Armenia: Daredevils of Sassoun by Leon Surmelian

Daredevils of Sassoun is billed as the Armenian national epic, dating back to the first millennium in oral tradition, written down in the nineteenth century. Its subject is several generations of ‘daredevils’/strongmen/heroes defending their country against foreign enemies, among other adventures.

It delivers well more than I expected. Not just in the dynamism and entertainment value of the language, which could be put down to the translator (who certainly deserves credit regardless for retaining it); but its level of psychological detail elevates it well above the bare bones “and then David smote thirty men” I’m used to reading in epics.

From the very beginning I fell in love with Dzovinar who marries to save her father’s kingdom then, by her wits, saves the lives of herself and her sons. The story then follows those sons, and three more generations after them. All are literally giants among men, performing feats of mythic proportions, but none are alike in character – all are at once admirable and relatable.

And the side characters – their wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, seductresses – are equally well-rounded, brave, clever, loving, angry as the case may be. Though the standout has to be Barav and her poor millet field.聽 The development of her relationship with David from irritation at this feckless hoodlum to fond-but-firm adoptive mother is just adorable.


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Austria: Vienna Passion by Lilian Faschinger

I believe the first book from Austria I read in my life was a young adult autobiography As the Waltz Was Ending by聽Emma MacAlik Butterworth, in which a ballet-mad girl is caught up in the Nazification of Austria and its insidious effects on the arts scene in Vienna, and more….

Vienna Passions is set in two completely different timeframes on either side of that, in a Vienna that is still distinctly the same place for good and ill. The first introduced is the present-day: Magnolia Brown, a wannabe Shakespearean actress in New York, is convinced by her sleazy director to travel to Vienna for singing lessons, there prevailing for accommodation and introductions on a distant relative on her white, maternal side. Her father being African-American and leaving her with dark skin soon exposes her there to some of the more obvious expressions of present-day prejudice and xenophobia.

Also the relative she stays with is obsessed with tripe soup, her dolls, and everything being just so; and the singing teacher she gets introduced to is… I hesitate to say hypochondriac, as his various colds and flus and pneumonias certainly seem real enough, but they also seem very likely to be psychosomatic. To the extent they have a physical cause, they aren’t helped by the fact that his mother’s cure of choice for his illnesses was to play Schubert at them, so that he’s never really had a chance to be healthy.

I didn’t really like either of these characters a lot, though I could feel a certain distant empathy for both, so my reaction to them finding feelings for each other is an equally distant, “Oh well, good luck to them, I guess.”

What I did like was the the protagonist of the second timeframe, about 80 years before present, in the time of Empress Sisi. Rosa is the illegitimate daughter of a cook and her (married) employer, and tells (in a notebook Magnolia finds in her relative’s house) the tale of her journey to Vienna to seek her fortune as a servant, and how this turns out for her. We know from the start that how this turns out is she is executed for the murder of her husband, but the twists and turns along the way are engaging, and Rosa is as likeable as she is initially naive, so this narrative, interspersed with the present-day, for me rescues the rest of the novel.

But I also liked the structure and the contrasts between Vienna’s culture and its bigotry; between a morbidity that pervades both timelines, and the passions (both romantic and musical) that the title alludes to. I’m very glad I chose it for this challenge, and it certainly extended my feel for the history of the city and country.

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Australia: My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier

This was a hard one: I grew up reading Australian books just like New Zealand books. I can’t remember the title of the earliest I recall, but it was set in possibly Tasmania and involved children making a daring escape from their caregiver with the aide of epsom salts. Then of course there was John Marsden’s series, and more recently a bunch by Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Meme McDonald, and Marie Munkara (my reviews on LibraryThing). So what to pick for this challenge?

I considered The Disappearance of Ember Crow, sequel to Kwaymullina’s first book which I adored. Kate Grenville’s聽The Secret River appears to be a classic. Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko might be an interesting counterpoint to P艒tiki by New Zealand’s Patricia Grace. Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light sounded intriguing, especially the middle futuristic novella, and Anita Heiss’s Tiddas apparently involves a bookclub discussing other Australian novels so I could get (so to speak) a bunch for the price of one!

But finally I cut the Gordian knot with Justine Larbalestier’s My Sister Rosa. This, being a book I’ve wanted to read for a while anyway, was sheer indulgence: though the book’s main character and his family are Australian, the book is about them moving from Bangkok to New York City for a philanthropic/business venture. Specifically, it’s about 17-year-old Che and his four goals to:

  1. level up his boxing lessons to sparring
  2. get a girlfriend
  3. get back home to Australia
  4. stop his psychopathic 10-year-old sister Rosa from killing anyone

This is a great psychological thriller, with all the twistiness and gut punches I could have hoped for. The relationship between Rosa and Che is complex – not to mention the relationships among each of them and each of their parents – and there’s a lot of plotting and manoeuvring and secrets. It’s just the kind of thing I like.

I don’t know that it’s uniquely Australian, except in that I believe Australians (like New Zealanders) are not averse to travelling the world to seek their fortune, and also of course in that Che swears a lot! If you do want something set in Australia, try one of the other books mentioned above (or Larbalestier’s Razorhurst…).

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LibraryThing links

I do actually read a lot more books than end up here, from a range of countries. I started pondering whether I should just fill in the countries here out of order to take advantage of this. In the end I decided not to: after all, would I have ever hunted down an Abkhazian novel if I could have just written about an easier one to find?

But I still wanted to recognise the other novels, if for no other reason than to make them easier to find for others doing the same challenge. So I’ve added extra links on my “Countries” and “Next up” pages to my LibraryThing reviews of these books. Once you include these, I’ve read books from 29 countries in total – or only 29, depending on how you count it. 馃檪

Next up, Armenia…

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Argentina: Kalpa Imperial by Ang茅lica Gorodischer

Ursula Le Guin’s translation of this may have been very accurate but I don’t feel it let much flavour of the original come through. It read just as though the story had always been written in English, and a generic pseudo-medieval fantasy English at that.

On the other hand it was hard to get from the story more of a sense of the eponymous Empire than “generic pseudo-medieval fantasyland” either. The story (or stories: the conceit is that a marketplace storyteller is recounting all these forgotten tales to a respectful audience) spans not only centuries but countless aeons, but there’s no sense either of continuity or development from tale to tale.

Maybe it’s a mistake for me to be trying to find any. It’s more of a patchwork than a tapestry, with the common thread being the focus on the throne itself: how the emperors and empresses – noble, ambitious, wise, paranoid, pragmatic, or weak – shape the country for good and ill, and yet how easily it can all be forgotten. How much of it is for the joy of creating a fictional empire and how much is to make political statements I can’t tell, but “Magareta鈥橝cher” makes an appearance, for the most obvious, and there are almost certainly a great many references that I don’t have the background to even recognise. Each tale by itself is an enjoyable read, and there’s a lot beneath the surface for anyone who might choose to delve deeper.

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Aotearoa (New Zealand): Ng膩 Waituhi o R膿hua by K膩terina Te Heik艒k艒 Mataira

Originally I had my own country listed under ‘N’ for its P膩keh膩 name, but a few months ago I levelled up my reading comprehension in Te Reo M膩ori sufficiently to crack open this young adult science fiction novel I’ve had sitting on my ereader and my bucket list. To my delight, I found myself able to follow enough of what was going on – slow going as it was – and levelled up my vocab and understanding of sentence structure even more in the process. I quickly got used to the author‘s Ng膩ti Porou dialect too.

“The Writings of Rehua” is the story of the four teenagers among a colony on a planet of islands. Descendants of survivors of Earth’s ecological collapse, the people have strict rules to maintain sustainability. (They didn’t all seem very sustainable to me. A child may only be born after someone else dies – this works if deaths are spaced out, but they’re not, and waiting for all the kaumatua to die of old age will leave you with an awkward amount of childraising to do all at once at best – a completely post-menopausal society headed for extinction at worst. Likewise, not eating meat in order to avoid hunting animals to extinction sounds fine – but plants can be harvested to extinction just as easily; and the author (later in the novel) having her characters train all the world’s animals to stop eating meat too hits a pet peeve. Many animals cannot survive without meat: they can’t make the proteins they need otherwise. Do not keep your cat on a vegetarian diet.)

One day, the young people find a couple of abandoned hokio eggs. They look after them and raise the chicks to adulthood – whereupon the birds carry them to another island where other colonists are living in caves, fearing giant lizards but guided by the rest of the hokio. Four more young folk are living there, siblings so eager for new romantic possibilities. Relationships develop over the course of the book but are subordinate to the work (all guided by the telepathic hokio) of taming the giant lizards, meeting two groups of sea people, taming the giant octopodes, and finally returning to Earth.

There isn’t much in the way of excitement, even accounting for my pace: rather than plot twists the book gives us an exploration of the world, and a building of the characters’ understanding of it and its history – and purpose. But you don’t need plot twists when you’ve got characters flying giant telepathic birds and growing temporary gills for a sortie against giant octopodes!

Ng膩 Waituhi o R膿hua hasn’t yet been translated into English. If you’re looking for a book in English by another awesome M膩ori author, though, one of my very favourite books of all time is P艒tiki by Patricia Grace.

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Andorra: El rapte, el mort i el Marsell猫s by Albert Salvad贸

My French (and interlibrary loan) once again comes to the rescue: this detective novel was written in Catalan, and has been translated into Spanish and French.

Our point of view character is 脌lex Sams贸, an Andorran detective who has little inherent genius and habitually does just enough work to scrape a passing grade. When his lieutenant has to send someone on an exchange to Rome, he takes the opportunity to offload Sams贸. Barely has Sams贸 arrived when his new colleagues are confronted not only with the inexplicable kidnapping (“el rapte”) of a newborn from the maternity ward, but also an inexplicable death (“el mort”) – suicide or murder? Puzzled beyond measure, they bring in “el Marsell猫s”.

Who is el Marsell猫s? The man from Marseilles, yes, but more to the point: think Holmes, think Poirot; you know the type. He immediately rubs Sams贸 up the wrong way by detecting him and making fun of him at the same time. Sams贸’s dislike of him makes Sams贸 slightly more tolerable, because el Marsell猫s is indeed irritatingly pompous; but also makes el Marsell猫s slightly more tolerable, because Sams贸 really is that childishly petty that he sulks about a little ribbing for the whole damn novel.

Because of course together they fight crime. Primarily this involves el Marsell猫s having flashes of genius while making Sams贸 (who has no clue) do all the legwork. Is it a spoiler to say that the two inexplicable crimes turn out to be related after all? Sams贸 gains a grudging admiration for el Marsell猫s’s methods but neither of them become more pleasant characters over the course of the novel. But if this is the sort of story and the sort of characters you enjoy reading about, then you’ll enjoy this story.

(For those who don’t read the Romance languages, The Teacher of Cheops by the same author has been translated to English. Another French option for Andorra is Histoires d’une femme sans histoire by Mich猫le Gazier which I tried first but for some reason just couldn’t get into.)

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