miércoles, 24 de septiembre de 2014

Night Film - Marisha Pessl

Summary (from Goodreads):

Everybody has a Cordova story. Cult horror director Stanislas Cordova hasn't been seen in public since 1977. To his fans he is an engima. To journalist Scott McGrath he is the enemy. To Ashley he was a father.

On a damp October night the body of young, beautiful Ashley Cordova is found in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Her suicide appears to be the latest tragedy to hit a severely cursed dynasty.

For McGrath, another death connected to the legendary director seems more than a coincidence. Driven by revenge, curiosity and a need for the truth, he finds himself pulled into a hypnotic, disorientating world, where almost everyone seems afraid.
The last time McGrath got close to exposing Cordova, he lost his marriage and his career. This time he could lost his grip on reality.

Marisha Pessl's Night Film has been marketed as an scary thiller. I enjoyed the book, but let me tell you something: it is neither thrilling nor scary. The story starts with the dubious suicide of Ashley Cordova soon after investigative reporter Scott McGrath has a ghostly encounter with her. Convinced that Ashley was trying to reach out for help, Scott starts investigating her death. There are also personal motives fueling this decision, since the enigmatic Stanislas Cordova had destroyed Scott's reputation some years before her daughter's death, and Scott can't help but think the two events are somehow related.

The starting point of the book is quite intriguing. Was it really a suicide? What happened to Ashley Cordova? Who is Stanislas Cordova and why is he so secluded? Is it all linked to a series of children abductions which happened during the eighties? And yet, with such a cool mystery, the story never picks up its pace, never grips the reader. The novel mixes dark magic, curses, drugs, and cults. [A little note here: if you are going to use Spanish because your character have a Hispanic background, double check the grammar and the spellings. Spanish is my native language, and the mistake-ridden sentences were driving me mad. Also, Cordova wouldn't be a Spanish surname, much less a Catalonian one.]

Pessl offers a choose your own ending approach - a sane, logical and safe ending, or a magical one. I saw this from a mile, and this is not because I'm good at picking up clues - the investigation is really convoluted in this novel. It is because the clues mean nothing to the real mystery, which is if Scott is living his life or a film version directed by Stanislas Cordova himself, and this is so blatant it isn't even a mystery. Yup, Ashley's death is not really that important. As a mystery, Night Film is a very ineffectual one.

It is clever, though. Marisha Pessl is quite clever and she knows it, so the story can be indulgent at some points. She has constructed a story of layers upon layers, and a whole mythos about the fictional cult director Stanislas Cordova, which is by far the most interesting part ot Night Film. Each of his films has a plot and some relevance to the overall story - Pessl has created a dozen of stories within the bigger story, and these fictional films are things I would like to see, but with my hands covering my eyes. They felt more interesting than Ashley Cordova's death or Scott's crumbling life. Pessl has also created a convincing world around the director, complete with a secret network, secret clubs, a scary mansion, and magazine articles on his life. These felt a bit gimmicky, but they eventually added something to a story that would have been slightly clichéd otherwise. On the other hand, I hated the app which supposedly adds extra content to the book. It honestly didn't work well in my phone, and I didn't want to wait for the app to work to be able to continue with my story. If a novel isn't well-paced in the first place, don't add a cumbersome obstacle which will harm the pace even more. Just saying. I ended up not caring about the extra content.

Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!

miércoles, 17 de septiembre de 2014

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

Summary (from Goodreads):

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

Gone Girl was last year's summer hit novel, but I never found the time to read it then. Partly because I didn't want the hype to guide my reading. So I waited a whole year to read it on my own terms, and I'm glad I did.

Before starting the novel, I knew it was about the disappearance of Amy Dunne, half of a dysfunctional marriage, and that I was in for a surprise. So I knew that things wouldn't be as simple as they seemed at the start of the novel. And yet I can't say knowing this spoiled the story - I really couldn't stop reading, and I didn't foresee the ending. This was a page-turner like no other I have ever read.

Gillian Flynn has created horrid characters - both Amy and Nick have their own set of very important problems, and I wouldn't like to meet them in real life. Reading the dissection of their crumbling marriage is like watching a train wreck. It is awful, but you won't stop looking. With every page, it gets worse, but more gripping - Gillian Flynn has masterfully created two characters you love to hate. It is the first time that a story about another middle/high-class mess of a marriage has kept me on edge. I raked my brain over the to-ing and fro-ing, over Nick's lies and Amy's diary and clues, and I loved the ending. While it is true that it is a bit anti-climatic, specially for such a well-written thriller, it is smart, a Mexican stand-off of sorts. I am curious about the new ending Flynn has written for the film, because I was quite happy with this one.

I also liked the descriptions of life in North Carthage, Nick's relationship with Margo, his fear of becoming his father, the poverty and the abuse and the precarious situation of the people living in this town, the Amazing Amy stories, and the vacuous New York friends. Everyone has their own very believable voice, and everyone has their own bleak story. Gillian Flynn definitely knows how to write, and I can't wait to get my hands on her backlist.

Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!

viernes, 12 de septiembre de 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

In "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still struggling to adapt to the modern world, but he is better adjusted than at the end of "The First Avenger", and he is getting up to date with historical events and pop culture. He still misses the friendships he lost - the scene with Peggy was one of the most heartbreaking, as was his visit to the Smithsonian exhibit about Captain America and Bucky Barnes.

At S.H.I.E.L.D. everything continues as it always has, but the Captain is starting to have trouble trusting Nick Fury's orders, which is a first for this super soldier. His superior is definitely not telling him the whole story, and everything gets more complicated when Nick is killed by a mysterious man who goes by the name of Winter Soldier.

In a quest to uncover what is really happening at S.H.I.E.L.D. and whether Hydra was defeated during World War Two, the Captain enlists the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

This film is definitely darker than "The First Avenger", and leads the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) to a more serious place than other Avenger films - corruption within S.H.I.E.L.D., questioning authority, and facing bad choices. We see everyone opening up - it is wonderful. At the same time, the Captain doesn't lose his kindness and his silly one-liners.

The lack of women in the MCU has been widely criticised, but it seems that they are finally doing something about it! They still have a long way to go, although I'm glad this movie is a starting point - women have played more prominent roles than in the past. Besides Black Widow, we have two agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who have more or less important parts in the development of the events. I just hope they continue exploring women heroes and superheroes in the next films of the MCU, so that we can finally have a film focused on a superheroine.

miércoles, 10 de septiembre de 2014

The Pillow Book - Sei Shōnagon

Summary (from Goodreads):

Japan in the 10th century stood physically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world. Inside this bubble, a subtle and beautiful world was in operation, and its inhabitants were tied to the moment, having no interest in the future and disdain for the past. In a small diary, a young courtesan of the Heian period gives her account of the Japanese courts of the day, providing perspective on a unique time in Japanese history. In a place and time where poetry was as important as knowledge and beauty was highly revered, Sei Shōnagon's private writings give the reader a charming and intimate glimpse into a time of isolated innocence and pale beauty.

The Pillow Book is a collection of lists, random thoughts and specially moving events jotted down by the Japanese Lady Sei Shōnagon. The structure of the book was not exactly my favourite, since the little snippets were all over the place. They were not organised chronologically or thematically, and that made for a confusing reading experience at times. However, that is the only quibble I had with this book.

Sei had a very sharp mind, and her observations of 10th-century Japanese court are a wonderful and enjoyable glimpse to the past. Her style is very delicate, excepting the pieces about the working and middle classes, for whom she had a blind disregard. Her snobbery was often comical, as when she went on a pilgrimage to a temple and would not stand praying near commoners. Aesthetics was very important in the life of medieval Japanese aristocrats, and many rituals were followed to focus on the beauty of mundane things. She even talks about how a lover who leaves the bed in the morning too fast spoils the whole beauty of the affair. It was worse if he did not write the 'morning letter', which was a missive sent immediately after the man arrived home the next morning expressing his love and his marvel at the grace of his lover. Or if he wrote it with bad calligraphy or in the wrong paper. Letters and poetry were extremely important in the court, to the point were both abilities could make or destroy a career.

The Pillow Book has shown me how surprisingly liberal Japanese nobility was regarding sex and women rights, at least judging by our standards. It was common for a high rank woman to have several lovers, and her own palace. Working at the court meant a high degree of independence that could not be easily attained in the provinces, so girls were encouraged to serve the Empress at least for a short period of time, in order to be more worldly. I also enjoyed the customs and legends, but my favourite pieces were definitely the lists - lists of beautiful things, lists of things which make a clean impression versus things which make a dirty impression, lists of appropriate subjects for poetry, and many more. It amazed me, for its beauty and its oddity. I really enjoyed reading this book - it has been a refreshing read.

lunes, 8 de septiembre de 2014

55 Quirky Questions for Readers

I saw this at Luna's Little Library a couple of weeks ago and it looked interesting, so I'm giving it a try. The questions originated from The Literary Lollipop.

1. Favourite childhood book:
Any tale by Beatrix Potter. I had (and still have!) one of those fancy Complete Tales edition, and might have read it hundreds of times. I had a penchant for traditional fairy tales (The Snow Queen and The Vain Little Mouse were some of my favourites). I also loved Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and Enid Blyton's The Faraway Tree StoriesHarry Potter also has a special place in my heart, but it wasn't so much a childhood book as a book I grew up and matured with.

2. What are you reading right now?
Saplings by Noel Streatfeild.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
None at the moment.

4. Bad book habit:
I crack the spines. Please don't throw stones at me. It really bothers me when you can't open a book and read it properly. You know, when you have to tilt your head just so in order to read the very last words on each sentence of the left page and the very first words on each sentence of the right page. What is the use of pristine books if I can't read their content? I think that's why I like dust jackets so much - they hide the mess after I'm finished.

miércoles, 3 de septiembre de 2014

Nada - Carmen Laforet

Summary (from Goodreads): 

Eighteen-year-old Andrea moves to Barcelona to stay with relatives she has not seen in years while she pursues her dream of studying at university. Arriving in the dead of night she discovers not the independence she craves, but a crumbling apartment and an eccentric collection of misfits whose psychological ruin and violent behaviour echoes that of the recent civil war.

As the tension between the family members grows in claustrophobic intensity, Andrea finds comfort in a friendship with Ena, a girl from university whose gilded life only serves to highlight the squalor of Andrea's own experiences. But what is the secret of the relationship between Ena and Andrea's predatory uncle, Roman, and what future can lie ahead for Andrea in such a bizarre and disturbing world?

Nada is hard to review, especially given how slim it is.

I have wanted to read this novel for quite some time - it is a Spanish classic written and set in the aftermath of Civil War, a period of history I don't know much about, too recent to be objectively taught at Spanish schools. After all, people from the previous generation lived a good chunk of their lives under a dictatorship, and the country still bears some wounds from the War.

Nada is a good window to the past. While Civil War is not at the focus of this story, it looms over the characters like a storm. Andrea, newly arrived in Barcelona from the country, is a war orphan. Her relatives are all marked by the war, one way or the other. Her stay at the family apartment on Aribau is marked by all kind of shortages, contributing to the dense and asphixiating atmosphere that permeates the novel. Hunger takes on a predominantly role in Andrea's life, informing her life choices and sparking the conflicts with her family. Andrea debilitates day after day of that first year in Barcelona. She doesn't exactly mature, but wilts in that claustrophobic ambiance. She feels it is impossible to extricate herself from that thick tangle of miseries, and so the wide-eyed innocent girl thirsty for knowledge and life experiences gives way to a wiry young woman who ruminates over every thought and every feeling. The novel goes inward, instead of forward, yet it never fails being intriguing.

Family secrets are as abundant as food is lacking. Andrea is determined to avoid them at all costs, until her friend Ena casually meets Andrea's uncle, Roman, a former violinist prodigy with a history of violence. Ena comes from a different social class - she is wealthy and bright. She is the only ray of light in Andrea's life. Understandably, Andrea wants to save Ena from the curse that is her family. She is desperate to keep Ena unsullied, yet Ena can't help to feel fascinated by Roman. The tension between the three was electric, and it kept me glued to the pages. The rest of the characters are powerful expressions of the different forms of desolation and shame that were ever present in Spanish postwar landscape - her self-righteous aunt Angustias, her suffering grandmother, the crumbling marriage of Juan and Gloria, the petty maid Antonia, and Andrea's circle of friends composed of rich boho artists wannabes who hypocritically laud poverty. All of them unforgettable, all of them sad.

Laforet dissected every aspect of this alienated family, writing one of the best existentialist novels I've ever read. She is able to fully immerse in the story and carry the reader with her. I really felt oppressed while reading Nada. When I finished the book, it was like gulping for fresh air after being underwater for too long. And that is what I liked best about it.

Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!

lunes, 1 de septiembre de 2014

August in Review

August has been a great month regarding personal life. My job position has changed for the better (I start my new job tomorrow!), I've been on holiday, done bookish things, and read a lot. Unfortunately, it hasn't translated well into the blog. It hasn't been completely abandoned, though:

What did I really finish during August, then?

19. Le Soleil d'Olympie by Jean Séverin (1967, YA historical fiction)
20. Nada by Carmen Laforet (1944, existentialist novel)
21. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012, thriller)
22. The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon (1002, memoir)
23. Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013, thriller)
September will be a month for changes. Aside from the new position, I'm going to move to a slightly bigger place (more space = more books!). I don't know exactly how much reading I'll get done, and I don't want to turn reading into a stressful activity, so there are no specific goals for this month - just have fun reading! Some of the books I'm planning to get out of the TBR list are:
  • The 19th of March and the 2nd of May by Benito Pérez Galdós
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  • The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
  • The Arachnids by Félix J. Palma