July 18, 2013

European Reading Challenge 2013

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European Reading Challenge 2013
Hosted by: Rose City Reader
From January 1st 2013 to January 31st 2014


This year I decided to take part in this challenge again, as I really enjoyed it and still have many books set in European countries on my TBR shelf. 

The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country – it's supposed to be a tour. 

There are five different levels: I chose the five-star one (Deluxe Entourage) again - Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries.

1) France: Odette Toulemonde et autres histoires, de Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
2) Switzerland: Entre deux voix, de Jenny Sigot-Müller
3) United Kingdom
   3.1) England: When will there be good news?, by Kate Atkinson
   3.2) Scotland: La dame sombre, de Ambre Dubois
4) Germany: Das dunkle Haus am Meer, von Susanne Mischke
5) Netherlands : Amsterdamnation et autres nouvelles, de Tatiana de Rosnay
6) Iceland: La femme à 1000°, de Hallgrímur Helgason
7) Italy: Le cœur d'une autre, de Tatiana de Rosnay

July 12, 2013

The Detour - Gerbrand Bakker

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Title: The Detour
Author: Gerbrand Bakker
Original Title: De Omweg (Dutch)
Translator: David Colmer 
Publisher: Vintage
Release date: 2010 (English translation: 2012)
Pages: 293

*Sticking a new cigarette in her mouth, she picked up the 'Collected Poems' and opened it at the contents page. She'd had this book for more than a decade - there were notes in it, the pages were stained, the dust jacket war torn - and now notices for the first time how short the section titled LOVE was and how long the last TIME AND ETERNITY. She started to cry.*

A Dutch woman rents a remote farm in rural Wales. She says her name is Emilie. She has left her husband, having confessed to an affair.
In Amsterdam, her stunned husband forms a strange partnership with a detective who agrees to help him trace her. They board the ferry to Hull on Christmas Eve.
Back on the farm, a young man out walking with his dog injures himself and stays the night, then ends up staying longer. Yet something is deeply wrong. Does he know what he is getting himself into? And what will happen when her husband and the detective arrive?

Ach, writing a review of The Detour is not an easy task. Even if I finished it a while ago, I am still confused about it. No doubt, it is an unusual book which is not for everybody to read... I finished it, but did I enjoy it? I am not sure, but I would still say it was worth reading it. Perhaps because of this strangeness, which is present in the whole story and fascinated me until the last pages. Because it is something different from what we can expect reading the back cover summary.
We follow a Dutch woman, Emilie, who rents a farm in Wales after she left her husband. Slowly, we step in her new life, meeting geese, badgers, her favourite Emily Dickinson’s books, an unpleasant farmer, a curious baker, a chatty hairdresser, a strange doctor and a mysterious boy with his dog. Back in Amsterdam, the husband is investigating in order to find her with the help of a new policeman friend.
The plot is simple. Not a lot of action, not a lot of details, not a lot of explanations. The language is kept simple most of the time, be it in descriptions or in dialogues, and very sparse. The atmosphere is extremely strange. Who is Emilie? Why has she left her native country in order to rent a farm in the middle of nowhere? Who is this boy who stays with her for so long? And so on and so forth.
Gerbrand Bakker’s novel is full of symbolism and inter-textual references, which can be confusing for the readers who cannot interpret it. I must admit I felt rather lost all along the story, as we never really obtain definite answers to the hundreds of questions we ask ourselves. The end gives us a few clues, but many mysteries subsist. I had expected something big, something that would explain it all, but I must admit I was a little disappointed, although it is a nice way to end the story.
The best word to qualify this book would be enigmatic. We follow Emilie in a strange universe and take part to her everyday routine without knowing the whys and hows. Although we get to know her from the first page to the last one, she remains mysterious and so do the other characters and their actions. As I said before, there is not much action, which illustrates perfectly Emilie’s loneliness and her need to find an aim in her days. Meeting other people is nevertheless inevitable, even in such a remote place and, often, everybody knows everybody, which can be rather surprising and embarrassing.
The Detour is no doubt a wonderful book for those who can enjoy this kind of surreal atmosphere. However, many readers will probably get misled by its appearance: this small novel with few pages and apparently simple writing style is actually not so easy to understand; you might end up with more questions than before you even opened it.

July 02, 2013

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

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Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Publisher: Black Swan
Release date: 2007
Pages: 554

* As Liesel would discover, a good thief requires many things. Stealth. Nerve Speed. More important than any of those things, however, was one final requirement. Luck.*

Here is a small fact
You are going to die.
1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

 Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.
Some important information
This novel is narrated by Death
it's a small story, about:
* a girl *
* an accordionist *
* some fanatical Germans *
* a Jewish fist fighter *
*and quite a lot of thievery *
Another thing you should know
Death will visit the book thief three times.

‘There’s a multitude of stories (a mere handful, as I have previously suggested) that I allow to distract me as I work, just as the colours do. I pick them up in the unluckiest, unluckiest places and I make sure to remember them as I go about my work. The Book Thief is one such story’
And a poignant one. It is Liesel’s story, which starts in 1939 in the German town of Molching. The nine-year-old girl is sent to live there with a foster family and starts her new life on Himmel Street with encounters, friends, football games, school… and thievery, especially book thievery. But war is raging in the country and the rest of the world, and nobody is safe.
Although it might first appear like a rather conventional plot, Liesel’s story is undoubtedly moving. Is it because of the theme, which is at the same time emotional and terrible? Is it because of the touch of humour that characterises the narrator’s voice? Is it because of the poetic style of the considerations on the power of words? Is it because of the agreeable and light writing? Is it because of the characters themselves and their ability to survive even in the most desperate situations? Is it because of the unusual graphic design of the book? It is probably the sum of all these little details that make The Book Thief such an extraordinary and unique novel.
Most readers’ attention will probably first be attracted by the visual aspect of the book. The cover seems to be a good mirror of what will be discovered inside, and so are the back cover and its short summary: something plain, elegant, sad, and yes, intriguing and unusual. There are hundreds of books about the Holocaust, but this one is not like any I have read before.
The story is composed of ten main parts, which are themselves divided into short chapters. Each of them includes comments and precisions given by the narrator, sometimes with lists, bullet points, definitions or even sketches and drawings. The changes in font and style give an extremely attractive appearance to the novel. On the back cover summary, we are already given a good insight of what will be told and why… as well as a useful piece of information about the narrator.
Those who have started the book without reading this extract might wonder who is telling them the story. Who is that strange person who addresses us in a casual way and who is obviously not a human being, although he lives among them? It is nobody else that Death. The idea of choosing such an unconventional narrator was a masterstroke, as it offers various advantages. Of course, he is unusual and for that reason also attractive. Moreover, it enables the author to vary the point of view. Although Liesel’s story and that of her friends, enemies and family is the most important one, the dramatic events that are taking place in the world can simply not be neglected.
Markus Zusak wrote about the Holocaust, but rather than focusing on the camps or on battle scenes, he describes the lives of several rather conventional characters in a small town. He does not try to make us hate Hitler’s supporters or commiserate with the Jews. He describes the events and the characters and the reader is left to make up his own opinion. We can easily imagine that hundreds of other families had the same daily routine as the inhabitants of Himmel Street. Some were on the Führer’s side, others helped Jews… what is sure is that war had an important impact for all of them, even the ones who did not want to be involved, even the elderly people and the children… like Liesel.
Casting Death as the narrator enables shifts between global events and the particular situation of Molching, as well as an insight into various people’s lives, which would not have been the case if Liesel was telling the story on her own. Also, the time of the story is not linear: we have many flashbacks and shifts in the future, which captivate the reader’s interest from the first word to the last. Although we are given clues about event that are to take place later on, the suspense is kept all the way and we are always waiting for one more twists and turns in the plot.
Markus Zusak’s writing style is light and easy to read. We have the feeling that we are addressed directly and thus really involved in the story. The presence of several German words or sentences – and their translation, added in a simple and natural way, for those who do not understand this language – give a local taste to the description and take us straight to Himmel Street in the 40s. You do not read the story: you live it.
Several passages are moving and some contain a touch of humour which is welcome or even indispensable when you explore such a serious theme. The author uses a wide range of extremely meaningful images and metaphors, which successfully add to the depth of the story. The colours are important for Death, as you will discover in the first pages. The power of words is analysed by Liesel in a beautiful way as the story unfolds and will probably leave more than one reader with pensive thoughts.
The characters are all detailed and well developed. Liesel is clearly the heroin, but each of the characters she encounters has got enough space for his own personality to evolve and for the reader to grow attached to him: Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Rudy, Ilsa Hermann, Frau Holzstapel, Max Vandernburg… In my opinion, The Book Thief illustrates in an accurate way what happens at war. In a single town, on a single street, you will find a mix of people: soldiers, fanatics, neutral people who do not want to take sides, hidden Jews… and so do unexpected and unbelievable relationships form and develop. In a hostile universe, people have no choice but cooperate and trust one another… or at least try to. This is what wonderful stories are often made of.
The Book Thief is no fairy tale – although you will find at least one among its pages – and it does not finish with a ‘happy end’. The last chapters are tragic but nonetheless magnificent. Despite my great sadness when I discovered what happened to Himmel Street and its inhabitants, I must admit that this ending perfectly matches the tone of the story. Most readers will probably find themselves with tears rolling down their cheeks as the inevitable happens… and after more than 500 pages, they will be wondering how he reached the end of the story without even noticing it.
A wonderful, poignant novel which is unique in its genre despite the popular theme it deals with. A heart-warming Holocaust fiction like you have never read before!

Thank you so much Mum for lending me this wonderful book. It is probably one of the best ones I have ever read!

July 01, 2013

Toro! Toro! - Michael Morpurgo

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Title: Toro! Toro!
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Publisher: Harper Collins (Children's Books)
Release date: 2001
Pages: 127

*'It is all about freedom,' he said quietly. 'A man without freedom is a man without honour, without dignity, without nobility. If they come, I will fight for the right of the poor people of Andalucia to have enough food in their bellies, and I will fight for our right to think as we wish and say what we wish.'*

Antonito lives an idyllic life on his parents’ bull farm in Spain. But the idyll is shattered when he realises that his calf, Paco, is destined for the bullring. What can he do? He has a daring plan, but it will take enormous courage to see it through – because it is 1936, and the drums of war are echoing across the Spanish plains…

*If I learned one thing on that last journey, and while hiding in the hills with the refugees, it was that men and women have a capacity for kindness as great if not greater that their capacity for evil.*

Stories about animals, stories about war, stories about important historical events… Three areas in which Michael Morpurgo is brilliant at. Toro! Toro! is another of his children’s novel, and one that is as moving and meaningful as many others.
With the title and the front cover already, the reader knows what the main themes will be: bulls, as said in the title, and war, as demonstrated by the aeroplanes and the ruins showed on the picture. We also understand that the story takes place in Spain, and although the front cover suggests the terrible events we are about to discover, everything starts quietly. Antonito live on a bull farm, where he helps his father look after a calf whose mother died, Paco. But when he discovers that his Paco is being prepared for the bullring, he makes the decision to save him, no matter the danger caused by the raising civil war.
By focusing the story on a child, an animal, and their extraordinary relationship, the author uses the same scheme as some of his previous books, such as War Horse and Shadow, but he knows how to bring in events that will make Toro! Toro! different and attractive to a young audience.
We are first drawn into Spanish culture, with bull fights and corrida. We get to know Antonito with enough details but not too many, in order not to distract the children. The reader will discover how the bull fights are organised at the same time as little Antonito, with descriptions and information to understand them properly.
We then understand the danger for Paco, but like Antonito, we forget another, greater danger: war. Here again, we are not given a whole lot of complicated details, but only just what is necessary for the young readers to understand what the civil war is about, who Franco is, and what is happening to Antonito’s village.
Antonito’s story is actually told by himself, but years later, when he is a grandfather. This 'story in a story' is a good point of view, as it allows a more adult glance than if it had only been little Antonito telling what happened. Also, it is probably a good book to read as a bedtime story, because the children will feel they are addressed to directly.
With Toro! Toro! Michael Morpurgo once more shows his talent for telling children stories. He gives them a good insight of important historical events without too much violence, with moving characters. The animals also add to the depth of the story, as does the unknown Spanish environment and culture. The pictures, designed by Michael Foreman, are simple and beautiful, and so is the writing style, which will probably arouse children’s attention from the age of five.

City of Swords, Stravaganza #6 - Mary Hoffman

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Title: City of Swords
Series: Stravaganza #6 (6 books)
Author: Mary Hoffman
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release date: 2012
Pages: 349

* 'We've all done things we wish we hadn't' said Enrico. 'And now we have to pay.'. *

Laura is a Stravagante, somebody who can travel in time and space. When she finds her talisman, a small silver sword, she stravagates with it to sixteenth-century Fortezza, where she meets Fabio, a swordsmith. Laura also meets the charming and attractive Ludo – and it's love at first sight. But their love for each other faces the ultimate test when civil war breaks out and they find themselves on opposite sides in a terrifying battle...

City of swords is the last book of the Stravaganza series so far. As the fans of the series will probably be used to by now, we follow an unhappy teenager on his trips to sixteenth century Talia, where he has a mission to accomplish. This time, we get to know Laura, who cuts herself in order to feel better. It is then quite a surprise to see her transported to Fortezza, where she meets her Stravagante, a swordsmith. But in Talia, Laura has a lot to think about, as civil was is about to destroy the city, and she must chose her side before it is too late... which is not an easy task when everybody expects her to fight against a charming man.
I must start by saying that, although I enjoyed this book overall, it is definitely not the best one in the series and I was a little disappointed. The beginning was quite strange, as we met the other English Stravaganti before Laura. It was a way of changing the style a little, as Isabel, Georgia, Nick and Sky had guessed that Laura would be the one receiving the talisman, but I felt it was taking the reader’s attention off her. As the story goes on, this feeling only became stronger; I never really felt I was discovering Fortezza with Laura. I rather listened to her telling her adventures to her new friends, which made it less interesting and lively as in the previous books.
An important part of the plot takes place in England. I enjoyed this in City of Ships, but here I felt it was sometimes a little too much. However, meeting Vicky Mulholland and several other characters we know from the rest of the series was a nice experience – and turned out quite surprising in the end. What I particularly enjoyed was Laura’s problem. We know from the first few pages that she resorts to self-harming, but there is much more to that than we would expect. Mary Hoffman really developed this aspect of her personality, much more than she did with any of the other characters, which was a good surprise.
Turning to the plot itself, I found it a little too predictable. There were a few twists and turns, but they did not seem that realistic and I was not as thrilled as I normally am. Meeting the usual Stravaganti was nice again, but they had not changed a lot, which I found rather disappointing. On the other hand, having Arianna and Luciano talk about their wedding was great and it was a good strategy to maintain the reader’s attention: Will they finally manage to get married?
I have given quite a lot of negative point about City of Swords, but I do not want you to think that I did not like it or that I would not recommend it to you. It is a great story; I just felt it did not quite live up to what I expected after five successful previous books – especially the fifth one. However, if I had to give a single reason to convince you to read it, I would say: the ending. As I said before, I was not living the story with the characters, but felt I was only a spectator. The action is sometimes quite slow, but in the last few pages, the pace clearly gets quicker. And suddenly, everything is over, before you even realise it. The ending remains nevertheless open, and each reader has to wonder... Will there be a seventh book?

Stravaganza is a series of 6 books (so far). Here are my reviews from the other books
City of masks here
City of stars here.
City of flowers here.
City of secrets here.
City of ships here.

City of Ships, Stravaganza #5 - Mary Hoffman

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Title: City of Ships
Series: Stravaganza #5 (6 books)
Author: Mary Hoffman
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release date: 2010
Pages: 356

* Perhaps only he knew haw much danger the city was in, threatened simultaneously by land and sea. There was nothing he could do now about the fleet; he had to trust in the two admirals and the bravery of their men. And in the strength oh their ships. *

Isabel Evans has just made a very surprising discovery: she is a Stravagante, somebody who, with the help of a talisman, can travel in time and space to the country of Talia in a parallel world. When faced with the extreme danger that Talia presents, the normally shy and quiet Isabel is forced to dig deep and find strength she never knew she had, as she is plunges into a world of pirates, ferocious sea battles and deadly adversaries...

Isabel is an English teenage girl who lacks confidence. No matter how well she does at school, sports or social life, she always feels she is behind her twin brother, Charlie. However, she is the one chosen to travel to sixteenth century Talia, a country similar to Italy, but in another world, where she has a mission to accomplish. She learns that she is a Stravagante and that her task is to help the brotherhood, but she does not know how.
The pattern of this fifth book is the same again, only with a different protagonist. This time, we are nevertheless transported to Classe, a city which was only just mentioned in the previous stories. The universe is completely different from that of Belleza, Giglia, Remora or Padavia: situated by the sea, its community is composed by artists and traders... But there are also pirates who threaten their peaceful life and another people, the Gate people, who might be preparing an attack.
I enjoyed the fact that, although the story followed the same guidelines as the previous ones, there are many new elements brought to it, which made the reading extremely interesting. The Chimici are present, but in the background and we get to know other interesting characters such as the Nucci – which we had briefly met before – and pirates. As I had read the four other books shortly before, I still remember precisely what happened, which was probably a great advantage in City of ships, because many people have similar names and it might get a little confusing for someone who does not know Stravaganza at all.
Mary Hoffman nevertheless sums up the main events at the beginning, and everything we might have forgotten comes back to us as we meet old characters: Rodolfo, Luciano, Arianna and Professor Dethirdge in Talia; Georgia, Nick and Sky in England. All of them have evolved and it is a pleasure to see them again.
One of the main interests, no doubt about it, is a discovery made by Professor Dethridge, which changes Stravagation. As this science progresses, the author takes more liberty and the plot becomes much more interesting. Although the real action only starts in the second part of the story, I never got bored with details at the beginning. The balance between England and Talia, new and old characters and places, descriptions and action, was really perfect. The climax towards the end was told with undeniable talent and we could easily picture the ships, the harbour, the army and the city.
I particularly liked Isabel’s character, which I found was better developed and more realistic than most of the protagonists we had met before – apart from Luciano, perhaps. Seeing her in Talia as well as in England gave us a more complete idea of her personality and I really feared and hoped with her.
City of Ships is once again a very successful story, maybe even more powerful than the previous ones. The author realised it was necessary to bring new elements in the series and does it with verve, offering us a wonderful landscape of a traders’ city threatened by pirates.

Stravaganza is a series of 6 books (so far). Here are my reviews from the other books
City of masks here
City of stars here.
City of flowers here.
City of secrets here.
City of swords here.

City of stars, Stravaganza #2 - Mary Hoffman

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Title: City of Stars
Series: Stravaganza #2 (6 books)
Author: Mary Hoffman
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release date: 2003
Pages: 458

* Dreaming of a city with flying horses was one thing... But coming face to face with someone she knew to be dead - that was something else again. *

Georgia loves horses and hates her step brother. It seems Russel's main aim is to make Georgia miserable. When Georgia finally saves up enough money to buy the little model of a winged horse she has admired in the window of an antique shop, she knows she has to keep it well out of Russell's way in case he realises it is important to her. But Georgia doesn't know that the little horse offers her an escape to another world and another time, that of sixteenth-century Remora, a city similar to Siena in Italy, which has evolved quite differently...

City of stars takes us to sixteenth-century Talia again, but this time we visit Remora, a city similar to Siena.
Georgia loves horses, but she is unhappy because her stepbrother persecutes her. The day she saves up enough money and manages to buy the model of a winged horse, she cannot imagine that it will transport her to another world which reminds her of Italy, but has evolved in quite a different way. There, in a city full of intrigues and dangers, she must find what her mission as a Stravagante is before it is too late.
Although the concept is the same as in the first book of the series (and the following ones) – an unhappy twenty-first century teenager who finds themselves sent to Talia by their talisman and has to accomplish a mission – the story is very different, and even more thrilling. A different setting, new characters amongst the ones we already know, more intrigues...
Horses are central in this book, not only because they are what Georgia loves most. In Remora, they are extremely important and every year a famous race takes place, the Stellata, which can be compared to the Palio our Siena. The way Remora is organised is extremely interesting because it mixes reality with belief, history and magic, and everything revolves around horses and the preparation of the Stellata. We are drawn into this strange universe and introduced to several Remorans such as Cesare and Paolo.
At the same time, other characters from the first book reappear –and their meeting could be full of surprises. However, the plot is understandable even for those who have not read it – I actually started the series by City of stars – because the main events and concepts are repeated as an introduction to Georgia in Talia. We also get to know better an extremely important family: the di Chimici. The first pages in which their names appear might be quite difficult to understand to start with, but there is no need to worry about forgetting who they are as the protagonists will later meet with each of them – and develop relationships from hatred to friendship.
Again, the descriptions are vivid and full of colours, sounds and emotions. It is interesting to meet new characters, but also to see how the ones we already know have developed since their adventures in Belleza finished. We follow the Stravaganti and their friends of course, but also their enemies – most of the di Chimici and their spy Enrico – as well as more neutral characters, for example the Manoush. I liked the fact that, contrary to many children or young adult novels, there are not only ‘good’ and ‘bad characters’, although they are sometimes a little simplified and predictable.
After the introduction, the story unfolds quickly, full of twists and turns – which are most of the time unexpected. In the middle of the court intrigues, love stories develop or evolve, as well as friendships. We get to know more historical details – be it because of the comparisons between Italy and Talia and their differences – and more about the Stravaganti, which are a really fascinating brotherhood. I particularly enjoy the character of Rodolfo, who seems very human and realistic.
City of Stars is the first book I had read of the Stravaganza series – quite a long time ago – and probably my favourite one. With scenes full of tension, the plot is well built and the ending quite surprising. The amount of historical references is incredible, as well as more hidden morals and theories, and every re-reading will bring some more details into light.

Stravaganza is a series of 6 books (so far). Here are my reviews from the other books
City of masks here
City of flowers here.
City of secrets here.
City of ships here.
City of swords here.

City of Masks, Stravaganza #1 - Mary Hoffman

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Title: City of Masks
Series: Stravaganza #1 (6 books)
Author: Mary Hoffman
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release date: 2002
Pages: 352

* I hardly think a girl is much of a threat. I presume you searched her for weapons? But if she attempts to suffocate me with her straw mattress, I promise to call out for help. *

During the day, Lucien battles cancer in his modern, normal life. But at night, he becomes a Stravagante, a time-traveler of sorts who finds himself in Bellezza, a city parallel to old Venice. Befriended by a local girl and protected by an older Stravagante, Lucien uncovers a plot to murder the city's beloved ruler, the Duchessa. But to save the Duchessa and the city Lucien risks losing his only chance to return home to his family and his real life.

City of masks is the first book of Stravaganza series and introduces us to Talia, a country similar to Italy situated in another world and another time. Everything starts in England, in the twenty-first century. Young Lucien suffers from cancer and cannot move from his bed. But when his father gives him an Italian notebook, he travels to a strange sixteen’s century city, Bellezza, where he learns that he is a Stravagante, someone who can travel between England and Talia. In this world, he is as strong and healthy as he was before, but he will soon find out that it is a dangerous place, especially when the di Chimici try to acquire more power in order to dominate the city.
During the whole book, we follow Lucien, or Luciano in Talia, as he discovers a city very similar to Venice, as he will notice himself. The descriptions are nicely written and help us imagine this wonderful sixteenth-century setting. The story starts quietly, as Luciano meets young Arianna and they discover the city together. Once the basis of the story is set, more characters appear and the tension quickly builds up until the last pages of the book.
Every chapter is divided in various parts, each of them telling about one character and his actions or about the events occurring either in Talia or in our twenty-first century world. I liked Mary Hoffman’s narrative choice, because we can then compare the two dimensions and it enables us to know a lot more than the characters. Nevertheless, this does not mean there is no suspense; quite often, we witness actions that we can only understand later on in the book, and this strategy makes it very difficult not to read the whole story in one go.
We also get to know characters which are extremely important in the other books of the series, such as Rodolfo, the Chimici family, Professor Dethridge, Guido Parole, etc. Each of them is developed enough to make us like them (or hate them) but enough mystery is kept in order to keep the reader’s attention.
As the story goes on, we become aware of the author’s great knowledge of Italia. Although Talia is a fantasy world, its similarities to Italy are striking and everything is constructed according to reality. The cities mentioned all resemble a real one in Italy and we are at the same time drawn into another world and brought back to the past, but a different past, where silver is more precious than gold and science looks like magic.
We also learn about the Stravaganti and their history, how the first traveller arrived to Talia, what their role is and why they have to keep their brotherhood secret from the powerful Chimici family. A real history lesson! These details are cleverly mixed with the actions and we never actually notice how much information is included in the story. The end arrives far too quickly and is unexpected – a real good one!
City of masks is a really thrilling book and a promising start for the rest of the series, which I hope will have many more books published. We are introduced to important characters and presented central concepts about stravagation and Talia in general. The writing style is simple, alternating description of the wonderful setting with rapid actions, thrilling scenes with more romantic ones and contrasting two different worlds and time. The story is a blend between history and fantasy, court intrigue, cheerful celebration scenes among the nobles and tragic family drama.
Stravaganza is a young adults’ novel, which explains why some of the characters and actions could have been developed more, but it will no doubt please a much wider audience, especially people interested in Italy, history and fantasy.

Stravaganza is a series of 6 books (so far). Here are my reviews from the other books
City of stars here
City of flowers here.
City of secrets here.
City of ships here.
City of swords here.

When will there be good news? - Kate Atkinson

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Title: When will there be good news?
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Black Swan
Release date: 2009
Pages: 480

* Just because something bad had happened to her doesn't mean it won't happen again.*

In rural Devon, six-year-old Joanna Mason witnesses an appalling crime.
Thirty years later the man convicted of the crime is released from prison.
In Edinburgh, sixteen-year-old Reggie works as a nanny for a G.P. But Dr Hunter has gone missing and Reggie seems to be the only person who is worried.
Across town, Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe is also looking for a missing person, unaware that hurtling towards her is an old friend -- Jackson Brodie -- himself on a journey that becomes fatally interrupted.

As indicated by the title, When will there be good news ? is not a cheerful book. Actually, the story itself is quite gruesome, with numerous deaths and a succession of tragic events which seems to never stop. If it weren’t for Kate Atkinson’s obvious talent at writing, I would probably not have enjoyed such a plot.
In Edinburgh, sixteen-year-old Reggie works for Dr. Hunter. But when her employer disappears with her baby, she seems to be the only one to worry about her, perhaps because Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe is too busy looking for David Needler, who has just murdered several relatives.
Anita Shreve’s novel is moving and its organisation successfully organised: one chapter out of two tells about the present and explains how Kathryn deals with the situation. The other chapters tell about the past and recount moments of her life with her husband Jack, from their marriage to the last time she saw him. As a consequence, the reader feels involved in Kathryn’s thoughts and discovers her memories little by little, as they come back to her mind. At the same time, and without the reader noticing it, the author prepares the spectacular end which is about to come. It is only towards the very end, after tension built up in the last chapters, that we fully understand the connection between all the anecdotes – although a basic general knowledge is required to catch all the details.
Jackson Brodie, ex-police officer, is on a journey that could change his life, but an unexpected event occurs which turns his plans unsuccessful.
These three different stories finally come together in an amazingly thrilling plot which holds in store many surprises.
Although this book is not the first one telling of Jackson Brodie’s adventures, it is the first one I read and it turned out to be a success. I really enjoyed the writing style, which is not what you would expect in a crime novel. It is funny, full of jokes, plays on words and comic scenes; it is literary, full of quotes by famous British authors; it is contemporary, full of references to a typical English or Scottish daily life. And yet, it is full of suspense and dark events.
We are thrown into the story straightaway, witnessing a terrific crime. However, after these few pages full of tension, the pace slows down notably and we have a whole first part to gat to know the characters. Several stories are mixed together: Reggie’s, Dr. Hunter’s, Louise Monroe’s, Jackson Brodie’s... and many other people’s. The chronology is more or less linear and so we go from one person to another. In these chapters, there is not a lot of action; we get to know the characters we are going to accompany until the end of the book. The way the plot is built reminded me a lot of Harlan Coben’s novels, which always start with different stories that come together in the end.
It is only about half way through the book that we finally understand the link between these different stories. I would not say there is real suspense, because I had guessed quite a lot of the events, but it did not spoil my reading at all and the tension built up constantly in the second part. From that moment on, the rhythm of the story is a real contrast to the slow – and apparently quiet – life the characters lived at the beginning. I liked the difference and thought it was extremely well balanced; we get to now the characters first and then the action takes place.
The characters are all extremely well built and attaching. We get to know them extremely well and I particularly enjoyed Reggie, who is the real hero of the novel. Although she does not have a lucky life, she is very clever and kind as well as independent and grown-up – sometimes a little bit too much to my taste. As plays a central role in the plot, all the other characters get to know her and I liked the way their relationships slowly developed.
The great number of deaths and murders – I think that all of the characters have a member of their family who died of natural or unnatural cause – was sometimes too much for me, but although there were so many coincidences, I was not disturbed by the fact that the story was unrealistic or unlikely. This is probably due to the author’s writing style and the way she constructed her story.
In summary, When will there be good news ? is a good book, between psychological and crime novel. Kate Atkinson’s writing style is no doubt its biggest strength, with many touches of humour in the middle of a rather macabre story – something fresh and unexpected that will lead us through the pages.

My sister's keeper - Jodi Picoult

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Title: My sister's keeper
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
Release date: 2009
Pages: 432

* You don't love someone because they're perfect, you love them in spite of the fact that they're not.*

Sara Fitzgerald's daughter Kate is just two years old when she is diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia. Reeling with the helpless shock of it, Sara knows she will do anything -- whatever it takes - to save her child. Then the tests results come back time and again to show that no one in their family is a match for Kate. If they are to find a donor for the crucial bone marrow transplant she needs, there is only one option: creating another baby, specifically designed to save her sister. For Sara, it seems the ideal solution. Not only does Kate live, but she gets a beautiful new daughter, Anna, too. Until the moment Anna hands Sara the papers that will rock her whole world. Because, aged thirteen, Anna has decided that she doesn't want to help Kate live any more. She is suing her parents for the rights to her own body.

* If you have a sister and she dies, do you stop saying you have one? Or are you always a sister, even when the other half of the equation is gone? *

My sister’s keeper had been in my bookshelf for a while before I decided to read it. I was not convinced that I would like it – or rather, I was quite convinced that I would not like it – probably because of the plot. Anna is thirteen years old and her sister, Kate, suffers from a rare form of leukaemia. From the moment she was conceived, she was destined to help Kate survive. But Anna has had enough and decides to sue her parents for the right of her own body, although she knows that this decision will change their life forever.
When I read the summary, I thought Jodi Picoult’s novel was going to be one of these heart-rending stories where the author tries to make you cry from the beginning to the end; that it would be centred on Kate’s illness only to the detriment of the family and the characters; that the end would be predictable and contain no suspense. Luckily, I decided to start it anyway and I must say I was extremely surprise by how much I enjoyed it. The book was completely different from what I had imagined.
Of course, in such a story, illness has got a central part. However, I liked the was the author dealt with it because we could feel that she knew a lot about the topic although we did not have to read pages and pages of medical explanations. A few specific terms were used, but it was more to lead us into the setting than to really give information about leukaemia. So it is present along the whole story, but in the background.
We focus on Anna’s family, her own personality as well as her parents’, Kate’s and her brother’s and the relationships between these very realistic characters. Each short chapter is told by a different person, which enables us to have a different viewpoint on the events. It is an interesting narrative choice because it stops us from being on Anna’s side or against her. As the story unfolds and we share each of the characters’ experiences, we understand that such a situation is not as easy as it may seem: each person has got their reasons and sometimes there is perhaps no right or wrong.
The narrators are Anna, her parents and her brother Jesse, but we also have several chapters told by Campbell Alexander, Anna’s lawyer, and Julia Romano, the guardian ad litem appointed by the judge who has to decide what it better for the girl. Although I found it strange at the beginning, I then enjoyed having parts of the story told by characters that are not part of the family. I felt it brought reality to the story and diversion. In a way, it reminds us that no matter how hard the situation of a family is, other people around them also go on with their lives. One of the details that caught my attention was that Kate is not the narrator – except in one single chapter – despite the fact that she is the main actor in the story. I was a little disappointed at first, but after finishing it, I think it was a rather clever option.
As I said before, I appreciated the fact that the story was not tragic all the time. With such a theme, it was of course not going to be cheerful and merry, but several scenes are funny and will make us laugh. The timeline is not linear, as we have several flashbacks, which help us understand the character’s present actions.
Jodi Picoult also handles a theme which acquires more and more importance in our current life: genetic engineering. It is something subject to debate and controversy in the medical and political world nowadays and in is interesting to see how, in the story, it is also difficult to decide if it is right or wrong, good or bad. Although it does not occupy a central place in the story, several allusions are made to this matter.
The ending – which is probably what most readers will want to know before they start reading the novel – is not a happy one. Realistically, it cannot be a happy-ending. However, you will probably be taken aback by several twists and turns in the last pages, where the tension builds up until the last dramatic event occurs. I do not want to give away what happens, as it would spoil your reading, but this ending troubled me deeply. I still cannot decide if I like it or not but it clearly made me want to reread the novel with the new pieces of information I had. My sister’s keeper is an amazing novel and I was not able to put it down until I had read it all. The writing style is nice and draws us into the story, mixing different viewpoints, present and flashbacks and tragic events with comic moments. It is a perfectly balanced story and my best read in the year so far. Let us hope the cinematographic adaptation will live up to the book’s success!

My sister's keeper has been adapted into a film. 
See my film review and comparison with the book.

The Book of Summers - Emylia Hall

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Title: The Book of Summes
Author: Emylia Hall
Publisher: Headline Review
Release date: 2012
Pages: 324

* Family. A word that has always sat so uneasily with me. For other people it may mean rambling dinners with elbows on tables and old jokes kneaded and pulled like baking dough. Or dotty aunts and long-suffering uncles awkwardly shaped, shift dresses and crappy moustaches, the hard press of a wellmeant hug. Or just a house on a street. Handprints pushed into soft cement. The knotted, fraying ropes of an old swing on an apple bough. But for me? None of that. It's a word that undoes me. Like the snagging of a thread on a jumper that runs unravelling quickly, into the cup of your hand. *

Beth Lowe has been sent a parcel. Inside is a letter telling her that Marika, her long-estranged mother, has died. There is also a scrapbook, the Book of Summers, it's stuffed with photographs and mementos compiled by her mother to record the seven glorious childhood summers Beth spend in rural Hungary. It was a time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two very different countries. And it was a time that came to the most brutal of ends the year Beth turned sixteen.
Since then, Beth hasn't allowed herself to think about those years of her childhood. But the arrival of The Book of Summers brings the past tumbling back into the present; as vivid, painful and vital as ever.

The Book of Summers caught my eye a long time ago, on the Waterstones' shelf, along with other summer reads. The back cover promised a trip to exotic Hungary, full of vivid descriptions and family mysteries and I must admit that, after eventually finishing it, I am rather disappointed.
Everything starts in England, when Beth receives a letter from Hungary, telling her that her mother Marika has died. With it comes the Book of Summers, which contains photographs of the seven wonderful holidays she spent in Hungary, before a tragic event put an end to this wonderful time.
In the first few pages already, we know that Marika has died. Most of the novel consists then of memories of Beth's life in England for a short time with both her parents, of her father and her in England and of her holiday in Hungary. Each chapter starts with the description of a picture, which reminds her of the summer it was taken and everything she experienced then, from the discovery of her mother's life and her first love.
As I expected, there are numerous descriptions of the places she visits. However, I felt that it was sometimes too much; too many adjectives in one sentence and, above all, the same places described several times. The advantage is that I have a precise image of Villa Serena, but I felt like the story was not really going anywhere, that everything was slow and that Beth did not really do much during the summer. It took me weeks to read it and unfortunately only the last third of the book really held my interest. The promise of a secret made me finish it: I wanted to know why Beth stopped going to Hungary, did not see her mother anymore and why everything changed. I must say that this twist in the plot was rather unexpected and Emylia Hall did not leave any clues which would enable the reader to guess the secret in the first chapters.
The setting is wonderful, but somehow artificial because we only get to know Beth through her summers in Hungary and we get to know people through her own eyes. It felt strange not to know much about her life in England, where she spends most of the time, and to have so many details about her yearly stay with her mother. In the same way, her relationships did not seem extremely realistic, probably because they were too stereotypical – a father with whom she cannot talk, an exotic and attractive mother, a wonderful boy she falls in love with at first sight and keeps loving through the years, although she only sees him a few weeks every year... I would have liked to know more about her feelings, because I do not have the impression that I got to know her at all, despite the three hundred pages I spent by her side.
While the beginning is slow, the end is rather quick. From the moment Beth discovers the secret that changes her life, everything moves on rapidly and we do not have time to think about her actions or the consequences of the decisions the characters made. The last pages are a little too romantic and unreal for my liking, but I enjoyed the fact that the author left it (rather) open and that everybody can have his own interpretation of what is going to happen.
Altogether, The Book of Summers did not live up to my expectations. I liked the general idea, the descriptions of Hungarian landscape, the way the story is built and the discovery of the secret, but the lack of balance disturbed me. I felt that everything was to descriptive while the story was not really going anywhere, that Beth's relationships to the other characters were artificial and that to understand her better and get to like her more, we would have needed to know more about her English life as well in order to compare it with her Hungarian summers. Nevertheless, it is Emylia Hall's first novel, a nice and easy summer read, and she will probably refine her style in her next publications.

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