Book Review – The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk

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Goodreads Synopsis:

A bestseller in the author’s native country of Estonia, where the book is so well known that a popular board game has been created based on it, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is the imaginative and moving story of a boy who is tasked with preserving ancient traditions in the face of modernity.

Set in a fantastical version of medieval Estonia, The Man Who Spoke Snakish follows a young boy, Leemet, who lives with his hunter-gatherer family in the forest and is the last speaker of the ancient tongue of snakish, a language that allows its speakers to command all animals. But the forest is gradually emptying as more and more people leave to settle in villages, where they break their backs tilling the land to grow wheat for their “bread” (which Leemet has been told tastes horrible) and where they pray to a god very different from the spirits worshipped in the forest’s sacred grove. With lothario bears who wordlessly seduce women, a giant louse with a penchant for swimming, a legendary flying frog, and a young charismatic viper named Ints, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a totally inventive novel for readers of David Mitchell, Sjón, and Terry Pratchett.

Review:

I’m determined to make a decent dent in my “Read Around the World” challenge this year, especially now that I have access to the library again so can request lots of books. I decided to go for this one as the synopsis sounded very interesting. I’d also be very interested in trying out the board game based on it, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s been translated. I also decided I wanted to read novels from places I’d already visited and Estonia was one of the first trips I took as an adult.

The book is a historical fiction novel set during the time that Estonia converted to Christianity. The main character, Leemet, grows up during a period of change and we slowly see the world adapting to the new society that has been brought to the land. This transition period makes a very interesting setting as it allows us to see the changes brought to the country and both the new and traditional beliefs.

Unfortunately, I don’t know that much about Estonia so I don’t know how much of the fantastical nature is based on mythology and how much was from the author himself. I’ve visited the Estonian Open Air Museum which definitely influenced how I imagined the village while reading. Aside from that though, I don’t know much about Estonian History (I visited several other museums while I was there, but I’ve forgotten a lot of it).

Despite lacking a lot of background knowledge that Estonian readers will have, I was still able to enjoy and appreciate this novel and it has certainly inspired me to learn more about Estonia. I would definitely recommend this to those doing “Read Around the World” challenges and would also recommend visiting Estonia to those that enjoy travelling.

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Book Review – Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujilla

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Goodreads Synopsis:

In a war-torn African city-state tourists of all languages and nationalities converge with students, ex-pats and locals. They have only one desire: to make a fortune by exploiting the mineral wealth of the country, both mineral and human. As soon as night falls, they go out to get drunk, dance, eat and abandon themselves in Tram 83, the only night-club of the city, the den of all iniquities.
Lucien, a professional writer, fleeing the exactions and the censorship, of the Back-Country, finds refuge in the city thanks to Requiem, a friend. Requiem lives mainly on theft and on swindle while Lucien only thinks of writing and living honestly. Around them gravitate gangsters and young girls, retired or runaway men, profit- seeking tourists and federal agents of a non-existent State.
Tram 83 plunges the reader into the atmosphere of a gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colourfully exotic. It’s an observation of human relationships in a world that has become a global village, an African-rhapsody novel hammered by rhythms of jazz.
 

Review:

So I picked this up to get back to my long-neglected “Read Around the World” challenge. The author of this is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and this is translated from French. Unfortunately, despite the rave reviews, this was just not a book I enjoyed.

The writing style is very stream of consciousness and rambles on, and on, and on. At one point it was listing a whole stream of names which took up over a page and I had to just skip to the end because I got bored of reading them all. One thing I did enjoy though was that the conversations that took place in the titular Tram 83 were often interrupted by others and that’s thrown right in there too. I’ve lost track of how many times you’d be reading a conversation between Requiem and Lucien, the two main characters, and suddenly there’d be a “Do you have the time?” thrown in the middle without explanation. That aspect, along with all the other background noise that’s added in, really helps create the atmosphere of the Tram and the constant noise and people that are there.

It’s hard to talk about the plot as there isn’t really much of one and it jumps around a lot. We follow Lucien and his journey as a writer and also get glimpses of his friend Requiem and his publisher as they live their lives. Requiem makes a living blackmailing people with naked photos of them and his goal is to get one of the dissident General, while the publisher is one of the poor people being blackmailed by Requiem. There are a couple female characters but we see almost nothing of them.

This book is very male with a heavy male gaze on women which is definitely something that people should be aware of going in. There is a lot of description of women’s bodies and many of the interjections by female characters are sexual in nature as they try and get clients for the night. By the end of the book, you start just ignoring them, just as the characters themselves do.

Overall, this is a book unlike any I’ve read before and I’m glad I read it but it’s very hard to describe and hard to know who to recommend it to because it’s so difficult to categorise. If you’re doing a “Read Around the World” Challenge then it’s definitely a good choice for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If you can read French, I imagine the original is even better for use of language as part of that is always lost in translation.

Book Review- A Russian Doll and Other Stories by Adolfo Bioy Casares

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Goodreads Synopsis:

This collection of traditional and experimental stories by Argentinian novelist Bioy Casares ( The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata ) offers sophisticated, seamless prose, as well as magical realism and biting political satire. His characters are motivated by lust, avarice and vanity but elicit sympathy because of their vulnerability. In the title story, a fortune hunter joins an ecological expedition in pursuit of a millionaire’s daughter; but the father is swallowed by an enormous pollution-feeding caterpillar, and when the daughter takes over her father’s factory, she renounces her former ecological stance. In another story, a notary public recovering from hepatitis stays near a lake and meets Doctor Salmon’s niece, who asks him to prove his love for her by letting her uncle transform them both into fish. Many of the stories are fantasies, often centering on shocking events–an actor is shot by supporters of a dictatorship for playing a republican who cries, “Oh liberty!” and an angelic-looking girl breakfasts on her parents after being given an appetite stimulant. Throughout Casares surprises and entertains in these suspenseful stories.

Review:

Here is another of my #readtheworldathon books, this time for the square located furthest away from me. I’d already read The Invention of Morel and adored it so figured a collection of Casares short stories would be a perfect choice.

What I love about Casares is that his stories are just so strange and full of surprises. It’s hard to describe really, but the stories are full of magic and creativeness. They don’t quite live up to The Invention of Morel but were still a very enjoyable read. I won’t say too much about the stories themselves as that would risk giving away some of the twists.

Overall though, this was a fantastic collection for those wanting to read more magical realism stories. I would recommend this, however if you’ve not read Casares then I would first direct you to The Invention of Morel which is a brilliant novella and then, if you enjoyed that, you can come enjoy these stories too.

Book Review – One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun

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Goodreads Synopsis:

An oblique, hard-edged novel tinged with offbeat fantasy, One Hundred Shadows is set in a slum electronics market in central Seoul – an area earmarked for demolition in a city better known for its shiny skyscrapers and slick pop videos. Here, the awkward, tentative relationship between Eungyo and Mujae, who both dropped out of formal education to work as repair-shop assistants, is made yet more uncertain by their economic circumstances, while their matter-of-fact discussion of a strange recent development – the shadows of the slum’s inhabitants have started to ‘rise’ – leaves the reader to make up their own mind as to the nature of this shape-shifting tale.

Hwang’s spare prose is illuminated by arresting images, quirky dialogue and moments of great lyricism, crafting a deeply affecting novel of perfectly calibrated emotional restraint. Known for her interest in social minorities, Hwang eschews the dreary realism usually employed for such issues, without her social criticism being any less keen. As well as an important contribution to contemporary working-class literature, One Hundred Shadows depicts the little-known underside of a society which can be viciously superficial, complicating the shiny, ultra-modern face which South Korea presents to the world.

Review:

This is another book I picked up for the #Readtheworldathon, this one for the “short hop” square. I’ve actually already read a book from South Korea recently but I didn’t let that stop me as it sounded so interesting.

This is a short novella primarily focused on the interactions between Eungyo and Mujae and so it’s hard to really give a review as there is nothing that jumps out at you as instead it’s just a beautiful journey with excellent prose in a very fluid, lyrical format. It’s focused heavily on the small details of life rather than big overarching plots which I really enjoyed and in particular it was a great way to see glimpses of South Korean culture.

As this is such a quick read, it’s something I would recommend to everybody wanting to expand their horizons and read more translated literature. It’s a fantastic look at the lives of two everyday people and yet is so much more than that.

Book Review – The Teacher of Cheops by Albert Salvadó

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Goodreads Synopsis:

This is the history of the time of Pharaoh Snefru and Queen Hetepheres, the parents of Cheops, who built the largest and most impressive pyramid of all. It is also the story of Sedum, a slave who became Cheops’ teacher, the high priest Ramosi, and how the first pyramid came to be built. 

Sebekhotep, the great wise man of that time, said, “Everything is written in the stars. Most of us live our lives unaware of it. Some can read the stars and see their destiny. But very few people learn to write in the stars and change their destiny.” 

Ramosi and Sedum learned to write in them and tried to change their destinies, but fortune treated them very differently. This is a tale of the confrontation between two men’s intelligence: one fighting for power, the other struggling for freedom.

Review:

So, this was my pick for “Small Country” in the #Readtheworldathon challenge as the author is from Andorra and I couldn’t find any other book available. It’s historical fiction about Egypt and I love historical fiction so figured it would be a good read.

I was wrong. I was very, very wrong.

I almost put this book down in the first few chapters as it starts off with a graphic sex scene between a child slave and a man who snuck into her tent. No, the man did not rape her as this child slave was very happy and willing to have sex for the first time with this complete stranger. At that point I lost all respect for the author and his writing and only continued to see how much worse it could get.

That was the worst part, but the rest of the book was not much better. I found it incredibly boring, badly written and I’d definitely say this is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. I only finished it because of my challenge to read something from around the world.

I do not recommend this book to anybody. If you are trying to read around the world and want to read something from Andorra then I recommend leaving it until last in the hopes that something else will become available because this is trash. I don’t say that very often about books (indeed usually when I don’t enjoy a book I recognise that there will still be plenty of people that will enjoy it) but I can not in any good conscious recommend a book that believes a child slave would willingly consent to sex with a random stranger. The author is disgusting and should be ashamed of himself.

Book Review – Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Seoul. On the outskirts of South Korea’s glittering metropolis is a place few people know about: a vast landfill site called Flower Island. Home to those driven from the city by poverty, is it here that 14-year-old Bugeye and his mother arrive, following his father’s internment in a government ‘re-education camp’.

Living in a shack and supporting himself by weeding recyclables out of the refuse, at first Bugeye’s life on Flower Island is hard. But then one night he notices mysterious lights around the landfill. And when the ancient spirits that still inhabit the island’s landscape reveal themselves to him, Bugeye’s luck begins to change – but can it last?

Vibrant and enchanting, Familiar Things depicts a society on the edge of dizzying economic and social change, and is a haunting reminder to us all to be careful of what we throw away.

Review:

So, I recently got back from a short trip to Seoul and so naturally it was the perfect opportunity to read a book from South Korea for my “Read Around the World” challenge. I picked this book simply because it was also set in Seoul and was short enough I’d be able to read it while on my trip without taking away too much time from exploring.

Although the book is set on a trash island near Seoul, there is very little focus on Seoul itself and indeed could be set almost anywhere. You only know it’s Seoul due to the references to Korean culture which gives the story a certain charm.

The plot of the story is very simple, Bugeye and his mother have moved to Flower Island where she works as a trash picker and the story follows Bugeye as he adapts to his new living situation. However, the simplicity is what makes this story so magical – we’re reading about some people who were down on their luck and how they cope with their new life. There is some magic in the book with spirits that Bugeye meets and this, along with the new friends he meets, helps him grow.

This story was not what I was expecting, but it was delightful all the same. It’s a simple yet charming story that is beautifully written (and beautifully translated) and was an absolute joy to read.

If you’re looking for a short read to diversify your reading then this is definitely a book I’d recommend. If you’re looking for exciting fast-paced novels it’s probably not for you, but I’d suggest giving it a chance anyway, the slow relaxed pace is very enjoyable.

Book Review – Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Welcome to Mexico City… An Oasis In A Sea Of Vampires…

Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is busy eking out a living when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life.

Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, must feast on the young to survive and Domingo looks especially tasty. Smart, beautiful, and dangerous, Atl needs to escape to South America, far from the rival narco-vampire clan pursuing her. Domingo is smitten.

Her plan doesn’t include developing any real attachment to Domingo. Hell, the only living creature she loves is her trusty Doberman. Little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his effervescent charm.

And then there’s Ana, a cop who suddenly finds herself following a trail of corpses and winds up smack in the middle of vampire gang rivalries.

Vampires, humans, cops, and gangsters collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive?

Review:

When I was younger, I went through a Vampire phase and absolutely adored Buffy. I got my hands on any Vampire books I could find (I grew up in a small village before Twilight so there were not many). When Twilight came out, it led to an increase in Vampire novels but most of them all focused heavily on Romance which I’m not really a fan of.

This book though, this book is exactly what I wanted and I adored it. The main plot of the story focuses on Atl who is trying to escape a gang that killed her family and are now after her. It just so happens that Atl and the gang are both Vampires and so as the main focus of the plot is on Atl’s escape, there’s not much time for romance.

The worldbuilding in this book was absolutely fantastic. The vampires in this aren’t all one monolithic creature type, but instead, there are different varieties. Atl is a tlahuihpochtli, which is a Vampire indigenous to Mexico. The other Vampires we see in the novel are the Narcos and a Revenant which are Vampires that have arrived from Europe. I really enjoyed the fact that the author drew on different mythologies and had all these distinct versions of Vampires together in the same novel. The history of the world was also particularly interesting and I would love to read another book set in this world focusing on the discovery of Vampires and watching how the world changed into the world we see in this book.

The characters in this book were all fantastic and I don’t want to speak about them too much as part of the charm was slowly getting to know them more but suffice to say, they’re all very well written and very realistic – they all have their flaws, some more than others, and they all have their own motivations for their actions.

This was a very quick read as I got so engrossed I just didn’t want to put it down and if you’re a fan of Vampires then this book is ideal for you! The fact it’s set in Mexico City was also nice and refreshing (also makes it perfect for my Read Around the World challenge). I would highly recommend this novel and I’m definitely planning on reading more of the authors novels after this!

Book Review – Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep ed. by Peter Öberg

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Goodreads Synopsis:

26 short stories from the new wave of Swedish speculative fiction writers.

Forget about cheap furniture, meatballs and crime fiction. Sweden has so much more to offer. Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep contains twenty-six stories from the new generation of Swedish writers of science fiction and the fantastic. Stories ranging from space horror and post-apocalyptic nightmares to tender dramas. Stories with steampunk horses, android uprisings and cheeky goblins. Stories that are action-packed, wise, silly, beautiful, surreal and horrifying.

Review:

So, for those that don’t follow me on Twitter, I recently got back from a holiday to Denmark with a short day-trip to Sweden and so naturally it seemed like the perfect time to try and find some Danish and Swedish SFF to read. Thanks to the fantastic SF in Translation website, I was able to find this gem and it was only 99p on Kindle so I just had to get it. Plus it means I can now cross off Sweden on my Read Around the World challenge! Hurrah!

Given that there are 26 stories in this anthology, it’s to be expected that some would be much better than others but I was pleasantly surprised by the consistently strong quality of all the stories. Indeed, although I liked some more than others they were all fantastic. The range of stories included was also fantastic from one focusing on AI (which lends its name to the title of the collection) to another focusing on interpreting wisdom from an ancient music player (Jump to the Left, Jump to the Right). They were all fantastic and as with any collection, it’s hard to talk about them all without writing thousands of words.

If you have an e-reader and like SFF then I strongly recommend this collection. It’s incredibly cheap (I mean seriously you’re paying less than 4p per story) and is definitely worth it.

Book Review – HWJN by Ibraheem Abbas

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Goodreads Synopsis:

HWJN is the #1 selling Arabic book in Saudi, it is a mix between fantasy, SciFi and romance. While most people get excited about legends of spirits and genies (Jinn) and pass it on as they listen to it with awe and horror (after adding their own spices to it); here comes Hawjan. The young Jinni who is in his early nineties to redefine our understanding of the Jinn world that resembles ours in so many ways, still it is a parallel dimension to ours. He shares his tale so that we can live it through a “human” perspective regardless of the differences between our two worlds.
As human populations expand Hawjan found himself surrounded by humans who had built a housing complex in the area surrounding his village forcing him, his mother and grandfather to live in one of these villas that is now haunted by humans. Hawjan’s efforts to avoid interacting with the human family had failed, finding himself madly in love with Sawsan the human, Sawsan was a medical student, gentle and brilliant, barely a quarter of his age. Hawjan was unable to let her know about his feelings until he learned how to communicate with Sawsan through the Ouija board. He found out about her brain cancer that she had hidden from everyone including her family. As Sawsan’s suffering increased and her health deteriorated her father was easy prey for a sorcerer who tricked him into believing that Sawsan’s illness was a result of the devils who had haunted their new home, and so a deadly battle between Hawjan and the devils and sorcerer who had tried extort money from Sawsan’s father. With the help of Eyad (Sawsan’s colleague) who had agreed to Hawjan possessing him so that they would both risk their lives to save Sawsan and her father.

Review:

So, I found out about this book when writing my post about Muslim Sci-Fi to check out and I recently got a comment from the co-author, Yasser Bahjatt, saying he would be honoured to read my reviews of his books and so I just had to get it along with Yaqteenya which I’ll be reading and reviewing soon. I chose to read this one first because I really enjoy stories with Jinn in them and because it’s also a perfect fit for Saudi Arabia for my Read Around the World challenge.

To start off, as this book was originally written in Arabic I am naturally reading a translation. The English translation is very well done and was a pleasure to read. I noticed a lot of reviews on GR in Arabic that complained about the language used however because I am not reading the Arabic version, this was never an issue to me so if those lower reviews put you off, run a few through Google Translate first as the majority of the issues were purely with the language.

I’m a big fan of Jinn in stories and so I was thrilled that this book was written from the perspective of a Jinn named Hawjan. Hawjan’s family home has recently become “haunted” by humans moving in to the area and so although his mother and grandfather move to the roof to escape them, Hawjan lingers in the room that used to be his which now belongs to Sawsan, a young medical student. Hawjan begins to grow close to Sawsan and when one of her friends brings an Ouija Board, he is excited to have the chance to communicate with her. The novel follows the story of their growing friendship and the challenges Hawjan faces in order to protect her from the much more dangerous Jinn.

The worldbuilding in this was excellent. I am unaware how much of it was based on myths and how much was the authors own imagination but the world that was described was brilliant and I loved the differences between the Jinn world and our own. One aspect in particular I liked was the fact that it mentioned that Jinn could be all sorts of different religions. Hawjan himself is a Muslim Jinn and descended from a Jinn that met the Prophet. This plays an important role in the story and it was very interesting to see supernatural characters be represented as also religious in a very natural fashion.

If you are looking to try reading some Fantasy/Sci-Fi in translation then this is an excellent place to start. It’s brilliant for #muslimshelfspace and if you’re looking to expand your horizons and read books from other countries then it’s a great pick. Even then, if you’re simply looking for a nice enjoyable story then I highly recommend this. I could barely put it down and managed to finish it very quickly as I enjoyed it so much.

Book Review – Iraq +100 ed. by Hassan Blasim

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Iraq + 100 poses a question to ten Iraqi writers: what might your country look like in the year 2103 – a century after the disastrous American- and British-led invasion, and 87 years down the line from its current, nightmarish battle for survival? How might the effects of that one intervention reach across a century of repercussions, and shape the lives of ordinary Iraqi citizens, or influence its economy, culture, or politics? Might Iraq have finally escaped the cycle of invasion and violence triggered by 2003 and, if so, what would a new, free Iraq look like? 

Covering a range of approaches – from science fiction, to allegory, to magic realism – these stories use the blank canvas of the future to explore the nation’s hopes and fears in equal measure. Along the way a new aesthetic for the ‘Iraqi fantastical’ begins to emerge: thus we meet time-travelling angels, technophobic dictators, talking statues, macabre museum-worlds, even hovering tiger-droids, and all the time buoyed by a dark, inventive humour that, in itself, offers hope.

Review:

First I’d like to thank Macmillan-Tor for the ARC of this book. It had been on my to-read list for a while as it looked perfect for my Read Around the World challenge and so when I saw it was being re-released I jumped at the chance to get an ARC.

This is a collection of short stories all set 100 years in the future and all written by Iraqi authors and translated by a variety of translators. It’s incredibly fascinating to see all the different ideas they have about what Iraq will be like in the future as they are all so different and varied – and I found it amusing that quite a few all ended up with the same ideas for the US.

Because it’s a collection of short stories, it’s naturally hard to discuss too much without spoiling them but I will say that I really enjoyed all the stories in this collection. Some were definitely stronger than others, but they were all excellent and it was very refreshing to read about Iraq from the perspectives of those who live there themselves rather than from a Western perspective.

This book is a perfect choice for those wanting to read more Muslim authors and I’m very pleased to use it as my pick for Iraq on my Around the World challenge. There is also a fantastic introduction to the collection which discusses the literary scene in Iraq which was very interesting.