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: the Hunger Games trilogy

Alternate title: why do I keep reading YA when I couldn’t care less about YA characters? (Beware: I am writing this assuming that most of you have read the books and know what they are about, so beware of spoilers!)

The book: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

The edition: Scholastic paperback, 454 pages, plus author interview

The good: an interesting premise and a compelling (as in: easy and gripping) style. Makes me want to see where it is all headed to.

The bad: I cannot relate to or care about such a snotty little brat as Katniss, and I found all the arena adventures a bit on the boring side.

Wondering about: why all the Latin (Panem, Avox) and Latin-related culture (all those names, from Caesar to Cato; the chariots and the cornucopia)? And don’t tell me it’s just because of the “panem et circenses” reference.

Team Peeta or Team Gale? It’s not like Gale had any screen time up to this book, so Team Peeta it is (oh, wait, does it mean “who gets the lady”? Then I hope neither of them. They are both too good for such a fate)


The book: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

The edition: Scholastic paperback, 472 pages

The good: an interesting number of twists in the story, and even the arena was more interesting this time around.

The bad: most of the characters. Even Peeta and Gale act silly. And all the oooh- and aaah-ing of Katniss over her feelings — feeling guilty about the people killed in the Games, even though she didn’t really kill almost anybody, and trying to decide who is the boy she loves. I know she’s 17 and acting it, but I can’t stand this kind of thing any longer.

Wondering about: I hope for an explanation of how the Capitol/Districts society came to be. Such an enslaving arrangement only makes sense if the people in control consider themselves different from the rest — if the people in the Capitol were really aliens from another planet — but they aren’t.

Team Peeta or Team Gale? May I say Team Finnick?


The book: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The edition: Scholastic paperback, 455 pages, plus acknowledgments

The good: I’m afraid I have little to say here, I felt completely let down. Style is still pretty engaging, though.

The bad: I felt let down, because there was much more promise in the first two than this did deliver. There was room for wonderful plot turns and symbols and explanations, but there weren’t. Instead we get horrible things happening (more than I could stand), more teenage geocentricism, a lot of useless and unheeded deaths, and no real explanation.

Wondering about: how could one life happily ever after with a hijacked husband? How could the former tributes (and Katniss among them) agree to have more Games? And also, all the little threads left hanging unexplained, such as: why did birds stop to listen to Katniss’ father? Why did Madge offer Katniss the pin? Why did Cinna want to stir a rebellion? etc. etc. etc.

Team Peeta or Team Gale? No, my man for this book is Boggs. I’m afraid that I’m showing my age here, by preferring the solid, affectionate adult over the overemotional teenagers, but he’s the only positive male figure in the whole book!


Additional links:

Book: Last Night in Twisted River

The book: Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

The edition: Black Swan paperback, 667 pages, with author’s note

The story: wherein we read about a cook and his son, on the run after the 12-year-old accidentally killed a woman mistaking her for a bear, and we follow their story over five decades and two countries as the boy grows up and becomes a writer.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: in the author’s note, Irving writes of a woman who told him “even your conversation has plot” and he goes on to state that he represents “the long, plotted novel” and adds: “thats what I do.” I mention this because I think it points out exactly why I fell in love with John Irving’s writing when I read The Cider House Rules: good storytelling, taking the form of good plot. But Irving is more than that, his storytelling is good because he creates interesting characters, and even the most irrelevant ones come with a full story.
And this is a good thing. Because here, I found the plot to be weaker, the story going round and round… but still I enjoyed the novel so very much. It’s not only the touches of “you still have something to discover” that kept me reading. It’s the story, or rather, the stories, the details, life jumping out of the page. I think that, by wanting to write about the writer’s experience, Irving shifted the focus away from plot, but the book has plenty of other saving graces.

What I liked: characters with a big heart, especially Ketchum.

What I didn’t like: the way sex is treated. I don’t want to be a prude, but none of the representations of sex here is healthy, and some are positively sick.

In the author’s own words: I love the idea of negative autobiography Irving states in the author’s note:

What I did not give Danny was my life, which has been largely happy and very lucky. I gave Daniel Bagicalupo the unluckiest life I could imagine. I gave Danny the life I am afraid f having — the life I hope I never have. Maybe that’s autobiographical, too — in a deeper, more meaningful, certainly more psychological way. (When you write about what you fear, about what you hope never happens to you or to anyone you love — surely that’s a little autobiographical.)

Read this if: if you liked previous works by Irving, you’ll probably appreciate this one too.

Counts as: What’s in a Name Challenge (Topographical Feature); Antonym Challenge (Last/First); Chunkster Challenge (551-750)

Book: The Inheritance of Loss

The book: The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

The edition: Italian translation by Giuseppina Oneto, as published by Adelphi, softcover, 391 pages with glossary

The story: an isolated house in Darjeeling, a retired judge, his estranged granddaughter, her Nepali tutor/love interest, an Indian Nepali insurrection, and millions of stories cascading from this fulcrum. For a better synopsis, try Goodreads.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I didn’t know what to expect from this, except that I had heard generally good things about it a couple of years ago and that I was curious. Now I can see the charm, it is creatively and exquisitely written, and very well translated. It’s just a bit too bleak (in content) for my taste.

What I liked: the narrative technique: millions of different stories like separate threads that are brought together, or like waves originating from the same source and spreading throughout the world.

What I didn’t like: the complete absence of even the tiniest grain of “nice”: everything is in complete decay, no matter the historical period or the place a given scene is set in. There is absolutely no salvation from decay, not even the tiniest spark of hope.

Links to better understand this book:

Counts as: South Asian Challenge 2012 (wait, what? I never said I intended to participate? Well, I wasn’t sure — it’s the one I failed last year. But I love South Asian literature, and do plan to read more if they come my way… Maybe I can make it to 3 this year? Fingers crossed!); Back to the Classic Challenge – Classic award winner

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