Books: Gibraltar reading and more


The book: Fall of a Sparrow, by Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe

The edition: HKB Press paperback, 285 pages, with an hilarious cast of characters

The story: at the beginning of the Great Siege, Giovanni Bresciano is the second of only two Gibraltarian to join the army to defend their country. On his second day in the army, his first friend among soldiers falls from a precipice. Is it an accident, or is it something sinister? Is there a murderer or a spy on the loose? As the siege goes on and the city suffers from hunger and smallpox, Bresciano tries to uncover the truth.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I was suspicious of this book, because I had read another one by Sam Benady (see below) and it had failed to impress me. But I was wrong. It may be little known, but this book is as good a crime novel as you can get. Not only it has an extremely well-developed and puzzling plot, it also has well-rounded characters (down to Bresciano’s own teenager weaknesses, which I didn’t have patience for but still rang very true). And it pairs it all off with an accurate period setting and plenty of very well-written descriptions.

Language & writing: the authors are quite good at rendering the multilingualism of the place. Also, it’s too bad that I didn’t take notes while reading, because this book is full of good words; I don’t know for sure, but some of them may be Gibraltar-speech too — one is for sure:

Monday morning brought with it a damp easterly wind that rapidly swathed the Rock in a heavy levanter cloud.

(The levanter cloud is a weather effect happening in Gibraltar, as explained here. Below is a picture of it.)

Image credits: Wikipedia

Links to better understand this book:

Read this if: if you like period detective stories

Counts as: Travel with books project – Gibraltar; Bloggiesta, my goals; Bloggiesta, Jessica’s mini challenge


I’ll add here my very short thoughts about two more Gibraltar-related (and one non-related) books I read recently, I really don’t have enough to say about them to justify a separate post, sorry.

Sherlock Holmes in Gibraltar by Sam Benady, published by Gibraltar Books, 48 pages
This is one of those books written only to make use of a given setting. It includes two novellas featuring, guess that, Sherlock Holmes in Gibraltar. I am not an expert, but this Holmes was in no way similar to the original character, and the book was nothing comparable to Conan Doyle’s works. It features a nice line drawing, though.

Gil Braltar, by Jules Verne, as published online here
This short novella is intended as a satire against the British, but I only found it cruel and unnecessarily so.

In Honor to Cain, by Francesca Raffaella Guerra, as published by Ubi Minor, 134 pages
This one has nothing to do with Gibraltar and I only mention it here because, like the Sherlock Holmes’ one, it’s only excuse for existing is that it is set in a particular town (namely, in my home region). I’m sorry but I can say absolutely nothing good about this one, so I won’t.

Book: Crime Novel

The book: Romanzo Criminale (Crime Novel), by Giancarlo De Cataldo

The edition: Italian (original) edition, as published by Einaudi (softcover), 632 pages

The story: a fictionalized version of the true story of the Banda della Magliana, a criminal gang operating in Rome from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: another book that came recommended by husband, which is mostly a good starting point. Otherwise I would never have picked it up, and I’m glad I did.

What I liked: the novel is compelling and easy to read, tells a violent story without being grisly, and most of all makes Italian history and Italian society really come to life.

What I didn’t like: some character dynamics. Let me explain: the characters here are mostly gangsters, but still you want to side with them, because well, it’s their story and you kind of see their motives; but at the same time it’s like the author never really wanted to let you take their side, because well, they’re gangsters and he’s a judge. It felt… undecided.

Language & writing: I loved — absolutely loved — how well the author was able to capture the Roman voice in dialog. (If you read Italian, see my post on this subject here.)

Links to better understand this book:

Counts as: Reading Round Rome #2

Book: The Maltese Falcon


The book: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

The edition: Italian translation by Marcella Hannau, as published by Longanesi in 1967, 289 pages, with a foreword by Mario Monti

The story: do you really need me to tell you? This is the prototype of all stereotypical detective/hard-boiled crime stories: a solitary private eye with too much charm for his own good, a beautiful (and either very defenseless or very dangerous) woman, a big treasure that you never really know much about, a full galleries of potential villains, and as many twists and turns and guns and brawls as you may ever want.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: how many times have you heard me say that I’m at loss when I have to write a (not really a) review? Well, I am. Because writing something bad about this book is like saying bad things about an old friend.
The old friend being the movie, that prototypical Bogart romp that I remember watching oh so many years ago (and oh so many times, too). Such a good movie it was, that I actually even enjoyed going through the book because of how good the movie was.
But I guess by now we all know I am not a fan of crime stories, much less of hard-boiled crime, and even less of books that read as if they were movies. Of course, at the time this last point was something of a plus, it was the new cinema technique going back and influencing book writing, as Monti so rightly puts it in the preface. And it’s not bad per se, it’s just that I don’t like it: a movie is a movie, a book is a book. (Want an example? Here it is: in a movie you may show only one side of a phone call; doing the same in a book, as Hammett did here several times… not good.)
I’ll try and avoid throwing away more time on this kind of book in the future. But I’m glad to have this one as the last.

Language & translation: I read this in an old Italian translation. Crime fiction has long been considered a worthless subgenre in Italy, something that you would never admit to reading, as Monti points out in the preface. And because of that it has always been addled with poor translations and poor editorial choices. All this considered, this translation at least had the grace to age well… and while it still made my eyes roll, I guess that’s just my own professional bias, and most people would not notice how bad it is.

Counts as: Back to the classics challenge: Classic crime/thriller

Book: Papierkrieg


The book: Papierkrieg (for translation of this title see below), by Martin Mucha

The edition: German (original) edition as published by Gmeiner Verlag, 372 pages

The story: how an underpaid philologist sees a drunken girl with a revolver stumble out of the building he lives in, decides to drive her home hoping to get a money reward (or the chance to blackmail her family), and ends up facing a Vienna-wide intrigue involving Russian mafia and art smugglers. Not to worry, though, with a past like his, he is tough enough.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: when I was in Vienna last summer I discovered a series of books published by German publisher Gmeiner Verlag and set in Vienna and in other Austrian locales. (While writing this review I discovered they have a search function on their website to find novels based on where they are set!) The idea sounded great to me (especially so as I was looking for novels set in Vienna for my own reading project), but never having heard of them I was afraid that the books may be low-level, so I decided to buy only one. And I chose the one with beautiful books on the cover and a philologist (i.e. a word-nerd) as protagonist. I knew from the start that it was a crime novel in hard-boiled tradition, i.e. not my cup of tea, but that never stopped me.
Well, guess what? I didn’t like it. It’s a real hard-boiled crime story with a lot of violence and blood and sudden twists. (And I’m at loss as to how to judge it properly.) But at the same time it could be worse: it’s a quick read, and a real romp through all the different levels of Viennese society with its quirks and habits that you never really see as a tourist (or even as an expat).

The part with spoilers: this may even be a given for hard-boiled, I’m not sure, but it disturbed me: how everyone connected with the crimes was somehow already connected to the protagonist (his neighbor, whom Arno has never met, is killed because of a game gone wrong in the gambling house of the old man who considers Arno his protégé, and after dealing in smuggled electronics with the company Arno has contacted by chance that morning?)

What I liked: the way the philologist registered the differences in speak and could recognize the origins of different characters though language alone. Also, very nice flashes of the Vienna I know (café life, Mozart-dressed people selling concert tickets, and so on).

What I didn’t like: almost everything else, but that’s because I don’t like the genre. Most of all I was disturbed by the way the underworld of Vienna is brought to the spotlight. I guess it’s all true (as the parts that I liked are true), but it still felt like washing dirty laundry in public.

Language & writing: be ready for a lot of Viennese dialect — many dialogs were partly lost to me because of that. And be ready for a lot of very detailed descriptions — this was an aspect that made me cringe: how many times do we need to read that he gets home, strips bare, gets in the shower, then puts on such and such clothes, chooses a CD from a never-ending collection, puts it in the CD-player, sits down to listen…

In the author’s own words: I don’t usually translate into English myself, but I feel that this quote gives the tone of the book very well, and that I can manage it, so here it is:

Vienna is where even foreigners are xenophobes.

About the German title: Papierkrieg is a German word usually translated as “paperwork” or “red tape”, but taken at literal value it means “paper war” and I think the title has both meanings and more. Also, here I found the following definition, taken from They have a word for it: a lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words & phrases by Howard Rheingold (hello wishlist!):

Papierkrieg pah-PEER-kreeg (German) n. The annoyingly complicated bureaucratic paperwork required for making a complaint/ return/ insurance claim/ protesting a ticket/ petitioning for services, et cetera ad nauseam. Rheingold eloquently explains, “Papierkrieg is more deliberate than red tape. Bureaucracies produce red tape the way sawmills produce sawdust or cattle produce manure, as a natural and unwitting byproduct that has to be disposed of or waded through. Papierkrieg is a consciously created obstacle.”

Random link: this time you get a Papierkrieg(the word, not the book)-themed video (it’s in German, but don’t worry, the visual part is enough to make it worthwhile).

Read this if: if you like hard-boiled crimes, I guess you may enjoy it better than I did

Counts as: Travel With Books – Vienna

Book: The Lace Reader

The book: The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry

The edition: Italian translation by Stefania Cherchi, as published by Garzanti, softcover edition with additional material including an interview with the author, 391 pages

The story: it’s been a while, so I’ll just link you to this review, which I don’t agree with but which makes a good job of summing the book up.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I had read so many good things about this book that when I saw it in a bookshop I couldn’t but take it, despite the absurd title it has been given in Italian. Oh man, was I ever so wrong in buying a book! While I can see it may attract readers, and while I’m not saying it’s a bad book altogether, it’s what I call a “beach book”, i.e. something you may want to turn to when you feel lightheaded and don’t want to embark in anything that will engage your mind. It’s definitely a pageturner, with the right amount of mystery and cliffhangers. But it doesn’t remain with you. (And that’s why I had to link you to someone else’s synopsys!)

The part with spoilers: how early in the book did you guess the truth? Me, it was while reading about Towner’s near-drowning in her diary — which is, I’m afraid, not very intelligent of me, but still much earlier than the author intended. Now the thing I don’t get is, if she was still so unstable and so hysteric as to believe everything happened to someone else, why did they let her check out of the mental ward?

What I liked: uhm… a fast read?

What I didn’t like: so many themes touched upon, and none of them gets any attention at all.

Language & translation: good style for this kind of book, though I didn’t like the third person chapters inserted in a mainly first person narrative. Also, why on earth is the Italian title translated as “The lying reader”? People will think it’s a novel about books, which it definitely isn’t! Oh, well.

In the author’s own words: nothing to share, I’m afraid!

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I wish I knew how to navigate a boat.

Read this if: if you liked The Da Vinci Code. Yes, that’s the genre, although without much of the religious issues (there are some, but again, only very marginally touched upon).