while one feels safer by staying put, others wish to leave and join the exodus for the new state. The one thing they all have in common is hope - hope for a better life. In the background Kabi is growing to manhood and finding his own voice.

I found this at times quite a difficult read, not because of the subject matter, but more because of the length of the story (532 pages) and the myriad of different characters, which were at times difficult to remember. It was though worth persevering with, for this is an interesting subject which forms an important part in world history from both a religious and humanitarian point of view.

The Balkan Odyssey - Travels Around the Former Yugoslavia - Oh and Albania too! - Jason Smart (Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Albania)

Travelling through cities and towns once ravaged by the Balkan Wars, Jason Smart witnesses first hand the beauty of this much-maligned region. With his friend, Michael, they find out that the Balkans is not a region to avoid; it is a part of Europe to explore and embrace.

From the urban sprawl of Belgrade, to the tranquillity of a glacial lake in Slovenia, the pair experiences the Balkans up close. Find out how they end up in a rickety clock tower in Macedonia, do battle with a sticky nemesis in Kosovo, and learn that Albania had a king called Zog.

The Balkan Odyssey is a journey through every country of the former Yugoslavia (and Albania too). Join Jason as he visits Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.
I love books like this, as they a nice quick and easy read on a subject that I love (travel), presenting an opportunity to cover several possibly difficult to find countries in one book for the Around the World Reading Challenge. Smart has written a whole series of books on his adventures around the world, and they are all very well priced at no more than £3.99 each. I suspect I shall end up reading every single one of them.

I enjoyed his witty writing, detailing a whistle stop tour of the former Yugoslavia, not forgetting of course Albania, which had to be included as Smart and his travelling companion Michael had to travel through Albania to get to some of the other countries they visited. Smart gently pokes fun at his travelling companion who is walking satnav with a love of museums, unlike Smart himself who has not a cultural bone in his body. Somehow they get along without killing each other, which is sadly more than be said for those who inhabit these former Yugoslav states.

Sao Tome: Journey to the Abyss, Portugal's Stolen Children - Paul D Cohn (Sao Tome et Principe)

In 1485 the Portuguese Crown and Catholic Church began to kidnap Jewish children, forcibly convert the young conscripts, and ship them to São Tomé Island off the African equator to work the government sugar plantations. The collision of slavery, sugar agriculture, and discovery of The Americas transformed this island colony into the nidus of the wholesale black slave trade that infected Africa and Western commerce for the next 350 years. Sao Tome reveals the Medieval Church's complicity in the business of human bondage.

This little-known chapter of the Diaspora tells the story of young Marcel Saulo and his sister Leah abducted with other children from their synagogue in Lisbon and shipped by caravel 4,000 miles to the West-African island where they bear witness to the holocaust of African slavery. This is a historical novel that chronicles one man's courageous struggle against religious and racial persecution, torture, and disease, and explores the abyss of Inquisition, Portuguese and Spanish world expansion, and the blight of slavery fuelled by the calamitous growth of sugar commerce.

When I started the Around the World Reading Challenge at the beginning of 2012 I knew there would be some countries that would be more difficult to find books for that others, and I fully expected the small island nation of Sao Tome et Principe to be one of them. I thought from the name that this was a French speaking island and former French colony, but learnt that it was actually Portuguese - Sao Tome means St Thomas in Portuguese. I found this book simply by going to Amazon and searching for Sao Tome and up it popped. It was not the cheapest I have read this year, but so far is most definitely the best. Every once in a while a book comes along that is so unexpected and so different that it stays with you for a long time. Last year for me it was a book from Trinidad, this year I get the feeling that it may well be this one.

The story is based upon what is known as the Saulo Chronicle, written by a Marcel Saulo in 1491. This chronicle which covers a period of five years details the life of Marcel Saulo who was the manuscript says, abducted from his synagogue in Lisbon, separated from his sister and the rest of his family and community, and shipped to the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome It seems that this is a dark chapter in Portugal's history which I am sure they would rather forget. The shipping of these Jewish children at a time when the inquisition held sway, was supposedly to turn them into "good" Catholics, but was actually a ruse to get unpaid labour for the sugar plantations (slavery by any other name).

The book details five years in the life of Saulo following his abduction and his struggle to make a life for himself in his new home. It is a heart-breaking tale of mans inhumanity to man and of slavery in all its guises for when he arrives Saulo realises that the island nation that is now his home is also home to a myriad of African slaves, indeed a staging post for their trafficking throughout Europe and the newly discovered Americas. Despite these circumstances, and experiencing the most horrendous torture, Saulo makes the island his home and starts a family of his own, only to have this brutally snatched away by sickness in more ways than one. His downfall is his objection to black slavery and support for the the black Bishop who as an African himself is also against this practise. I will say no more, as it will only spoil it for those who may wish to read this book.

This is an excellent book and a most unusual one at that - it is rare to find a book about slavery written from the white perspective and set in this time frame - most other books are set much later on. It is also a great exercise in education - educating yourself not only about mans inhumanity and the now well documented hypocrisy of the Church, but also about the darker chapters in Europe's history and what the colonisation of the so-called dark continent really meant to her natives.