A Sociedade Literária da Tarte da Casca de Batata by Mary Ann Schaffer

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Review: I came across this book a year ago, in a meeting with fellow readers – not exactly a book club, just a community of readers and friends who get together for their love of fantasy and literature – in which we exchanged books with one another. I had never heard of this book and had no idea what it was about, and I have to admit, its title didn’t help (whatever a potato peel pie is, it must be dreadful). Now, more than a year later, I decided to give it a go, and it’s nice that a book about the power of books to pull people together should have reached my hands this way.

I knew little about the occupation of Guernsey during WWII, and in my opinion one can never know enough about these things. Humanity seems to forget easily, and those of us who didn’t live through the war should know what it was like. The stories about the survivors and the history of the place were easily the best part of the book, together with all the literary references.

Other parts I didn’t like so much. The writing style didn’t convince me as 1946 writing, but then again, I’m not exceptionally savant in those things and may be wrong. But the fact that it was written in epistolary form, although fun at times, didn’t convince me, as all the letters sounded like they were written by the same person. At least they weren’t ridiculously long, like I’ve seen in other epistolary novels.

Still, this was an entertaining read, with some funny and touching moments.

O Décimo Terceiro Poder by Madalena Santos

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Review: I decided to read this book not only because the author is a dear friend of mine, but also because this series has been causing quite a buzz among the younger readers in my country. So far, this book is only available in Portuguese.

Ne­ferlöen is the teenage adoptive daughter of the King of Levionda, one of the twelve (bordering on thirteen) kingdoms that make up the Lands of Corza. The book follows her life as she challenges her place in society and, through a series of special events, ascends to a post of power usually only reserved to men. This is not without its difficulties, however, since she is still very young and must fight against prejudice and those who are jealous of her considerable gifts. Her country is involved in a bloody war against a mysterious opponent, and she swears to dedicate her life to ending the conflict.

The characters were easily the strongest point in this novel. Even when they were acting in ways that would be unthinkable, they made sense within the stories’ parameters and society. The plot was also good, albeit a bit predictable at times. However, this book was written when Madalena was fifteen years-old, and it shows. Even if she demonstrated, even at that age, a good ability to weave a plot and develop characters and settings, her writing betrays her young age. It gets better as the story progresses, which makes me think the other books in the series will probably be better, though. Still, it made getting into the story a bit difficult, at first.

Also, I have to mention one thing that has nothing to do with book per se: the blurb in the back cover is terrible (at least on the edition I read). It actually says how the book will end! Why someone would do this is beyond me.

This is still a great book and I enjoyed reading it. I don’t exactly agree with the fact that everyone classifies this as Fantasy, since there aren’t any elements usually associated with it – it’s more like Historical Fiction, set in a different world. I recommend it to people who are usually afraid of reading Portuguese books from young authors. 🙂

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Background: I picked up this book when I was looking for a small paperback to take with me to my two-week trip around the Mediterranean. I didn’t know anything about it, so no expectations for me, but since I love History and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula“, I figured this would be a good match for my vacations.

Review: This book starts off as a story being told by a young female narrator (whose name we never learn) in the first person, as she describes her life as the daughter of a diplomat, with frequent travels around Europe, and a missing mother. Her father begins to tell her a story about his life, his discovery of a mysterious book with a dragon in the middle, his search for his missing mentor (who, turns out, had also received one of those dragon books), and their combined search for information on the subject of Vlad Tepes, the historical figure who inspired the creation of Dracula. It may sound confusing, but it’s actually presented in a very clear, organized way, so that the three storylines (the mentor’s quest, the father’s search for his mentor and the daughter’s search for her father) intertwine and evolve logically.

Be warned: this is not your average vampire book; in fact, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone unless they’re interested in History. Most of the book is dedicated to historical research, sometimes exhaustively so. I love History and for me, the best part of the book was learning so much about Eastern European History, something I was only marginally familiar with, but I realize this might not be the same for everyone.

I really liked the book at first. The mystery of the dragon books and disappearances seemed promising, and the historical background, as well as the traveling and descriptions of different cultures got me hooked (even more so because I was visiting some of the countries that the characters were in – I read about their visit to Turkey, when one of the characters was given a Turkish amulet in the form of a blue eye, and the next day I arrived in Turkey, and was promptly given one of those amulets by a Turkish girl!). However, as the book progressed some things started to bother me.

First off, the book progresses in an exceedingly slow pace. At first I thought that was in accordance to the story, being related to historians and all, but after a while I just kept thinking how much better this book would be if the author had cut some completely irrelevant parts, or spent less time describing things. And this leads me to my second gripe with the book.

The letters. It makes sense that they make up the majority of the book, since most of the action is experienced second-hand by the characters, through the testimonies left by those who had come before. However, the letters, as they were presented, were completely unreal to me. First off, they were far too long. I can’t imagine how heavy the daughter’s bag must have been by the end of the book! Those letters occupied around 400 pages of printed paper, so we can only imagine what they would be like handwritten. This specially bothered me in the case of the father, who is described as being in a hurry to write the letters. If he was in such a hurry, why did he waste so much time describing the countryside, the smell of the flowers, or just historical facts that had nothing to do with helping his daughter fight Dracula? It made no sense, and unfortunately all it did to me was undermine the wonderful sense of reality built by the rest of the book.

I also had a problem with the characters. They all deserved a bit more individual development, which was only given (in my opinion) to Helen and Professor Bora, the only ones with distinct voices and personalities. Even the letters all sounded like they were written by the same person.

All of these are minor problems and I still would’ve loved the book if it wasn’t for a very important thing: plot.

***** SPOILER ALERT *****

I was majorly disappointed with the plot. I waited until the end of the book to see if it was all going somewhere, and when it didn’t, I was disappointed, because the book really had a lot of potential. First and foremost, I didn’t get Dracula’s motivations at all. I mean, all he wanted was a librarian to help him catalog his collection? Really? And this is the Dracula that everyone fears, that the Turkish secret organization has been trying to stop for five centuries? Sure, he destroyed the lives of those librarians he picked, but after all the build-up, I was expecting something more. I know that those who control information control the world, but I still didn’t understand the great threat he posed. And why 1453 books? Ok, so it was the year of the fall of Constantinople… So what? What happens if he sends all he books and doesn’t get a librarian to help him?

I was also very annoyed with Rossi’s “amnesia”. No other character ever gets it. Dracula’s method was to scare them to see if they would dare to continue their research anyway, so it makes no sense for him to give Rossi amnesia. Yes, it makes sense within the plot, to give Helen a reason to hate and pursue her father, but it just looked like a cheap excuse to me.

The worst thing: the ending. A twist that happens in a small amount of pages, which makes no sense at all considering the 700 pages that preceded it, and which doesn’t get explained. I was left puzzled, and not in a good way.

***** SPOILER ALERT *****

All in all, this was a remarkable book for a first time writer. I still loved reading it, despite all the things I didn’t like, which is a testament to the author’s ability to weave an interesting historical narrative. I wish it would have been better, but I’d still recommend it to those who are interest in Dracula and popular beliefs. If there’s something of a historian in you, you won’t regret reading this.

What’s Next: Reading this made me want to know more about the History and folk culture of Europe, so I’m searching for good books on those topics.

Next book to be reviewed is “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” by Scott McCloud.