Category Archives: Atlantic Books

Red April – Santiago Roncagliolo

I would never have imagined back at the start of the year that I would end up reading a Peruvian political thriller. However it is thanks to Armen’s latest choice for the face to face book group I am in, the Riverside Readers, that I had no choice but to give the book a whirl. I was slightly worried that I would be out of my depth with this one. I threw myself in regardless though because I always like to finish a book group book, it’s a rare book that I will give up on, which one was this?

Opening ‘Red April’ and reading the first report from our protagonist Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar (quite a mouthful) I wasn’t quite sure what this book was going to be about as the cover so heavily makes you think this is going to be some highly religious book. However reading the report of a murder, by burning, you get the instant impression that this is going to be a thriller. In reality you get a little bit of both but one the whole, for me at least, you are also getting a glimpse into the cultural turbulence of Peru, something I didn’t really know that much about.

However the burnt body is the first in a series of killings during Holy Week in Ayacucho all baring striking similarities soon Felix believes he is on the trail of a serial killer which leads him into the offices of politicians, the crypts of priests, police stations and prisons and through all walks of life as he tries to solve the mystery. This of course gives Roncagliolo the perfect way of showing you how things are in Peru from girls who have to marry their rapists, the terrorism outside of the main cities and the corruption. Some could say it’s a biased view and yet you get the feeling the only sides there are out there are the bad and the worse. Back to the plot, well I don’t want to give too much away. I will say that it starts slowly but surely before building to a heady, verging on almost confusing, climax which you won’t expect – despite the fact there are quite a lot of clues from the start.

Interestingly for me one of the books weaknesses and strengths is Felix himself. From the start you know there is something not quite right about him, starting with the obsession with his dead mother (which I found both creepy and quite fascinating) the feeling of needing to be recognized for who he is and what he does. It seems to be a common theme in thrillers; your protagonist needs to be a little bit messed up, maybe a loner. Is this not at the same time therefore rather a cliché? In being the way he is I found it rather unbelievable when he starts dating a much younger girl, Edith, who becomes fairly pivotal yet the meeting and pairing is so unlikely (maybe it’s the dish of guinea pig involved) that it undermined the tale for me and niggled at me throughout.

Another thing that niggled me throughout was something that I am unsure if was the fault of an editor, the author or the translator (Edith Grossman translates this beautifully) but why on earth did we need to be introduced to Felix with his full title of Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar almost every time a chapter started, or on occasion a new paragraph. It’s a small thing but again it broke the spell of the novel and began to irritate. This was a shame for me as it took me away from what was a rather gripping dark story that I wanted to get enthralled with and could never quite. I would recommend it though, it’s something different and you will learn all about Peru which makes for eye opening and sometimes shocking reading. 7/10

I am getting a little bit wary that I am using the expression ‘I have never read anything quite like this’ a lot on the blog over the last few weeks, I honestly haven’t though again in this case. I am actually seeing it as a good sign I can’t compare too many of the books I have read with others. I think it shows both through book groups and also through my reading in general I am pushing myself a little bit more and trying more out. Maybe I am fooling myself? What books have you read that have pushed you out of your comfort zone of late?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Book Group, Review

The Weight of a Mustard Seed – Wendell Steavenson

Not only are Kim of Reading Matters and myself two of the hosts of NTTVBG, we are also the two founding member of the Riverside Readers who meet on the Southbank last night. After choosing a wonderful book for the last NTTVBG meeting Kim went and did it again for book group with ‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Steavenson, which caused some great discussion not only about what we had read but also about several themes of modern times it brought to the forefronts of our minds.

I have to say that if it wasn’t for this being a book group choice then I don’t think in all honesty I would have read or even heard of ‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’. I might have been intrigued by the title and quite possibly the delightful cover (it’s the materialist in me) but the genre would have put me off as I am not the biggest fan of non fiction. What’s more the blurb hinted that this was a tale of a General who worked for Saddam Hussein during his dictatorship of Iraq and the aftermath, which I wouldn’t have thought would have been my sort of book at all.

I have to say I think that ‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ has to be one of the most interesting, engaging, horrifying and moving non fiction books that I have ever read. Although Wendell does indeed spend a lot of time with and writing about General Kamel Sachet and his family this is a book that actually tells of the history of the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, how he controlled the people he did (whilst also oddly humanising him from time to time), how fear can rule any man and how the country has been left since. The latter for me was actually one of the most shocking parts of the book.

I did have a few small qualms with the book and these are small ones. Despite Wendell being incredibly good at engaging the reader and making you read on I did think that on occasion question her motives, find her slightly patronising now and again and thought she expected you to know more of the history of Iraq than I did, however most people who would go to read this would know a lot (there is of course always google) which occasionally made things a little confusing for me as the book isn’t always in chronological order.

Having said all that it’s a minor criticism and I do believe you have to work at some books and I do think that Wendell was trying to make the point that it didn’t matter when the atrocities and conflicts happened it’s the how and the why she was illustrating to the reader and that is the power of this book. It’s real, it’s difficult and it’s happening still right as you read this, that leaves you both moved and with a lot to think about.

This book showed me that not only do I need to occasionally judge a book by its cover I also need to let my bookish boundaries down sometimes. I started out thinking that I wouldn’t enjoy this and then became moved in a way I never thought a non fiction book could do. If I marked books out of ten this would get a ten out of ten for non fiction and eight out of ten for a book in general, one to definitely give a try. I need to find more non fiction books like this… any recommendations?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Book Group, Review, Wendell Steavenson

Oscar and the Lady in Pink – Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

It’s really a bit rude of me isn’t it? I ask you all for your advice on a book that I should read next (as I did on Saturday) and then I go and read something completely different. Yet haven’t we all done this? You go through your book shelves and pick three books that you really would like to read and then a book on another shelf or something from the library catches your eye and off you go on a reading tangent as I did with ‘Oscar and the Lady in Pink’ by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt this weekend.

I hadn’t heard of this book until I saw it in the library a few weeks ago and from reading the premise thought I should give it a go. This novella is the tale of ten year old Oscar who is currently residing in hospital with terminal cancer. Oscar himself knows he is going to die, after doing what a lot of young kids like to do and eavesdropping, yet his parents won’t talk to him about it. Only one person will and that is ‘Granny Rose’ on of the ‘pink ladies’ who comes in to visit all those in the hospital and hopefully bring some joy into their stays in the hospital or in the patients final months and weeks. She tells him that he should live each day as if it were ten years in one day and at the end of the day write to God with one wish for the next day.

I was a little worried at one point that bringing God into the book might make this book turn into some kind of preaching exercise and it doesn’t. Instead we are given the insight into the life of an angry, upset and confused young boy as he makes sense of his situation and Schmitt gets us into the thoughts and emotions of that boy incredibly well. We even get some humour as he talks about some of his antics and some of the other patients like ‘Peggy Blue’ named because a condition of blood not reaching the lungs makes her blue, Oscar is infatuated with her but worries if he still will when she goes pink again after her operation.

The character of Granny Rose is a wonderful one too. An apparent former boxing champion who fought against the likes of ‘Plum Pudding’, ‘Nutcracker’ and ‘Dragon Breast’ in her heyday brings a caring yet honest and occasionally blunt figure into Oscars world and the relationship between them is a joy to read. Though I will admit you might need your hankies for the ending this is definitely a book worth reading despite being in parts upsetting as it is also incredibly uplifting too, a read that I would highly recommend to you all.

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Review

The Girl With Glass Feet – Ali Shaw (NTTVBG – Book Two)

Welcome to the second in the first series of Not The TV Book Group. I am Simon Savidge and your rather nervous rabbit in the headlights host today. Joining me on the freshly plumped sofa’s are my lovely fellow co-hosts Kim of Reading Matters, Kirsty of Other Stories and your previous host Lynne of Dovegreyreader for a discussion of all things related to Ali Shaw’s debut novel ‘The Girl With The Glass Feet’.

Last time we came to you from the depths of rural Devonshire. Today you will all be joining us not in my current home of Tooting in South London, as I am saving that for ‘Skin Lane’, but from somewhere a little more appropriate to the book, in fact somewhere I used to live many moons ago. This is all thanks to the joys of this being virtual and as I am hosting today it’s also subject to my whims.

That’s right it’s my Grandparents old house. This wonderful old building on a forest covered former quarry in the depths of Derbyshire (Matlock Bath in case you are interested) was the home of my childhood and where I first learnt to read and became a rather large fan of the fairytale. So much of a fan I called my pet duck Rapunzel, no really it’s true. This seemed the perfect place for you all to pop by and chat about what I think is one of the best modern fairytales I have read. I am hoping you agree. Before we get on with the book do help yourself a nice cup of tea and to one of the many, many cream cakes I have brought from the famous local Bird’s Bakery (seriously nowhere is like it for cakes). Now then onto some book discussion…

I am slightly stuck on where to start with ‘The Girl With The Glass Feet’ and this makes me even happier that I have twenty four hours and more to go on discussing it with you all as it was so full of discussable delights, for me anyway. I guess to start at the beginning would help wouldn’t it? Like all good fairytales you need a great setting and for this such tale we are given St Hauda’s Land an archipelago of islands somewhere snowbound and filled with forests and mystery and yet somewhere very much of ‘the now’ even if a little different from the rest of the world and the mainland.

“Maybe you noticed something different. When you returned to St Hauda’s Land. A taste on the air. A mannerism the birds have. A peculiar snowfall, making almost mathematical patterns. A white animal that’s not an albino.”

Someone who has indeed returned is Ida MacLaird, for when she first came to St Hauda’s Land something unusual happened after a run in with Henry Fuwa and a strange creature, the after effects being that she is slowly but surely turning into glass. Feeling that Henry is the only person who can help her she returns but Henry doesn’t want to be found, instead meets an unlikely hero in the form of Midas Crook a man she can’t help but like and a man who she feels can help. As it happens Midas is a man so emotionally complex and deeply withdrawn, a man who prefers to look at the world via a camera lens than his own eyes could take quite some time to unfold (well it wouldnt be such a good read and indeed such a fairytale if things went too smoothly) and possibly rescue her, time however is something that Ida does not have.

I was mesmerised from the opening of the book, which actually throws you in a lot quicker than I thought it would. We are literally bundled into the world of Midas there and then on the very day that he meets Ida, it’s that instant. I was expecting something slower, a tale that lead up to a fateful event rather than this delightfully different start with a slow unfolding of background stories, explanations, added twists and coincidences following on. I liked and didn’t predict that everything from the tale to the characters all seem to interlink somewhere along the way weaving a web you drawn into and held by.

I know we said we would discuss endings on the NTTVBG, and we all can, but just I don’t want to pop the books ending on the main post as I genuinely feel it would ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read the whole thing, pop back to the comments when you have would be my tip for the day. Is this a cop out? Maybe, but seriously I had no idea what the ending would be and if I had I think I would have felt something was stolen from me, does anyone else think that – ooh that’s something to discuss in the comments as the day goes on. So instead of endings I will turn to the rather quirky characters.

As hero and heroine, an unlikely pair at that and occasionally utterly maddening, naturally we spend most of the time with Ida and Midas and so for me at least they needed to be likeable. Oh I did like them, flaws and all (I bet Snow White and Prince Charming had issues Disney just deleted them) and actually I think the flaws only made them and the story stronger for me. I also loved the crazy reclusiveness of Fuwa another unlikely important figure in the whole proceedings. They all spoke to me, I wanted to spend time with them, get to know them and most importantly read on.

The writing, oh the writing… see there is so much to talk about. The writing for me was modern and yet poetic it had that magical like quality and yet never seemed far fetched or unconvincing even when tiny moth-winged cows were flying about the landscape. This to me is the sign of a great book and a marvellous writer, it could have been easy for this book to have become a parody of a fairytale and instead I was captivated and utterly spellbound for the whole journey.

I normally whack out a few questions at the end of a post, I know Lynne isn’t a fan of this, today I think I will get the ball rolling with one quick question. What did you think then? There, I will leave it in your capable hands; I will be back around 10am to conflab further as there is still so much I want to discuss!

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Filed under Ali Shaw, Atlantic Books, Book Group, Book Thoughts, Books of 2010, Not The TV Book Group, Review

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

One of the things that I love about where I work, though sadly only for another month or so, is that the team I am on all love books. They are very much into not only sharing their books (I have a lovely pile of doubled copies for them) they also love to talk about books. So when one of them asked me if I had read ‘Call Me By Your Name’ by Andre Aciman and raved about it as one of the ‘most beautifully written books I have ever read but also one of the most graphically shocking’ I whizzed it up my TBR. Atlantic Books had actually sent me this a while ago and I hadn’t gotten round to reading it, this of course has changed.

Told by Elio, the son of an academic in the 1980’s in the Italian Riviera, this is a tale of love that shouldn’t be and obsession. When Elio’s father takes on a house guest and ‘summer helper’ seventeen year old Elio falls head over heels in love. However his father’s house guest is Oliver, a dark moody and secretive character who seems only to despise Elio. There is also the fact that Oliver is a man and therefore the attraction that Elio feels shouldn’t really be. 

It’s very difficult to say more without giving the plot away, I shall say that what follows is a tale of fascination and desire that threatens to overwhelm them both and take them on a journey that will change their lives forever. Aciman holds you in suspense as to what might happen for pages and pages and the prose is utterly taught and utterly beautiful. I don’t think that I have read such beautifully written and composed prose in a very, very long time.

Though in some ways it discusses the confused emotions of Elio, and in some ways second hand from Oliver’s perspective, over and over again it never feels repetitive even as Elio obsesses for almost 150 pages and nothing really happens you are still riveted by it. When something does happen between the lovers it is quite graphic and quite intense and definitely not for the faint hearted or those of you who may be of a delicate or slightly prudish disposition. Though actually I hope in this day and age there aren’t many of those readers out there. Read it for the prose and the love story.

Also read it for the ending as not only is it not what you expect at all, I can imagine a film of this must be in the making at the moment as I would imagine there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. There is also one scene between Elio and his father which has touched me more than anything I have read in months and months, possibly even this year.

I don’t often demand that people read a book this is one book that I urge people to read. I honestly haven’t read anything so taught with emotions and complex feelings in a long, long time and that from me is seriously saying something. I know my review didn’t give very much away as to how the book unfolds or what happens but to tell you that would mean you didn’t have to read it and you do. The blurb says that ‘the six weeks together will prove to be an experience that will mark them both for a lifetime’ and I think the same could be said for anyone who has read this book.

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Filed under Andre Aciman, Atlantic Books, Books of 2009, Review

The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Now I have decided with the Man Booker Winners that as I read them I am not going to compare them to what else was long listed and short listed that year which I might have read. I don’t actually see any benefit in debating if it should have won if a) I haven’t read the whole long list and b) it doesn’t make any difference as I can’t change history… I know, I know, my mystical powers are weak! I am simply going to tell you what I think. Have I ever done a blog on how I review a book before? If not do let me know and I will do one in the coming weeks. Anyway onto the book in question…

The White Tiger is Aravind Adiga’s first novel and it is an incredibly accomplished first book which paints a vivid if slightly dark picture of ‘the real India’. We follow the story of Balram Halwai son of a rickshaw puller also known as ‘The White Tiger’ (which is of course the rarest of all the feline family) and his journey from a boy in a small village to ‘an entrepreneur’ in the big city via a life of servitude as a driver and, rather ominously, murder.

The story is undoubtedly a dark one and one in which Adiga is telling us of the corruption (which as Dovegreyreader brilliantly summed up in her review “just slimes off the page”) in India, its globalisation and how it has faired since the British moved out and American culture moved in. We see the darker sides of life out there that ‘tourists’ to India might not. Though this is a hard look at India and is very gritty for the reader, amongst the dark though there is humour thanks to such a wonderful protagonist. If you are puzzling over how a murderer could be likeable and funny then you need to read the book. Mind you there are a few other novels where I have felt that way too… oh dear, should I worry?

Balram’s personality changes as his surroundings do. He starts of as a naïve but clever school boy, and then becomes a disheartened young man in the tea shops before becoming a wry, calculating and knowing servant to his repugnant masters. He tells us; actually he isn’t telling us his story he is telling it to someone else. We read his story told in the form of letters to The Premiere of China. Which is oddly the only bit of the book that I didn’t really take to as I couldn’t work out why you would tell such a tale and admit to the things that he does if it might very well end up on the desk of someone as important as that.

Bar that one glitch I found the book incredible. It’s so readable and that was all down to Balram and his character (the font of a book helps though I find, more on that next week). I thought the way Adiga managed the plotting and story so we got to see so much of Indian life quite remarkable. We started in the villages looking at education, death, marriage and people who may be poor but make their life as rich as possible through the hard times (Balram’s Gran is a brilliantly calculating old woman – but then you would need to be). In Delhi we get the mix of the richest of the rich, the corruption of the government, the globalisation and Americanisation of the cities and all its gloss and glamour and the in contrast the prostitution, slum dwelling, and the life of those in servitude – the cockroach scenes freaked me out. All in all a great narrator, an unusual look at, and insight into, India and a highly accomplished debut novel.

I look forward to more novels by Adiga and hope that we see more novels from him. Arundhati Roy is an author I always wanted to read more works of after ‘The God of Small Things’ her Booker Winner but sadly we never did, maybe she is biding her time? One thing I will add about the book is the amount of people that I have seen reading it on the tube, I was going to do my report on that this weekend but I am going to hold off another week as am finding it quite interesting. Right I am off to read in the glorious Sunday sunshine.

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Filed under Aravind Adiga, Atlantic Books, Books of 2009, Man Booker, Review