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The Howling Miller
The Howling Miller
by Arto Paasilinna
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Finishing in Finnish, 13 Jan. 2013
This review is from: The Howling Miller (Paperback)
I so wanted to finish this Finnish novel I read it virtually in one sitting.

It's often said that recognising one's own madness is a sign of sanity: the miller of the title has a propensity to howl at night, but otherwise appears no more and no less sane than his neighbours, who fail to recognise their own idiosyncrasies and eccentricities while never losing an opportunity to put him down as insane.

This is a tale of crossed wires and cut lines, of madness masquerading as sanity and sanity under the guise of madness as our hero doggedly remains true to himself in the teeth of overwhelming odds. It can be read as a simple tale of an outsider who isn't accepted by society, or something much deeper: he meets the prophet who was without honour in his own country. I sort of guessed at the ending - if you've read the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, you'll know where I'm coming from, but it was an absolute pleasure to get there and meet the characters along the way.

I'm not quite so sure that the book was necessarily that well-served by its translation - it was translated into English from French as an intermediary, rather than directly from the Finnish source. There's always a problem of whether to preserve foreignisms or whether to translate them directly into the target language. In this case the word "canton" is used to convey an administrative district, which immediately makes me think of Swiss cantons rather than Finnish "communes" and so evokes the wrong place, in my view! I'd suggest that the commune is sufficiently well-known as a Scandinavian administrative unit to make sense to an English-language reader, but still preserves the sense of place in the book's setting (Finnish districts are called "kommune" by their Swedish-language minority.)

I was also startled to read that Keeshonds were said to have taken part in a bear hunt in Finland before the 2nd World War. To me it doesn't seem plausible that medium-sized Dutch dogs would have taken part in a bear hunt - for which specialist native breeds were developed in Finland. What they do have in common is that they are both Spitz-type dogs, and though I'm guessing, I'd think that one or both translators have had a stab at identifying an unfamiliar breed, and nearly, but not quite, got there.

The nearest parallel I can come to in English is the work of Magnus Mills - a very similar world-view and ambiguity rooted in something deeper than the outward plot.

Illyrian Spring
Illyrian Spring
by Ann Bridge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Illyrian Idyll, 26 Oct. 2012
This review is from: Illyrian Spring (Paperback)
I loved this book. I picked it up straight from the horse's mouth - published by Daunt's and in their fabulous Marylebone High Street shop. But I digress.

I'm a great fan of the 1930s novel to start off with - having waltzed my way through my grandparents' library, built up in that era. Many of these books have dated badly in language and mores, though they remain entertaining reads written in a distinctive style: others are beautifully crafted, combining both literary writing and clarity of expression (the two don't always go together).

This one belongs to the latter category. The quality of the writing is superb. The lead character takes a holiday from her life with her husband and adult children, and a chance encounter with a young man changes them both: she is an established painter, he is an aspiring one, whose parents disapprove of his choice of career. For a book about painters and painting, the writing is appropriately visual: the local colour is established so vividly it unfolds before your eyes. Unlike many landscape artists, the author can also paint figures - we care about the characters and their interior lives, and want to keep reading to the very last page.

Although ultimately an escapist novel, it treats large themes with the care and attention they deserve and it's sometimes a bit Jane Austen-esque with a great deal of sly, understated humour.

Though "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" is a more obviously humorous novel, if you loved Miss Pettigrew, you'll love meeting Lady Kilmichael.

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories
Smut: Two Unseemly Stories
by Alan Bennett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not his best work, 21 Jun. 2011
There seems to be a vogue among well-established and popular writers to maximise their income by turning out short stories that short-change the public and I'm afraid Smut is one of those - Cecelia Ahern is another. Bennett always writes well with a deft eye for characterisation and is an excellent comic writer, but the plot devices were really rather grubby and because the stories didn't really go anywhere the plot devices lost their point and seemed even more grubby.

I really felt that here Bennett was trying to plumb the depths for shock value instead of playing to his strengths as a comic writer, in which, for example, the relationship between Mrs Donaldson and Mr Ballantyne could have turned into something really interesting.

The stars are awarded for his writing craft but not for the stories themselves.

Girl in the Mirror: Two Stories
Girl in the Mirror: Two Stories
by Cecelia Ahern
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A fairytale except . . ., 21 Mar. 2011
. . . the magic wasn't working. The first story is so nightmarish it actually gave me nightmares which is a world first for me as a sober adult reader who enjoys all kinds of literature. For a hardback at this price I would have expected two very well-crafted stories with the kind-hearted vision that has informed Ahern's previous books: instead it seems almost that she is testing the water for a new direction. I was left feeling very short-changed in terms both of cash and of time expended in reading this very slim volume with no enjoyment.

The Elephant's Journey
The Elephant's Journey
by Jose Saramago
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Elephantine Idiosyncrasy!, 15 Jan. 2011
This review is from: The Elephant's Journey (Paperback)
This was an extremely entertaining tale using the elephant's historical journey from Lisbon to Vienna as a metaphor for life's journey. I found all the characters extremely engaging, not least the elephant himself: the novel itself is both literary and highly readable. The focus on the practical difficulties of crossing Europe with an elephant on foot and by sea pokes gentle fun at the machinations of kings, archdukes and emperors, and we are invited to meander over philosophical questions as the elephant lumbers on with his motley convoy.

The only thing I disliked about this book was that the translator chose to carry over the writer's original choice to dispense with capitalisation of proper names, and so on, in the English version. Conversations were punctuated only by commas, so that it occasionally made it difficult to sort out who was speaking. In the Portuguese original this will not have mattered so much to his readers: as Saramago is not particularly widely known in the English-speaking world I felt it did not serve him well in a work that is deservedly likely to bring him to a much wider audience. Conventional English norms could have been followed without losing the flavour of the authorial voice, and for this irritation I demote the book to four stars: an experiment that does not come off, in my view, and probably reinforces the average English-language reader's stereotype that much Continental literature is "tricksy". It need not be!

by Frances Itani
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How did she do it?, 19 Oct. 2008
This review is from: Deafening (Paperback)
From a hearing writer this is a phenomenal piece of writing - I actually found myself weeping because she seemed to get really under the skin of what it is like to be deafened as a child and further, seemed to be articulating my own childhood experiences (albeit not at the turn of the century!)

Personal reaction aside, her prose is vivid, graceful and readable, transporting you back to another era, another place. It has the flavour of the time without constantly overusing period phrases (some writers try too hard in that respect), so that you can see early 20th century Canada and hear the horrors of the Western front.

In another respect the book is simply and elegantly done: it could have been awkwardly issue-driven, sacrificing Grania and Jim to prejudice and the cannon-fodder mentality that helped to drive the horrors of WWI, but they emerge as fully-rounded and believable characters. A real tour de force.

Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world
Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world
by Timothy Brook
Edition: Hardcover

21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A New Perspective, 25 July 2008
This book is an interesting new perspective in Vermeer studies, looking at the objects in his paintings from the point of view of the expanding trade networks of the 17th century. It is engagingly written and he wears his scholarship lightly.

I was disappointed the author did not investigate Vermeer's famous blue colour (anachronistically called "cobalt blue" in the book), since the ultramarine would itself have come from a complex trade network, and how it came to Delft would itself have made quite a story.

John Donne: The Reformed Soul
John Donne: The Reformed Soul
by John Stubbs
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly disappointing, 14 Jan. 2007
After reading that the author was given a Jerwood Award for this book as a work in progress I was very much looking forward to reading it. Donne's life is certainly interesting, both as a poet and as someone from the wrong side of the religious divide at the time, who attained high rank within the established church. The contradictions which drove Donne are brought out well - the Roman Catholic turned Protestant dean, the man who needed to keep his head down who managed to draw negative attention by his clandestine marriage, the sexuality of his poetry and his wrestling with spiritual matters.

However, I have found the book slightly pedestrian. The quotations are well chosen and illuminating, but quite frequently the author paraphrases what he has just quoted from 16th/17th century sources to begin the next paragraph [e.g. on p40]. The meaning is quite clear from the example given, even to 21st century eyes, and those not familiar with the literature of the period. I'd guess that most of those who are interested in Donne's biography have read his poetry, which is not the easiest to read, so don't need everything spelt out for them.

I was also disappointed to see that, in the account of the Azores expedition, Sir George Carew's bark was "wrecked on the Sussex coast". Certainly the ship was driven ashore, but after great efforts Carew got her off again, so she wasn't quite a wreck, even if she was rather battered and bruised...! This is in fact made explicit in the original source quoted in the footnotes so I feel that the "period colour" has been less well researched than Donne's actual life.

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