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The adventure is over. I’m back behind the desk and under Brussels’ grey skies, but my batteries are fully recharged. We took about 5000 photos, but I quickly went through them just to give you a flavour of the trip, especially the “reading photos”.

We started in Beijing, hoped on the Trans-Mongolian towards Huhehot (capital of Inner Mongolia – still China), then over to Mongolia where we spent four nights in ger camps and two others in the capital Ulaanbaatar. Then another train to Russia where we stopped in Lake Baikal and Irkutsk (capital of Eastern Siberia). After Irkutsk we jumped on the Trans-Siberian towards Moscow. We stayed 4 straight days on that train – including my birthday – with only a few stops of max 30 minutes along the way.

(reading outside our ger in Mongolia)

This stretch was the real deal. Magnificent landscapes, long days due to the daily time-zone changes, my boyfriend (aka Andre) and the two friends who came with us playing endless games of Settlers of Catan, while I read on the top bed. After Moscow, we still visited St. Petersburg before coming back home.

About reading during the trip. Some years ago there was a thread in a Bookcrossing Forum called “What would be the name of your autobiography?” I said mine would be “Ode to Plan B”. My holiday reading list is just another proof of how right I was. All my careful planning went down the drain because a) I forgot my iPod on the flight to Beijing, b) the solar panel we bought to charge my Sony Reader didn’t work and c) I had much less reading time that expected. So I ended up with no audiobooks, only able to read a short e-novel and the 3 books I took with me. Still, and thanks to the open library at Millie’s Café in Ulaanbaatar, in the end I still read 6 books during the trip.

(Trans-Sib on my birthday – it was a good day…)

(A walk by night: Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg)

I’ll just do a short review of the six, so that I can catch up quickly.

Waiting by Ha Jin. The story of a Chinese doctor in the 60s who has a wife and daughter in the country, but starts a platonic relationship with a nurse in the city where he works. Every year he goes back home to get a divorce, but every year the wife backs out at the last minute. This lasts for 18 years, after which he can divorce her without her consent.

Ironically, I kept waiting and waiting for the book to pick up, but alas I waited in vain… The language is generally considered poetic, but I found it unimpressive and rather bland. It reads like a translated book, when in fact it isn’t. The reviews in the back cover talk about romance, passion and modern-day Romeo & Juliet, but I saw no glimpse of it. Whatever the story is about – allegory on Communist China or a study of detail – it is not a love story. Lin has to be one of the most gutless main characters in the history of literature and he never really seems feel strongly about anything or anyone, apart from (bless him) his forbidden literature. Possibly this lethargy was what Jin was going for, but I need a bit more emotion in my books.

Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, Book 1) by Brandon Sanderson. For as long as anyone can remember, ash falls from sky, making everything grey. The land’s economy in supporter by the Skaa, an oppressed people enslaved by the noble class who in their turn are controlled by the immortal and ruthless Lord Ruler. Now, Kelsier, a famous thief and Mistborn (he possesses the ability to burn metal in his body and manipulate his surroundings with it) is hatching a bold plan to destroy the Lord Ruler and liberate the Skaa. For that, he pulls together his old thieving crew, with a new member: Vin, a young girl turned street urchin, who can also manipulate metals and has the potential to become the greatest Mistborn in memory.

I was immediately griped by the story and took special pleasure in Sanderson world-building. Good fantasy doesn’t have to explain its magic and most actually don’t – magic just is, you don’t question it. That’s why it’s so refreshing to read a book where the character’s powers have a water-tight logic behind it. I’m sure the science geeks out there would especially appreciate it. The fact that Sanderson consistently makes something totally made-up seem so obvious is quite a skill, and contributed a lot to my enjoyment of this book.

But there are other praises I can sing for Mistborn. Sanderson is a good story-teller with a gift for creating individually rich characters. The action scenes are fast-paced and just materialize in your head, the dialogues full of smart humor and he even manages to throw in some surprising twists and a touch of romance. It’s one of these books I would love to see made into a movie. It’s also a pleasure to have a hero who can laugh at himself:

“Marsh: Our best efforts were never even a mild annoyance to the Lord Ruler.”
Kelsier: Ah, but being an annoyance is something that I am very good at. In fact, I’m far more than just a ‘mild’ annoyance–people tell me I can be downright frustrating. Might as well use this talent for the cause of good, eh?”

Sanderson’s only sin is a slight tendency towards repetition, which I think he does to make sure we understand the Mistborn system. But I’m ready to ignore it. Let’s see what the next books in the series bring.

Crown Duel (The Crown & Court Duet, Book I) by Sherwood Smith. This book caught my eye because I’m a sucker for Ugly Ducking stories. I love the rebirth, the redemption, the rooms full of surprised people, justice being done and the wide-eyes-lover-who-hadn’t-realized-he-was-in-love-until-then. Gigi! Eliza Doolittle! Hermione at the Yule Ball!!

Crown Duel is at the top of Goodread’s Ugly Duckling – Makeover stories list so I got me curious. This YA fantasy story revolves around Melara, a Countess who swears at her father’s deathbed to fight to free her people from their greedy King (can you see the clichés starting?). At some point during the war, the enemy commander, an elegant Marquis (!), captures Melara and alone they set off on a short road-trip on horse back (wink). What follows is a line of fighting, running, more fighting, escapes and captures. Again and again, our heroine puts herself in difficult situations, only to be rescued at the last moment, waking up to somebody saying, “Drink this, my lady” or something of the sort. This is not exemplary behavior for a heroine who’s sold as being quirky and independent.

Book One actually ends with Melara overhearing a conversation about herself between the Marquis and her brother and realizing she’s an ignorant and wild tomboy. She then sets her heart in becoming a Lady and starts burying herself is books and taking regular baths. All to improve before going to Court, where our Marquis lives. So in the end, I was even cheated out of my Ugly Duckling scene!

The piling up of clichés and predictable plot got on my nerves, but I admit I might read the second book just to get what I came for.

Odalisque (Percheron, Book 1) by Fiona McIntosh (one of Millie’s rescue books). The premise of ‘Odalisque’ is to recreate medieval Turkey into a fantasy setting. Ever since I visited Istanbul and the Topkapi Palace I’ve been looking for books about/set-it/inspired by Constantinople, so this seemed exactly my coup of tea.

Shortly after fifteen-year-old Boaz becomes the new Zar of Percheron, those around him start to play dangerous games of power. On his side he has the court jester and his late father’s captain of the Guard (our hero). On top of this, trouble is brewing between the avatars of two competing gods and the time is approaching for their battle. Choose your sides!

“Odalisque” was yet another story ripe with clichés: the good and really good and the bad are really, REALLY bad. Playing their expected parts we have the exquisitely beautiful slave, the innocent ruler with a power-hungry mother, the mysterious hero that every woman in the realm desires and the sexually frustrated eunuch who makes everyone’s lives hell.

The thing that almost put me off completely was the main love story. First because of the age difference (she’s 15 and he’s about 35) and then because I always feel that love at first is a writer’s easy way out of writing a much more complex, but much more rewarding, process.

Despite this, it’s one of those books that you feel you should hate but end up secretly enjoying. My hook was the vivid description of the lives and costumes of a Constantinople-like city. McIntosh describes the food, the streets and (in detail) methods of torture and punishment – the scene on the making of a eunuch gave me goose bumps. She did her homework.

It’s good light read that doesn’t ask too much of the reader and will keep you entertained.

Dragonsblood by Todd McCaffrey. The second of Millie’s books. Lorana is a young dragon rider with a gift for healing animals. It is she who first discovers that the dragons of Pern are falling ill and dying. And Thread is falling, a substance that every few hundred years falls from the sky and has the potential to make land sterile. Over 450 years before, Wind Blossom is one of the few surviving first colonists on Pern. It was her geneticist mother who created the dragons to fight Thread.Wind Blossom knows that, because the dragons were created so quickly, there may be diseases which will affect them in the future. Across time these two women must fight to find a cure before all the dragons of Pern die, leaving the inhabitants helpless before the Thread’s threat.

Dragonslood is Todd McCaffrey’s first attempt into the fantasy realm of his mother Anne McCaffrey, the original creator of the Pern universe. It was the first time I’ve heard of the series and had a hard time in understanding how Pern worked, which in turn influenced how I felt about the whole book. It was only the desperation of having nothing else to read that got me to persevere. At some point, around ¼ in (during Lorana’s boat journey) I was glad I did, but soon the story just stagnated and the whole experience became a blur of dragons coughing, dragons fighting Thread, dragons dying, repeat.

Also, the main character is an almost a by-the-book Mary Sue, secondary plots and characters are dropped half-way and the ending is hard to swallow:  slightly educated characters find a room-full of lost information and a few days later are suddenly debating advanced biology, using microscopes and computers as if they’d done it all their lives, and genetically engineering a cure for the disease killing the dragons. In short, it has all the right ingredients to became just a “meh”.

1808 by Laurentino Gomes (I have a bit more to say about this one…)

Non-fiction about the time when Napoleon was threatening the royal houses of Europe and the Portuguese Court decided to leave the country and set up it’s capital in Rio de Janeiro. Laurentino Gomes gives us a vision of Europe at one of it’s more turbulent times, and then zooms in on Portugal, describing day-today life, the flight of the country’s nobility and their arrival across the Ocean. He also makes an analysis of the impact these events had for Brazil and its independence. Each chapter has a particular theme, almost independent from the others, e.g. the Portuguese King, the Queen, the crossing, slavery, foreign travelers, etc.

The book gave me lots of food thought and a sort of split personality disorder between me the “objective” reader and me the Portuguese reader. They were strangely opposite:

What Alex the objective reader thought:
Although being the culmination of almost 10 years of research and the great number of quotes and references, it’s a very fluid book, full of quirky details. It reads like an interesting news report. Gomes gives a special attention to smells and sounds, which help bring the past to life. I found particularly interesting the information about the political and commercial relations between Portugal and England (did you know a treaty between the two is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest, and still active, Treaty between two nations? It was signed in 1703). It’s always an enlightenment to be confronted with other (less romantic, less biased) versions of the history we’re taught in school.

I can well understand why it became such a best-seller in Brazil. Any credible non-fiction book who gets people interested in history has my humble support.

What Alex the Portuguese reader thought:
While reading the book on the Trans-Sib, I would occasionally interrupt the others’ board game to say “ Guys, you have to listen to this!”, and then the Portuguese in the carriage would go crazy with indignation for a few minutes.

You see, one of my countries’ most popular sports is to criticize ourselves, but Gomes is Brazilian and that feels different, no matter how rational I try to be. That’s why I’m not sure if my annoyances with the book have a real basis real or are a figment of my prejudiced imagination.

I don’t know enough about the events to doubt the historical facts presented, but it was clear that Gomes meant to pass on a very distinct image of the two countries: Portugal represented the old world – decadent, corrupt, stagnated and fearful, while by contrast Brazil was the new world, beautiful, fresh, a land of adventures, riches and possibilities.

I looked for other views online, but only found the opinions of several Brazilian journalists and bloggers, and none from this side of the Ocean. There was one quote from a Brazilian blogger which caught my eye (my translation):

I’d like to tell you that, after reading it, you’ll feel a revival of patriotic feelings within you! You’ll see a new country, a new State, and you’ll cherish yourself more because you’re privileged for living here.

I guess my biggest resentment with 1808 was that Gomes built this feeling of pride through an extremely negative comparison with Portugal. Even though Napoleon called our King “The only one who fooled me”, and the fact that this is also a story of survival and liberation for Portugal  (the flight to Rio kick-started the end of the Portuguese absolute monarchy), a Portuguese reader is left with only a feeling of shame and slight irritation. Here are some of the quotes (again my translation) which cause momentary anger in our small carriage:

(talking about the death of an archivist who sailed from Lisbon and decided to stay in Brazil) “When arriving in Brazil, in 1811, the royal archivist brought in his luggage the heavy cultural load that had characterized the Portuguese in previous centuries. He was conservative, bureaucrat, superstitious, full of prejudices, fearful to the bone of the changes who awaited him on the other side of the world (…). When he dies, three years after, he was a transformed man. In Rio de Janeiro he went into politics, lost his fear of living with uncertainty, found love, prosperity and hope in the future. (…) He was the perfect and finished portrait of the Brazil who was born, with its roots deeply set in Portugal – but different.

“On one side of the Atlantic, anchored in a Europe tired of war, there was this metropolis, amorphous, impoverished and  humiliated by the long absence of its King. On the other side, an ex-colony that, at the same time and for the same reason, had changed, gotten rich, prosperous and now contemplated the future with hope and optimism.”

(while talking about a Brazilian who studied in Portugal) “He had travelled through out Europe, witnessed the French Revolution in Paris and participated in the battle against Napoleon’s army organized by the English in Portugal after the court ran away. He was probably more experienced and well prepared than any other Portuguese Statesman or Intellectual at the time.”(that’s saying a lot!)

Am I reading too much into it? If there’s any Portuguese out there who has read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Uff! That’s that. Let the routine begin 🙂

(photo from here)

A while ago the NY Times published this article about the consequences of a world without book covers. According to them, an eReader domination could mean not only a commercial loss for publishers and authors (no free advertisement), but also the impossibility of randomly connecting to other people.

[On a similar note, take a look at this strangely addictive website (just like watching people shop on BookDepository) called CoverSpy, where “A team of publishing nerds hits the subways, streets, parks & bars to find out what New Yorkers are reading.” Example of their under-cover sightings: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare (M, teens, baseball cap, red shirt, backpack, B train).]

As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of public reading and it’ll be sad day when I only know if a book  is popular by the size of its Facebook fan club. Actually, when I grow up I want to edit a collection of true stories about people who met because of a book they were reading in public.

The truth is, I feel more threatened by eReaders than I should, even though I have one. It’s like they’re threatening my way of live. I’ve read somewhere that Sony is expecting sales of digital books to overtake traditional ones in 2015. In 30 years, will I be considered an oddity if I buy paper books? Will my grandchildren only have digital bookshelves? My prediction it that paper books will become a sort of niche, just like vinyl records. And just like vinyl, they’ll have a comeback after decades of being considered out-dated and uncool.

I’m from a generation that only went online for the first time in their late teens,  but proudly absorbed and pushed forward the digital age. I’m far from being progress-resistant, but right now I can only too easily imagine a world where I’ll think of book covers with nostalgia. And one more thing: I don’t care what the experts say, Pluto will always be a planet to me!

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