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.

Because I Am a Girl: Tim Butcher (Sudan, Uganda, Brazil, Togo, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Cambodia)

Because I am a girl I am less likely to go to school

Because I am a girl I am more likely to suffer from malnutrition

Because I am a girl I am more likely to suffer violence in the home

Because I am a girl I am more likely to marry and start a family before I reach my twenties.

Seven authors have visited seven different countries and spoken to young women and girls about their lives, struggles and hopes. The result is an extraordinary collection of writings about prejudice, abuse, and neglect, but also about courage, resilience and changing attitudes.

Proceeds from sales of this book will go to PLAN, one of the world's largest child-centred community development organisations.

This is a collection of seven short stories about the lives of women and mostly girls, in some of the world's poorest countries, in particularly the things that happen to them simply because as the title says, they are a girl.

Many of the subjects are ones I have read about before - lack of education, lack of birth control, rape, domestic slavery, malnutrition and so on, but nevertheless, it is still shocking reading. The story that touched me the most was the one from Brazil, where girls as young as 12 or younger routinely have babies of their own, due to lack of education and healthcare - the Church of course forbidding the use of contraception. It strikes me that this is as much a men's problem as a woman's, for it takes two to tango and many of these young Brazilian men (I hate to generalise) will it seems do almost anything to get these young girls to give them what they want, afterwards casually casting them aside, like a sweet without its wrapper. Perhaps if the men were educated to use a different kind of wrapper, this type of thing would be a little less prevalent. It goes back though to that aforementioned Church - religion has a lot to answer to I sometimes feel.

The remaining stories are no less shocking, and ones that everyone should read - ignorance is not an excuse when books such as this are available. I may not agree with everything that the charity that is the beneficiary of this book does, for it makes it clear that much of their work is controversial, but I like to think that as well as educating myself, by buying this book, I am in some way small way helping the lives of women throughout the world.

How to Fall in Love: Cecelia Ahearn (Ireland)

She has just two weeks. Two weeks to teach him how to fall in love – with his own life.

Adam Basil and Christine Rose are thrown together late one night, when Christine is crossing the Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin. Adam is there, poised, threatening to jump.

Adam is desperate – but Christine makes a crazy deal with him. His 35th birthday is looming and she bets him that before then she can show him life is worth living .

Despite her determination, Christine knows what a dangerous promise she's made. Against the ticking of the clock, the two of them embark on wild escapades, grand romantic gestures and some unlikely late-night outings. Slowly, Christine thinks Adam is starting to fall back in love with his life. But is that all that's happening… ?

Christine Rose, a recruitment consultant with an obsession for self help books is going through a somewhat acrimonious divorce. Her life in tatters and in need of peace, she wanders to an area of the city where she used to experience this, and there finds a man who is about to take his own life. When her attempts to stop him fail, she is understandably devastated. Two weeks later, wandering through the city again, she spots Adam doing exactly the same thing on the Ha'Penny Bridge. Determined that this time she will make a difference, she attempts to talk him down, and this time she manages to succeed. The two strike a deal, whereby Christine has to persuade Adam before his next birthday that life is worth living - what she doesn't realise is that his birthday is in two weeks time.

What follows is a somewhat hilarious caper as the two of them embark on a crusade to it seems at times, mutually heal each other -for it transpires as the story unfolds that Christine has issues of her own, which closely mirror Adam's own life. As they attempt to work through Adam's issues, they gradually become closer, until, well the clue is in the name of the book.

Although this was by my usual standards a somewhat light and fluffy read, it was one that I nevertheless enjoyed. It is good to read the lighter stuff every once in a while, as my reading can get somewhat heavy at times. This was probably not the best book I have read this year, but neither will it be the worst. Mainly because of it's wonderful Irish humour, I would give this 3 stars.

Hotel K: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali's Most Notorious Jail: Kathryn Bonella (Indonesia)

Welcome to Hotel Kerobokan, or Hotel K, Bali's most notorious jail. Its walls touch paradise: sparkling oceans, surf beaches and palm trees on one side, while on the other it's a dark, bizarre and truly frightening underworld of sex, drugs, violence and squalor. Hotel K's filthy and disease ridden cells have been home to the infamous and the tragic: a Balinese King, Gordon Ramsay's brother, Muslim terror bombers, beautiful women tourists and surfers from across the globe. Petty thieves share cells with killers, rapists, and gangsters. Hardened drug traffickers sleep alongside unlucky tourists, who've seen their holiday turn from paradise to hell over one ecstasy pill. Hotel K is the shocking inside story of the jail and its inmates, revealing the wild 'sex nights' organised by corrupt guards for the prisoners who have cash to pay, the jail's ecstasy factory, the killings made to look like suicides, the days out at the beach, the escapes and the corruption that means anything is for sale - including a fully catered Italian jail wedding, or a luxury cell upgrade with a Bose sound system. The truth about the dark heart of Bali explodes off the page.

This book, the 2nd non fiction offering I have read in a row is an expose of the corruption that exists not just within Bali's most notorious jail, but also within the Indonesian legal system itself, where money can pay for shorter sentences and many privileges once inside, such as sexual favours, drugs often bought from the wardens themselves, cell upgrades and in some cases, the freedom to come and go quite literally as one pleases.

I have read some pretty heavy stuff in my time, but even this shocked me. Written from the perspective of the prisoners themselves, who come from all four corners of the world, I would almost rather be dead than face life in a place like this, indeed at least one prisoner says this herself. This may be a harrowing read, and not for the faint hearted, but I would easily give this four stars.

On the Trail of Genghis Khan: Tim Cope (Mongolia, Kazakhstan,Ukraine, Russia, Hungary)

The relationship between man and horse on the Eurasian steppe gave rise to a succession of rich nomadic cultures. Among them were the Mongols of the thirteenth century – a small tribe, which, under the charismatic leadership of Genghis Khan, created the largest contiguous land empire in history. Inspired by the extraordinary life nomads still lead today, Tim Cope embarked on a journey that hadn’t been successfully completed since those times: to travel on horseback across the entire length of the Eurasian steppe, from Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia, through Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine to the Danube River in Hungary.

From horse-riding novice to travelling three years and 10,000 kilometres on horseback, accompanied by his dog Tigon, Tim learnt to fend off wolves and would-be horse-thieves, and grapple with the extremes of the steppe as he crossed sub-zero plateaux, the scorching deserts of Kazakhstan and the high-mountain passes of the Carpathians. Along the way, he was taken in by people who taught him the traditional ways and told him their recent history: Stalin's push for industrialisation brought calamity to the steppe and forced collectivism that in Kazakhstan alone led to the loss of several million livestock and the starvation of more than a million nomads. Today Cope bears witness to how the traditional ways hang precariously in the balance in the post-Soviet world.

I first heard about this book during an interview with Cope that I saw on the morning news, and immediately my ears pricked up. This was not only an opportunity to read a fascinating piece of travel literature, but also to cover several hard to find countries from the Around the World Reading Challenge in one book. Although it was a lengthy read, that took me, a relatively fast reader more than week to digest, it was well worth the effort and easily one of the best pieces of travel writing I have come across.

When Cope first started on this adventure, which due partly to red tape and partly to personal crises took three years to complete, he had little knowledge or experience of horsemanship. This was then an extremely ambitious journey and he depended heavily on the locals in the form of various nomadic peoples for support, along with his former girlfriend (who accompanied him for the first two months of his trek) and other members of his extended circle of family and friends.

The book can also be seen as a historic text book for it details in some depth the history and geography of the places he travelled through, in particular in the context of Soviet influence. His animals of course also played a pivotal role, and the relationships with these are also covered in depth. In some ways this book could be seen as a mourning for a lost way of life. It is a monumental piece of work, epic in is scope and no review could really even begin to give it justice. This for me has to be five stars.

Season of the Witch: Arni Thorarinsson (Iceland)

When the editors at Reykjavik based The Afternoon News decide to expand the newspaper into northern Iceland with their crime writer Einar as its sole reporter on location the journalist feels as though he has stepped back in time. Compared to the hustle and bustle of the capital, where the nation’s economic and social crises rear their heads on a daily basis, the small town of Akureyri feels slow, quiet, and terribly old-fashioned.So it’s only fitting that one of Einar’s first assignments is to cover a college theatre production of Loftur the Sorcerer, an Icelandic folktale of ambition and greed. But that supposedly ancient history becomes ominously relevant when a local woman dies after falling overboard during a corporate boating retreat. All evidence indicates an accident, but when the victim’s mother cries foul play, kind hearted Einar agrees to investigate. Just days later, the lead actor in Loftur vanishes, leaving the locals reeling and Einar unconvinced that a single village could be so accident prone. Keenly perceptive and hungry for the truth, Einar begins to chip away at the quaint small-town façade, uncovering a tangled web of power and greed that threatens to devour the historic community for good.

This was the second Icelandic book I have read this year, and I am sure will be just one of many more. Like others I have read, I spied this in a Reykjavik book store last year and looked it up on my return to see if it was available on Kindle. When it popped up on one of the regular monthly deals, it was too good to resist, and I was far from disappointed.

The book is set in the sleepy backwater of Iceland's second largest town Akureyri, where I shall very soon be heading myself. It is a town I have not visited for many years, so it was good to renew acquaintances. Einar, the narrator and lead character is a reporter for the Afternoon News who have recently opened an office in this town, and heads north to head up the team, where he soon makes waves. The death of a woman during a corporate bonding retreat and the death of a fledgling young actor may seem unconnected at first, but in such a small town there are no thing as coincidences, and Einar partly through boredom and partly through his own desire to uncover the truth and represent the community that he now works for, sets out to unravel if indeed there are any connections.

The book although an easy and pleasant enough read for me will no doubt leave those who unfamiliar with Iceland its deep family ties, not to mention the belief in witchcraft somewhat perplexed, but it is worth persevering with for its gentle humour and easy paced narrative. Personally I enjoyed this book, and will be looking for others written by the same author. I have no idea whether this is his first work or just the first that has been translated into English I very much suspect the latter for no one publishes their first novel, but I will be eagerly awaiting more from his pen.

In Darkness: Nick Lake (Haiti)

In darkness I count my blessings like Manman taught me. One. I am alive. Two. There is no two. Haiti 2010: In the aftermath of the earthquake a boy lies trapped beneath the rubble: terrified, thirsty and alone. Shorty is a child of the slums, a teenager who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule his broken city: men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret: a flame of revenge that burns inside him, fuelling his determination to find his beloved twin sister, stolen from him five years ago. In the darkness the lines between the present and the past begin to blur and, as Shorty fights for life, his struggle becomes part of a two-hundred-year-old story - a story of courage and betrayal, of freedom and of hope. Shorty may not be quite as alone as he believes...

This wonderful book which skilfully interweaves the lives of the two leading characters, is set partly during the 2010 Haitian earthquake and partly during the formation of an independent Haiti, the only country to be born from a slave rebellion.

The book is narrated by a teenage boy trapped in the wreckage of a collapsed building as he relives his life. This is a short life that has been marred by violence, and the loss of his father and twin sister. The story is skilfully interweaved with tales from the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a real life person, who led the slave rebellion that led to independence. It becomes clear that the two characters share a bond - and if you believe in such things, a soul.

The author vividly recreates the two Haiti's, both past and present, exploring the birth of this nation and its somewhat violent and troubled present. The Voodoo religion is always present and the book explores many of the myths surrounding this - what Voodoo is and how it works.

This was a somewhat dark and disturbing book, and perhaps not for the faint hearted, but this is what I love about books like this - the opportunity to explore these themes and learn so much about the world and its history. I suspect that this is book that will stay with me for a while.

The Shock of the Fall: Nathan Filer (England)

‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’  There are books you can’t stop reading, which keep you up all night.  There are books which let us into the hidden parts of life and make them vividly real.  There are books which, because of the sheer skill with which every word is chosen, linger in your mind for days.  The Shock of the Fall is all of these books.  The Shock of the Fall is an extraordinary portrait of one man’s descent into mental illness. It is a brave and ground breaking novel from one of the most exciting new voices in fiction.

My own family has been touched by mental illness, with a sister who experiences schizophrenia, and a father (now deceased) who had severe depression, so this for me was a much read, and a poignant one at that, having recently re-established contact with said sister.

It was for me then a somewhat difficult and challenging read, written as it is from the perspective of the experiencer. I choose to use this word rather than sufferer because of its negative conations. We are introduced to Matt and his brother Simon, who has Downs syndrome at the beginning of the book, on a typical seaside family holiday. The title of the book comes from what happens next when Matt encounters a young girl who is burying her doll - it later turns out this doll is symbolic of the girls mother who has herself recently died. Matt reaches out to comfort the girl and falls, and the story goes on from there. I will not say too much more as it would only act as a spoiler.

The book though focusses very much on the effects that Matt's illness has on him - its symptoms and its causes, most of which only become clear towards the end. This is why I found it as times such uncomfortable reading, but I persevered and am glad that I did.

There is no happy ending for Matt, and he does not get miraculously better, but he does in his own way come to terms with what happened to his brother and the role that he played in this. In the process of doing this he also manages to mend relationships with the rest of his family and help them.

I can see exactly why this book won the Costa Prize and cannot think of a more worthy winner. This for me would also unhesitatingly be 5 stars.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra (Chechnya)

In a snow-covered village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as her father is abducted in the middle of the night by Russian soldiers. Their life-long friend and neighbour, Akhmed, has also been watching, and when he finds Havaa he knows of only one person who might be able to help.

For tough-minded doctor Sonja Rabina, it's just another day of trying to keep her bombed-out, abandoned hospital going. When Akhmed arrives with Havaa, asking Sonja for shelter, she has no idea who the pair are. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja's world will shift on its axis, revealing the intricate pattern of connections that binds these three unlikely companions together and unexpectedly decides their fate.

The book begins with a man named Akmed fleeing from his village in war torn Chechnya in the company of a young girl, his best friends daughter. We learn that the girls father has been taken captive and transported to what the author refers to as the Landfill. This somewhat ominous name conjures up images of mass graves, but as the book progresses we learn that it is in fact an interrogation camp, a roofless prison where the prisoners are kept in deep pits. Most of the the characters in this book have been to the Landfill at some point.

Akmed takes the girl to a nearby hospital, entrusting her to the care of a female surgeon named Sonja, having heard of her surgical skills through his own involvement in the war. Akmed strikes a deal with Sonja that in return for the girls safety, he will work at the hospital, where he is soon assisting with amputations, among other things. As the story of these three characters unfolds, we learn of the interconnecting threads that link them together.

For a first novel (at least first published novel), this is an extraordinary piece of work that grips the imagination and will leave the reader pondering as to the nature of war, life and death for many days.

Kiskadee Girl - Maggie Harris (Guyana)

Powerful forces surge through British Guiana as it transforms into independent Guyana, South American forest a bare step away from the towns. Old World chilly proprieties smack against everything the New World embodies. Margaret must navigate her own independence. Scottish, Portuguese, African: all and none of these, this teenager of the emergent Caribbean learns seduction Hollywood-style, but she belongs to more than a century of transgressions. She kisses forbidden faces, the living colours of colonial history. Love and loss come home to her in two men of the river. When Margaret is just fifteen, her father dies. A little later, she packs up her dreams, leaves her riverman and makes the Atlantic crossing. But the spirits of her old geography keep whispering.

This is charming and relatively short read, about the authors early life growing up in what was at the time, British Guiana. This is a small country in the northern part of South America, which is in many times more West Indian in nature. It was perhaps not the best or most interesting book I have read from this part of the world, but nevertheless poignant and beautifully honest in its descriptions of teenage emotions against the backdrop of the country's move towards independence.

The Hired Man - Aminatta Forna (Croatia)

Gost is surrounded by mountains and fields of wild flowers. The summer sun burns. The Croatian winter brings freezing winds. Beyond the boundaries of the town an old house which has lain empty for years is showing signs of life. One of the windows, glass darkened with dirt, today stands open, and the lively chatter of English voices carries across the fallow fields. Laura and her teenage children have arrived.

A short distance away lies the hut of Duro Kolak who lives alone with his two hunting dogs. As he helps Laura with repairs to the old house, they uncover a mosaic beneath the ruined plaster and, in the rising heat of summer, painstakingly restore it. But Gost is not all it seems; conflicts long past still suppurate beneath the scars.

I was surprised to find that the latest of Aminatta's books was set in Croatia, as her previous works, like the author herself, were African themed, and some say, partly autobioghraphical in nature. This then is an interesting departure from her more usual style, and yet it was also the same in that it was set in the aftermath of war, this time in the Balkans.

The narrator is builder Duro, who lives alone on the outskirts of Gost with his two hunting dogs. Gost seems an appropriate name in many ways for this fictional town, as it is one letter removed from ghost, the state in which many of the residents appear to reside. Duro first encounters Laura through the sight of his gun, while out hunting in the woods. When Duro a handyman by trade, learns that Laura has recently moved into the so-called blue house, and plans to renovate it, he volunteers his services, being in need of the work. As the story unfolds, we learn that Duro is already intimately acquainted with both the house and its history, as the former home of his childhood sweetheart and sister of his once best friend.

There are dark under currents beneath the surface as we learn the secrets of both Duro's and the towns past with its role in the ethnic cleansing that took part of the Balkans war. The war has understandably left scars, both physical and psychological upon the inhabitants, not least of all Duro himself. The book cleverlly addresses many of these issues and for many will I am sure leave unanswered and unresolved questions.

The relationships between the various characters are brilliantly betrayed - Laura and her sunny, trusting personality, Kresimir's brutality and Fabjan's hypocrisy. As I said, this book covers many themes. Most of all though, it is a book about survival and the effects of war on a community, a community where the various occupants took sides against each other and are now forced to live with the consequences of that betrayal and guilt.

Butterflies in November: Audur Ava Olafsdottir (Iceland)

After a day of being dumped - twice - and accidentally killing a goose, the narrator begins to dream of tropical holidays far away from the chaos of her current life. instead, she finds her plans wrecked by her best friend's deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when a shared lottery ticket nets the two of them over 40 million kroner, she and the boy head off on a road trip across iceland, taking in cucumber-farming hotels, dead sheep, and any number of her exes desperate for another chance. Blackly comic and uniquely moving, Butterflies in November is an extraordinary, hilarious tale of motherhood, relationships and the legacy of life's mistakes.

Given my love of Iceland, and all things Icelandic, it seems fitting to start 2014 off with an Icelandic book. This one had been on my wish list for a while, having read about it in the airline magazine after my most recent trip to Iceland in October last year, so when I saw it was reduced to 99p I downloaded a copy straight away.

The narrator of the book is a thirty three year old woman with a gift for languages. When we meet her at the beginning of the book, she has been recently dumped by both her lover and her husband. Her husband it turns out has also been having an affair, and is expecting a child with his other woman. When the narrator's pregnant best friend and already single mother Audur is on the way over to help our heroine commiserate, she slips and falls on the ice, necessitating a stay in hospital. Our heroine is then given the task of caring for Audur's five year old deaf-mute son. Following, not one but two lottery wins - one monetary, one a prefabricated summer bungalow in the east of Iceland, where the narrator spent her childhood, the two of them set off on a road trip around Iceland's coast.

The remainder of the book is about this road trip and the things that the two of them encounter - including yes, a cucumber farm, a dead sheep and several exes. During the journey our heroine learns what motherhood really means and makes some life changing decisions.

This is somewhat quirky book that would appeal mostly to other women, due to the motherhood theme and will no doubt have a sizeable audience after the success of her previous work. For me though the book seemed a bit lack lustre and lacked that certain spark. Icelandic is a difficult language to learn, so maybe some of the book was simply lost in translation. It is by no means the best book I have read, but no means the worst either, so I would give this an average rating of 3 stars.

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman: Eve Harris (Israel)

19 year-old Chani lives in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, but is bound to marry a stranger. The rabbi’s wife teaches her what it means to be a Jewish wife, but Rivka has her own questions to answer. Soon buried secrets, fear and sexual desire bubble to the surface in a story of liberation and choice; not to mention what happens on the wedding night…

This delightful mid length book (350 pages) tells the story of seven orthodox Jews, all of whom are interrelated by either marriage or friendship. Baruch, who is the son of Rabbi Chaim, and his wife Rivka sees Chani at a wedding and decides that the two should meet with a view to arranging a match of their own. His mother, the snobbish and irrepressible Mrs Levy, has other ideas, as no woman, least of all Chani, who comes from a less monied background, could ever be good enough for her son. She as the mother knows best. When she attempts to bribe the matchmaker Mrs Gelbman to put her son off, this backfires spectacularly, as Mrs Gelbman turns the tables. She also pressures Chani, who determinedly digs in her heels, in more ways than one, and so against all the odds, the match is sealed.

The other characters are Avromi, the groom to be's best friend, who stifled by his orthodox upbringing enrols at a secular university. He soon embarks upon a relationship with a non Jewish girl who introduced him to more secular ways. Torn by his conflicting emotions, he ends the relationship and enrols instead in a religious college in Jerusalem. Then there is the Rabbi (Avromi's father), who is to officiate at Baruch and Chani's nuptials, and his wife Rivka. We see flashbacks of their life together in Jerusalem where they met as students and their gradual move towards orthodoxy with the restrictions that this brings, most of all to Rivka.

The wedding eventually goes ahead, with both parties very nervous about the wedding night, as neither (unlike the groom's best friend, or as it turns out his parents before they married) have any knowledge about sex. Predictably it is a complete disaster, but out of that disaster comes communication and understanding, which eventually leads to freedom. These three words are if anything, the theme of the book, for each of these like the characters themselves are inter related. As Baruch and Chani, and indeed Chaim (the Rabbi) and Rivka start to communicate honestly and openly about what they both want and expect from the other, an understanding develops, which ultimately leads to freedom for both of them.

Although I know a little about the lives of orthodox Jews, having been to Israel twice, this provided for me a fascinating insight into their world.