‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 4 stars

Novels set during the Second World War tend to appeal to me. So, it was with high expectations that I started reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It explores how people are still capable of acts of kindness even when they are taught to hate and be violent. Through the use of alternating timelines, the reader is introduced to Marie-Laure and Werner, who have their lives affected by the brutality of war.

The narration of the story starts in 1944. Half of western France has already been liberated from the Nazi grip, but Saint-Malo is still under an air-attack. Marie-Laure, a blind 16-year-old girl, lives at rue Vauborel and owns a model of the city. Werner Pfennig is at the time a private in the German army who is staying at the Hôtel des Abeilles.

We then travel back in time. Ten years earlier, Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who works as a locksmith at the Natural History Museum. One day she does a guided tour at the museum and is told the story of the Sea of Flames, featuring quite a valuable diamond. She is losing her eyesight and one month later she is blind. The way in which going blind affects Marie’s daily life is meticulously described. Continue reading

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‘The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria” by Janine di Giovanni

My rating: 4 stars

Janine di Giovanni has covered many wars throughout her career, and her experience writing about such a complicated subject is noticeable in The Morning They came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. This is a non-fiction book specifically about the brutality of the civil war that is tearing Syria apart. But, as she remembers the readers, this is a war that shares many characteristics with other armed conflicts, like the one that took place in the former Yugoslavia.

Throughout the book we are presented with stories from the places the author went to in Syria and snippets from conversations she had with its inhabitants, mixed with quite important general information about the civil war. There are various mentions of sexual violence being used as a war tactic to cause fear in the population, of cases of torture of opposition members by the officers loyal to the Assad regime, of how children suffer immensely during the war, both physically and psychologically, and of the divisions between the different ethnicities and religions.

At first, I thought that the book should have featured right at the beginning a chapter dedicated to the inception of the war, how it all started with peaceful demonstrations (slogans, marching, chanting), which then gained a more violent nature. Such information is presented throughout the book connected with people’s stories, though, and that ends up working quite well, at least for someone who is already familiar with what happened in Syria through the news. Continue reading

Dracula - Bram Stoker

‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker

My rating: 4 stars

A fictional collection of diary entries written by various characters, some documents, news pieces and many letters was assembled to tell a worldwide famous story about a powerful vampire. Although this was my first time reading Dracula by Bram Stoker, I was familiar with both the story and the names of the characters thanks to the numerous film and TV adaptations available.

The first character we are introduced to is Jonathan Harker, who is invited to Transylvania by Count Dracula to advise him on a prospective London home. During his journey, he encounters many superstitious people, leaving him with a sense of unease. When he arrives at Count Dracula’s castle, he has a horrible feeling about the place.

Jonathan spends part of his time there speaking with the Count and finds interesting that he already knows so much about his future house in London. But he’s also intrigued by the lack of mirrors in the rooms, the Count never eating with him and the absence of servants in the castle. His subsequent discoveries about the Count deeply terrify him. However, he can’t return to England without his permission, as he is locked in the castle. When the Count finally allows him to leave, Jonathan is psychologically traumatised. Continue reading

‘Ensaio sobre a Cegueira’ (‘Blindness’) by José Saramago

My rating: 4 stars

Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, Blindness in the English translation, is an allegorical novel by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago. It tells a tale about how people can become irrational when dealing with extreme situations, and how it’s thanks to those who continue to promote the need for some order that it’s possible to carry on living in community for a while. Throughout the novel, we are faced with the worst and best of humanity.

The story starts when a man, who is waiting inside his car for a traffic light to turn green, goes blind. But he doesn’t become surrounded by darkness, instead everything around him turns white, as if the world had become illuminated. A stranger takes him home, where his wife finds him sat near a broken jar. When the man explains to her that he is blind, she takes him to an ophthalmologist. She has to call a taxi, though, because the man who helped her husband took the opportunity to steal the car.

However, after taking the car, that man gets remorseful. Worried and afraid of being caught by the police, he can’t continue driving and stops the car. This is when he also starts seeing everything white. He is blind too. Continue reading

‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith

My rating: 3 stars

Autumn, the first book in a seasonal quartet by Ali Smith, is not easy to describe. I would say it is a compilation of fragments about how 101-year-old Daniel influenced Elisabeth’s life mixed with references to current events. But for the majority of the book, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it feels like there is no real plot being developed via the flow of the characters’ thoughts and reminiscences on life occurrences.

Daniel Gluck lives in a care home and currently spends most of his time sleeping. Some chapters are reproductions of dreams he is having. He is visited by Elisabeth Demand who pretends to be his granddaughter when in fact they used to be neighbours. She is 32 years old and a contract junior lecturer at a university in London. They first met because, when she was younger, she had to do a homework about a neighbour.

After that they started spending a lot of time together, and she even called him her unofficial babysitter. They used to speak about art, poetry, books and photography. Those conversations influenced her future life, as she went to study history of art and do her thesis on Pauline Boty, a forgotten female artist from the Pop Art movement, who Daniel had met and adored. Continue reading

‘The Tropic of Serpents’ by Marie Brennan

My rating: 4 stars

In the second instalment of The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, titled The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan reveals the story of the journey of the future prominent dragon naturalist Isabella to Eriga. As in the first book, A Natural History of Dragons, an adventure is embroidered with scientific, anthropological and social strands. But it mostly stands out when the focus is on the characters’ feelings and their personal ordeals.

Although it takes place three years after the events reported in the first book (which I will not spoil in this review), it’s connected with it by mentioning how Isabella dealt with the personal consequences of her first trip to Vystrana and how the investigation following her discoveries about dragon bones was disrupted by a robbery.

Isabella’s second adventure, which is detailed in this book, took her to Eriga, but first she had to face a challenge as difficult as her expedition: her family, more precisely her mother and her concerns. Many of the criticisms she faced were related to the existence of different expectations regarding women’s and men’s duties towards family. I have to admit that even I was ready to criticise her (as I would also censure a man in the same circumstances) before she explained how she was remembered of previous suffering by fulfilling her expected family duties. Continue reading

‘Homens Imprudentemente Poéticos’ by Valter Hugo Mãe

My rating: 2 stars

Homens Imprudentemente Poéticos by the Portuguese writer Valter Hugo Mãe tells the tale of two neighbours, Itaro and Saburo, who are in open conflict, and exposes how suffering can significantly change a man who believed in love above all. This story, full of mystic elements, takes place in ancient Japan in a small town near a mountain, where people used to go to commit suicide. But it wasn’t the dark undertones that made me dislike the book. The reason was it feeling quite pretentious.

Itaro was an artisan who could see the future by killing an animal. After stabbing a beetle, he saw that a wise man was to arrive. But that is not the vision who sparks the animosity with his neighbour Saburo, who was a potter. Once he told him that his wife, Fuyu, was going to be killed by an animal which would come down from the mountain nearby.

Since he had already started taking care of the flowers at the bottom of that mountain, Saburo decided to turn the forest into a garden, hoping to tame the animals and so avoid his wife being killed. His plan was not successful, though, and his wife died anyway. Afterwards he continued planting flowers, as he believed that if the garden became bigger, the gods would be able to see it and would love him to the point of sending his dear wife back to him. Continue reading

‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne du Maurier

My rating: 4 stars

Daphne du Maurier cleverly plays with our perceptions of some of the characters featured in My Cousin Rachel by making us constantly doubt their intentions. This is the story of two men, Philip and Ambrose, plagued by suspicion. They both fell in love with Rachel even though beforehand they refused the company of women, whom they characterised negatively.

Philip’s parents died when he was only eighteen months. He was taken care of by his older cousin Ambrose, who always loved him and chose him as his heir. When Philip finished his studies at Oxford, Ambrose started to spend the winters in the south of Europe for health reasons. One year he decided to go to Florence where he fell in love and married cousin Rachel.

After receiving the news, Philip started to harbour feelings of jealousy and became concerned about having to leave the house he always lived in, because he was remembered of the possibility of Ambrose having his own son. More than a year passed and Ambrose didn’t return home. Philip started to become worried about his cousin’s long absence. His apprehensions only increased when Ambrose sent him suspicious letters. He then decided to go to Italy looking for him, but when he arrived in Florence he was already dead and cousin Rachel had left the city. Continue reading

‘Mansfield Park’ by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 stars

Mansfield Park feels different to the other Jane Austen novels that I previously read, and I believe the main reason for that is it starting when the timid heroine, Fanny Price, is still quite young. Nevertheless, it shares various characteristics with her other works, including marriage being seen by many of the characters as a means to achieve economic security, in contrast with marrying for love.

In fact, marriage is a central theme throughout the novel. We are introduced to the parents of the young main characters with a comparison between the fortune of three sisters regarding marriage. Miss Maria married Sir Thomas Bertram and became a Lady at Mansfield Park. Miss Ward married the reverend Mr Norris, a friend of Sir Thomas who gave him the opportunity to be the clergyman at Mansfield’s parsonage. But Miss Frances, despite her sisters’ opposition, married a Lieutenant of Marines who had neither education nor fortune.

After much time without corresponding with her sisters, the now Mrs Price wrote them asking for advice about her children’s future and they re-established relations. At Mrs Norris suggestion, they decided that one of Mrs Price’s daughters should go live at Mansfield Park. However, they could never let her forget that she wasn’t an equal to her cousins. Continue reading

‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjón

My rating: 4 stars

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by the Icelandic author Sjón is a short but powerful book. More than a tale about the young man Máni Steinn, it’s a beautifully written novella which combines fiction and reality, with one inspiring the other in more than one way.

Máni is a sixteen-year-old boy who lives in Reykjavik with his great-grandmother’s sister, since his mother died when he was really young. He is passionate about cinema, loves watching films and venerates Sóla, a girl whom he believes to be identical to an actress from a film he has seen. The book opens with Máni accompanied by one of his “gentlemen”. His encounters with them are mentioned throughout the book, and his sexual identity is not without implications.

The majority of the story takes place in 1918 and there are many mentions to historical events, such as the eruption of the Katla volcano (which is visually described through the use of colours), the referendum to independence, the First World War Armistice and the Spanish flu. Although they help the reader to place the story in a specific time, some of the references feel a bit disjointed from the rest of the plot. Continue reading