Books: schools for peculiar children

Alternate title: one topos, three books… and they could not be more different! Oh, except in that they all have a story that cannot be told without giving out too much! So no summary = no spoilers!

The book: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The edition:Italian translation by Paola Novarese, as published by Einaudi, softback, 295 pages

The good: I love Ishiguro’s writing, the detail, the tone, the language. (Or maybe I should say I love Ishiguro’s writing translated, because I never read him in the original.) And this book has a very interesting premise, believable characters, and a lot of potential for discussion.

The bad:the characters felt like they were only playing at emotions, playing at being human, but I’m not sure whether that’s the whole point of the book (as in, showing that they would not have a soul) or an unwanted byproduct. (Or even, an unwanted byproduct of what, at face value, seems a good translation.) Also, the whole premise was a bit far-fetched, and I was disappointed in how such a sensitive and controversial subject was brought up only to be downplayed.

The verdict: I’m very much on the fence about this one.

More: I went online and read many reviews, but there’s not one of them that does not give away the central mystery of this book.


The book: Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

The edition: American paperback edition by Harperteen, 422 pages.

The good: well, I had read good reviews, but did not expect such a good book. I love the way the story unravels, little by little and mystery by mystery. I love the sense of place, of magic, of the hidden links between characters. I love the enclosed world Marchetta created, its rites and costumes. I love the different characters and how each of them goes on looking for his/her own way to adulthood.

The bad: Taylor’s whining and being something of a stereotype character (on this note: has anyone noticed how Katniss Everdeen is totally copied from her? The my-mother-doesn’t-care-about-me whining, the though attitude, the leading role, the “my name is Taylor/Katniss, I’m 17 years old” mantra, and even the unfriendly and savage cat?)

The verdict: this is why I keep reading YA books. The way the story is told is enough to put this book up in the same circle with some of my most loved ones (The God of Small Things, Goodbye Little Women).

More: this counts for the Aussie Author (although it did not feel very Australian to me), the Classic Double and the Semi-Charmed Summer challenges.


The book: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

The edition: Quirk Books hardback edition, 352 pages

The good: you know how we all craved for adventures when we were 7-8 years old and reading, like, Verne, or Salgari, or whatever adventure book it was at the time? This book makes you feel like that again, and the adventure it brings on is a well-stuffed one.

The bad: I really hoped that this would not turn out to be fantasy, I’d have preferred it that way — but that’s just personal taste. Also, I found the photos a little bit overly unsettling, and I didn’t like the very open ending.

The verdict: a good read for a hot summer day, when you want something different.

More: oh no! I just discovered this is going to be a series! For me, one was enough.

Books: little to say about these

Alternate title: it’s mini-review time!

The book: Lisbon – What the Tourist Should See by Fernando Pessoa

The edition: Italian translation by Luca Merlini, 65 pages, as published by Einaudi with an essay on modern-day Lisbon by Maria Teresa Bonafede and pictures by Gianmario Marras, total page count 115

My thoughts:  while it opened my eyes to a couple of things in Lisbon that I had never noticed before, this is nothing more than a dated guidebook. From such an author as Pessoa was, I expected something more, some poetic commentary or some inside knowledge or some social satire. Nothing of the kind.


The book: Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa

The edition: Italian (original) edition as published by Einaudi, paperback, 144 pages, with a note by the author

My thoughts: you may have heard me praise Scarpa’s love song to Venice in Venice is a Fish, but that was the one and only book I had ever read by him up to now; this one, also a winner of a prestigious Italian award, was supposed to be at least as good. But I’m afraid I cannot say so. It is supposed to be a homage to the musical tradition of Venice, and especially to Vivaldi, but all I could see was the pointless and sometimes horrific meanderings of a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body. I mean, this is supposed to be the story of a girl on the brink of womanhood, but all the details of her dealing with this change and her body either made me laugh for how improbable they were (think: a girl having a nightmare about water and waking up to find her legs covered in blood from her first period — I have lost count of the male authors believing this is how it happens!) or made me sick with disgust (think: comparing the belly of a woman giving birth and the bubbles exploding in boiling water — and this is just the least example).


The book: The Sacred Night, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

The edition: French (original) edition, as published by Seuil, Points paperback, 189 pages

My thoughts: I read this for the Africa challenge, and because I hope to visit Morocco, and Ben Jelloun is said to be the author to start from. I’m afraid I have to say this one went right over my head, and I understood nothing of it. I guess it is intended to raise the subject of gender, and of identity, but it does so in a way that is completely different from anything I had read before. It’s a kind of magical realism, but full of symbols, and dreamlike details and events that may or may not be symbols, and I can’t say I know what most of them stand for. If you have read this and can help me understand, I’d really like to hear from you!


The book: Fables 11 – War and Pieces, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Niko Henrichon and Andrew Pepoy

The edition: Vertigo edition, 191 pages

My thoughts: this is the closing book for a cycle of the series, with most threads coming to an end. I already mentioned that I did not like the way this particular story (i.e. the Adversary) was being developed, and this may be the one book I liked the least. It read like some war movie, and that’s not a compliment. The series is still great, and I love it to pieces, but I’d have chosen another angle and another story altogether. Now that that is closed, I’m curious to read where the authors will bring us next!

Book: The Thief Lord

The book: The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke

The edition: German (original) version, Dressler hardback edition, 396 pages,with the author’s drawings

The story: after their mother’s death, Prosper and Bo run away from their aunt Esther (who wants to adopt Bo and send Prosper to an institute) and reach Venice, the “City of the Moon”, about the magic of which their mother had told them again and again. Here they find shelter with a gang of street children and their leader, the Thief Lord. Adventures follow as they try to elude the detective Esther has hired, organize a robbery on behalf of a mysterious count, and discover the real identity of their gang’s chief.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: first things first, I’m glad I read this in German, because I don’t have a lot of patience with children lit in general, but with German I had to slow down a bit and could savor it. I was dubious about this book because I had read Inkheart and found it shallow and boring, but then again I had read that in Italian. (If you usually like children/YA novels, though, go with your own language.)
Because yes, it’s a good book. The story has enough depth and layers that it could grow confusing or unbelievable, but it seems to me pretty well executed and balanced. The characters are lovely, even in their most absurd behaviors they remain believable. And most of all, what made it click for me was Funke’s descriptions, full of the magic of real life.

The part with spoilers: it disturbed me that the merry-go-round really was supernatural. The rest of the story was so good as it was, without magical elements, that I hoped to the very end that the merry-go-round story too was only a legend. This is the thing that disappointed me most in the whole book. If you want to write a fantasy book, write a fantasy from the start; you may go the way of magical realism, if you want a middle way, but even in that you have to be consistent. A magic touch 3/4 into the book sounds too much like an opt-out.

Venice: I have to admit that I don’t usually understand the reason why people are so fascinated with Venice. This book, on the other hand, describes the city in just such a way as to create its magic. It is said that the boys’ mother “told them stories about winged lions, a golden cathedral, and about angels and dragons perched on top of the buildings. She told them that water nymphs came ashore for walks at night up the little stepson the edges of the canals. My sister could talk about these things in a way that she almost made me believe her.”(*) Now, I may not be able to see the magic in Venice, I may be a little like Esther in that sense, but Cornelia Funke can talk about Venice in a way that she almost made me believe her.
(* The quote is taken from Oliver Latsch’s translation, as found on Google Books)

Read this if: if you are into children lit, this is a good choice. Also, if you buy into the usual image of Venice as a magical city.

Counts as: Venice in February Challenge book #2

Year’s end: short thoughts on my latest reads

I’m more or less back. (Meaning: after all the traveling of December, I’m still not back home, but will be blogging more often.) Meanwhile, it’s the end of the year and everyone else has been publishing stats and projects… I have less than 12 hours to catch up. And I need to jot down my thoughts on the last books I read this year, wrap-up challenges, set down reading goals for 2012, compile yearly stats… not to mention finish one last book, prepare the dinner for New Year’s Eve and spend time with my family (who is right now chatting away in the next room).

Let’s see how far I’ll get.

As a start, here’s some very short thoughts about my latest reads.


The book: The Last Cato, by Matilde asensi, in the Italian translation by Andrea Carlo Cappi, 483 pages.

My thoughts: a quick and quite engrossing read, this book falls exactly halfway between The Da Vinci Code and Fucault’s Pendulum, as it can boast a conspirational plot while being neither silly as the former, nor too learned as the latter.

Hidden jewel: use of the Divine Comedy as a code for conspirators through the centuries

Pet peeve: a nun who understands nothing of vocation

Counts as: I read this for the Italy in books challenge


The book: the “Short Guide to Great European Wines” is the chapter about wines from Alexandre Dumas’ Great Dictionary of Cuisine. It was published in Italian as a self-standing book, translated by Augusta Scacchi, 105 pages.

My thoughts: rarely have I read something so useless. It seems written without a general plan, as if the author was simply jotting down any thought about wine as it crossed his mind. It may have been better inside a wider work, but I sincerely doubt it.

Hidden (very hidden) jewel: a few nice anecdotes, like the story of the Est! Est! Est!

Pet peeve: machism (the book shows its age)

Counts as: One! Two! Theme! challenge – wine


The book: Erik Fosnes Hansen, Psalm at Journey’s End, in the Italian translation by Margherita Podestà Heir, 476 pages.

My thoughts: this book is a little jewel, and I am sad that I don’t have the time to tell you more about it. It brings together the stories of very different men from different countries and different backgrounds, only put together by the fateful destiny of being aboard the Titanic in its first and last voyage. It’s like a majestic fresco, colorful and full of life and facets. It’s one of those books that make reading worthwile.

Hidden jewel: music!

Pet peeve: the Titanic is only a pretext to bring the characters together, and quite useless in the general economy of the book, as these are not the real musicians who were onboard, but other, completely invented characters.

Book connections: it mentions the Rubaiyat and features a pianist without a name


The book: The Other Foot of the Mermaid, by Mia Couto, Portuguese original version, 482 pages

My thoughts: this book is very African. Or at least I think it is, because it’s so far removed from my own feeling that I could only scrape its surface in terms of understanding. It’s strange and different, and while beautiful it remains full of things that are not part of any culture I know.

Hidden jewel: the book tells a major story, interwoven with a second one which comes from manuscripts read by the characters. The publisher used a different paper with a different color and texture and a different typeface for these parts.

Pet peeve: footnotes that explained almost nothing

Counts as: I want more challenge

Book: A Death in Vienna


The book: A Death in Vienna, by Daniel Silva

The edition: Penguin books paperback, 403 pages

The story: when the Israeli-run Holocaust research office in Vienna is bombed, Israeli spy Gabriel Allon (undercover as an art restorer) is sent to investigate. Detail by detail, through a breathless adventure that brings him to Rome, Jerusalem, and some faraway place in South America, he will uncover a huge and devilish plan, with roots hidden in Austria not-so-forgotten past and, of course, in the Shoah itself.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: it was like watching an episode of N.C.I.S., one of those featuring Ziva and a lot of Israeli agent whom you are never quite sure whether to trust or not. I found no depth, no understanding of why a character behaves in a given way, no search into their motives. It is probably all for the best in this kind of book, no one would expect these things.
Except me, that is: I kept expecting some deeper understanding, not of the Holocaust, but of the Austrian soul and Austrian attitude towards its recent past. Because characters and (partly) facts draw almost exactly from what happened there in a very recent past. So yes, I was expecting more.
And in any case: if I am in the mood for such a story, I’d rather watch it on TV, it takes less time and less attention, and leaves more room for reading other books! So, once more (I’ve already said the same of many books this year, oh my!): not my cup of tea. It would still fit my definition of beach book, though!

Language & writing: the best I can say here is that the author thinks evidently in television terms. The book is full of descriptions that accompany your eyes from the outside of a building and through all the bends and turns and rooms and corridors and details until you reach the place where the action is. Not nearly building up tension, but you can nearly see it in your mind as if you were watching on a screen. The technique may work a couple of time, but it was used a couple too many.

In the author’s own words: the beginning of the book, with one of those camera-like descriptions:

THE OFFICE IS hard to find, and intentionally so. Located near the end of a narrow, curving lane, in a quarter of Vienna more renowned for its nightlife than its tragic past, the entrance is marked only by a small brass plaque bearing the inscription Wartime Claims and Inquiries. The security system, installed by an obscure firm based in Tel Aviv, is formidable and highly visible. A camera glowers menacingly from above the door. No one is admitted without an appointment and a letter of introduction. Visitors must pass through a finely tuned magnetometer. Purses and briefcases are inspected with unsmiling efficiency by one of two disarmingly pretty girls. One is called Reveka, the other Sarah.
Once inside, the visitor is escorted along a claustrophobic corridor lined with gunmetal-gray filing cabinets, then into a large typically Viennese chamber with pale floors, a high ceiling, and bookshelves bowed beneath the weight of countless volumes and file folders. The donnish clutter is appealing, though some are unnerved by the green-tinted bulletproof windows overlooking the melancholy courtyard.
The man who works there is untidy and easily missed. It is his special talent.

Read this if: if you like adventure/spy stories

Counts as: Travel with Books – Vienna