Wednesday 17 December 2008

Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner.

From the back cover:
In this dazzling evocation of late nineteenth century Paris, we follow Victor as his investigation takes him all over the city.  But what will he do when the deaths begin to multiply and he is caught in a race against time?
'A charming journey through the life and intellectual times of an era'  ~ Le Monde

This book is the work of two authors, two sisters who are booksellers, bouquinistes, on the banks of the Seine in Paris.  I find the translation a little awkward, even dated in places.  Whether this is a deliberate attempt to conjure up the era I don't know, but I found it a false note.  "Two stiffs in the same day" neither sounds like 1889 nor the present day.

It is very much set in Paris, and if you recognise the street names and the areas mentioned, it will conjure up an image satisfactorily.  For anyone who doesn't know Paris, I would say it's less successful. It's rather better at the era than the geographical setting.  All the same, it's interesting to read about the time when the Eiffel Tower was brand new, so for that alone it's worth a read.  Less so for the murder-mystery element which I didn't find especially compelling.
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Friday 5 December 2008

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

The Bookseller of Kabul gives interesting insight into the life of an Afghan family both before and after the Taliban.  It describes familyand social life, the political situation and how individuals, particularly women, are affected.  It isn't a compelling read, the writing doesn't seem very fluent and far from fast paced, however it's a book I am glad to have read and would recommend it.

Monday 1 December 2008

Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan to a family in the diplomatic service and lived there until she was five. She speaks fluent Japanese and did return to work in a Japanese company for a year.

Although for some reason I thought it was going to be a “difficult” book, it wasn’t at all: it’s entertaining and very easy to read. My usual caution about reading books in translation was totally swept away because at no point was I aware of its having been originally in French.

I don’t know whether the fairly dreadful portrayal of Japanese corporate life is accurate or not, but the most fascinating part of the book I found was the section about Japanese women, “if the Japanese woman is to be admired – and she is – it is because she doesn’t commit suicide”. Japan apparently has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, but in spite of the pressures put on them by society, the rate is very much lower in women than men. How much that holds true now I’m not sure.

Something I heard quite a while ago was also mentioned in the book. When people were starting to become aware of water conservation, a hotel said it would be very difficult to put effective measures in to reduce water consumption because a large portion of their clientele was Japanese. Apparently Japanese women become terminally embarrassed if they feel they can be overheard in the bathroom and will turn taps on full in order to prevent this. I never really knew if this was true, but Amélie Nothomb says the same thing.

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Thursday 27 November 2008

A Party in San Niccolo by Christobel Kent

This is the story of an English woman who goes to Florence to spend a week with friends in an effort to overcome depression. From the point of view of the setting, it is a wonderful book. The atmosphere and images of Florence are beautifully drawn and the characters of the ex-pat set are very believable. The storyline, something of a murder-mystery, is hardly fast-paced, but enjoyable.

Sunday 23 November 2008

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Written in 1958, this wonderful book tells the story of a man called Okonkwo, who lived in what is now known as Nigeria. It certainly is a fascinating account of how the Igbo people lived, but it's not so much about the man or his family, as about the way the first missionaries and other colonials imposed their views on Africa, written entirely from an African point of view. Their whole way of life was completely altered by the insistence of the British that the self-governing towns and villages should be amalgamated into their idea of a country.  At the same time it didn’t try to idealise life in Africa at that time: the brutality resulting from some of their beliefs isn’t hidden.

It’s a short book at 176 pages and I found it easy to read.

Friday 21 November 2008

The Island by Victoria Hislop

I've read a review which described this as a beach read with a heart and I think that just about sums it up. It is not a great book or wonderful writing, but what raises it above the usual beach read is the theme of leprosy and the lepers' colony. In fact I believe without that it would have been a very ordinary family saga indeed.

It tells the story of a family torn apart by leprosy, spanning four generations. The characters are very simplistic, Anna irredeemably bad, Maria nauseatingly good: bad woman, high spirited, questioning, “mischief in her eyes and lips that didn’t smile”, “had her arms folded and glared …”; good woman, quiet, retiring and wanting to please, “hands held softly in her lap in a demure pose”.

But, if you're travelling to Crete and can visit Spinalonga, an interesting read for the background information.

Thursday 20 November 2008

A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi

Subtitled "An Unexpected Romance", this book does provide you with a highly romantic view of life and of Venice, but then Venice must be one of the most romantic cities in Europe, if not on earth.The story, a true story, is based on what I once would have dismissed as a ridiculously fanciful notion, that of love at first sight. I'm older and wiser now, and I would never now reject such an idea out of hand.  Nevertheless, some of it is hard to swallow.  Really, would you give up your life in St Louis to marry someone after barely a few weeks' acquaintance?

However we aren't here to discuss romantic notions, but Venice and whether we can find ourselves there through reading. We can. Marlena de Blasi has managed to pin down the essence of Venice, the delight and joy of merely being there. Some people may think it over-done: I don't believe they can ever have been to Venice.

You can find A Thousand Days in Venice at or

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

I read Moloka'i fairly soon after reading The Island by Victoria Hislop because of the similarity of setting - a leprosy island.

Moloka'i was a relatively easy read and it left me with the feeling that I knew more about both leprosy and Hawaii than I knew before, and that is exactly what i want from a book. It doesn’t pull any punches in describing the ravages of leprosy. It has made me aware of Hawaiian culture, something I knew nothing whatever about before this, and has left me wanting to know more.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Memoirs of a Geisha By Arthur Golden

It is truly hard to believe that this is a novel because it paints such a vivid picture of the life of a geisha that you could swear it was autobiographical. It took a long time to read (it is a big book!)but it wasn't a struggle at all. It gives an insight, sometimes romantic, sometimes tragic, into a disappearing culture.

Monday 17 November 2008

Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan to a Belgian family. She lived in Japan until she was five years old, and returned to work for a year in a Japanese company when she was 21, to work as a translator.

Eleven years later she wrote the book Stupeur et Tremblements, translated as Fear and Trembling which tells the story of a young woman going to work in a Japanese firm, and comping up against all the intricacies of Japanese ways. It is both depressing and amusing at the same time, but above all it gives some insight into working life in Japan, an extreme culture clash even if it has been exaggerated.

I loved the book. It is short, so a quick and easy read, but at the same time thought provoking. I am often put off by books which have been translated, but this is an exception. I had no feeling of the clumsiness that is often there.
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Sunday 16 November 2008

Chocolat by Joanne harris

I first read this book in 1999 I think, when it was first published, and well before the film. I thought it an excellent book, light and a quick read, very entertaining but not great literature. You don't find chocolatiers in very many small French villages, but it nevertheless paints a good picture of life in rural France. It's such a shame that the film didn't keep more closely to the book.

I do wonder if I would find it as good if it hadn't been the first of Joanne Harris' books set in France. I have come to tire of her more recent books.