Review: Now and at the Hour of Our Death – Susana Moreira Marques

036 - Now and at the Hour of Our Deaths

Rating – 3*

This was a short and very interesting book. I picked it up because I’m on a bit of an independent publisher binge at the moment and, as Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest I decided to pick the only book by a Portuguese author that I own up.

The basis of this book is that the author, who is a journalist, spent time with a palliative/end of life care team in a remote area in Portugal, and the result is this book. It is an intimate look in to the lives of the people undergoing care and their families.

The book is split, really, in to two distinct parts. Travel Notes About Death is the first part, and reads very much like poetry. It is short snippets from lives of those dying and their families, with odd interjections from the author. As I said, it reads like poetry and is absolutely beautiful – if the whole book read like this I would happily have given it 4 or even 5 stars because, honestly, I read a lot of it twice because it was so beautiful.

The second section is Portraits in which there are 3 distinct stories told. First we have the authors interpretation of these people, which is then followed by the voices of the patients or their families. These are three very different stories, and it is very intimate to look in on families at this time of their lives. It’s poignant, and the first story of Paula – a 40 year old mother dying of cancer – hit me quite profoundly to the point I was near tears when reading this section, particularly in her own words.

I feel I ought to just state that the translator in this book has done an incredible job, especially capturing the poetic nature of the first section, and the individual voices of the second section. The writing itself was beautiful, my only issue with this book is that it felt disjointed, there was no real flow to the narrative. As I said, if it carried on as the first section was, I’d have easily given it 4 or 5 stars, I just found the portraits a bit clumpy at times and if I’m honest I put the book down and didn’t feel an urge to return to it.

This is definitely an interesting read, but didn’t quite hit me full on!

Review: Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera

28 - Signs Preceding the End of the World

Rating – 3*

Hello and Happy Sunday! Today, I will start with a short disclaimer, I’m finding this book very difficult to review and find the right words for. I picked it up for Brave New Reads 2016, and I’m very glad that it was pushed up my TBR because of that. I just find myself struggling to actually write about this novel(la). I think maybe it’s a book that you just have to experience for yourself!

Signs Preceding the End of the World follows a young woman, Makina, on her journey to find her brother, who crossed the Mexico-US border. Makina is a great protagonist, she’s intelligent, diligent and headstrong. In her village she works as a switchboard operator, able to speak both native language, ‘latin’ and ‘anglo’, she cares about this job and the people in the village when she’s tasked the job of crossing the border. She carries two messages on her journey, one from their mother and one from the Mexican gang leader who sent her brother across the border in the first place. The actual geography is never explicit, which is what makes this book feel almost ethereal, there are never any place names – instead she walks to the place where the hills meet and takes a bus to the place where the wind cuts like a knife. It adds a mythical quality to the book. It reminded me of the story of Persephone, on her journey to the underworld in Greek myth and I’ve seen that comparison pop up quite a lot.

This was an incredible translation by Lisa Dillman, however every time I read a book so wonderfully translated I really wish I could understand the original language. I found her note at the end of the book really quite enlightening in to her process, and I found it gave me a greater connection to the story itself. I feel that it was a very true translation, and it has all the key elements that the original had. It was a captivating book, and the translation was – as I said – incredible.

It was certainly a book which hit me, it was beautiful to read, but for me it felt like it was just lacking in a little something. Maybe I should have forced myself to stay awake and read it in one sitting, I don’t know, all I know is I don’t feel I got as much out of this book as others seemed to. I would urge people to try it, because it’s certainly a special book, and I will be reading the next book published by &Other Stories of the authors work because there was definitely something captivating about it!

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Review: Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs – Lina Wolff

17 - Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs

Rating – 4*

This book is very hard to rate and describe, and I really don’t know what kind of person I would recommend it to. I would like to preface this very confused review with an overarching statement of I really enjoyed this, the prose is absolutely stunning and this book it just captivated me when I was reading it. But for me this was a very, very slow read. This wasn’t a particularly long book, either.

The structure of this book is what interested me the most, it’s like a Russian doll. There are stories within stories in this book, and it flits between these stories and somehow they all come together quite beautifully. In a way it’s a short story collection, or at least a collection of vignettes. It doesn’t always make sense, I did often find myself a little lost and having to reread over sections, but it works. I hazard to say this, as I hate comparing authors, but this was for me very reminiscent of both Virginia Woolf and Ali Smith. Yeah. Those are big words, because if you know me you know I love those of those women. It wasn’t the story which brought these comparisons to mind, it was the way in which it was written.

We follow Araceli Villalobos, a young girl from a sleepy Spanish town. However, this book generally focuses on her glimpses of Alba Cambó. Alba, a writer, presents as this very confident woman and acts as both a guiding influence on Araceli but also is quite vindictive towards her. Without the relationship between Araceli and Alba, this book would not work as a novel. It would, frankly, be a bit of a mess and neither a short story collection or a novel. It’s hard to pick out key points of this book because it is so many little things without much of an overarching story. Honestly, how the narrative of this book came together is incredible, it’s like a patchwork quilt!

However much I enjoyed this book, it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. My main issue is that I found it hard to pick up where I left off when I had put it down. I wish I could have sat and read it through, I think having done that I’d have adored this book. But picking it up after a few hours away was quite jarring for me, personally. It’s a solid 4* read for me though, I really enjoyed this. I’m also hoping to get the an event with the author on Monday so I’m really looking forward to hearing her feelings and how she wanted this to come across!

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Review: The Alphabet of Birds – S J Naudé

15 - The Alphabet of Birds

Rating – 5*

The Alphabet of Birds was first published in South Africa and was translated in to English, from Afrikaans, by the author himself. In this there are seven short stories, however three of them link together somewhat in that characters pop up across them. This was an incredible collection.

Reviewing short story collections is always hard, especially one as varied as this was. The first story, The Noise Machine, we are thrown in to a party in Milan where there is a rare instrument and a mysterious character who makes someone address their past. In the second – Van – we have a white nurse in a predominantly black region of South Africa who wants the best for her patients who are suffering, in the main, from HIV; she throws her all in to this care as a result everything aside from this becomes minutia including her marriage and children. Then we have a couple of stories that have the main focus of close relatives dying, but they’re so much more than that; then there is a group of women who dance and a stolen dog, a deeper look in to a previous character and her family dynamic, and finally we have a performer who gets lead along a sort of dubious path. Basically, they’re all so different, yet very similar, and I loved them all.

While this is, on the whole, a collection of fiction that is very much realism there is still a little smattering of the unusual which I think works wonderfully in the short story medium. As a collection, it leaves you asking questions sometimes, most of the stories do finish open ended in order to enable you as a reader to form your own conclusions.

There is a sense of displacement in all of these stories, Naudé himself has moved about significantly and he really addresses that feeling of not quite belonging in one culture or another. There are stories set in South Africa but also in America and Europe, there is a real mix of countries and cultures which gave a really interesting perspective. My (step) uncle is actually South African and I really liked the fact that this collection, in a way, has enabled me to connect with my uncle on some level. There are other themes; music and death mainly, but these stories really do just fit together even though the themes are quite vague.

Also, something I really, really loved about this collection is there are a number of queer characters. Not as a plot device, they just are. There is nothing I love more from a book than an author just making a queer character a person not a caricature or a plot device. It is such a rare thing in any form of media – so kudos to Mr Naudé on that front!

I’m going to have to be honest, this is a short story collection I just connected with. The writing is incredible, the stories were incredible and I am so happy I discovered this. It blew me away if I’m honest and really reignited my love of the short story. A couple of the stories were 4* on their own but, on the whole, this is a 5* collection and I will be eagerly awaiting anything else this man publishes. I’m not sure how I’m going to top this book, in all honesty!

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