‘Moral Disorder’ by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 stars

All the short stories in the collection Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood focus on the life of the same woman, Nell, and her relationship with her family. Particularly when the stories are told in the first person, they are enthralling and immersive. The more stories we read, the more we learn not only about Nell, but also about her partner, sister and parents. Their personalities become gradually clearer, and their tribulations are more often than not tangible and authentic. The least gripping stories are the ones narrated in the third person.

The collection opens with the story ‘The Bad News’. It focuses on an old couple who has a different outlook on the news that they read and listen to. Only later in the collection do readers learn that Nell is the woman telling some of the stories, including this one, and the protagonist of the collection. Albeit short, the story paints a clear picture of the couple’s personalities and their long-lasting relationship. It’s duly sarcastic at times.

The moods of the characters are as palpable in ‘The Art of Cooking and Serving’. The narrator recalls how, when she was a child, she knitted clothes for the sibling that her mother was carrying. She had to help with many of the chores, because her mother had to spend a long time resting. Hers was a high-risk pregnancy. Despite a long time having passed since the events, the confusion and fear the narrator felt is tangible. It was after that moment that she decided to exist not only to serve others, but also to become more independent. Change is a main topic in ‘The Other Place’ as well. The narrator recalls how she kept moving from one place to another as a young adult and the people she met along the way. Continue reading

‘O Amante do Crato’ by Maria Velho da Costa

My rating: 3 stars

The plot is not at the centre of the four short stories in the collection O Amante do Crato by the Portuguese author Maria Velho da Costa. If occasionally the writing style is enough to enchant, the lack of meaningful actions throughout the majority of the stories affected my reading experience. Some of the tales could have been far more interesting hadn’t they been so short.

The first two stories in the collection come to an end before anything is fully explored. ‘A Prima Odília’ starts after the death of the narrator’s mother in 1912. He seems unaffected by such a loss, because it was not unexpected. For most of the story nothing happens, but when there are only a couple of paragraphs left to read a mystery is introduced. It is never solved, however, which infuriated me. In ‘Poder Fatal’, the relationship between the characters is also not delved into either. Although the beginning is gripping, thanks to the detailed descriptions, the story doesn’t go anywhere interesting. A man and a woman meet, but readers never get to learn who they are.

‘A Ponte de Serralves’ is slightly more impressive. It focuses on a day in Miss Laura’s life. The narration of her actions is interspersed with descriptions of her house and garden. The descriptions are evocative and there are moments of remarkable work of language, but there isn’t much substance to the plot either. Continue reading

‘Piranesi’ by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 5 stars

An aura of mystery and eccentricity oozes out of the haunting Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. This story full of fantastical elements, enigmatic occurrences and surrealistic landscapes explores extremely human experiences, however. For a not-very-long book, it presents readers with various topics to contemplate about, such as how memories influence the way we think about ourselves, what places we choose to call home, and how we deal with traumatic experiences.

Piranesi, who believes himself to be between 30 and 35 years old, inhabits a strange, vast house surrounded by the sea. This group of halls, full of statues and connected by passages and staircases, is his entire world. Every eight years, it’s possible to witness the joining of three tides. Only Piranesi, whose journal entries readers are presented with, and the Other live in this world now, but he has found evidence that thirteen other people have existed there in the past. He also believes that a sixteenth person may one day find his journals.

Two times a week for an hour maximum, Piranesi and the Other get together to discuss their efforts to discover the Knowledge. The Other, whom Piranesi believes to be around 50 and 60 years old, thinks that there is some unknown knowledge hidden in this puzzling and labyrinthic world. He is not as fond of exploring the house as Piranesi is, though. Piranesi also worships the house in a way that the Other doesn’t. This veneration is probably the reason why the various parts of the house, or the world as it is also mentioned as, are always capitalised. Continue reading

‘Não se Pode Morar nos Olhos de um Gato’ by Ana Margarida de Carvalho

My rating: 3 stars

A group of people surviving the sinking of a ship carrying slaves in the 19th century has the potential to be the foundation of a great story. In Não se Pode Morar nos Olhos de um Gato, the Portuguese author Ana Margarida de Carvalho didn’t fully succeed in using that premise to set in motion an engaging plot and creating fully fleshed out characters, though. There are small moments of brilliance throughout the novel. However, it seems that the author has tried too hard to awe readers in terms of the writing style, forgetting to explore the characters’ predicaments properly and to turn them into a clear narrative.

The first chapter is narrated by the wooden figure of a saint that was supposed to have protected the people on the vessel. Although slavery had already been abolished, slaves were being illegally carried on the ship. Their suffering and the appalling way they were treated are palpably conveyed in a raw way. After some altercations on board, the ship sinks near the coast of Brazil.

Eight people managed to survive the sinking of the vessel and get to a beach surrounded by an area of rocks. They were all from different backgrounds. The group consisted of Nunzio, the overseer of the slaves on the boat, a black baby boy, a servant, a priest, a slave, a noble woman and her daughter, Emina. Nunzio became smitten with Emina as soon as they met. The book consists mainly of episodes from their past. Continue reading

‘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