Book Round up: March 2023

What an embarrassment of riches!

The ‘book of the month’ is undoubtedly Vista Chinesa – everyone should read this

Other (many) highlights:

Mostly Dead Things

Space Invaders

Memorial, 29th June

Into the Never

My Name is Why

The Day that didn’t Happen

What Concerns Us

Children of Paradise

Homesick (review out on Monday April 3rd)

Boulder (review out on Tuesday April 4th)

All authors and translators are mentioned in the links.

What’s next?

As it’s book prize season, my focus will be on those. Then back to the TBR when I finish the International Booker Longlist

Sheena Patel – I’m a Fan (2022)

Obsession has always been an interesting topics for novels ranging from Ian McEwan to Patricia Highsmith, writers like to focus on characters who fixate on someone or something so badly that their life is ruined.

I would say with the World Wide Web obsession can reach some scary heights, social media has made it easy to obsess over people. It could be a celebrity who you think about all the time. or a rival who you want to keep tabs on. Social media fuels the fires of fixation.

Which is precisely the direction Sheena Patel takes in I’m a Fan. The main protagonist obsesses over a man her influencer rival is dating. This character will stop at nothing in order to achieve what she wants and ends up destroying a lot of things in her path.

As satires go, this is a brutal one but it does make the reader aware at how petty we can get when delving into a digital stalking frenzy. The match this obsessive behaviour, Patels’ prose has that similar feel; a lot of short sentences that accentuate how bad this character wants a man and to outdo her rival. In a way this gives the book a fresh feel, and an experimental edge.

However I do have one gripe and that, although, there are a lot of things that work in favour of I’m a Fan, I do feel that the book is somewhat soulless. I felt that the writing lacked passion. Now if this was on purpose, i don’t know but I do wish there was a bit of a spark because this feels like something new is happening. As I said, this is a gripe. Please do not let one be be put off because I’m a fan is breaking new ground in an odd way.

Tatiana Salem Levy, Alison Entrekin (Translator) – Vista Chinesa (2021, English Translation 2022)

Before I start the actual review I would like to say how I came across Vista Chinesa:

I befriended (or vice versa??) a Portuguese translator on Instagram and she told me that I had to read Vista Chinesa. She then sent the English translation to me. A big thank you!

I have always said many times that literature has a knack of expressing those sentiments that we are unable to convey or even focus on a topic which would make people uncomfortable to talk about in public, as is the case of Vista Chinesa. I will be blunt, the book is about rape.

I understand this is not a topic that is easy to talk about, especially in the light of terrible incidents that happened over the past few years and what makes it worse is that films like Noe’s Irreversible or Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange glorify this heinous act. However Tatiana Salem Levy treats the topic with care and it is based on a real life incident.

Taking the form of a testimony to her children, Júlia is out jogging in the Vista Chinesa area in Rio where she is sexually assaulted. In the hands of of an amateur writer this would be the first this mentioned but the actual act is described somewhere near the middle. What the main focus is as this stage is the trauma Júlia experiences: the embarrassment of undressing in front of her husband, Michel, the unease she feels when touched by her own parents (as an aside this is the first book I’ve read in a long time where the mother/daughter relationship is actually positive), the deepening of Júlia’s relationship with her woman friend ,the psychological breakdowns experienced when being interrogated. Later on when Júlia regains trust in her husband she is pregnant with twins and is scared to discover that one will be a girl, thus fearing that history will repeat itself.

The book goes deeper and also acts as a criticism of how the law treats such cases and it also is a jab at how the Brazilian government spent thousands in 2016 to make Rio acceptable for tourists when all these places are no longer being used and Rio still has the highest assault rate in Brazil.

Tatiana Salem Levy does not glorify the actual assault in anyway. It’s all told in a matter of fact way. Neither is this book a diatribe against males. If anything when Júlia has to start identifying suspects she feels guilty that the majority of the men are actually innocent.

Vista Chinesa can be uncomfortable to read but there is no denying that it is a VERY powerful novel and I can guarantee that it will stay with the reader for a long time. It is also under 140 pages but despite being a book one can read in a couple of hours, it has many layers and complexities to it, and more importantly, it opens eyes. This book makes us realise what it’s like to go through when such an incident happens and how it never leaves the mind and how these acts are still happening without stricter laws.

I do think Vista Chinesa is, indeed, a book one must read, yes, topics like this can make us uneasy but literature is there to open our minds and tackling a subject such as sexual assault in such a way helps create awareness for men and see the bigger picture. Without wanting to sound hyperbolic, I consider Vista Chinesa to be a work of genius. This is a bold daring book that will change your life once read.

Sophie Mackintosh – Cursed Bread (2023)

Sophie Mackintosh came into my radar via her debut novel, The Water Cure being longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018. I liked it but felt that there could have been more. I bypassed her second novel but I was curious about the premise of her third Cursed Bread.

The book takes the form of a memoir. The main protagonist and narrator, Elodie is writing her memoirs from some sort of care home? Here she details her infatuation with a new neighbour called Violet.

What starts off as a crush blows up into a sexual relationship. Elodie is already bored with her baker husband so this new relationship adds a sense of danger she is looking for.

At the same time Violet’s husband is having an affair with Elodie and makes her perform sexual acts in public areas.

In Cursed Bread chronology are mixed up. The letters to Violet describe Elodie’s present situation while the other chapters are what happens in the past. One can guess that such love triangles can only lead to disaster and it does,

Due to it’s elliptical style, I felt that Cursed Bread is more a book about style. It does focus on the complexity of relationships but it’s also a bit vague and although I’m a person who dislikes closure, in this case the novel did make me frustrated at times with it’s vagaries.

Cursed Bread is not a bad novel but it is flawed. Like Water Cure there is a good novel but it is buried and requires a bit of patience.

Camilla Grudova – Children of Paradise (2022)

I cannot say that I am a film buff as I have a lot of gaping holes in my film repertoire but I can say I do enjoy the medium and I was quite excited to read a book about it. Just as another note, I read Camilla Grudova’s short story collection, The Doll’s Alphabet and I enjoyed that tremendously and I was hoping that a debut novel would live up to the weirdness of those stories.

The narrator applies to work in a run down, rat infested cinema and she meets a group of eccentric movie lovers. All whom she bonds with, in more ways than one. Trouble hits though when the owner dies and the cinema goes under new management with an emphasis on screening blockbusters and firing staff. Things don’t always work out and the section of the book goes into a weird direction.

Each chapter is named after a film and there are some elements of the movie in the chapter, sometimes it is blatant and sometimes it’s subtle. It does help of one knows movies in order to read the book but it’s not essential.

The book itself structured like a film. The first part reminded something out of John Hughes, naïve and setting the scene, the mid part some seedy flick but with a carefree feel, to a certain extent I’d say Cinema Paradiso and the last part has Dario Argento vibes all over it. It also reminded of an unleashed Ottessa Moshfegh.

Children of Paradise also functions as a commentary about the direction cinema is going. Whereas in the past cinema was risqué, now the market is dominated by superhero films and sequels and rehashes of classics.

I thought the novel was fantastic. I laughed and shuddered in revulsion over the last bit but it is a fun book that has a breezy feel to it. It is also essential reading if you are a movie lover or ever worked in a cinema. I admit it’s also fun trying to guess the correlation between the chapter and the film mentioned in it.

I can’t help wondering what direction Camilla Grudova will take in her next work. Secretly I am hoping it will be a more horror one as she can describe gruesome happenings excellently. I know it’s not fair as the book is relatively new but the last section was written so well, I hope she does take it further.

Barbara Kingsolver – Demon Copperhead (2022)

Demon Copperhead is a big epic novel about a boy who starts off destitute and through some slivers of luck he ends up living a comfortable life. If this sounds Dickensian, then that is correct as this is a homage to David Copperfield. Since Barbara Kingslover is one of the literary greats, this is a guarantee that this novel will be a masterpiece.

Let’s get into the good points for there are many.

As expected there is a huge cast of characters and each one is memorable. Kingslover has always been a fantastic writer but here she excels. Not only that but her main protagonist has a distinctive voice as well. Which means I also am a big fan of the writing style.

Demon Copperhead , like David Copperfield is a depiction of both rich and poor societies. In Kingslover’s case we are exposed to trailer park class of the States. This is juxtaposed with the lifestyle upper class America, where houses have helpers,

My problem with the book, though was that I found it overlong. I loved the first 250 pages but after the book descends into repetition an, bar some brilliant passages, the becomes a slog and my enjoyment was diminished until the last 50 pages.

Saying that one can feel that this is a monumental novel as it touches upon many themes ranging from LBTQ+ to social welfare and adoption policies. There are a lot of things on this novel’s side but I think if it was edited a bit more, there would be more of an impact.

Emily St. John Mandel – Last Night in Montreal (2009)

Had I read Emily St. John’s debut when it was published in 2009, I would have hailed Last Night in Montreal as a great book. Having read her breakthrough Station Eleven and the excellent The glass Hotel, I can say that this debut is competent and has the roots of certain techniques that would be used in future novels.

Lilia has been on the road ever since she was a child. Her nomadic lifestyle has made her refuse long term relationships and a fear of settling down. When she dates Eli and then leaves, he decides to look for her in Montreal.

At the same time there is a parallel story of a detective who has been on the Lilia’s trail for most of his life and has damaged his relationship with his wife and his daughter Michela plans a grand revenge on Lilia.

Through the use of intersecting timelines and little details, the reader manages to piece together Lilia’s life. Although I love this sort of thing, for some weird reason it doesn’t work too well. At times it felt forced. I do understand that this is a debut and subsequent novel did it better but the self-consciousness did dampen the experience. It’s a solid novel and an interesting look at how Emily St, John Mandel managed to improve her craft.

Laura Vogt, Caroline Waight (Translator) – What Concerns Us (2020, English translation in 2022)

What concerns us focuses on three women who are related, sisters and mother and how their situations affect themselves and their own mental health.

Rahel is a single mother. She finds salvation in Boris, who, at first, could be seen as the ideal male – emphatic, patient and loving. Eventually he has a child with Rahel and she suffers from post partum depression, which changes their relationship dynamic.

her sister Feena, on the other hand, has an abusive and manipulative partner, Luc, whose actions constantly wonder is she makes him act the way he does. At one point of the book Feena also becomes pregnant and in a disturbing way, which she questions her actions more.

Verena, Rahel and Feena’s mother is also suffering. This time from cancer which also affects her daughters.

What Concerns us delves into the complexities of women’s psyche. Pregnancy, depression, toxic masculinity and sickness – just to name a few of the themes which run through this novel. Although a lot of topics are explored, this is never a book which feels overstuffed. In fact it’s the opposite there is a lot of space given to the reader to understand what these three characters are going through. Neither is the book over indulgent or melodramatic. I loved the novel’s pace and it gave me time to process a lot.

What struck me was the depth of each situation. We see every detail of Rahel’s decline into a depression and how her mind works when Boris reacts. When experience feena’s feelings when Luc violates hers and then blames her as a participant in the act. The prologue involving Verena washing her head with a mixture to encourage hair loss is a very touching scene. This is a multi-layered book which gives insight to a lot of things.

I have always stated that literature should open eyes constantly. For me, What Concerns us did precisely that, Never have I read such a book which tackled women relationships in such a way. This is my second book from Héloïse Press and , like the previous book, Thirsty Sea (Erica Mou, translated by Clarissa Botsford) this has left an impression on me and I am glad this wonderful publisher is leaving such an impact on my way of looking at society.

Gerd Kvanvig , Wendy H. Gabrielsen (Translator) – The day that didn’t happen (2000, English translation 2022)

In a way The day that didn’t happen is a mystery of sorts; there’s a lot of intrigue, a build up and a final reveal. The novel also teases the reader and allows space for guessing. Yet to call this book a mystery is not correct. Think of The day … as someone who is wearing a popular color of jacket, only to full it off and find an unconventional type of lining.

The novel takes the form of a flashback, placing the reader back to Norway 1975 in a fairground , during a heatwave. There the narrator, Margrete, experiences an incident in which childhood is lost. Though this is not a spoiler, the book builds up to this incident through an unconventional way.

Lately I have been reading a good number of novels where the boundaries of time are shattered and The day that didn’t happen is no different. Here time is splintered. Margrete’s memory jumps to various happenings, like shards of glass slicing through skin. However as one keeps on reading the pieces of the ‘mystery’ come together and it leads to an eye opening conclusion.

This is also a book about love and trust and how those boundaries can be enforced and broken. Margrete’s home life is not great and she sees salvation in a policeman called Erling, who wants to help her mother. Together they bond however both characters have different perspectives of each other and by the book’s conclusions their relationship lies down to trust and how that can change.

Subtly disturbing but mesmerising, The day that didn’t happen is an interesting novel which challenges the notions of memory and relationships and is, an oddly, thrilling read. The line between love and trust is thin and The day that didn’t happen proves that it can be cracked pretty easily.

Many thanks to Naked Eye for providing a copy of The day that didn’t happen

Lemn Sissay – My Name is Why (2019)

When poet Lemn Sissay was a young adult he requested that he see the files pertaining to his adoption and family background.

What he was to discover was to change his whole outlook on life.

My name is Why is that story.

This memoir details Lemn Sissay’s years from his first foster family, then being moved around to different homes. On the way he tries to discover his identity. Name changes, parentage and roots all feature in the book and lemn Sissay’s mission is to uncover all the secrets that the government had hidden from him.

The end result is a disturbing expose of how adopted children are treated, and in the case of Lemn Sissay some information is deliberately denied. Now whether laws have changed due to this book, I don’t know but it does make the reader aware that the state can have a big role in your direction in life. There are times when Sissay compares the government practices to the ones utilised in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The fact that My Name is Why is populated with documents and one sees what is written, the shock just hits harder.

As memoirs go My Name is Why is quite unique. It’s also a quick read but despite the deceptive breeziness, it is uneasy reading, especially knowing that such practices may exist. Definitely an eye-opener.