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Juan Carlos Márquez – Tangram

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Not what you thought.

Publisher: Nevsky Books (Ediciones Nevsky)
Pages: 162
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-8-494-59133-4
First Published: 2011; December 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 2nd May 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Tangram
Translated by: James Womack

Two men visit an ex-actress in order to network but find themselves locked in her basement for weeks. A man looking to commit a crime finds it difficult to do so when his targets turn out to be suicidal. A group of children take to calling names in the belief that people will change if they hear the truth. These stories, together with a few others, make up the details of what could be different narratives or one whole.

Tangram is a short thriller which makes use of fractured storytelling in order to keep you thinking and surprise you at the end.

Carlos Márquez’s use of fractured narrative means that for a good while, until the story starts to cycle round and come together, it could be said you’re reading a short story collection. Stories, linked by a vague theme, suggest something far from a novel-length piece, but as it turns out, the writing and structure is absolutely key to this book, which is interesting because the necessity of the writing is apparent very early on, but more in the sense that you can appreciate it rather than anything further.

The author uses writing – first person, particular types of phrasing and cracks in the fourth wall – to dig deep into the details of his characters’ stories. The author looks at the whole, of course, but it’s almost whimsical – he places a lot of importance on the ending, on getting it right, but he’s so focussed on each character that the book darts back and forth neatly – is this a literary novel or is it genre thriller? At heart, it’s both. In view of the translation, you can see Carlos Márquez’s words underneath Womack’s text, the author’s concepts and workings remaining clear. Footnotes have been included in places where to translate in-text, so to speak, would have slowed the pace.

There is a bit of humour in the book, a thread that makes you wonder before revealing itself fully. It is slight, very slight, and fits the writing wonderfully.

The ending pulls everything together… well, almost – but almost is the point. You’ll discover (likely, at least, unless you’ve somehow figured out where it’s going and I’d guess in this case that’s not likely) that some of what you’ve read isn’t important but that it wasn’t quite a red herring. You’ll discover that some things you thought important were, and those things tend to be the things you’d later decided were probably red herrings. You’ll discover that the things you did think were red herrings were indeed red herrings and that the author included them fully hoping you’d see them as red herrings.

And the ending may come as a shock because it’s really not what everything seemed to be building up to… until you’re reading the ending and working your way backwards. It’s fair to say appearances may be deceptive and the most crafty person in this situation isn’t any of the characters but the author himself.

This isn’t a book about witnesses or suspects, rather it’s a book about people who happen or happened to be in some way affiliated with the people involved at the core of the story. Reading it is a little like playing Cluedo, only with less of an exact sense of where you’re headed; and keeping a check-list of the people you’ve met so far wouldn’t be much help because the author isn’t telling.

The page count is perfect – you wouldn’t want this any longer or shorter, partly due to the effect the details have where you wonder how much information is relevant. Best read for its technique, Tangram is an award winning book and it’s not hard to see why.

I received this book for review.

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Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream

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Be prepared to never be prepared.

Publisher: Oneworld
Pages: 151
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-07090-6
First Published: 2014; 10th January 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 21st March 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Distancia de Rescate (Rescue Distance)
Translated by: Megan McDowell

Amanda’s in hospital. David, the peculiar child of someone she knows, seated somewhere near her, is telling her she’s close to death; she has to keep talking, work out what has happened, why she’s there. It’s difficult; it’s hard to think, she can’t see very well, and David keeps telling her to move on to other things that are more important. She won’t.

Fever Dream is a novella full of circular thinking, warped perceptions, and few concrete answers – they are sometimes there but Schweblin defiantly remains vague. It’s an easy read, a small book without chapters, that asks a lot of your attention but for that it rewards you with the reality of unreality and a fair amount to think about.

The original title is probably a good place to start – a lot of the narrative revolves around Amanda’s concept of ‘rescue distance’, the maximum physical distance between herself and her small daughter at any one time that will result in immediate result in case of accident. Amanda’s ill health makes her even more paranoid and obsessive so that the distance lengths and shortens – most often the latter – over the course of the book. Her time with her daughter is detailed solely as a flashback, the report she gives David as she lays ill in bed, but gets discussed by them in the present every so often. Alongside this constant consideration are other repetitions – Carla’s gold bikini, for example – that further illustrate what Amanda, perhaps erroneously, is focusing on.

Flashbacks. Are they? Aren’t they? Schweblin never tells you the exact times when Amanda is thinking of the past and talking directly to David – it’s generally obvious but not always. This adds to the feeling of confusion for the reader, very much intended, and gives you more of an idea of the situation at hand. It is also difficult to work out the time line of what has happened in Amanda’s story but in this Scheweblin does provide an idea of what you’re meant to be thinking, as a reader, when she presents a definite dream sequence. This dream shows the topsy-turvy construction of our real life dreams, whether feverish or in good health, that confirms for you the feeling that you’re not necessarily meant to be working everything out.

David’s almost changling status is eerie. Supposedly, this child of Amanda’s friend – this child/now adult (who knows?) who is in Amanda’s room – is not the same as he was before. (In years gone by a woman said that in order to save a feverish David’s life, a switch of bodies would have to take place, David’s spirit moving on to another body and David’s body becoming inhabited by a different soul. It’s the different soul/same body that Amanda is supposedly talking to.) David’s actions are seen as strange, haunted, and whereas we can assume that some actions might have been normal in reality, some clearly aren’t. The character of David is very much up to you, the reader, to figure out.

Fever Dream is a short book; you wouldn’t want it to be longer due to the confusion and the relentless and repetitive nature of David’s questions. It’s a book you can enjoy even if you can’t quite explain it, and at times it’s the very idea of not having to understand it that allows you to enjoy it more. And with its relatively small number of pages and a narrative that doesn’t deviate, with its lack of chapters and easy language, it’s the perfect choice if you want to pick up something challenging but very accessible.

I received this book for review.

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Ricarda Huch – The Last Summer

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School’s not just out for summer.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 115
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67034-2
First Published: 1910; 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th February 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Letzte Sommer (The Last Summer)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Russia: the students of the university are causing the governor hassle (they’re protesting) and he closes the place down. When he goes on holiday, a plot to assassinate him comes together and Lyu decides to help; under the pretence of security, Lyu joins the governor’s family where he hopes to carry out the assassination. It may prove difficult – the family rather like him, one daughter in particular, and where they assign good work to him he ends up procrastinating.

The Last Summer is a short and somewhat comedic epistolary thriller. Originally published in German in 1910, whilst the time period may have moved on, the sometimes light-hearted (yes, despite the subject) spirit of the book remains as fresh as though it were a new piece of writing.

This is perhaps aided by the translation. Translated into English for the first time, Huch’s book has been well rendered by Jamie Bulloch. The translator of a good few previous Peirene novellas, Bulloch’s language decisions have ensured the text remains steeped in its now historical context whilst being very readable for us today.

The letters – the detailing and wording, the characterisation – mean that you don’t just get to know the people writing, you get to know the recipients too. This is a book of correspondence purposefully lacking in written responses – the characters retort to replies you haven’t been privy to but whilst this may at the outset seem a setback it means the narrative is brisk without any losses. (And it’s interesting that on the whole it seems the receipts do a lot more thinking than our writers, showing the dynamics of the family.)

Because there is a lot of extra detailing beyond the crime at hand – of the good kind. The comedy comes in the form of the everyday quarrelling between the siblings, the responses to the responses of the aunt you don’t get to meet who seems to have suggested trouble afoot for the lovestruck niece who just wrote to her, and even, at one point, the failure of Lyu to come up with a believable reason for a threatening letter to have got past all the security. The comedy fits the time – if you like the classics and other well-known books about everyday life in this period, you’ll enjoy this book. The shortness means you may not get as much out of it but it’s a good couple of hours company.

As for the crime, there is enough if that’s the genre you’re looking for – the ending is rather super. It might often seem as though it’s more a novella of the family but Huch doesn’t forget her premise.

Seeming far from its age, The Last Summer is a novella to look out for. Do the thinking the characters should be.

I received this book for review.

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Shan Sa – Empress

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Reigning for ten thousand years. It may indeed seem that long…

Publisher: Harper Perennial (HarperCollins)
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-14787-6
First Published: 2003; 2006 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th June 2016
Rating: 3/5

Original language: French
Original title: Impératrice (Empress)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Wu Ze Tian, as she would become known to history, begins life as the child of a privileged mother and a well-known but commoner father. After spending some years in a convent she is recommended to the Imperial City; a man who once aided her has found her a position as a royal concubine. Ze Tian finds no favour with her husband, the Emperor, but her ability as a horsewoman attracts the attention of his son who comes to desire her. She agrees to be his wife and thus starts a controversial era wherein for the first and only time a woman will rule China as Emperor.

Empress is an epic, fictionalised, account of Empress Wu’s life from her time in the womb and beyond her death. It’s the sort of book to read if the history intrigues you but you want to begin your lessons slowly.

Sa’s character is a difficult one. In Ze Tian you have a woman who was pulled from her life and put in a position that was both a source of envy and a horrible prospect – to be a concubine or wife was a high position in society, but most of the thousands of women kept in the City for the Emperor’s enjoyment would spend their days waiting for acknowledgement in vain. But you also have a woman who, once she gained power, was incredibly ruthless. Sa has balanced it all exceptionally well. For the most part the kindness of Ze Tian is kept to her early years – admittedly a lot shorter, page wise, than her reign – and her tyrannical decisions to said later reign. Sa does allow for moments of goodness and kind thoughts during Ze Tian’s time as emperor, but considering there is little chance at this point of your feeling any sympathy for the monarch, the author keeps it in the region of self-absorption and reflection. Sometimes this reflection just makes the horror worse, but one senses Sa just had to shrug her shoulders.

Ze Tian made a lot of positive changes in her time, even if many were later reverted. She set up a system wherein the regular person could state a grievance that would be listened to, she adjusted exams for hopeful scholars so that commoners could have a shot at governmental roles. She was a role model for women. Sa gives her what positivity she can but is realistic about the tyranny. Of course there’s always the thought in the background, which Sa addresses in the first person narrative – how much of the punishment Ze Tian metes out is due to any evil versus how much does she deem crucial to the success of her status? The narrative revolves around Ze Tian’s thoughts, everything that happens is couched in its relevance to her, how it impacts her, so, again, Sa ensures you’re getting as objective a picture as you can, at least as far as the limits of first-person go. (The book is limited by this narrative choice.)

Jousting with the graphic violence for Most Gratuitous Aspect is the sex. There’s no getting away from sex in this book; the women in the Inner Court had no choice and neither do you – there’s a lot of it, in various guises, sometimes because it’s a reflection of the facts and sometimes because – unfortunately – it seems Sa has run out of ideas. What’s interesting is that you eventually become numb to the idea of incest and old women having sex with consenting-but-under-pressure-to-do-so teenagers because it’s just so prevalent; and it’s interesting that you become numb because there’s a great possibly that that’s something Sa is wanting you to feel – the conquests were acceptable in the situation and so by becoming attuned, study-wise, to it yourself, you stop feeling so nauseated by it and start to see the societal concepts behind it.

The writing is very poetic. The translation reads well and it certainly matches the poetic nature of historical Chinese writings and artwork enough that you can assume it a faithful version. In terms of the writing’s impact on one’s reading, however, the book is very slow and can be a bit too flowery – sometimes it seems as though Sa is exploiting poetry in order to make her story longer than it should be. There is also a lot of info-dumping, Sa likes to go into meticulous, few-pages-long detail about events that could be summarised in a paragraph, and friends supposedly of many years pop up without you having heard of them before. It’s difficult to remember who anyone is in this book, the repetition makes everything so similar. No one is as important as Ze Tian and it shows.

And this is where we come to the main problem with the book – after a point, about two thirds of the way through, once Ze Tian is firmly ensconced on her throne, the novel becomes a series of repetitions. Ze Tian will worry about getting older; someone will suggest another is out to steal the throne; said accused person is condemned to death; Ze Tian is sad because she liked them; someone turns up in the royal bedroom to help the monarch remain young and energetic; that person is taken away; a pilgrimage or other journey happens; Ze Tian dreams of gods and her goodness… over and over again. Undoubtedly there was boredom to the routine of life at court and in the tedious nature of every action, every breath, having to adhere to etiquette… perhaps it is to show that tedium, and the slow decline of the body, but it’s overdone.

You’re never going to feel sorry for Ze Tian. You’re not going to like her and quite frankly it’s a relief to get out of her head. But if you can deal with the ennui I’ve mentioned, or if you’re happy to skip those sections, you might want to flick through Empress. Ze Tian’s reign was an important one, and if you’re at all interested in history your interest will be improved by knowing about her.

Or you could look for articles on the Internet and be just as, if not better, informed.

But I became a symbol of a corrupt woman… Novelists invented a life of debauchery for me, attributing their own fantasies to me.

This may be ironic.

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Linda Stift – The Empress And The Cake

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There’s no way out. There’s every way out.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 172
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67030-4
First Published: 2007; 30th September 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 20th September 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Stierhunger (Bulimia)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

A young woman is approached by an older woman, asked if she’d share a cake because the cake is too large for one person. The older woman’s clothes are very old fashioned, from the 1800s, and her companion is similarly dressed. Though she avoids rich foods, the young woman agrees to take half the cake; after the purchase the older woman suggests sharing first her own half. The young woman finds she cannot say ‘no’, and whilst she believes it was her choice, it sets a precedent for the future.

The Empress And The Cake is an Austrian novella about three women of different generations who are connected. It’s got a bizarre, strange, atmosphere, a lot of history, looks at mental and physical health, and sports a brilliant uniqueness.

There are four major characters in this book, three in the present and one in the past. The present-day characters are our unnamed narrator, Frau Hohenembs, and the latter’s friend/servant, Ida. The fourth is the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, of the mid to late 1800s. Elisabeth is included via descriptions written by a friend – we view these scenes as reflections – and her presence in the novella is to show the basic ideas behind Stift’s drawing of Frau Hohenembs and Ida and thus the connection she has created between the factual Empress and the fictional characters.

This reviewer would recommend doing a bit of research into the personality and life of the Empress prior to starting the book. The book’s meaning won’t be lost without it but some knowledge of her will really enhance your reading experience and allow you to figure out what might happen, which when you consider the fact the Empress is likely well-known in Austria and this is an Austrian book, just makes sense. Elisabeth’s story is quite fascinating; she was reluctantly married to an Emperor who adored her and spent her time away from the court she disliked, often travelling incognito. Her mother-in-law practically removed her from her children’s lives and she was assassinated by a man who wanted to assassinate a royal and hadn’t been able to get close to his first choice, nor his second.

Part of the connection between the characters and something that is a major theme is an obsession with slimness, which in the unnamed heroine’s case is a disorder, bulimia. The book gets into very graphic detail at times so that Stift can show the way bulimia affects a person. It is a very frank portrayal, Stift’s character telling herself, or us, how this will be her last vomiting session, how she’s going to stop weighing herself so much – she’ll weigh herself several times a day instead of a dozen, for example (a difference the reader sees as inconsequential) – how she’ll start eating more again, only for her to revert almost instantly. The heroine is bound by her disorder but does not see it – she views herself as in control of it. And her increased contact with Frau Hohenembs furthers her it. (What’s interesting here is that the way the passage of time is shown in the book, the rough slowness that can be attributed to Stift’s detailing and repetition of the regular makes it seem as though more time passes between decisions than it truly does.)

Similarly she views herself as in control of her visitations to Frau Hohenembs’ apartment, and in control of the choice to go out, which happens often, with said lady and her servant; the truth is different. Not quite so different is her lack of control of her eating disorder, but a big part of the psycho-thriller aspect of the novella is the dwindling nature of personal agency. This is where the plot thread of cocaine comes in; the drug is not referenced directly for some time and we do not know whether the heroine and Ida take the drug, but there’s a vagueness, an ambiguity, in the story, that lets you imagine what is most likely. What, for example, was in that cake? Stift does not say either way – just sugar, or something more addictive? – that’s up to you to decide. (Does sugar itself perhaps reflect the addiction?)

Empress Elisabeth wanted to be very slim, and favoured being stitched into her clothes. Whilst the present-day fictional part of the story does not go this far, the factual forms a sort of backbone. Frau Hohenembs’s obsession with Elisabeth (does she think she is her or want to emulate her?) never wavers, and as such the heroine falls into line behind her. This thread is not resolved neatly, but then it doesn’t need to be. It’s the connection that Stift wants to show rather than any reason d’etre.

On the gruesome front it should be noted there are visits to a ‘specimen’ museum. These, as well as the vomiting scenes, if the reader finds them difficult, can be skipped because the importance in them lies in the sentiment rather than the scenes themselves – so long as you’ve the cause in mind, flicking past shouldn’t be a problem.

In regards to the translation, it reads well. Jamie Bulloch seems to have opted for a balance between literal word meaning and flow; there are some German words you may want to look up but the rough meaning is there in the text.

It’s hard to say exactly why The Empress And The Cake is so good. It has something to do with the complexity, the number of ideas in it, and the amount of thought that’s gone into it, but enough to say it’s excellent. It’s bizarre, random, and totally unique, and it makes you think, so much.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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