Review: Starter for Ten by David Nicholls

PAPERBACK; 437 P.
HODDER & STOUGHTON, 2007/2003
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

The year is 1985. Brian Jackson, a working-class kid on full scholarship, has started his first term at university. He has a dark secret—a long-held, burning ambition to appear on the wildly popular British TV quiz show University Challenge—and now, finally, it seems the dream is about to become reality. He’s made the school team, and they’ve completed the qualifying rounds and are limbering up for their first televised match. (And, what’s more, he’s fallen head over heels for one of his teammates, the beautiful, brainy, and intimidatingly posh Alice Harbinson.) Life seems perfect and triumph inevitable—but as his world opens up, Brian learns that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

I read One Day, probably Nicholls’ most famous work, back in 2010 and though it was ok. Funny and entertaining – nothing more, nothing less. However, as his most recent book Us was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, I decided that I should give his writing another go. I had heard someone recommend Starter for Ten and reading the synopsis at the back of the book, it seemed alright.

Starter for Ten features Brian who comes from a working-class background and is beginning his studies in university with high expectations. He feels ready to take in the university experience: impressing teachers in classes, insightful discussions about the important questions, drinking quality red wine, writing poetry and reading it aloud, quoting Sartre from memory, falling in love, etc. But Brian also has another dream, the dream of competing in The University Challenge – a popular quiz show that tests general knowledge. However, Brian soon comes face to face with the realities of student life and the problems concerning growing up and fulfilling our dreams.

As with One Day, Starter for Ten was entertaining and funny. It was interesting to read about studying English Literature and students in the 1980s, some of it reminding me of my exchange term in England. Nicholls writes entertaining prose and his characters are imitation of reality, making you either laugh out load or groan in embarrassment. However, the book didn’t rock my world nor did it provide insights that I hadn’t yet found elsewhere. In addition, I found the overall plot line slightly predictable. I’d recommend this book to people who are going to university soon or in their first year of studies, simply because I think they can relate to some of the cultural specifics of university life.

3/5

I want to be fully engaged in the World of Ideas, I want to understand complex economics, and what people see in Bob Dylan. I want to possess radical but humane and well-informed political ideals, and I want to hold passionate but reasoned debates round wooden kitchen tables, saying things like ‘define your terms!’ and ‘your premise is patently specious!’ and then suddenly to discover that the sun’s come up and we’ve been talking all night. I want to use words like ‘eponymous’ and ‘solipsistic’ and ‘utilitarian’ with confidence.

Review: The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerqueira

EBOOK; 151 P.
TRANS. KAREN BENNETT & CHRIS MINGAY
RIVER GROVE BOOKS, 2013/2008
SOURCE: FROM THE AUTHOR

When God receives a request from Fátima to help prevent a war between Fidel Castro and JFK, he asks his son, Jesus, to return to Earth and diffuse the conflict. On his island, Fidel Castro faces protests on the streets and realizes that he is about to be overthrown. Alone, surrounded, and aware that the end is fast approaching, he plays his last card. Meanwhile, Christ arrives on Earth and teams up with Fátima, who is convinced she can create a miracle to avoid the final battle between JFK and Fidel Castro and save the world as we know it. At the end, something really extraordinary happens!

Humorous, rich with metaphor, and refreshingly imaginative, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro was chosen as the book-of-the-month and book-of-the-year by Os Meus Livros magazine.

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is a political and religious satire about the war of ideas between The United States and Republic of Cuba in the 1960s. It features both J.F. Kennedy as well as Fidel Castro in their camps, the people surrounding them, as well as God and Jesus looking down at the human kind and trying to figure out if they can do anything to stop it. However, as the author mentions in the beginning of the book, all the characters in this book are fictional.

As a minor student in political studies and generally enjoying dark humour, this book sounded like it would be something that I’d enjoy. And I wasn’t wrong.  However, already based on the description, I know that The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is going to turn off some people. The book does not cater to every taste and I can imagine that some might take offence on some of the humour, especially the religious satire. However, especially in questions of political elites and democracy, I found the sarcastic tone to be on point and straight laughed out loud to some of the scenes in the book. It reminded me of Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth and proved that pen is mightier than sword.

The book deals with many topics – giving glimpses of all kinds of different situations that the political (and religious) leaders face – that provide The Tragedy of Fidel Castro variety, but it also makes it slightly confusing as the narration moves from one character to another without any seeming connection or overlooking plot line. There were moments of sheer brilliance and scenes that pulled me straight into the world of the book, but then again, there were also parts that I felt were a bit stretched and could have been edited a bit further. The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is also one of the few translated novels I’ve read this year as it was originally published in Portuguese. I’d recommend this book to readers who enjoy reading about political figures (even if fictional) and about what could have happened in the communism-capitalism battle of ideologies.

3.5/5

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

PAPERBACK; 320 P.
PENGUIN, BOOKS, 2007/1937
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Streetwise George and his big, childlike friend Lennie are drifters, searching for work in the fields and valleys of California. They have nothing except the clothes on their back, and a hope that one day they’ll find a place of their own and live the American dream. But dreams come at a price. Gentle giant Lennie doesn’t know his own strength, and when they find work at a ranch he gets into trouble with the boss’s daughter-in-law. Trouble so bad that even his protector George may not be able to save him…

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a quick read, but once it gets into your system, it stays. The symbolism and parallelism of the narration create a multilayered story and set a very thought-provoking picture of America in the 1930s.

The story of Of Mice and Men begins with the arrival of our two main characters, George and Lennie. They are both travelling workmen who work in farms and ranches, dreaming that one day they’ll have a land of their own with a nice little house. The two main characters contrast each other: George is the small, clever, and rational one whereas Lennie is big and gentle, but also slightly dumb and prone to be influenced by his emotions. Unlike most drifters, George and Lennie travel together. In the beginning of the book, they are contracted to work on a ranch in a valley of California. At the ranch they meet other drifters, from different backgrounds and with differing personalities, the boss’ son with a bit of a Napoleon complex, and the wife of said son, who yearns for a different life. The ranch comes to stand as a sort of depiction of society with its power hierarchies and the struggles of the individual.

I very much enjoyed reading Of Mice and Men, but I cannot say that I was immediately blown away by it. I didn’t particularly connect with any of the characters, although the pain and hope that stemmed from them was very tangible. The shortness of the novel is in my eyes both a weakness and a strength: Immediately after finishing the book, I wished that it had been longer so that the characters could have been fleshed out. However, thinking it through, I now understand how minutely Steinbeck manages to breathe life into characters in such a short space. The allegories in the writing are strong and Steinbeck has a very particular view of the American dream and how there is this struggle between rational self and emotional self. I’d definitely recommend Of Mice and Men if you haven’t yet read it because of how it depicts the American dream, loneliness, and the struggle and yearning for something better.

4/5

Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.

Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Thursday Next #1)

PAPERBACK; 373 P.
HODDER & STOUGHTON, 2001
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

There is another 1985, where London’s criminal gangs have moved into the lucrative literary market, and Thursday Next is on the trail of the new crime wave’s Mr Big.

Acheron Hades has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Jane Eyre is gone. Missing.

Thursday sets out to find a way into the book to repair the damage. But solving crimes against literature isn’t easy when you also have to find time to halt the Crimean War, persuade the man you love to marry you, and figure out who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

Perhaps today just isn’t going to be Thursday’s day. Join her on a truly breathtaking adventure, and find out for yourself. Fiction will never be the same again…

Meet Thursday Next. She’s a 36-year old ex-military from the 100-year-old Crimean war between Russia and England, who is currently working in SpecOps division 27 in London. In short, she’s a literary detective fighting against manuscript forgeries and copyright criminals. Her father is a rogue time traveler, her uncle a scientist with a special interest in bookworms (literally worms), and she is the happy owner of a Dodo v1.2 called Pickwick. And this is not your typical England of the 1980s…

The Eyre Affair is a literary mystery, a hilarious action-filled adventure that does not go easy on you. From the very beginning of the book it constantly throws new things at the reader, whether it be time travelling shenanigans, literature fanatics that have taken into rioting because the opposing school of thought is claiming their hero is daft, question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays or simply the fact that there are new literary / political / pop culture references at every turn. For instance, the protagonist goes to see a very peculiar performance of Richard III, which clearly references the Rocky Horror Picture Show audience participation phenomenon. If I had not enjoyed this book as much as I did, I might venture to call it a tad pretentious. The protagonist in The Eyre Affair is a kick-ass female who often shoots first and thinks later. Most of the book rushes her from one job to another – often in the middle of a third – but there is also a subplot about her emotional baggage from the war.

If you cannot already tell, I adored The Eyre Affair. It was extremely entertaining with a clever concept and a challenging writing style. However, there are some issues that forced me to lower my rating. For one, the pacing of the book was a mess. Fforde does not give the reader any moments of contemplation or time to process the previous events, before he throws the protagonist into the next scrape. In addition, the book had way too many ideas and concepts that were merely touched upon and then thrown aside – like funny side notes or inside jokes – causing the overall structure to became very cluttered. If this had been a regular mystery novel, I probably would have thought it was poorly written. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story within a story aspects of the book very much and I will most definitely be continuing with the series. I’d highly recommend The Eyre Affair for friends of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series as well as to those who enjoy reading fiction within fiction within fiction. NOTE: Please read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë before this unless you want to spoil yourself big time.

4/5 

‘Malin and Sole look after all crimes regarding Shakespeare. … They keep an eye on forgery, illegal dealing and overtly free thespian interpretations. The actor in with them was Graham Huxtable. He was putting on a felonious one-man performance of Twelfth Night. Persistent offender. He’ll be fined and bound over. His Malvolio is truly frightful.’

My review of Lost in a Good Book (#2).

Review: Fair Play by Tove Jansson

HARDCOVER; 138 P.
TRANS. KYLLIKKI HÄRKÄPÄÄ
WSOY, 1990
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Fair Play is the type of love story that is rarely told, a revelatory depiction of contentment, hard-won and exhilarating.

Mari is a writer and Jonna is an artist, and they live at opposite ends of a big apartment building, their studios connected by a long attic passageway. They have argued, worked, and laughed together for decades. Yet they’ve never really stopped taking each other by surprise. Fair Play shows us Mari and Jona’s intertwined lives as they watch Fassbinder films and Westerns, critique each other’s work, spend time on a solitary island (recognizable to readers of Jansson’s The Summer Book), travel through the American Southwest, and turn life into nothing less than art.

Inspired by the lovely Madame Bibi Lophile’s review on Fair Play, I decided that it would be my fourth book in my Tove100 challenge. I’ve now completed the challenge, but I might continue with Jansson’s works because they are amazing. However, let’s get back to Fair Play:

Fair Play is a short story collection that features two women, Jonna and Mari, their relationship, travels, work and inspiration. They live at the opposite sides of a building, but their studios are connected by an attic passageway so that they can pop in and out of each others lives. Both women are dedicated artists, although with varying interests and different ways of approaching work. The collection follows their lives through short glimpses: watching B-class westerns, spending summer months on an island, traveling abroad and visiting friends. The relationship of the two women is one of trust and balance, with the charm that age brings to a long-term relationship.

First of all, I was almost astonished how intimate the whole short story collection felt. The two women reminded me so much of what I’d read about Jansson and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä, that it was almost impossible not to see the similarities between their lives and those on the pages of Fair Play. I adore Jansson’s style of writing and how she builds the atmosphere with words, creating a calm environment with occasional fireworks. It is a subtle, intricate style that manages to affect the reader with its quietness. However, I must admit that this collection was not my favourite one. I felt that the sudden changes of scenery and the collection as a whole did not support itself as well as some of her other books. I guess I was hoping that there had been more to the book, or that there would have been a more prominent structure to the whole collection. Nevertheless, I still recommend Fair Play to readers who’d like to be acquainted with Tove Jansson’s adult fiction and enjoy reading short story collections.

3.5/5

Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

PAPERBACK; 312 P.
GIUNTI EDITORE, 2002/1847
SOURCE: PURCHASED

From Goodreads:

Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine’s father. After Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine’s brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries. The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature.

Wuthering Heights is one of those classics that divides opinions. Some absolutely love it for its passion and complexity, some hate it because of its narration and chaotic nature. In the time of its publication, Emily Brontë’s novel was not as popular as those of her sisters, but she has later risen in fame and the book is considered as one of the must-read classics of English literature.

The book begins with a young urban gentleman who rents a residence at a remote area of the countryside, and tries to make the acquaintance of his neighbours at Wuthering Heights. The neighbours, however, turn to be a very strange and cross group of people, and he later finds out from one of his servants that there is a dark story behind the family living in the house. He pleads the old servant, Nelly, to tell him the story, and thus begins the story of the two families, the Lintons and the Earnshaws. It’s a complicated tale of two generations of love, hatred, jealousy, pride and beliefs. Wuthering Heights explores the dark side of human nature and passion, with a touch of paranormal elements, making it the very epitome of Gothic literature.

I read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre this time last year, and really enjoyed that one. Wuthering Heights has many similarities to Jane Eyre, such as the strong minded female character, but the tone of the narration in Wuthering Heights is a whole lot darker. I was expecting it to be a more of a love story than a story of pain and misery and revenge, but at the same time, I think I enjoyed it more because it wasn’t what I expected. It is harrowing and unpleasant, but still very gripping and moving. Part of the fascination in the story is the jumping time line, that makes the reader aware of the narrator (who is a third party herself), and the impact of the strong feelings translates extremely well into the writing. I loved how Emily Brontë described the moors and the nature, making it almost like one of the characters in the story. Wuthering Heights is clearly one the most original and interesting works of art that holds many elements of beauty without being beautiful. I’d definitely recommend this if you’re a fan of classics or want to read something of the Gothic genre.

4/5

I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. And this is one: I’m going to tell it – but take care not to smile at any part of it.

October Reads and November Plans

Yet another month has passed and I can’t believe it’s already November! It feels like summer was just last month, and now we’re only two month’s short of Christmas. Panic! October has been a special month here in my blog as I celebrated my one year anniversary with a Tove Jansson inspired giveaway, spent two lovely days at the Helsinki Book Fair, and read a plethora of good books. In October, I read a total of 7 books, which included one non-fiction book, one play and one graphic novel.

When it comes to reading, I’m actually beginning to enjoy the autumn season – before going to bed, I tend to curl up in the corner of my sofa with a large cup of tea and read for about an hour or two to clear my head before sleep. However, with a few books I simply had to finish the book before going to sleep and consequently I had a few mornings when I needed a slightly larger cup of coffee to get going. Aside from reading, the month was been filled with quality time spent with friends and family, cooking some spicy food, and working under tight schedules.

Books read in October:

20578940In the beginning of the month I read The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway. It’s the first book in the Magisterium series that follows a young boy in a wizarding boarding school. The main character is determined to fail the entrance exam, but instead he gets chosen and thus has to go through at least one year of schooling. Especially it was hard not to compare this book to the Harry Potter series, but the truth is that the book only plays cleverly with the magical boy/hero trope. Nevertheless, I didn’t really connect with any of the main characters and the overall story left too many unanswered questions for me to appreciate it as a stand-alone. I am not sure if I’m going to continue with the series, but if you enjoy middle-grade and stories about magic schools, this might be your book. 3/5

21534240From the Helsinki Book Fair I picked up Lapsus by JP Ahonen, the fourth installment in the Villimpi Pohjola series. I have previously followed the comic strips published in the local newspaper, and I’ve enjoyed them so much that I think I will try to collect the published ones. The series follows a group of university student through-out their studies and all the crazy situations that life throws at their way. In this installment, one of the main characters gives birth to a baby girl and struggles with her new identity as a mother; the other one struggles with finishing his master’s thesis and finding purpose in the post-thesis life; and the third is on the brink of stepping into working life. I love Ahonen’s humour and in a way I find myself relating to the characters in this series (although my life is nowhere near as crazy as theirs). 5/5

Books on my November TBR:

  • Päivälehden mies by Janne Virkkunen (currently-reading)
  • Fair Play by Tove Jansson
  • Salome by Oscar Wilde
  • The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerquiera
  • Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (seriously.)

November is going to be a busy month, but I still have books that I really want to read. I’ve already started reading my non-fiction pick of the month: Päivälehden mies (eng. The Newspaper Man). It’s sort of a memoir of Janne Virkkunen, who was the editor-in-chief of Finland’s largest daily newspaper from 1990-2010. Virkkunen writes about his experience as the editor-in-chief as well as the changes that happened in the paper as well as the world during those years. I’m very much looking forward to reading what he has to say about the newspaper culture in Finland. Next up on my TBR is Fair Play, which is going to be the fourth and final book in my Tove100 challenge. I’ve heard only wonderful things about this book, and I can’t wait to read it. After that I will be reading another play from my collection of Oscar Wilde’s plays. As I very much enjoyed The Importance of Being Earnest last month, I was recommended to read Salome next.

In November, I will also be reading The Tragedy of Fidel Castro which is a political and religious satire about the Cuban revolution. I was sent this for review by the author, and I think the premise sounds very intriguing. And lastly on my list is Storm of Swords. This is the third month that I’ve added this book to my TBR and still I haven’t touched the book since early September. I guess watching the 3rd season of the TV series beforehand spoiled my interest in the series and I haven’t really been very interested in picking it up again. However, I still really want to read this book and continue with the wonderful series. So this month, I’m starting from the beginning and won’t read another book before I finish it.

These are my current plans for November reads. Let me know if you’ve read any of them and what you’re reading this month. Happy reading! x