Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The 2015 Challenge- The Fifth Year of the Blog and the Future

On January 1 we'll launch the 2015 Europa Challenge, and 2015 will mark the fifth year of the challenge and of this blog. That's awesome and I'm so excited that we've reached this milestone. Thank you to everyone who's ever posted, and to Europa Editions for being so supportive of this project.

With that said, I've decided to make some changes. Participation is way down, posting has been way down, and it's been months since we added a new member. I want to keep the blog going but the posting model we've been using clearly isn't working, even though I know lots of people in the book blogging world read and review Europa books all the time.

Starting January 1,  the 2015 Europa Challenge will use a Mr. Linky system for tracking review and you will no longer need to post to this blog to participate.

Starting on January 1 and at the beginning of each month,  I'm going to do a post with a Linky where you can add your links to your Challenge reviews of Europa books on your own blog.

What this means is Challenge participants will no longer be obligated to post to this blog. You can continue to post here if you want to; I probably will continue to post, and I hope many of you do as well.

Looking at our statistics, we get about 1,000 hits per month regardless of the number of reviews posted, which tells me that people don't just use this site to read current posts. People use this site to research lots of Europa books, on a consistent basis. I think building this little informal review bank is a great accomplishment but if we want to be a community and not just a database we can't continue in this vein. I know from my conversations online that requiring people to have Google accounts and to be willing to sign up and post to another blog is confusing and cumbersome and has been keeping people away.

You are welcome to continue to post to this blog and I will continue to tag and index the posts on this blog.

I haven't done this before because Linky costs money to use. I'm happy to spend time on the blog but I like to keep my money for buying books. But buying a Linky account means I can make widgets for my own blog too and I've decided the small investment is worth it.

Coupled with this change will be a big drive on Twitter and through the book blogging world to recruit more participants. I love doing this project and would love to see it grow, and I want to thank each and every one of you for everything you've done to contribute to this community over the past four years. I've had a lot fun and read some wonderful books. I hope you have, too, and  I hope you stay with it as we enter the next phase.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Marie C. Reviews Just Call Me Superhero

Just Call Me Superhero, by Alina Bronsky. Published 2014 by Europa Editions. Literary fiction.

Alina Bronsky's latest novel is probably the hardest for me to get into, but was very rewarding once I did. Set in modern day Germany, she tells the story of Marek, a teenager whose face was mutilated after he was attacked by a rottweiler. Nowadays he's bitter, a virtual shut-in who wears dark glasses and avoids others until his mother makes him go to a support group for disabled people. Things take a while to improve. He's cynical and uninterested in the others, whose issues range from terminal illness to physical disability to mental illness.

Her earlier books, Broken Glass Park and The Hottest Dishes of the Tatar Cuisine, were favorites of mine that tackled family dysfunction in ways that were painful and real. Her latest takes a slightly different subject and works it over with the same level of psychological insight and literary craft.

The book was hard for me because I can relate to some of Marek's issues. When I was a teen I was in a car accident that left me with a permanent disfigurement; but luckily it's one that I can hide most of the time and I've always said I feel for people with facial disfigurements because I can just put on long pants and that's that. When it's your face, there's nowhere to hide, and the self conscious way I feel at the beach or the gym is the way some folks feel all the time, so it's tough, and you've got to learn to be very strong to muscle through it.

But when you're young (and even when you're older) toughness can mean anger and Marek is still angry, at himself, at the accident that changed his life, at others whose glances and expressions remind him that he's different, even if it's only his appearance that's different. He's infatuated with Janne, a beautiful wheelchair bound young woman in his group, competing for her attention with other young men and behaving like the immature kid he is. When the group goes on a trip together things come to a head and he alienates some members of the group. At the same time though he gets word that his estranged father has died, and what happens next surprises everyone, Marek especially.

I ended up loving this book with its tough-necked characters and the insights they gain into each others' lives. The tone of the book changes in the final third and this was where it all came together for me as Marek learns things that challenge his assumptions about everything, himself most particularly. It's a must-read for Bronsky's fans and also provides a lively portrait of modern German life at that same time its themes of redemption and growth are universal. Sometimes, the person in whose eyes you most need to be redeemed are your own, and learning that is the hardest thing of all.

This is my 13th book for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed a galley copy of this book from the bookstore where I used to work.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Pushpak K. reviews A NOVEL BOOKSTORE by Laurence Cosse

What makes a good book a truly "great" book? When does a work of individual imagination and brilliance count as a global literary treasure? And who decides what is good or not?

Laurence Cosse's delightful novel "A Novel Bookstore" attempts to define this for the reader. But in doing so, it opens more questions than it can answer, not only about the process of reading and judging the quality of what one reads (is THIS trash or literature?), but also about the ability of "good" literature to affect our everyday lives in an almost irreparable yet profound fashion. The title of this story is a double-entendre on the main plot device - a bookstore that only sells the best novels in the world. No pulp, no bestsellers, no commercial conveyer-belt products available here, sorry! 

Best described as a literary-mystery-romance, the story opens with a fast paced prologue - Three seemingly ordinary people are attacked / terrorized by unknown assailants resulting in one death. What is the connection between these people? Why are they being targeted for assassination? As we look into this mysterious world through the eyes of an unnamed narrator (whose identity is revealed on the very last page), the story unfolds through the intersecting lives of the two main protagonists, Ivan and Francesca - the brains (and hearts) behind the eponymous bookstore.

Ivan is a young bibliophile who is unfortunately, also in the business of selling them. His personal taste often finds itself at odds with his employer's or worse, customer's demands, and he quickly gathers an impressive resume of short stints in various bookstores. It is in one such idyllic store in a ski station that he meets Francesca, a wealthy Parisian with a similar taste in literature and the same passion for disseminating good literature. Plans hatch quickly to open a store that sells only the best novels to their customers. The task of choosing the inventory falls on the shoulders of a committee of eight authors that they both admire. "The Good Novel" opens with the following manifesto:

“We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please. … We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost …. We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there. …We want good novels.”

The venture opens to great success. Book lovers from far and wide flock to this unique establishment in the search for their favorites. Ivan and Francesca expand their staff, which also includes Ivan's temperamental girlfriend, to accommodate their customers better. Along the way, there are hints of romantic interest, particularly from Francesca's side, but they remain unfulfilled. Trouble brews in the form of a clandestine organization that attempts to malign the name of the new bookstore and its owners. With a media campaign that reeks of wealth, they try to portray the 'discerning' bookstore as 'elitist' and 'totalitarian.' When that fails, they try to skew the inventory by sending in hundreds of bogus customers who order novels that are not in stock, but then fail to pick them up. As a last resort, they attack and intimidate the members of the selection committee.

Do Ivan and Francesca rise above their obstacles and succeed in their dream of providing the best literature to the best readers? Who is this mysterious adversary who wants to bring them down?

Cosse provides a very interesting narrative to a plot whose novelty lies in the execution of a seemingly simple idea. The characters are very well defined, and there are times when this story does not feel like fiction at all. She takes great care to describe the character quirks, clothing, and environs in minute detail. The language is also free-flowing, and the often witty dialogues do not feel forced. However, the book tries to be many things at the same time, and nearly does not succeed. It comes off as a first-rate meta-fiction about literature, but the mystery portion is oversold and undercooked. It tries to draw a parallel between the literary and fictional worlds inhabited by the characters, but the tragedy in the character's lives does not hit home quite as hard since the relationship between Ivan and Francesca is not developed to the extent to make the tragedy a poignant denouement. The parts that are best written invariably involve discussion of books, and those are the passages that stay with you long after the story has concluded. 

In all, this is an excellent story that explores the importance of books in our society on an individual as well as societal scale. Very recommended!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Marie C. reviews ELEVEN DAYS by Stav Sherez

Eleven Days, by Stav Sherez. Published 2014 by Europa Editions. Crime Fiction/Mystery.

When it comes to series, I rarely read past volume one. It's not that I'm anti-series; I just usually don't get hooked enough to continue, and in the case of crime fiction, I'd rather sample lots of series than delve too deeply into one. It's a way for me to get to know a little about a lot of authors and stories, so that I can recommend books approrpriately to my customers and friends.

Eleven Days is book two of British writer Stav Sherez's Carrigan/Miller series, so you can tell right away I'm a fan. The first book in the series, A Dark Redemption, was a favorite of mine in 2013, one of the best books I read that year of any genre and Eleven Days is a worthy successor. After finishing the second installment, I'm confident this series has a bright, dark future.

Set again in London and featuring his detectives Jack Carrigan and Geneva Miller, we start out with ten dead nuns and one other dead person in a London convent. Police find their charred bodies after fire tears through the building and little by little clues emerge.  The nuns have connections to bad guys in South America and Eastern Europe- lots of people who'd like to see them dead, for different reasons.  Several of the bodies bear the marks of torture. Financial records point towards work in South America and ties to the leftist liberation theology movement. The nuns also had run-ins with Albanian drug lords and sex traffickers next door. And the church itself is not being particularly cooperative with our investigators. We also see more developments in Carrigan and Miller's ongoing rapport and hints that there are serious problems in Miller's personal life as well as Carrigan's. We see them pursuing different tracks of the investigation and coming to conflict with each other over theories and execution, so to speak.

Just like A Dark Redemption, Eleven Days is a great page-turner. It's grisly and gory and delves into not one but two troubling aspects of modern geopolitics, as well as the more prosaic, and tragic,  story of a girl who thought she could make a difference in the world. There's enough here for three books, and Sherez weaves it all together into a cohesive and absorbing tale. I like that we got some hints about Miller's troubles, and I hope to read more about that lousy ex of hers in a future installment. I'm also glad that there doesn't seem to be any romance in the offing for Carrigan and Miller, at least in the short term. Romance plots are a distraction from the far more interesting questions of how to simply get along with other troubled human beings.

Anyway as you can tell I enjoyed Eleven Days quite a bit. I'm definitely hooked as far as following the rest of the books, however many Sherez has planned. I'm still kicking myself a little for waiting for the US release and not buying it when I was in London last year. Oh well. My next trip to London will be in September 2015 and if he's got a new one out by then I won't be waiting!

Tomorrow I'll have an interview with Sherez on my blog,

This is my 12th book for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

I received my copy of Eleven Days for review from Europa Editions.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Marie C. Reviews The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster

The Unknown Bridesmaid is one of the best books about the dark side of childhood I've ever read. It's the story of a girl who grows into a troubled teen and then a deeply dysfunctional adult who helps others without realizing how much help she needs herself.

Julia is raised by a secretive, authoritarian mother who belittles and shuts her daughter out. Nobody will talk about her father, who died when Julia was five. Julia grows up with her mother's sister Maureen, Maureen's beautiful daughter Iris and later Iris's family, consisting of her second husband Carlo and daughters Elsa and Fran. But before there is a family with Carlo there is a wedding to Reginald, Iris's first husband and Reggie, her little son, who die, and nobody will talk about them, either.

This ordinary family holds a lot of secrets, and Julia grows up believing she has the most devastating secret of all. This secret gives her guilt and shame, but it also gives her power. Julia is a deep introvert who cannot find a way to fit into the warm, extroverted family with whom she must live after the sudden death of her withholding mother, who taught her to disdain her cousin.  Her feelings of insignificance are transformed into bullying and aggression towards Elsa, Carlo and Iris when her mother's death leaves her feeling abandoned and alone. As an adult, Julia becomes first a teacher and then a counselor to troubled children, but it takes meeting an unhinged adult who strikes Julia as another version of herself, to get her to face her childhood demons.

Of course in her chosen profession Julia is reliving and dealing with her issues every day, even if she doesn't realize it. And here's the thing. Julia is not a nurturer; she is clinical, detached and strategic, and even to the end she cannot fully understand or admit to the damage she's done to the people who loved her, because she cannot admit her own importance to them. Margaret Forster's genius is convincing us how it happened, how powerless she felt, how frustrated by the silence around her, and how her actions made her feel like she mattered, made her feel like she could have an impact when all around she was told to be quiet, not ask questions, sit on the sidelines. It's painful to see how different things could have been for her. She can't understand, even into middle-aged adulthood, that she did matter to her cousin's family, and to her only friend. It might be too late to undo some of the damage, but not too late to make it better for somebody else.

Forster has written a quiet and devastating novel about how the wounds of childhood carry over into adulthood and how hard it is to let go of the image one has created of oneself, no matter how strenuously others contradict it. And it shows how precarious our lives are, how one person takes a wrong turn when someone else, equally flawed and vulnerable, doesn't. It also offers hope that it doesn't have to be this way, that healing and help are possible, if only one reaches out. It's a tough read and a beautiful one, too.

You'll find yourself thinking back on this book for a long time after you're done reading. It'll definitely show up in my favorites list this year.

It's the 11th book I've read for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Marie C. Reviews RED JOAN by Jennie Rooney

Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney. Published 2014 by Europa Editions. Literary fiction; historical fiction.

Red Joan is an excellent novel based on the true story of an octogenarian British woman who was revealed to be the KGB's oldest living British operative. Of course what everyone wanted to know was, why? In the case of real life, the woman was a die-hard Communist true believer, but Jennie Rooney has decided to make her heroine an entirely different person and has crafted from this rich premise a tense and absorbing tale about love and what it means to be loyal.

Rooney alternates the narratives between the past and present, the present being when elderly Joan is brought in for questioning after the sudden death of a fellow spy. She is living a quiet life in England and her son, a successful lawyer, rushes to her aid. He doesn't believe that she could be guilty of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets but as her story unwinds she gradually lets down her guard. Then it's just a matter of why.

Set starting just prior to the outbreak of World War 2, Joan is not a true believer, but rather an ordinary lower-middle-class girl making her way at Cambridge. She encounters Sonya, a glamorous Russian who takes the mousy Joan under her wing and introduces Joan to her cousin Leo, a magnetic young man with whom Joan becomes infatuated. They become lovers. Leo is a committed Communist and Joan accompanies him to rallies and meetings, and while the philosophy behind Communism is not unappealing to her, she is largely apolitical. What she believes in is Leo, at least until she learns she can't. When war breaks out she is offered the opportunity to work in a lab doing nuclear research. The man who runs this lab is married but in love with Joan; she returns his feelings but is torn. At this point Leo, Sonya and their associate William step up pressure on Joan to spy for them. Eventually she accepts.

Meanwhile in the later timeline, Joan slowly buckles to the pressure to tell what she knows, and has to explain herself to Nick.

I really loved this book. The last few chapters are tense page-turners as Joan's activities lead to consequences she doesn't expect and she has to work her way out of a very tight spot indeed.  Joan is an interesting character, an ordinary woman caught up in events and just trying to keep her head above water for much of the book. Then, when the waves crash too high, she has to pick a side. Rooney doesn't exactly convince us that Joan was right, but that what she did made sense for her at the time she did it, for the reasons she did it. Nick is the skeptical reader's stand-in and doesn't understand her, but Rooney shows us the past is another country. The story is more about relationships than politics,  the triumph of real love and the power of love to save ourselves, and others.

The readers I would have in mind for Red Joan like literary fiction, British war stories and a good love story, too. For me it was a winner.

This is the 10th book I've read for this year's Europa Challenge.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pushpak K. reviews "The Woman with the Bouquet" by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” 
- Khalil Gibran

Of all the complex emotions that separate the homo sapiens from the rest of the species, love remains - after a millennia of evolution - the hardest to define, yet the simplest to experience. History overflows with reams of parchment, ink, musical notes, paint and countless other media that have all been employed by artists in the single-minded pursuit of this elusive wisp. But, as in the tale of the blind men and their elephant, our perception of love, when viewed through the lens of such works, gives us but a tiny glimpse into the mysterious machine that fuels most of our existence.

Eric Emmanuel-Schmitt's "The Woman with the Bouquet" is a superlative collection of short stories (and a novella) that take us on a tour of this enigmatic landscape, but forgoes all the tourist traps. This is a journey through the wilder, somewhat darker and deeper parts of human psyche that shake, jolt, rattle and in general string us up in the most surprising ways possible. We emerge bloodied, battle scarred (for life), albeit richer in our ability to experience and understand the various facets of love. Make no mistake though - you will lose a part of yourself in these stories - you will never be whole again! And that, is a GOOD thing!

We encounter "The Dreamer from Ostend" in the opening novella, an old woman who refuses to move with time. Surrounding herself with books of classic literature, she refuses to open a door to any contemporary influence, clinging on to her only remaining thread to a past that was filled with love. Until, she encounters the narrator, a young writer who has come away from his past after a romantic breakup. After a few terse encounters, she finally relents and opens up to him about her past - a life so full of fantastical incidents that he refuses to believe in them, until it is too late.

In "Perfect Crime," Schmitt tackles the difficult transition of insecure, lifelong love morphing into a deadly obsession, and the tragedy that inevitably results from such a change. Without spoiling the story, suffice it to say that it has a bittersweet ending that may stay with you for a long long time.

"Getting Better" is a double entendre that describes the two protagonists in the story about a blind, paralyzed patient and his plain-jane Parisian nurse. Their encounter sets up a chain of events that irrevocably changes their lives, perhaps for the better?

"Trashy Reading" is a tragicomedy, a black satire on the effects of a lifetime of abstinence and the flood of complex emotions that usually follows a brief exposure to the forbidden substance. Schmitt is masterful in this tale, weaving a fast-paced narrative through the world of an uptight, bibliophile professor who is initiated into The Chamber of Dark Secrets, by his cousin on a holiday trip.

The final story is the titular tale of a woman who has been showing up on a platform in Zurich station, a bouquet in her hand, for fifteen years. Who is she waiting for, and why wait for such a long time? Schmitt channels the reader's curiosity through the eyes of a group of young adults who speculate if her daily ritual is a sign of loyalty or a desperate plea of resignation? Although the smallest story in terms of pages, it is also the deepest exploration of the subject by the author.

Alison Anderson works up her magic translator machine once again, and delivers the narration in an almost lyrical prose that captures the ethos of the stories, while resisting the easy slide into mushy-ness. The prose is hard-hitting, and visceral, with a calculated effort to translate not only Schmitt's words, but his style de narration.

Highly recommended!