‘Within the Sanctuary of Wings’ by Marie Brennan

My rating: 4 stars

The tale of how Isabella became a famous naturalist around the world thanks to her discoveries about dragons comes to an end in Within the Sanctuary of Wings. As in the four previous books in The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, Marie Brennan mixed an adventure with anthropological, scientific and cultural elements, creating a fantasy world and society that occasionally resemble our own. The relationships between the characters are not as explored as in other instalments unfortunately. Isabella’s newest discovery, however, is one of the most exciting.

Isabella was nearly forty at the time of the events that she is recalling. Once, while she was in her home country, Scirland, she was approached by a man who claimed to had found the body of a dragon of an unknown breed at the Mrtyahaima mountains in the Dajin continent. Mr Thu Phim-Lat was an exile who had been a mountaineer. In exchange for more information, he wanted Isabella to help his people, the Khiam Siu, to establish an alliance with Scirland’s government against the Taisên.

Mr Thu didn’t provide any substantial proof of his claim. He only had a pair of scales and the notebook that he used to sketch what he had seen. That was enough to arouse Isabella’s curiosity, though. Her desire to go there only increased when Mr Thu revealed that he also believed that there might be another specimen in the same area. Although there was no guarantee that a dragon could actually be found there, Isabella, Suhail and Tom headed to the highest mountains in the world. Continue reading

‘O Bebedor de Horizontes’ by Mia Couto

My rating: 4 stars

O Bebedor de Horizontes is the last instalment of the trilogy As Areias do Imperador (Sands of the Emperor) by the Mozambican author Mia Couto. One of the main differences between this book and the previous two, Mulheres de Cinza (Woman of the Ashes in the English translation) and A Espada e a Azagaia, is that it gives more prominence to some historical figures, although Imani continues to be the main character. The novel is at its best, in fact, when it focuses on her more personal experiences.

Set in 1895 and 1896, mainly in Mozambique, it explores the aftermath of the Portuguese offensive against Ngungunyane, the emperor of the State of Gaza. The narration in the first person by Imani, a young woman from the Vachopi tribe, is complemented by a variety of letters sent to her not only by Germano, but also by other characters, such as Bianca. We learn that within the Portuguese military there’s a conflict between Mouzinho de Albuquerque and Álvaro Andrea. Germano believes Andrea to be a much better person overall. But it’s Imani who has to deal with both of them.

The style of the prose changes slightly depending on what is being conveyed. When Imani is reporting on what other characters did, the writing style is more straightforward, less embellished. On the other hand, when she is being more introspective or recalling her own experiences, words come together more graciously and metaphors abound. Continue reading

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark

My rating: 4 stars

Whether they desire it or not, some teachers can be a huge source of inspiration. The title character of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark derived great satisfaction from the influence that she had over her pupils, particularly the group of girls known as the Brodie set. Throughout this novella, Miss Brodie looms large, despite the story almost never being told from her perspective. Such an interesting and problematic character called for a slightly longer book.

A group of girls (Monica, Rose, Eunice, Sandy, Jenny and Mary) at Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh was known as the Brodie set. Jean Brodie was their teacher when they were at junior school in the 1930s. Although her teaching methods were not, overall, well regarded at the school, she believed herself to be in her prime. She was interested in art and particularly loved painting. But she also had a strong admiration for Mussolini’s troops. The girls were noticeably under her spell, and Miss Brodie didn’t want to lose her influence.

The plot jumps in time. Readers get to succinctly know what the Brodie set were up to when they were around 10, 16 and then as adults. When they were 16 years old, Miss Brodie asked for their help, as there was a plot at school to force her to resign. Before she died, she kept questioning whom amongst her girls had betrayed her. What was behind the betrayal starts getting revealed without details, being only briefly mentioned, and only afterwards it’s further explored. Continue reading

‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

My rating: 2 stars

The importance of The Awakening by Kate Chopin as a work of early American feminism is undeniable. I didn’t cherish the reading experience, however. Published and set at the end of the 19th century, this novella touches on interesting issues, such as women’s need for independence, but they are not turned into an immersive story that brings the characters to life.

The main character, Edna Pontellier, was married and had two children. During the summer holidays, she became drawn to another man, Robert. Subsequently, she started to overlook conventions and to question why, until then, she had always done everything that her husband wanted.

The writing style didn’t enthral me. Readers become aware of what the characters did and felt but without any sort of detail and depth. Everything is just exposed on the surface level. For that reason, the characters don’t feel fully fledged. Although their features are stated, they are not striking, since their states of mind are not wholly explored. Edna’s tribulations, as she tried to give a new impetus to her life, are only occasionally arresting. The other characters are just mere decoration pieces. Continue reading

‘Ensaio sobre a Lucidez’ (‘Seeing’) by José Saramago

My rating: 4 stars

Various books by José Saramago can be categorised as allegories. Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (Seeing in the English translation) is certainly one of those. It delves into the complexities of democracy, how people need to find a way to express their dissatisfaction and how even democratically elected governments don’t always treat citizens with the respect they deserve. Set in the same location as Blindness, it pulls readers in thanks to an engaging prose, even if some of the characters are not fully fleshed out.

On a day of local elections, rain was heavily pouring down in the capital of an unnamed country. As no one was appearing to cast their votes, the people responsible for the polling station number 14 decided to call the ministry. They were informed that the same was happening at the majority of all the other polling stations in the city. When the rain started to stop, they became confident that voters would finally appear. And they were right. After four o’clock in the afternoon, there were long queues to vote. It was almost as if everyone had decided to vote at the same time.

Although abstention wasn’t as high as first feared, the counting of the votes revealed that more than 70% of the people in the capital had voted blank. For that reason, the government decided to repeat the election a week after. When the day came, long queues quickly formed. In order to understand if voters were planning something, spies were deployed to the polling stations. The votes were counted – 83% voted blank! Continue reading

‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ by Ahmed Saadawi

My rating: 3 stars

The idea behind Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi is certainly ingenious. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein, it portrays the religious diversity of Baghdad, the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its consequences through a tale about the appearance of a terrifying creature. However, the book feels too much like a patchwork of various events and characters, which makes sense considering the theme of the story but doesn’t turn it into a fully engaging read.

After the death of his friend Nahem, who was victim of a car bomb, Hadi became aggressive. For a while he threw stones at the police. He started drinking during the day and didn’t wash his clothes. But he also liked telling stories. Sometime afterwards, he started collecting body parts from those who had died at explosions, since he wanted the victims to be properly buried. He stitched them together, forming a corpse that represented people from diverse backgrounds. He called the corpse Whatsisname. One day the corpse disappeared from his house, though.

Elishva, a Christian woman, gave life to the corpse by calling him Daniel. She lived alone with her cat in a big house, as her two daughters had moved to Australia. Although there was a grave with the name of her son, Daniel, in the cemetery, she believed that he was still alive. Elishva has an interesting backstory and her struggle to deal with the death of her son is moving. Continue reading

‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 stars

An engaging mix of mystery and family drama, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood tells the story of two sisters, Iris and Laura, and how their lives were shaped by social expectations, patriarchal attitudes and historical events. The novel, which covers many decades, consists of various parts that slowly complement each other and help answer the question that is raised at the very beginning – what was the real motive behind Laura’s fate?

Laura Chase, the sister of the narrator, drove a car off a bridge ten days after the end of the Second World War. Two witnesses saw her turn the car deliberately. However, when giving Iris the news, the police officer was respectful enough to say that it could have been an accident. And, according to a news piece from 1945, after an inquest, it was indeed surprisingly considered to be an accident, since apparently Laura suffered from severe headaches, which affected her vision.

The novel contains within it a first-person narration by Iris, various news pieces and a short book written by Laura. Many decades later, Iris, who regrets not having done everything that she could for Laura, is writing an account of what happened and sharing her recollections about past events. Her ancestors owned various factories, mainly of buttons. Her mother died when she was nine years old and Laura was six. After that, they grew very close. The family was also affected by what was happening around the world. The First World War, the Great Depression and their social and political repercussions left their mark. Continue reading

‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad

My rating: 3 stars

Human beings are capable of many brutal actions, and colonialism is a good example of that. In Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, readers get a glimpse of a time where Europeans exploited African countries. Unfortunately, overall, the story feels hasty and undetailed. Although there are various moments of brilliance when it comes to the prose, the characters and the plot are mostly uninteresting.

The narrator of this novella is one of the men aboard the Nellie, which is sailing the Thames. But almost the entirety of the book consists of a monologue by Marlow, who recalls his time somewhere in Congo years before. While there, he searched for a man who was in charge of an ivory trading post, Mr Kurtz.

Despite the plot being generally monotonous, there are some interesting remarks about life and vivid descriptions of the nature and ambience. The last couple of pages feature a realistic portrayal of grief. And Marlow also described colonialism in accurate, condemning terms. Continue reading

‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 stars

Love in its various forms is enfolded in an account of how those who fight against tyranny can become tyrants themselves in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. As the characters travel between London and Paris in the eighteenth century, readers are presented with a picture of the society of the time. Although this is a challenging and difficult novel to get immersed in, it ends up being engaging, since it raises stimulating questions.

In 1775, Mr Jarvis Lorry, a clerk at Tellson’s bank, had to accompany Miss Lucie Manette to Paris on a critical mission. Her father, who was long thought dead, had reappeared, and Mr Lorry’s assistance was fundamental to identify him. Monsieur Manette was hidden in a room at a wine-shop. He was making shoes, a skill that he had learnt while imprisoned for many years without a trial. Doctor Manette not only didn’t remember his time in prison, he also didn’t know who Mr Lorry and Lucie were. Mr Lorry managed to recognise him, though. And, as soon as it was possible, they took him to England.

Five years later, the three of them were called as witnesses at the trial of a man, Mr Charles Darnay, who had taken the same boat as them from Calais to England when they left France. He was acquitted after a successful defence by Sydney Carton, who looked very much like him. From that moment onwards, their paths became intertwined. Charles Darnay fell in love with Lucie Manette, who was kind and compassionate. But he was not the only one developing feelings for her. Continue reading

‘Chernobyl Prayer’ by Svetlana Alexievich

My rating: 2 stars

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich could have been an informative and absorbing read. However, it failed to enthral me, since the testimonies presented throughout this non-fiction book weren’t edited, analysed nor properly contextualised. Occasionally, it raises interesting questions, but they are never fully explored.

The Chernobyl nuclear accident, which happened on 26 April 1986, didn’t affect only Ukraine. High levels of radiation were reported throughout Europe. No country was as affected as Belarus, though. The incidence of cancer increased immensely, as did the mortality rate. Svetlana Alexievich decided to give a voice to some of those who were affected. She interviewed former workers of the power plant, people who returned to a village that had been evacuated, doctors, scientists, displaced people and soldiers. Many had already died when the book was first published.

The Communist authorities lied and hid critical information. They didn’t explain how the accident happened, and the population wasn’t informed about the consequences. Military officers and clean-up workers, for example, weren’t told about the dangers of exposition to radiation. The main security agency for the Soviet Union, KGB, ordered them never to speak about what they had seen. Propaganda was successfully employed to the point that even engineers started to believe in it. This is some of the scant significant information that I was reminded of while reading. Continue reading