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Sofia (Bristol, UK)

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African Titanics
African Titanics
by Abu Bakr Khaal
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars All at sea, 5 Aug. 2015
This review is from: African Titanics (Paperback)
'African Titanics' comes as a topical novel, dealing as it does with African migration to the north across the Mediterranean. It's a slight book, easily readable and very dry in tone. It follows an Eritrean's journey across the desert to Libya and then on to launching spots for the sea crossing.

If you are looking to understand something of the detail of the migrant experience - the thirst, the fear, the risk, the transient friendships, the corruption, the hardships - then this book will deliver, populated as it is by a range of passing characters with different travel experiences to recount. However, if in the current media feeding frenzy, you want to understand more of the reasons why people embark on such perilous journeys, then Khaal's book will leave you unsatisfied and that for me was a problem. Mass migration is simply introduced as "a bug" that young people catch that causes them to seek new lives elsewhere and that's it. The novel is dry and factual, people live and die, with scant regard for the senselessness of it all and no understanding as to why those colossal risks are deemed worth taking. I for one would have welcomed more substance, more background so that the current migration crisis doesn't just end up being portrayed as a collective act of folly.


The Bridges of Constantine
The Bridges of Constantine
by Ahlem Mosteghanemi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Self-absorbed, 5 Aug. 2015
It's hard to know where to start with this peculiar little book. On the one hand it is an intricate and largely psychological exploration of love, loss and dislocation. On the other hand, it's a female author writing as a male protagonist about being obsessively in love with a female novelist whose first name and published novel are too close for comfort to those of the actual author. Is Mosteghanemi writing as someone in love with herself? Or is it a means of making fun both of herself and her craft? Either way it is distracting in what is otherwise quite a verbose read.

The novel follows Khaled, a former freedom fighter turned artist. He has been living for years in self-imposed exile in Paris and the novel essentially deals with his emotional attempt to reconcile his love both for the Algerian novelist he encounters years after having known her as a child and for the country for which he fought and suffered. The prose is littered with imaginings, emotions and the quick quotes of a large number of writers and Mosteghanemi attempts to weave an intricately cultural piece whereby Ahlam the (fictional) writer is in some way Khaled's bridge back to the country he left. Yet for all that, the novel lacks action, lacks emotional investment; too much of the prose is imagined, the anxious musings of a jealous, suspicious, wounded individual and as such, it can feel very self-absorbed. Add to that the gnawing sense that Mosteghanemi might just be writing about someone's doomed love affair with herself and it was all just a bit too much for me. A shame.


Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption
Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption
by Bryan Stevenson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just Brilliant, 20 May 2015
This is quite simply one of the most astonishing books I have ever read. I heard Bryan Stevenson talk on the radio and bought this book on the strength of that and I am so glad I did.

"Just Mercy" is essentially the story of Stevenson's legal career, from his shaky start as an uncertain law student, through a life-changing encounter with a death row inmate while an intern in Alabama, to his current position as founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and his work challenging death row and juvenile life without parole sentences in America.

The America portrayed here is an America with a dystopian prison service and a legal system riven with politics, racism and prejudice. "Just Mercy" chronicles a variety of cases on which Stevenson has worked, each one heart-breaking and astonishing in its own way, while at the same time giving the reader a broader statistical and historical context in order to understand the how such situations can have arisen. Stevenson never hides the crimes behind the convictions, but he maintains that we are all more than the worse thing we've ever done and uses this book to illustrate the ways in which justice can be denied to both victims and criminals by the current system. It is all at once a book that is hard to put down and often hard to stomach, when the injustice is so blatant.

I simply can't recommend this book enough. If you are interested in law: read it. If you are interested in politics: read it. If you are interested in the causes of Ferguson, Baltimore and many more: read it. It is a book that leaves me glad that I am not American, ashamed that I don't know more about my own legal system and grateful for people like Stevenson who are giving their lives to try to change things for the better. A fantastic read.


Paradises
Paradises
by Iosi Havilio
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Drifting through Buenos Aires, 19 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Paradises (Paperback)
I haven't read Havilio's first book "Open Door", so came to this novel cold. It opens with the protagonist's partner's death and progresses from there as she moves on to make a life in Buenos Aires for herself and their son, Simon, without him.

This could be a really gritty novel, it could be full of threat and suspense - all the elements are there - and yet it isn't. It's a chronicle (and a weirdly compelling one) of a life lived passively, unconsciously, as if the protagonist is content to just go with the ebb and flow of the world around her. There's no emotional level to this book and yet in some ways the underworld described here is more gripping because of that; there's no way of knowing where the story will go because we have no moral or emotional sense of the narrator.

For me it was a very different kind of read, but especially after struggling with lots of South American Magical Realism, a welcome read. I was glued to it and saw a more interesting side to Buenos Aires because of it.


The Library of Unrequited Love
The Library of Unrequited Love
by Sophie Divry
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Librarian's Lament, 30 Jan. 2015
This is a book that every library ought to own and every library user ought at some point to read - it's even short enough to be read in one library visit. For this is a charming little novella, comprising a single monologue; a Librarian's startled chatter to a man she discovers has been shut in the library overnight. From chatter, her monologue develops into a series of views and theses all thought out in the silent hours within the library walls, about libraries, books, the people who run libraries, the people who frequent libraries, culture, life and love. It is at times funny, at other points poignant and always thought-provoking. The book left me pondering the future of libraries, the future of books and all the reasons why we should get out more and ensure life doesn't pass us by.


Storm of Steel (Penguin Modern Classics)
Storm of Steel (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Ernst Junger
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Blood, Guts and Steel, 31 Dec. 2014
This is a truly extraordinary book. Written originally from diaries and notes kept by Junger throughout his military action during the First World War, this is a raw, first-hand account of what being a soldier between 1914 and 1918 really meant. At the now century's distance, it is easy to forget what close, trench combat really meant, but Junger's account quickly rids the reader of all traces of sentimentality or romanticism. Junger is not interested in politics; there's nothing about why he is fighting to be found here. Nor is he interested in the psychology or emotions of war; again there is scant reference to how he is feeling in the midst of turmoil. Junger simply writes from the viewpoint of a soldier about what he did and what he saw from late 1914 right through to 1918. This is a graphic account of war through one man's job, of the do-or-die mentally driven soldier resolute in his duty, with a predictably shocking casualty rate both around him and as a consequence of his actions.

'Storm of Steel' is one of those books that will stay with me. The brutal honesty of every page is at once illuminating and shocking. That it is beautifully written and fantastically translated adds to its authenticity - such as noting Junger's respect for the quality of the individual opposition soldiers he encounters. It is a timely reminder both of the horrors and senselessness of war and perhaps crucially too, of what all the world's war 'heroes' have been responsible for en route to surviving and being honoured: as Junger makes abundantly clear, a soldier's job is to fight, to destroy and to kill on order. He's made a pacifist of me.


Eleven Days
Eleven Days
by Lea Carpenter MBA
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The Call to Conflict, 3 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Eleven Days (Paperback)
Having read a lot of the recent crop of novels from North Africa and the Middle East fictionalising the myriad reasons why young men can be radicalised and driven to commit violence, Carpenter's "Eleven Days" makes for a good companion piece from the other side of the experience.

The book opens with Sara, a single mother, awaiting news of her only son, who has been missing on a military operation for nine days. Sara's waiting game leaves the field open to explore memories of her son Jason's own motivations for signing up and his journey from high school to military manhood. This is a book of ideas with much philosophising about warfare, sacrifice and what ideas or loyalties are worth risking one's life for. The ambiguities of the changing face of modern conflict are much ruminated over, alongside the way in which distant conflict, with no immediate threat to friends or family, is sustained by military folklore and mythologies.

This is also though a very American novel, for Jason is no ordinary son, rather the child of parents with CIA links and friends in the Pentagon. This opens the way for more discussion about the politics behind deployment and a more detailed history of America's development of its Special Forces. Although this adds a broader context to Jason's story, just occasionally it does strain the element of disbelief further than I would like - you are left in no doubt that Sara's experience is not representative of that of other servicemen's mothers. The novel is also very America-centric in the way in which it delves into military detail, peppering the prose with a hefty share of acronyms, not all of which are explained at the end. As a non-American and non-military reader, I would have welcomed a more comprehensive glossary to render these paragraphs a little more accessible.

All in though, this is a very engaging and compelling read. It is a valuable book in the broader context of fictional accounts of the 'War on Terror' and it should really be required reading alongside some of the novels coming out of the countries at the heart of this conflict for would-be policy-makers and soldiers alike.


Acts of Union and Disunion
Acts of Union and Disunion
by Linda Colley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The Long View, 8 May 2014
Based on a series of talks, commissioned by BBC Radio 4, Colley's book about the British Isles takes a timely look at the stresses and strains of what we now call the United Kingdom. Full of interesting asides, providing answers to such unusual questions as why the heir to the throne is traditionally called "The Prince of Wales", or when the moniker "UK" caught on, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking book bringing history very much to the fore as Scotland's referendum on independence approaches. Whilst I am sure that there are weightier (in all senses of the word) books out there about the future and politics of the United Kingdom, one could do a lot worse than to start with "Acts of Union and Disunion" with its broad historical view. A really interesting little book.


Down the Rabbit Hole
Down the Rabbit Hole
by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Tochtli in Wonderland, 7 April 2014
This review is from: Down the Rabbit Hole (Paperback)
'Down the Rabbit Hole' is a slight novel about life inside the bizarre world of a Mexican drug baron as seen through the eyes of Tochtli, a nine-year old boy. Except of course that the title 'Down the Rabbit Hole' has echoes of Alice in Wonderland, that strange distorted fantasy world as seen through the eyes of child experiencing something unusual and that link, that other-worldliness is very evident within this book.

Tochtli isn't your average nine year-old, he's lived in isolation from the rest of the world, apparently all his life, he lives in the middle of an emotionless world, where he can count the number of live people he knows and he's well aware that people turn into corpses for reasons he cannot understand. His is a selfish, self-centred existence, that of a little prince, whose life is devoid of any notion of love, but full of possessions, demands and whims.

So the novel is original and different, and Tochtli is weirdly diverting company, but that's all. This is a novel set in a Mexican drug cartel that says nothing about drugs, corruption or violence, except to portray the latter, off scene, as a normal part of life. This is a novel about a child, that says nothing about childhood and a novel about selfishness that refuses to do anything other than highlight it. For me 'Down the Rabbit Hole' needed to go somewhere morally, to make some kind of judgement about its weirdness, rather than be content to be modern day Alice in Wonderland, just looking wide-eyed, like a child at this strange world someone else calls normal.


Julia
Julia
by Otto de Kat
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, 19 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Julia (Paperback)
Otto de Kat's "Julia" begins with a driver, Van Dijk, turning up unexpectedly at his boss's house ostensibly to check out the car. He can't find his boss, Christiaan Dudok, so he looks around the house for him. What follows next is a perfectly constructed almost poetic little story of love and loss in the midst of Nazi Germany.

This is such an engaging little book, right from the first chapter, that it's hard to put down. Dudok's story is the everyman story, that poses questions about what to do in extraordinary times and that weighs the cost of regret. It is a book about love, but also about responsibility, courage and cowardice, fate and fatalism. It's a brilliant little read, one that I can't recommend enough and I for one will be looking up de Kat's other work.


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