The history of history: a novel of Berlin

The oceans rose and the clouds washed over the sky; the tide of humanity came revolving in love and betrayal, in sky scrapers and ruins, through walls breached and children conjured, and soon it was the year 2002.

Oh.  This book starts with a woman who misses from her memory  a recent period of her life . Next thing that happens is that -to her eyes- every building in Berlin has turned to flesh. After that, it gets steadily more weird.

At first, that frustrated me. I plodded through the hallucinations, dialogues with Magda Goebbels and visits to a blind Nazi doctor.  Until I realized that this insanity is her reality and I decided that I would simply piggyback along. This brought me to the bodyguard of Hitler, a ghost of a Jewish woman that killed her children in prevention of the camps and a hawk-woman.

The parts about World War II are the most interesting, but like the parts about main character Margaret, don’t satisfy any question. Towards the end of the book, the author poses a question: ‘Would it tax the imagination to propose that Margaret was sane?’. Yes, it would, very much so and I don’t have any urge or sympathy to do so. I sighed a frustrated breath of release when I finished this book.

The history of history: a novel of Berlin,  Ida Hattemer-Higgins, Faber and Faber 2011

A visit from the Goon Squad

It began the usual way, in the bath room of the Lassimo Hotel.

A visit from the Goon Squad begint met Bennie en zijn assistente Sasha. Hun verhalen zijn al interessant, maar de auteur vond dat schijnbaar niet genoeg. In de verdere hoofdstukken volgt een kleurrijke verzameling aan mensen die ooit in het leven van Bennie en/of Sasha de revue zijn gepasseerd. De kinderen van de kennis van Bennie, de man waar Sasha haar eerste crush op had.
Dit heeft zeker zijn charme, want elk van de karakters heeft een verhaal dat de aandacht van de lezer vast houdt, maar op deze manier weet ook niemand hoe het voor de karakters afloopt. Je dipt (in sommige gevallen heel) even in een flinke hoeveelheid levens, alsof je op een terrasje zit en een uur mee mag luisteren naar iedereen in de buurt.

Desondanks stelt dit boek na het realiseren van deze opzet geen moment teleur. De muziekindustrie passeert, verschillende locaties binnen en buiten Amerika worden sfeervol opgezet en de verhalen van de karakters zijn, hoe absurd soms ook, nergens karikaturaal.  De schrijfstijl is luchtig en er is een goede kans dat de lezer klaar is met dit boek voor hij/zij het doorheeft. Gewoon even lezen en meedobberen met de vreemde levens dus.

A visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, Knopf 2010

The secrets of Jin-Shei

It had been the hottest summer in living memory.

The secrets of Jin-Shei takes place in a colorful world (fictional medieval Asian country) and has several equally colorful characters. And yet I felt obliged to read this book, instead of diving into it and wallowing into its details and colors like Scrooge Duck in his money.

Jin-Shei binds a couple of women on a deep level, with friendship, love and responsibilities. The first couple of hundred pages tell the reader about these Jin-Shei sisters and their lives before the bad guy shows up. But the bad guy is more of an idea than a person, and therefore several of the characters are ‘bad’ from time to time as well. After this introduction the story speeds up, throws life and death at the reader and I simply couldn’t care about any thing. Even while writing this review, I find it tough to keep focus and remember what it was about this book.

So what’s wrong about The secrets of Jin-Shei? The book isn’t tough to read, there’s diversity but not too much to make it puzzling and hard to follow and it gives the reader pretty pictures in detail and ‘historical’ facts. Jin-Shei and me simply didn’t click. It can happen with books as well as with people. This makes it harder to decide on recommending it of course, but I’ll say: go on, read it. This book has a lot to offer.

 The secrets of Jin-Shei, Alma Alexander, Harper Collins 2004

Don’t let it be true

Every woman in Texas has a dirty little secret.

Don’t let it be true is een ‘dag uit het leven van een gewone vrouw’ verhaal. Alleen komt deze vrouw uit een oud geld familie (maar heeft ze, in geheim, geen geld) en bestrijkt het boek verschillende weken. De lezer mag toch meekijken.

Hoofdpersoon Kathleen probeert een kinderziekenhuis overeind te houden, haar society vrienden voor te liegen dat ze rijk is en haar vriend tevreden te houden ondanks Dat Andere Geheim. Natuurlijk gaat dat een paar keer fout, want de genresticker geeft tenslotte chick lit aan. Daarom zijn de  bijpersonen ook tweedimensionaal en de details van kleding en interieurs zeer aanwezig.

Barett schrijft vlot en zonder de tierelantijntjes die slechtere chick lit vaak de nek omdraaien. Het is allemaal een tikje absurd, maar nooit op een irriterende manier. Dat en het feit dat het maar 298 pagina’s, maakt DLIBT een kleurrijk maar toch smakelijk petit fourtje.

 Don’t let it be true, Jo Barrett, Avon 2009

The Desert Spear

It was the night before new moon, during the darkest hours when even that bare sliver had set.

Like a fresh breath of Technicolor air after The Pregnant Widow. The Desert Spear made me a very happy fantasy fan.

TDS is part of a trilogy (aptly named Demon Trilogy) but can be read as stand alone as well. That’s already quite the feat in this genre full of unnecessary follow ups and ‘let’s pull this book apart into three books’, but that’s a not-related frustrating issue.  TDS tells the story of a world where the night isn’t safe. Because every night, all kind of demons (wooden, rock, wind and so on) will rise from the grounds and attack everything that isn’t warded. Humankind knows some of those wards, but not all of them. And of course there is a faith that says the demons are a God’s punishment that can only be stopped by a Deliverer.

In this book, there are two of those. One of them who really could be it, an ordinary guy from the North, who by others is made into a hero, even though he doesn’t want it.  And the other, a wünderkind from the South with a mighty army behind him and who has given himself the title. And they used to be friends.
A lot happens in The Desert Spear and telling would only be over sharing. But this book  manages to create a world, a bad guy, and two less than annoying ‘heroes’ while  entertaining you along the way as well. After reading the first book (The Painted Man) I wasn’t sure if there would be a follow up and I did a little dance when I saw this book in the library. It hasn’t disappointed me a bit, even throwing me off (as a crazy book lady, I like to be surprised) when it came to romance and plot lines.

It is fantasy though, remember that. If you’re completely averse to that, don’t bother. But if you want to try some, TDS or its predecessor are a great starting  place.

The Desert Spear, Peter V. Brett, Harper Voyage 2010

The Pregnant Widow

They had driven into town from the castle; and Keith Nearing walked the streets of Montale, Italy, from car to bar at dusk, flanked by two twenty-year-old blondes, Lily and Scheherazade …

You know that alternative themed party that your friends (and the Internet) have been raving about, while to you it only looked like a students’ common room with cheap alcohol and high ‘philosophical’ conversations? This book is that party and I didn’t get why it was so cool.

You’d think it would be fun for a reviewer to review a book you didn’t like. Just use every kind of  it sucked known to man and you’re done. But that’s not reviewing, nor giving a proper opinion (arguments, remember?).
So, here goes my try.
The Pregnant Widow is 465 pages of obnoxious twenty (and up) year olds who can only think of sex and (British) novels, women who are called cock a lot, using words and adding their dictionary definitions and not much else. There is no insight into any of the characters, no jokes, cynicism or even details of their surroundings. It’s only self-pity and uninspired meetings written in such a way that make you wonder how an author can fill so many pages with so little. I dragged myself by my hair through this book, through this day-to-day holiday life of a mentally-bloated kid.

Other reviews speak about the book as a memoir of the start of feminism, the end of youth and dark humor.  Maybe I expected too much, maybe I didn’t dig deep enough. For me, it simply was a disappointment. Next time I want to read whining about people not sleeping with you, I’ll visit any teenage message board. It’s much less long-winded.

The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis, Cape 2010

Beatrice & Virgil

Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well.

The most recent Yann Martell. Finding a snappy pop culture reference and/or worn out cliché that can cover this book will probably cost me more time than reading the book itself did.

Beatrice and Virgil are not only characters from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, but since Martell’s novel, also a donkey and a monkey. They are characters in a play that the protagonist, sort-of-ex writer Henry, chances upon. The play and accompanying letters lead him to a taxidermist and -for Henry- a complete unknown world. At first Henry is charmed and can appreciate this road to an exciting life, although the taxidermist and play-writer is a bit of a weirdo. But slowly signs crop up that the taxidermist isn’t a weirdo in a nice, socially-accepted way and Henry has to re-evaluate his enthusiasm.

While the previous book I reviewed was clearly from the category of Easy To Review, this book catapults me into Think About It. Beatrice & Virgil is (deceivingly) colorful, bright, detailed (Martell puts you inside the taxidermy store), aching and uncomfortable.  There are no chapters and little space to come up for air. The faster you read it, the more time you spend on it, the more it pulls you in and eats you up until it drops the climax in your lap. Do with it as you will, but here it is.

Read this book? Yes. You are brought into someone else’s life, into someone else’s experience without plodding through hundreds of pages or needing all of your concentration. Book some time and brain space for it? Definitely.

Beatrice & Virgil, Yann Martel, Canongate 2010