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Catching up on some shorter reviews …

Amulet by Roberto Bolano

To paraphrase the Cranberries album title, Everybody else is reading it, so why can’t I? – I’ve finally read some Roberto Bolano. He is definitely the flavour of the moment; his posthumously published epic 2666 is generating acres of discussion and review. However I wanted to read something shorter before deciding whether to commit myself to 900+ pages of the other.

Published before he died, Amulet is a short and slightly surreal novel set in Mexico during a period of political unrest. Auxilio, a Uruguayan woman, who hangs out with the poets of Mexico City is trapped in a bathroom at the university when the army invades to put down a student revolt in 1968. She’s there for 12 days, and lies on the floor starving, remembering and fantasising about the future and her life with the poets.

Knowing nothing of Mexican poetry or politics it was hard to know what, if anything, was real in the background to the novel. I was hoping to be dazzled by the writing, but found the confusing nature of the plot darting between Auxilio’s memories and reveries difficult. The opening lines promise much – a horror story of murder, detection and horror, but immediately this is taken away as the teller says it won’t seem like that if told by her. Interspersed among the ramblings, which become increasingly surreal prophecies, are some more conventional scenes of life with the literati, and their experiences with both the underbelly of Mexican society and the regimes in charge in Latin America; these episodes briefly brought the novel to life and I could see why he is so admired.

As for reading more Bolano, I may well try The Savage Detectives, but find the prospect of 2666 about 600 pages too much for me at the moment! (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme).

Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome

I read Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome as a companion piece to the wonderful Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick, reviewed here.

Ransome collected a wide selection of typical Russian fairy tales, but rather than present them as separate entities, the tales are told by a grandfather to his grandchildren. The first segment, The hut in the forest introduces Old Peter, little Maroosia and Vanya. The children are a keen audience and as they settle by the stove, they demand to hear a new tale and we’re off straightaway into a land of a rich merchant and his three daughters, followed by many others: the witch Baba Yaga with her hut on chicken legs, Sadko the dulcimer player who plays by the river (made into an opera by Rimsky Korsakov), and ones like the intriguingly titled The Stolen Turnips, the Magic Tablecloth, the Sneezing Goat and the Wooden Whistle. They are delightful, quirky tales and are highly moral. Those who are bad always get their come-uppance, and happy endings are not guaranteed.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker

It was seeing Jackie’s review of this book, that reminded me that I read it a few months ago, but didn’t get around to writing about it.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is by Tom Baker – yes, the fourth Dr Who. Incidentally, I can really recommend his autobiography Who on Earth is Tom Baker?, and having read that was intrigued to read this truly bizarre and gothic novella. It tells the story of an evil thirteen year old who kicks pigs – it starts off with his sister’s piggy bank, but progresses to anything porcine including a bacon butty which is his downfall. He pledges revenge and

Although written as a children’s story in style – a bit Lemony Snicketish, it most definitely is not – but fans of Tim Burton would love it. It is also full of arcane adult references from the 1960s – from Will Fyffe (eccentric news reporter) to Hylda Baker (Lancashire actress). Clocking in at just 124 pages, of which half are evocative line drawings, it doesn’t take long. I found that imagining Baker himself narrating made for an entertaining reading!

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