Two Disappointing Novellas: The Day of the Owl and The Guest Cat

The Day of the Owl

The Day Of The Owl by Leonard Sciascia

Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun

Five words from the blurb: Sicily, murder, mafia, investigation, cold

The Day of the Owl begins with a man being murdered in front of a bus load of people. The sawn-off shotgun used in the attack suggests that it is a mafia killing, but no one is willing to admit they saw the shooting so the investigation runs cold.

This book is an examination of the mafia presence in Sicily. I found it interesting to read about this topic/setting for the first time, but most of the book did nothing for me. I think the problem was my unfamiliarity with the subject matter. The subtlety of the political messages went over my head and the large number of Italian words frustrated me. I only finished the book because it was so short.

Recommended to those with a knowledge of Italian political history and its connection with the mafia.

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The Guest Cat

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hirade

Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland

Five words from the blurb: couple, writers, cat, visits, together

The Guest Cat is a quiet book about a couple who work from home as freelance writers. Beautifully poetic writing describes their everyday lives and the interactions they have with a cat that decides to visit them.

Unfortunately, perhaps because I’m more of a dog person, this book did nothing for me. The couple’s life was boring and I failed to see the attraction of reading endless descriptions of what the cat did. I normally love Japanese books, but this one didn’t contain any of the usual culinary, cultural or mythological aspects of Japanese society that I enjoy reading about.

If you love cats and enjoy vivid descriptions of how they wander in and out of people’s lives then this is for you, but if you’re after any plot or emotion then I’d avoid it.

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Three Things You Should Listen to This Weekend

I haven’t read much recently because nothing on the page seems to live up to the quality of the podcasts I’ve discovered. Listening to great stories has the added benefit of being able to do something else whilst enjoying them – perfect for enabling me to continue to sort out my house!

Rather than keep my discoveries secret I thought I’d share them with you. All three are so good – you really should try listening this weekend!

Not My Father's Son: A Family Memoir

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

This week BBC Radio 4 have serialised Alan Cumming’s emotionally charged memoir. Not My Father’s Son is available to download for the next 4 weeks – I highly recommend you give it a try! 

Note: I think the free download might only be available to those in the UK so others might have to settle for reading it in print.

The Moth: This Is a True Story

The Moth

Last month I raved about The Moth: 50 Extraordinary True Stories. I’ve since discovered that The Moth has a website which contains lots of amazing short stories for you to listen to. There is also a podcast which includes the best stories from each week.

serial

 

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Serial

Serial is a Twitter phenomenon. It is an investigation into a murder that happened in 1999. The evidence gathered is presented in a podcast and the audience is encouraged to help solve the crime. I was sceptical at first, but the continuous Twitter chat finally persuaded me to give it a try. It is a unique concept and so compelling. I can’t wait for the next episode!

Have you listened to any of these? Did you enjoy them as much as I did?

I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti

I'm Not Scared Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt

Five words from the blurb: Italian, village, children, discovery, scare

I bought a copy of this book a couple of years ago after seeing several bloggers rave about it. For some reason I expected it to be chilling and so avoided reading it until I could do so in daylight hours. This was unnecessary as it was a much less scary than I anticipated.

The book is set in a small Italian hamlet where six children have the freedom to explore the surrounding countryside. One day nine-year-old Michele is dared to enter a derelict house on the outskirts of their village and is shocked by what he discovers there.

The story was narrated by Michele so was much simpler and faster paced than I expected it to be – I flew through the entire book in just a few hours. There was something wonderful about the childhood innocence of the narration, but it also frustrated me. I felt I was being pulled along too quickly, forced to almost skim the words instead of slow down and think about the difficult issues that were being raised.

‘Papa! Papa!’ I pushed the door and rushed in. ‘Papa! I’ve got something to…’ The rest died on my lips.
He was sitting in the armchair with the newspaper in his hands looking at me with toad’s eyes. The worst toad’s eyes I had seen since the day I had drunk the Lourdes water thinking it was acqua minerale. He squashed his cigarette-end into his coffee cup….
Papa drew in air through his nose and said: ‘Where have you been all day?’ He looked me up and down. Have you seen yourself? What the hell have you been rolling in?’

The book has been described as a ‘literary sensation’ and I think that is the wrong term. I’m Not Scared is a more mainstream piece of fiction and is the type of book I’ll be pushing into the hands of a wide variety of friends. It is particularly good for showing that translated fiction needn’t be difficult or boring.

Some people might find the ending frustrating, but I was impressed by the suspenseful nature of it and the way it forces the reader to think about the book for much longer than they would if everything was tied up neatly.

Overall I found this to be an entertaining read, but it lacked the depth to be considered outstanding.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …a gripping read with strong emotional impact. Medieval Bookworm

The ending went beyond ambiguous to just plain lacking. Carpe Librum

If you intend to read this book make sure you’ve got a few clear hours to do so, the storytelling is so rich and vivid you won’t want to abandon it until the final, devastating climax is reached. Reading Matters

 

The Lake District Murder by John Bude

The Lake District Murder (British Library Crime Classics)

Five words from the blurb: body, garage, puzzle, 1930s, village

I used to live near Cockermouth, Cumbria so when I saw Margaret’s post on The Lake District Murder I immediately reserved a copy from the library. I’m so pleased I did as it contains some wonderful information about what it was like to live in the area in the 1930s.

The book begins with the discovery of a body in the village of Braithwaite. It initially looks like suicide, but the police soon find a number of inconsistences and launch a murder inquiry. It is a quaint, gentle story with none of the action or violence you’d find in a typical crime novel today; instead it shows the simple, methodical way in which crimes were investigated nearly a century ago. 

The slow pace of the story and the lack of any real action would normally be a big problem for me, but this book managed to capture my attention with the period detail. I loved reading about catching a train from Keswick to Cockermouth (the line closed in 1964) and it was interesting to read about the shops present on Cockermouth Main Street back then. If anything these little details weren’t enough – I’d have liked to discover more about what was present in the towns back then.

Shortly after ten he swung right off the Braithwaite road and headed for Bassenthwaite lake.. About a hundred yards beyond the turning which led to Braithwaite station, he drew up at the roadside and consulted his Bartholomew’s map. He reckoned Jenkin Hill to be a little over a mile ahead, at which point the railway line was shown as being some three hundred yards away from the road. This fact was of vital importance to Meredith, as he knew there was a Cockermouth train due in at Braithwaite station at 6.25 on Saturday evening,

I think I’d have found the book boring if I hadn’t such a strong bond with the setting – the solution to the mystery wasn’t that interesting, the characters all seemed so similar that they merged into one, and there wasn’t any real forward momentum. I’d read another of his books if it was set in the same area, but his otherwise his writing style was too gentle for me.

 

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics) Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Five words from the blurb: ordinary, German, postcards, attacking, Hitler

Alone in Berlin begins in 1940 with a couple discovering that their only son has been killed fighting in France. Devastated by the news, the couple decide to drop postcards which attack Hitler across the city. This act of resistance is extremely dangerous and the couple risk their lives every time they step out of their apartment with a new piece of propaganda.

Alone in Berlin reads like a classic – the writing was simple, but had an effortless style:

It doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not.

The pace was excellent in the beginning, but as the book progressed it began to flag a bit. I think this was mainly due to the inevitability of the conclusion (or possibly because this 600 page book was written in just 24 days and could have done with a bit more editing!)

The book did a fantastic job of showing what life was like for ordinary Germans living in Berlin. The difficulties and fear they faced were shown without sensationalism. Each character was well drawn and I loved the flawed nature of their personalities.

I want to criticise the book for its unlikely coincidences, but on reading the afterword I discovered that it is heavily based on fact. This makes the story more poignant, but also more frustrating. Warning, minor spoiler: Their tiny act of resistance put many people in danger, but failed to achieve anything. I prefer to read about people who make a real difference in the world and this couple just seemed to bumble around without having any real impact.

My only real criticism is that the book lacked atmosphere. There weren’t many descriptive passages and there was an emotional distance between the characters and the reader. Luckily I know enough about Berlin to be able to conjure up my own mental images of the city, but I’d prefer to have these reinforced by the text.

Overall this book has many positives, but seems to fall down the more you think about it. Recommended to those who’d like to know more about life in Berlin during WWII, but prefer gentler reads. 

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

… this book is beautiful, a quiet book of common decency...The Parrish Lantern

…the momentum of this novel, which is divided into four chunks, is lost in the big baggy structure of it. Reading Matters

 …the novel brings to life superbly drawn characters… Euro Crime

I read this as part of German Literature Month - take a look for lots of great reading suggestions!

 

Three Abandoned Books: The Bone Clocks, Steppenwolf and Random Family

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Five words from the blurb: ghetto, poverty, mother, drugs, violence

I bought a copy of Random Family after reading a recommendation from Andrew Solomon, one of my favourite authors. Random Family is a fantastic snapshot of a community. It took 10 years of research and the result is a detailed insight into life in the Bronx. The families have to deal with violence, gangs and drug use and this book enables the reader to understand exactly what everyday life is like for them.

Unfortunately I found the text a bit too academic for my taste. Too many people were introduced and I found it impossible to keep track of them all. The detail was overwhelming and reduced the emotional impact of the horrors they were experiencing. It is perfect for anyone looking for a anthropological study, but it was too dry for me.

DNF

Steppenwolf (Penguin Translated Texts)

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Five words from the blurb: strange, man, society, sensual, depressive

Translated from the German by David Horrocks

Steppenwolf  is about Harry Haller, a man who feels he doesn’t belong in the world. The book follows his aimless meandering and shows his depressive outlook on life. The writing was of a good quality, but I failed to connect with Harry. The endless bleakness of the text bored me and I wished that the plot was stronger. Much of the book reminded me of Hunger by Knut Hamsun, so if you enjoy one of these books I’m sure you’ll appreciate the other, but it was too depressing for me.

DNF

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Five words from the blurb:  adolescence, shadows, strange, world, mortality

I’ve enjoyed all of David Mitchell’s previous books so was looking forward to reading this one. Unfortunately it didn’t really work for me. There were some great individual passages, but I couldn’t connect with the book as a whole. Much of the dialogue felt very ordinary and it didn’t have the special spark that was present in Cloud Atlas. I found myself skimming large sections and never understood the purpose of the book. It was too disjointed, but this bothered me in a way it hadn’t with his earlier books because the individual stories weren’t interesting enough.

Disappointing.

DNF