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The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte

5 Sep

I have enjoyed many of Perez-Reverte’s books over the years.  Each offered an unique story, with interesting characters, and a mystery of sorts.  A few have been made into films over the years, though the films were never as rich, and intriguing, as the original novels.  Written in Spanish, I often wondered what, if anything, was lost in translation, and just how much richer, and fuller, the stories might have been in their original form.

The Painter of Battles is a fascinating story, though perhaps not his best novel.  I wondered if there was something lost in translation, and was left in the end with a feeling of a satisfying journey, though not the best one I have ever taken.

The Painter is about a war photographer, Andres Faulques, who has retired from his profession, and is painting a mural on the inside wall of an abandoned tower in an isolated part of Spain, on the ocean coast.  The painting is part of his healing process, as he depicts in the painting various images of war, from across the ages.  The real start of the story is the arrival at the tower of Ivo Markovic, a former Croatian soldier, who had been captured in one of Fauleques’ photographs during the Serbian-Croatian war; the photograph went on to become very famous – published in several magazines – and won awards.  It also had a profound effect on the life of the Croatian soldier: while a prisoner of the Serbian army, he was recognized and tortured; his family was singled out and killed; everything he valued was lost because of the photograph.

The ex-soldier had spent years following Faulques’ career, and in tracking him down.  And in finally meeting Faulques at his tower, he announces he is there to kill him.  Faulques takes the news rather calmly.  Markovic does not intend to kill him immediately, but wants to get to know him better, and has things to discuss.  He is also fascinated by the painted mural being created by Faulques.  Thus begins a series of meetings, and conversations, as Faulques continues to paint, and the two explore their respective perceptions of the world.

In their conversations, Faulques remembers experiences in his life, as a war photographer, and in particular his relationship with Olvido, a woman whom he loved, who for a few years went with him into the war-torn countries to take photographs, who shared his passion of paintings, and who died in Serbia, not long after Markovic’s picture was taken. Faulques relives a great deal of his past, through his conversations with Markovic, and his memories of his time with Olvido.  And in these memories, and conversations, his philosophy of life and the world is unwound and articulated.

Indeed, the book is a really a discussion on life philosophy and perceptions of the world.  The story interweaves this philosophy with Faulques’ experience in taking his photographs, with his understanding of famous painters and their works, of his time spent with Olvido, of the details of the mural he is painting, and of parts of Markovic’s life.  Perez-Reverte provides a fascinating journey examining art, war, life, and morality, and challenges our beliefs of the “truth” in photographs and our relative perceptions of the world we live in.

Running underneath this exploration, and the story, is the tension of Markovic’s intention to kill Faulques.  This final confrontation is the conclusion of the story – I would not describe it as a climax, as it is portrayed as the end meeting point of two souls destined to meet, and interact, because fate has thrown them together.

The book was generally an easy read, though the story takes detours into deeper subjects, and will at times, clunk along as Faulques explains why he thinks and feels the way he does, or the relevance of one of his experiences to a painting.  While this book will not be to everyone’s liking, I did enjoy it, overall, despite feeling, upon finishing, that it could have been so much more.  Yet it was an enjoyable read, the odd bumps along the way were not overly diverting, and it is worthwhile addition to my library.


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

5 Sep

Observation #1: I have read all 3 books in the series, one following the other, which I will suggest is the only way to read this series.  They flow nicely together, and lead to an ultimate resolution that has run throughout the books.

Observation #2: These books are mystery-thrillers, that were obviously plotted out in one-go, at the outset, as the story seamlessly flows through the 3 books, and while each book works on its own, only the first could stand independent of the others.  Book 2 starts where Book 1 ends, and Book 3 starts where Book 2 ends, so in a way, they are all one story.

Observation #3: These are well written books, generally well translated from Swedish, that are easy to read.  There are, however, a few places where the events are graphic and may be disturbing to some.  Be warned.  These plot points are by and large necessary for the book’s plot, as well as the over-arching plot, and so can not be easily avoided (as they are referred to and referenced in the story), but may not be the most comfortable to read.  But these sequences are short, and are only a small bump in the overall story.

Observation #4: If you had to read only one of the 3 books, then the first book would be by far the best choice.  It has a complex and complicated plot, that works within the book itself with little left unresolved.  It is an interesting read, the characters are introduced and developed, and it has a finale that ties things together.   I felt it was a tight mystery-thriller, that was engaging, and not obvious in the solution.  The complexity made the story even more interesting, with some depth and flavor that only adds to your enjoyment of the book.  I very much enjoyed this book.

Observation #5: This is a very difficult book to write a review on.  As noted, the plot is complicated, so it is difficult to distill to a few simple sentences.  The characters are complex and not easily described.  The value of the book is in the read.  The journey through that plot, meeting the characters, in experiencing the events for the first time, as you move through 800+ pages of an extremely interesting and compelling story.  It should be classified as a mystery, but it is a lot more than that.  I have seen it referred to as a thriller (it is), as suspenseful (yes), as a scathing commentary on society (it is that, though perhaps more on Swedish society), as political (not sure it is that political), and as a well-written novel, in the classic sense of “novels” (that I can agree with).  My recommendation is to recognize all reviews will not be able to provide you with the necessary preparation for reading this first book, or any in the series; ultimately, you will have to have the faith just to jump right in and see for yourself.

Observation #6: Thus, it is my recommendation that this is the type of book you need to read for yourself, and decide for yourself, whether you like it or not.  Many have read it and enjoyed it.  I was not sure I would, as I seldom enjoy what “the masses” enjoy, when it comes to books.  But I was pleasantly surprised with this book, and the series, as I found it enjoyable and quite good.  So, in this case, “the masses” were right.  But let your own opinion be your own judge.  I can see how this book may not be for everyone.  And if you don’t enjoy mystery thrillers, then this may not be for you.  My suggestions is give the book a try.  Commit to reading the first third of the book, at least, to see if it has roped you into its compelling story, or has left you in the classic Swedish cold.

Observation #7: If you enjoy the first book, then Books 2 and 3 should also be read.  But be prepared for disappointment, as the series ends after Book 3, as the author died after completing the third book.  There will likely not be more in the series*, which is a great disappointment, but this finality makes this series truly classic.  Some stories are meant to end at a certain point, no matter how much we may wish for it to continue; but they do end, as does this series, with the shutting of the door on the reader, barring us from spending more time with these wonderful, compelling characters, leaving us with the promising, yet frustrating final line in the third book: “She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.”    The door closes on the reader as it opens on the lives of the characters.   Be warned, you will likely be left wanting for more.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

23 Jul

Cloud Atlas

Photo thanks to


That’s the precise feeling I had as I hungrily gobbled up the last words of this masterpiece. Even after turning the last page, closing the book and rubbing the back cover in that clichéed but perfect way, I was unable to let go. In fact, for the next couple days, I kept it with me, thinking about the characters, pondering the detail and the storylines and at times flipping back through the book to read through the delicious mind traps and perfectly woven plot.

Even before I was halfway through, it had instantly become one of my favourite books. It’s that good. The amount of precision and detail involved is astounding, but all the while that finely tuned machinery of the novel is masked by the easy breezy, enchanting style of the author’s prose. I was willingly swept up in the storylines, hanging on to every word and re-reading pages just for the fun of it. It was less a novel than an experience for me, full of wonder and excitement and, surprisingly, powerful political commentary. It’s a thinking book.

It’s hard to describe this book without taking away from its perfection, which lies in the way the stories unfold to the reader. This much can be told without spoiling it: six characters, spread out across centuries, in different parts of the world entirely. Each character has a powerful story, connected in subtle and fascinating ways to the other characters, those connections revealed slowly and carefully throughout the book. The author effortlessly (well, I’m sure it required much effort, but it doesn’t seem that way to us) inhabits each of the characters’ souls and personalities, writing in a variety of styles to reveal the different facets of their personality. The styles include an interview, a journal, a movie script, a first-hand account..each perfectly suited to the characters themselves.

As the book (or maybe the reader!) races back through the stories, revisiting them and tying up loose ends, you’re struck again and again by the connecting details, the characters’ links and the magnitude of detail involved here. It’s incredible.

The book made me feel alive, in a way I can’t really explain. It made me happy, it entertained me at the most primitive level of my being: it told me stories. It told me rich, detailed, fascinating and compelling stories, beautifully crafted stories, stories that might once have been real and could become real in the distant future. And although it’s intellectual, it’s not an impossibility to read. The stories aren’t pretentious, they’re real.

It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004, and won several other awards including the British Books Awards for Literary Fiction. It’s David Mitchell’s third book, and I’m itching to get my hands on his others. His newest book is called The Thousand Autumn’s of Jacob de Zoet, published this year. If you want more spoilers on Cloud Atlas, read them here.

This book made me happy to have read it. It tricked me and messed with my head and made me think. How wonderful! All in all, a wonderfully entertaining and intellectual read. I can’t wait to read something else by this marvelous author.