‘Ema’ by Maria Teresa Horta

My rating: 4 stars

Both the structure and the writing style of a book have a significant impact on the reading experience. Ema by the Portuguese author Maria Teresa Horta is a collection of snippets about the lives of three characters all named Ema. This assortment of memories ends up being engaging, because the writing style has a haunting poignancy and the book is relatively short. The recollections flow into one another in a captivating rhythm. Although I would have liked to know more about the women that are at the heart of this novella, the structure chosen by the author wouldn’t have worked as well in a more detailed and far-reaching book.

Ema has killed her husband. But which of the Emas? The three women that are the main characters in this book are different from one another, their lives are not exactly the same, but at the same time they are almost indistinguishable. It’s difficult to know who is specifically being focused on at each given moment. The violence they endure, the value they are not given and the oppression they feel almost merge into one single form of unhappiness.

As the story progresses, it becomes clearer how the various Emas are connected and how the past influences the present. The suffering that transpires from the pages becomes even more affecting. Continue reading

‘Ship of Magic’ by Robin Hobb

My rating: 4 stars

Ships and pirates don’t usually play a significant part in the fantasy genre. That is not the case of the first book in The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb, though. Told from different perspectives, Ship of Magic introduces readers to a world where the figureheads of ships can become alive. Throughout the book, various exciting and fleshed out characters seem to be put in the right place for a couple of questions to be answered in the rest of the series. How did liveships truly come about? Why are serpents following some ships and attacking their crews?

Kennit is the captain of one of many pirate ships. He had legendary good luck, and no one could have any doubts about it. For that reason, he kept it a secret that he owned a charm, a carved face of wizardwood, to avoid being subject to enchantments. He aspired to unite and be king of the Pirate Isles. He would then offer safe use of the Inside Passage up to the coast of Bingtown and Chalced to the merchants and traders, but for a fee of course. In order to know if he would be successful, he went to Treasure Island to offer valuable objects to the Others, a species with magical powers, in exchange for an answer. The general reply was yes.

The old Bingtown Traders own liveships, the only type of vessels that can sail the Rain Wild River. They are made of wizardwood and quicken when three family members from successive generations die on their decks. When that happens, their figureheads become alive, being able to talk and experience emotions. They have a special bond with the members of the family that bought them from the families that live in the Rain Wilds, the only place where wizardwood can be found. Continue reading

‘Livro’ by José Luís Peixoto

My rating: 4 stars

Having read Livro by the Portuguese author José Luís Peixoto for the first time almost a decade ago, I was certain that I had forgotten many details about it. I was not expecting to have misremembered so much about the plot and the characters, though. While telling the story of Ilídio and Adelaide, Peixoto painted not only a convincing picture of the life in a small Portuguese village in the second half of the 20th century, but also touched on issues related to the political repression of those who criticised Salazar, the colonial war, and the Portuguese migration to France.

In 1948, Ilídio, one of the main characters, was merely six years old. To his surprise, his mother gave him a book as they were walking around the village. Although he couldn’t figure out the reason why, his attention quickly turned to something else. While he was giving free rein to his imagination, his mother left him by himself next to a fountain with just a bag and the book. He waited for hours for her to return, but she never did. On the following morning, Josué, the mason of the village, arrived to pick him up and took him to his home, where he then grew up.

When he was 15, Ilídio asked Adelaide, the niece of one of the most well-known inhabitants of the village, Lubélia, to be his girlfriend. She said yes. As a thank you, he offered her 100 escudos, a pigeon and the book that his mother had given him before disappearing. Around seven years later, Ilídio went to Lubélia’s house seeking permission to marry Adelaide. The old woman started laughing nonstop. Continue reading

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

My rating: 5 stars

A story about grief, parenthood, love and family life, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a convincing, albeit fictional, tale about the events surrounding the death of the son of a famous playwright, William Shakespeare, who is never mentioned by his name. The feelings of the characters are so palpable and intense that we can almost experience them ourselves. Although this is the story of an entire family, it is mostly Agnes who is in the spotlight. Her suffering is profoundly portrayed.

The book starts with a historical note to let readers know that this is the story of a couple who lived in Stratford in the 1580s. They had three children – Susanna, plus the twins Hamnet and Judith. We know from the outset that this is to be a sad tale. Hamnet died in 1596, when he was eleven years old. Some years later, his father wrote a play called Hamlet.

Sometime before his death, Hamnet is desperately looking for his mother, grandmother or any other member of the household, as his sister Judith is feeling unwell. He can’t find anyone. Agnes is at a garden where she grows medicinal herbs. She was called there because something was wrong with the bees. His older sister and his grandmother are in town, and his father is in London. Eventually, he finds someone in the house. Unfortunately, it is his grandfather, a disgraced glover, who is drunk and ends up throwing a cup at his face. Continue reading

‘Salt Slow’ by Julia Armfield

My rating: 4 stars

The majority of the short stories in the collection Salt Slow by Julia Armfield have the appearance of being true-to-life, but as we keep on reading, mystical and supernatural elements take over. Those features are used to highlight various human experiences. Several of the stories are metaphors that explore the characters’ feelings, tribulations and distress without resorting to sentimentality.

‘Mantis’, the first story in the collection, sets the mood for what is to come. What seems like a tale about an ordinary teenage girl with a skin condition turns into something much different, more unsettling. When the story comes to an end, much is left to the imagination, which doesn’t diminish its impact.

Women take centre stage in this collection, being often the main characters. In ‘The Collectables’, three friends, who are working on their theses, consider men to be a disappointment. One of them has a solution to the problem. ‘Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax’ is less disturbing, but it also features many supernatural and mystical elements, which are mixed with the everyday life. Mona joins the crew of a girl-band to film videos for their website. Everyone in the crew is a woman, as are all the fans. Continue reading

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

My rating: 4 stars

The picture that people paint of a person may not be entirely accurate. At first, Agnes, the protagonist of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, instils fear in many of the other characters in this historical fiction novel. She has been considered a criminal after all. But, as time passes, they start to see another side of her, she stops being just a stranger that committed a crime. The same happens to the reader. Throughout the book, set in Northern Iceland in 1829, we learn more about her previous predicaments, making it easy to empathise with her and feel her pain.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir is one of the three people charged with the murder of two men, Nathan, who was her lover, and Pétur. She is sentenced to death. At the orders of the District Commissioner, she is to wait for the date of her execution at the house of one of the officers in the district, Jón. His wife, Margrét, isn’t happy about it, and neither are their daughters, Lauga and Steina.

While staying there, Agnes receives the visit of Assistant Reverend Thorvardur, whom she requested as her spiritual advisor and the priest responsible for her absolution. Their paths had crossed in the past, but he doesn’t remember her at first. He is not confident of his abilities to carry this task, as he doesn’t have much practice as a reverend yet. Continue reading

‘O Irmão Alemão’ (‘My German Brother’) by Chico Buarque

My rating: 2 stars

To write O Irmão Alemão, My German Brother in the English translation, the Brazilian author and singer-songwriter Chico Buarque drew inspiration from his family history. When he was 22 years old, Buarque discovered that his father had had a son while living in Germany. Nevertheless, the story in this book is mostly fictional. The premise is full of potential – the narrator wants to discover what happened to his German brother. Unfortunately, the execution is nothing but disappointing, since the characters don’t feel real and the writing style is not absorbing.

Francisco de Hollander, the narrator of the book, once found in one of his father’s books a letter from a German woman, Anne Ernst, dated from December 1931. His father had lived in Berlin between 1929 and 1930, before he got married, and in the past Francisco had also overheard a conversation about him having another son in Germany. He finally had confirmation of the existence of this brother when Udo, a friend of his friend Thelonious, translated for him the letter he had unearthed.

Afterwards he became fixated with discovering what had happened to his German brother. While looking for clues, he came up with possible theories for various events. Throughout the book, there is a mix of reality and conjecture, which are occasionally so blend in with one another that it’s difficult to discern which is which. Continue reading

‘Don’t Look Now: Short Stories’ by Daphne du Maurier

My rating: 4 stars

The five tales featured in Don’t Look Now: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier are all distinct from one another, thanks to either their unique main characters, their settings, or contrasting types of narrative. Nevertheless, almost all of them share a disconcerting ambience, albeit in various degrees. Not all of the stories are enthralling, but a couple are just stupendous.

The eponymous story, ‘Don’t Look Now’, is an outstanding opener to the collection. It is an engaging tale, full of not only moments of tangible tension, but also occasional instances of humour. John and Laura were on holidays in Italy trying to overcome the death of their little girl. At a restaurant, they became intrigued by two twin sisters. Laura decided to discreetly follow one of them to the toilets and on her return revealed to John that the woman had told her that she had seen their daughter sitting next to them. She had always had an interest in the occult, but it was only when she became blind that she started seeing things. John was not convinced by this story. He was far less inclined to believe in anything supernatural than Laura and feared for her mental health. He didn’t like the sisters, nor did he believe in them. But should he?

‘Not After Midnight’ is also unsettling. It was impossible not to be intrigued and enthralled throughout. The narrator used to be a schoolmaster but resigned to avoid being dismissed. He justified his resignation with ill-health, a problem caused by a bug he caught while holidaying on the island of Crete in Greece. His problem seems to be connected with his mental health, though. He became extremely afraid of something after he stayed in a room previously occupied by a man who drowned. Continue reading

‘Frenchman’s Creek’ by Daphne du Maurier

My rating: 4 stars

As in many other of Daphne du Maurier’s books, the Cornish coastline comes to life in Frenchman’s Creek. But not only does this historical novel feature a myriad of delightful and evocative descriptions of the locations where the action takes place, it also comprises superb dialogues and many thrilling moments. The main character just falls in love with a French pirate a little too fast for it to feel fully realistic, despite both of them having captivating personalities.

Lady Dona St Columb was married to Harry with whom she had two children, Henrietta and James. Bored of the shallow life she had in the London court, she decided to retreat to Navron, her husband’s estate in Cornwall. When she arrived there with her children, she encountered a dusty house and was surprised to learn that William, the manservant, had been living there alone for a year. Only after being informed that she was coming did he hire other servants.

Soon after her arrival at Navron, she received an unexpected visit from a neighbour who informed her that a pirate, known as the Frenchman, was constantly seizing their goods. She felt some admiration for the pirate, since he had managed to fool them all. Little did she know that she would soon make his acquaintance. While walking around her property, she found the ship of the Frenchman. She tried to leave without being seen, but a man came from behind her and managed to blind her and pin her hands. She was then taken to the ship where she met the infamous pirate, Jean-Benoit Aubéry. Their first interaction is hilarious. He was totally different from what she expected, being indisputably knowledgeable. Continue reading

‘Spring’ by Ali Smith

My rating: 4 stars

The third stand-alone novel in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet suits its title. Spring, just as the season it is named after, is a book about the need for new beginnings and being hopeful even when facing a dire situation. References to Brexit, Trump and the downsides of social media are spread throughout the book, making it not only a pertinent story for the times we live in, but also an important record for those who will read it in the future.

Spring is written in the third person mostly from two different points of view, those of Richard and Brittany, who end up meeting at a train station in the north of Scotland. Richard Lease is a TV and film director who is struggling emotionally, which is conveyed via a suggestive erratic type of narration when he is introduced. The woman he loved, Paddy, has recently died. He remembers her with immense and poignant admiration.

Richard visited Paddy not long before she passed away. Although she was already ill, they discussed his next project. He was working on an adaptation of a book, set in 1922, about the fictional relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, two authors who never truly met. Richard didn’t like the script nor the book, but his visit to Paddy, with whom he had worked in the past, inspired him to suggest some changes to the adaptation, which are swiftly ignored. Continue reading