ARC REVIEW: The Last Gods Of Indochine – by Samuel Ferrer

Title: The Last Gods Of Indochine
Author: Samuel Ferrer

Genre: Historical Fiction
First published: September 20th 2016
Publisher: Signal 8 Press
Finished reading: March 13th 2017
Pages: 422

“I told Jean-Luc I feared entering a world where everyone is a stranger; the truth is, I am escaping from a world where everyone knew me too well.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I confess I’m terribly behind with my ARCs and this historical fiction story was long overdue. The Last Gods Of Indochine belongs to one of my favorite genres and both the Cambodian setting, era and reference to local mythology had me intrigued immediately. This novel by Samuel Ferrer surely didn’t disappoint. The Last Gods Of Indochine is mostly set in Cambodia and has two main storylines: one set in the 1920s and one set in the 13th century. I was instantly charmed by the story of Paaku the Lotus-Born all those centuries ago, and the mythology and ideas of his world are intriguing. His chapters are without doubt my favorite part of this novel, and I enjoyed learning more about both his world and his character. I wasn’t instantly convinced by Jacquie on the other hand, and it took me some time to connect to her. It was very interesting to read about her journey to Cambodia though and the circumstances under which both her grandfather before her and Jacquie herself had to travel in those days. I also particularly enjoyed their travels within Cambodia and it was nice to see both storylines slowly connect. In short, The Last Gods Of Indochine is a well written historical fiction story with an intriguing plot and a fascinating read in general for fans of the genre.

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In medieval Cambodia, Paaku the Lotus-Born is an orphan raised by a Vishu priest. One day something incredible happens and the community starts to believe Paaku might be the incarnation of a god… Something that might turn out to be dangerous for him and he is not sure if he wants that title in the first place. Meanwhile, in 1921, Jacquie follows the footsteps of her grandfather and travels to Indochina. Her grandfather was a famous explorer who died during his travels, and Jacquie wants to learn more about the country he explored. Soon she starts learning about the tragedy of Paaku’s history and the storylines slowly intertwine…

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If you enjoy reading well written historical fiction stories with an interesting setting and a touch of (Asian) mythology, The Last Gods Of Indochine is an excellent choice. Two stories set in two completely different centuries slowly start to intertwine… And the ‘modern’ world clashes with the medieval story. I had a great time reading this novel and especially Paaku’s POV stood out from me. Such a fascinating story!


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ARC REVIEW: A Gentleman In Moscow – by Amor Towles

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Title: A Gentleman In Moscow
Author: Amor Towles

Genre: Historical Fiction
First published: September 6th 2016
Publisher: Hutchinson
Finished reading: February 24th 2017
Pages: 462
Rating 4qqq

“No matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Netgalley and Hutchinson in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I first heard about this book last year and originally wanted to read it before the Goodreads Choice Awards last November, but I wasn’t able to get a copy in time. I’ve heard nothing but great things about A Gentleman In Moscow ever since and I was delighted to both find it mentioned at Netgalley AND actually receive an ARC copy of it shortly after. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, but it’s been a while since I last read a story set in Russia. This novel by Amor Towles starts in the 1920s and follows the main character during the next two decades, successfully combining historical facts with the personal stories of the characters and making A Gentleman In Moscow that much more intriguing to read. Sure, this novel has quite a slow pace and that might disencourage some readers. But the prose and descriptions more than make up for it and the slow pace can be explained in the first place by the fact that it’s a mostly character-driven story. It’s beautifully written story that will appeal to both fans of the historical fiction genre and to those who enjoy a proper character-driven story. Because it’s the main characters who make this book into such a lovely story; without Count Alexander Rostov and his new friends at the hotel, this story would simply fall apart.

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On 21 June 1922, the life of Count Alexandre Rostov is about to change forever… In fact, he is lucky to be still alive the next day. The Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is forced to spend the rest of his days inside the Hotel Metropol just across the Red Square. And they don’t take him to his usual suite either; he is led to a small attic room without even a proper window. Rostov is forced to embrace his new life stripped of everything that used to define him, and it makes him question what makes us who we are… And during his years at the Metropol, he slowly starts to discover new ways to find purpose in his life.

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If you want to try the historical fiction genre, but are afraid of dense fact-ridden bricks that are difficult to read, A Gentleman In Moscow will come to the rescue. It’s true that the pace is a bit slow, but apart from the beautiful descriptions of the 20th century Russia this novel is mostly about the life of Count Alexander Rostov inside the hotel and the way his character develops over time. It’s a truly fascinating read and the prose is wonderful; more than recommended!


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BOOK REVIEW: A Man Called Ove – by Fredrik Backman

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Title: A Man Called Ove
Author: Fredrik Backman

Genre: Fiction, Humor, Contemporary
First published: August 27th 2012
Publisher: Atria Books
Finished reading: November 22nd 2016
Pages: 337
(Originally written in Swedish: “En man som heter Ove”)
Rating 5qqq

“We always think there’s enough time to do things with other people. Time to say things to them. And then something happens and then we stand there holding on to words like ‘if’.”

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There has been a lot of hype around Fredrik Backman‘s work this year, and I thought it was about time to find out just exactly what everybody was raving about. And boy do I regret not having picked up my copy of A Man Called Ove earlier! This originally Swedish book was in one word BRILLIANT. I fell in love with both the prose and main character from the very first page and it’s been a while since a book has been able to make me laugh and cry at the same time. Ove has managed to win over my heart, grumpiness and all, and he is hands down one of my new favorite characters. He really reminded me of Carl, the grumpy old man from the movie Up! And Ove’s character is just as endearing in his own grumpy way. Apart from the prose itself and the fabulous character, Fredrik Backman is also able to combine heartbreaking and sensitive topics with a humor that is right up my alley. The humor might not be for everyone, but even so I would suggest trying A Man Called Ove if you haven’t already. It’s without doubt one of my favorite reads this year!

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Ove is a grumpy man who finds his solitary world turned upside down when a young family moves in next door. He is the kind of man with strict routines and a short fuse. People around him call him ‘the bitter neighbor from hell’, but is he really bitter just because he doesn’t seem friendly all the time? Behind his cranky exterior is a story and a sadness that will slowly be revealed as random things start happening when the family next door moves in.

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This is not the first time I have been blown away by a Swedish book, and A Man Called Ove has definitely been added to my list of all time favorites. I’m having a hard time writing a coherent review, but what I can say is that I strongly suggest reading this story. It’s just that good! I’m aware the humor I myself loved might be a turn off for some, but even so I would say it is worth the try. I will be looking forward to read his other books soon.

ARC REVIEW: The Bitter Side Of Sweet – by Tara Sullivan

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Title: The Bitter Side Of Sweet
Author: Tara Sullivan

Genre: YA, Realistic Fiction, Contemporary
First published: February 23rd 2016
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Finished reading: October 6th 2016
Pages: 336

Rating 4,5qqq

“We sit like that until the sun bleeds into the night sky and the cracks in the wooden shed door glow pink. When this happens I know we’ve made it through the worst of it. Pain is like sadness; both are easier to bear in daylight.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Netgalley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I have a weak spot for stories set in (for me) foreign cultures, so I was sold as soon as I read the blurb of this novel by Tara Sullivan. I’m glad I decided to read it, because the story simply blew me away. Even though The Bitter Side Of Sweet is a fictional story, it’s based on actual facts and it shows the author knows a lot about the topic. The descriptions of both the general setting, the cacao farm and the characters are very well done and help you form a better picture of something that is actually happening right now in those countries. The main characters and young brothers Amadou and Seydou are fictional, but they are an example of what thousands of children have to go through while they are being forced to work at a cacao farm under difficult conditions and without pay. And I can assure you, it definitely gives you something to think about. The story itself might have a few flaws including the credibility of the young brother’s journey, but the strong message behind The Bitter Side Of Sweet makes you forget all about them. Overall it’s without doubt a brilliant read I can recommend to everyone who enjoys the genre.

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Set in modern-day Ivory Coast, two young brothers are struggling to survive on a cacao farm. Amadou and Seydou are forced to work without pay and have to chop down enough cacao pods every day to avoid punishment. The higher the number, the safer they are and the higher the chances of not getting beaten. And who knows, the bosses might let them return home again if they work hard enough… The problem is Amadou doesn’t know how high the debt to his bosses is and they won’t tell him. They were only trying to earn money during the dry season, but were tricked into forced labor instead. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive; until Khadija comes into their lives. She is the first girl ever to come to camp and has a wild spirit. She doesn’t stop her attempts of escape, involving the brothers against their will. But it does remind Amadou what it means to be free…

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My intuition was right when I first saw The Bitter Side Of Sweet mentioned, because it was exactly the book I enjoy reading. It’s a well written story with a fast pace and strong message that is not easy to forget. The characters are well developed and even though their ‘adventure’ is not at all times completely credible, it is still an excellent read. Therefore I can recommend this story to anyone who enjoys the genre and/or has an interest in the topic.

BOOK REVIEW: As Red As Blood – by Salla Simukka

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Title: As Red As Blood
(Lumukki Andersson #1)
Author: Salla Simukka
Genre: YA, Mystery, Thriller
First published: February 20th 2013
Publisher: Skyscape
Finished reading: July 4th 2016
Pages: 274
(Originally written in Finnish: “Punainen Kuin Veri”)
Rating 2,5qqq

“Do not seek power for revenge. Seek power in order to avoid situations that would make you want revenge.”

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After talking to a good friend of mine the other day (she’s Finnish), I remembered I had this book by the Finnish author Salla Simukka on my TBR shelves. I decided to pick up my copy of As Red As Blood on a whim even though I had heard mixed things about it, and the beginning definitely had me hooked. A few fairy tale references, the main character Lumikki named after Snow White, lots of action and suspense… The start of As Red As Blood had all the signs I was going to enjoy it. BUT: as things slowly got out of hand, I started to doubt the credibility of Lumikki and the plot in general. This novel is not a fantasy story, but the plot sure sounds fantastical at times. Lumikki is able to do and understand things only a ‘superspy’ could without no real explanation how she got those skills.. And why would she agree to help those three in the first place if they are not even friends? She also had too many ‘close calls’ for the story to be credible… I mean, she is just a teenage girl with a complicated past after all. I think this all would have bothered me less if there would have been more fantasy elements and it might just be that something was lost in translation, but I personally didn’t enjoy As Red As Blood as much as I hoped even though it was a fast read.

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When Lumikki Andersson walks into her school’s dark room and finds a stash of wet, blood-stained money drying, she knows she found trouble. The thousands of Euros splattered with someone’s blood left to dry can only mean one thing: someone with access to the schoolgrounds either is a murderer or mixed up with the wrong crowd… But when she goes back after the first period to decide what to do with the money, it’s gone. She doesn’t want to get involved, focusing just on studying and graduating and ignoring the rest, but the blood-stained money changes everything. She follows one of the students to a bar, and when one of the trio recognizes Lumikki she soon finds herself right in the middle of a chain of chaotic events. Events that turn out to be even more deadly and dangerous after there are signs dirty cops and a drug kingpin are involved…

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One of the things I liked of As Red As Blood is the setting: my friend used to live in Tampere as well and the descriptions made it feel like I was walking the streets myself. The pace of the story is fast and there is a lot of action involved, but unfortunately I can’t say the plot and character were really credible. I will still try to read the sequel at some point though!

BOOK REVIEW: The Conspiracy Of Us – by Maggie Hall

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Title: The Conspiracy Of Us
(The Conspiracy Of Us #1)
Author: Maggie Hall
Genre: YA, Mystery, Romance
First published: January 13th 2015
Finished reading: April 8th 2016
Pages: 330
Rating 5qqq

“Toska.” He leaned forward, too. “It’s a Russian word. It has no translation into any other language, but the closest I’ve heard is the ache. A longing. The sense that something is missing, and even if you’re not sure what it is, you ache for it. Down to your bones.”

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I normally don’t like it when a book is compared to the work of a different author, but in this case I totally agree The Conspiracy Of Us bears similarities to one of the Ally Carter books I read last year (All Fall Down). And like with that series, I ended up loving The Conspiracy Of Us as well. I’m so glad my TBR jar decided it was time to start reading this series, because I haven’t felt this way about a fiction read in way too long! It’s true I didn’t care for the romance scenes and the ‘almost’ love triangle, but in this case the rest of the story more than made up for it. It’s easy to say Maggie Hall‘s writing had me hooked right from the first chapter; the story is fast-paced with just the right amount of plot twists, adrenaline and mystery. More importantly, since I love traveling and discovering new cultures myself, I could especially appreciate the Paris and Istanbul descriptions and the many historical references. I liked the main characters and their development as well (if you don’t count the romance scenes), and I’m really looking forward to find out what happens next. In short, The Conspiracy Of Us is basically just about everything I want in a good story. If you haven’t read it yet and like the genre, I strongly suggest trying out this series!

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Avery West grew up thinking her father abandoned them when she was a baby. They have been moving around a lot because of her mother’s job and she always tries to keep a distance to the people around her so it won’t hurt too much when she has to say goodbye again. This time seems to be different though as she meets Jack, and it seems like he isn’t exactly who he claims to be. Soon her life is being turned around and she finds herself on a plane to Paris on her way to her newfound family… Although things are not as simple as Avery thinks. Apparently, her family is part of a powerful and dangerous secret society called the Circle, and Avery might be the key to an ancient prophecy. While she is trying to unravel the mystery, Avery soon realizes she is in more danger than she thought… And the trail of clues leads her from Paris to the back alleys of Istanbul and other places she never would have imagined visiting, let alone with someone chasing her. Who can she really trust and will she unravel the mystery on time?

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It’s been a long time since I have love a series (that isn’t YA fantasy) this much. Besides the romance scenes I didn’t particularly care for, The Conspiracy Of Us is basically an example of what I would call a perfect read. A fast pace, easy-to-read prose, an interesting plot with just the right amount of plot twists, an international atmosphere, characters I can connect to… Check. Check. CHECK! As you might have guessed already, I really enjoyed this first book and I have already started reading the sequel as I’m writing this review. Recommended!

BOOK REVIEW: Bestiario – by Julio Cortázar

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Title: Bestiario
Author: Julio Cortázar
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism, Short Stories
First published: 1951
Finished reading: February 29th 2016
Pages: 144
Rating 3,5qqq

“Las costumbres, Andrée, son formas concretas del ritmo, son la cuota del ritmo que nos ayuda a vivir. No era tan terrible vomitar conejitos una vez que se había entrado en el ciclo invariable, en el método.”

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I have been wanting to start reading in Spanish again for ages and it seemed more than fitting to pick an author who comes from the same country I now call my home: Argentina. I have read short stories by Julio Cortázar in the past, especially during my years at the University, but I can’t remember having read the full Bestiario bundle. Like in the other stories I know, Julio Cortázar was without doubt an expert in the use of magical realism. The way he was able to combine ordinary things and situations with magical realism elements is what makes his stories so special and I really enjoyed reading them. I do have to say that some stories were better than others; especially Lejana didn’t really manage to convince me. Still, this is without doubt a very interesting read and it felt good to read in Spanish again.

I’m doing this review slightly different since there are eight different short stories included in this bundle. Below a short description and my thoughts on each of them.

Casa Tomada

In this story a brother and a sister are living in a big and old house in Buenos Aires. It starts as a description of their everyday life; then slowly that same house is being taken over by a ‘stranger’. You never get to find out who it was or why they don’t try to fight it, and that is part of the charm of this short story.

Carta A Una Señorita En Paris

This story is the perfect example of Julio Cortázar’s excellent writing skills where he mixed magical realism with interesting descriptions. The main character writes a letter to the owner of the house he has been asked to take care of with a confession: somehow he regularly ‘vomits’ little rabbits and then has to hide them… It sounds absurd but it is actually a quite funny story.

Lejana

This one is without doubt my least favorite story. I normally like magical realism, but this story was too confusing to be enjoyable. It seems to be a story of a woman who writes about some kind of visions, but to be honest I’m still not completely sure what was really going on.

Ómnibus

One of my favorites of this bundle. What I love is that Julio Cortázar used ordinary things like a bus ride and changes it into a surreal story. Having lived in BA and taken the same 168 bus many times only improves the reading experience…

Cefalea

This story is a bit more fantastical than others and is actually quite interesting. The characters have to take care of fictional animals (mancuspias) but are struggling because they are suffering from really bad headaches. Slowly things are starting to go wrong and they don’t know how to fix it…

Cirse

This story made me crave chocolate! Delia makes chocolates and saw her two previous boyfriends die under suspicious circumstances. Mario prefers to ignore the odds and is determined to be her third and only living boyfriend… An interesting enough story for sure.

Las Puertas Del Cielo

This story hasn’t as many magical realism elements but is without doubt very interesting as well. One of the main characters is a husband who is struggling to coope with the death of his wife, and his friend is trying to help him. One night when they go to a milonga he thinks he sees his dead wife again… Las Puertas Del Cielo turned out to be intriguing and also has a nice reference to the whole milonga culture.

Bestiario

The last story is probably the most famous one and is also the story the bundle has been named after. I remember having to read this particular short story back in Uni and I really enjoyed reading it second time around. Magical realism at its best! The characters live in a big house and there also happens to be a tiger walking around. The movements of the characters are limited by the tiger, but they seem to be used to it… Until someone makes a mistake.