What I learned from “Swiss Watching” by Diccon Bewes

Swiss flag

With our move rapidly approaching, I thought it might be a good idea to learn a little more about Swiss culture (even if we end up on the other side of the border, I have a feeling we’ll be spending a lot of time in Basel…). I knew a traditional history book, filled with dates and facts, would just send me to sleep, so instead I picked up a copy of Swiss Watching: Inside Europe’s Landlocked Island by Diccon Bewes. What I mostly learned is that the Swiss (at least in the area we’ll be moving to) are basically German… except even more so. A few examples:

  • The trains are (almost) always on time… and in Switzerland it’s not just a stereotype!
  • If you ask people to go out for a meal, say for your birthday, be careful how you word things! If the Swiss get the impression that it’s an invitation, they will also expect you to pay for their meals! (I am aware that this is a thing in some circles in Germany, but luckily nobody I know enforces this “rule”)
  • The little red man must be obeyed at all costs! Mostly to set a good example to children (and even if you don’t see any children for miles around, one could be watching you from a nearby window). But are the Swiss as good at the death glare as little old German ladies, I wonder?
  • Swiss people like to spend their weekends hiking! (And just to prove my point about them basically being German, only yesterday Jan said to me “Once we move we can go hiking in the Swiss mountains!”. Uhh, okay dear…)
  • All the shops are closed on Sundays (except those that happen to be in train stations), and anything that might make the slightest bit of noise is verboten!

Other than that, I learned that people apparently think cuckoo clocks are Swiss (they’re actually from the Black Forest), velcro and toilet duck were both invented in Switzerland, the Swiss are (rightly!) extremely proud of their chocolate, nobody actually knows who the president of Switzerland is at any given time because it changes every year – and who can possibly keep track of that?! And finally, there’s a Röstigraben (literally rösti ditch) between the German-speaking and French/Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland. On the French/Italian side, they look down on their German-speaking countrypeople’s love of rösti (but why? How could anybody resist fried grated potatoes?) – so it’s a bit like the Weißwurstäquator (white sausage equator) in Germany.

Overall, I enjoyed the book – although the attempts at humour (sarcasm?) fell flat at times and felt a bit condescending. It certainly wasn’t a book of dry facts though, so I got what I was looking for and now feel as though I know a lot more about what to expect from Switzerland.

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Die Nacht des Zorns by Fred Vargas

I kind of feel like I’m showing off by using this book for the challenge, but I was trying to use books I already had as much as possible and this was the only one I hadn’t already read that fit the category “Read a book that was first released in a language that is not your native language”. It was originally written in French under the title L’armée furieuse, and I read it in German (the German version of the title translates to “the night of wrath” by the way). It was a birthday gift from my boss, which is why it was in German. If I buy translations myself it’s usually into English! The title of the English translation is The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, in case anyone is interested.

The plot:
As the chief of police in Paris’s seventh arrondissement, Commissaire Adamsberg has no jurisdiction in Ordebec. Yet, he cannot ignore a widow’s plea. Her daughter Lina has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target the most nefarious characters in Normandy. With them were four men. According to the thousand-year-old legend, the vision means that the men will soon die a grisly death, and now one of them is missing. Despite initial scepticism, Adamsberg heads to Ordebec to see what’s happening. When the missing man turns up dead, he agrees to investigate and is soon embroiled in the mysteries of the village.

My review:
Apparently, this is the ninth book in the Commissaire Adamsberg series. So far, it’s the only one I’ve read, and I have to say straight off that one of the things that annoyed me about this book was all the footnotes pointing out in which previous novel I could read all about an event that was briefly mentioned. I checked the footnote every time in case it had something to say that was relevant to the plot, but nope… just another book title. Grr!

However, that said, I did really enjoy the book. I guessed the “twist” ending about halfway through, but it didn’t matter because by that time I’d fallen in love with the characters and wanted to read to the end. The plot was sometimes a bit far-fetched and, as I’ve mentioned, I guessed whodunnit before it was revealed, but it was a fun book to while away my commute with. One negative point is that I felt Fred Vargas tried to cram too much into the book – Adamsberg’s team was also investigating another murder alongside the Ordebec mystery and the two storylines together felt like a bit much for one book (although I’m sure it happens in real life). I’m now considering buying the first book in the series for some more background on Adamsberg and his quirky group of colleagues. 4 stars for this one.

Since I read this book in German, it also counts towards the German reading category of my 35 before 35 challenge.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

Somehow I managed to miss this book when it was first published. It was only when Amazon recommended the next book in the series (due for publication in January 2015) to me that I realised there had been one in between, and despite the fact that I’m only supposed to be spending money on Christmas gifts this month, I had to purchase a copy immediately. And of course I was unable to resist reading it the minute it arrived, which is how it ended up being my free book for the Semi-Charmed Winter Reading Challenge (worth 5 points).

The plot:
On a spring morning in 1951, almost twelve-year-old chemist and aspiring detective Flavia de Luce gathers with her family at the railway station, awaiting the return of her long-lost mother, Harriet. Yet upon the train’s arrival in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey, Flavia is approached by a tall stranger who whispers a cryptic message into her ear. Moments later he is dead, apparently pushed in front of the departing train by someone on the platform. Who was this man? What did his words mean? And were they meant for Flavia? Back at Buckshaw, Flavia once again puts her sleuthing skills to the test, and in the process finds out more about the history – and secrets – of the de Luce clan, and in particular her mother…

My review:

In some ways this book felt like a filler. Not much really happens in the way of ameteru detecting compared to the earlier books in the series – yes, there is another murder, but Flavia manages to refrain from doing much investigating. Instead, she confines her sleuthing to the secrets within Buckley Hall, which means we out more about the how and why of Harriet’s disappearance… and Flavia gets to ride in a plane! At the end of the book, we learn that Flavia will be going away, and I’m quite interested to see where the series takes us once she’s out in the big, wide world. There are only so many times someone can happen to stumble across a dead body in one small village before it starts seeming ridiculous, so I’m glad Bradley has decided to take things in a new direction. In a way, this is the least interesting book in the series so far – it feels like it was only there to make the transition between ameteur detecting at home and being away slightly less sudden, but Flavia is just as incorrigible as ever and I love her so it still gets all 5 stars from me (mostly because you can’t give 4.5 stars on Good Reads). It seemed like Flavia was maturing a lot in this book and I’m excited to read the seventh book in the series and see where life takes her next. This is a must-read for fans of the series. Everyone else should start at the beginning (with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) and decide for yourselves.

Lunch Money by Andrew Clements

This was actually the sixth book I read for the 2014 Winter Reading Challenge, but it’s the fourth one I’m reviewing. This is my second book for the category “Read two books with a different meal in each title”, following The Long, Dark Tea-time of the Soul by Douglas Adams, which means I now get to collect my 30 points!

The plot:
Greg Kenton is not like other 12 year old boys. He always has money on his mind, and he’s not afraid to work to make it. Whether it’s doing his older brothers’ chores for them or shovelling snow, if there’s money in it, Greg is happy to do it! When he discovers that almost every kid at school has an extra quarter to spend every day, he comes up with the idea to make and sell comic books… but then his annoying neighbour and rival Maura Shaw starts making her own mini books to sell! Can the two of them learn to work together to get what they both want?

My review:
To be honest, I found this book a little boring, but then I’m not 12 years old! It did have some funny moments and the characters were relatable, but you could see the obvious moral coming right from the start! I’m sure I would have liked it well enought as a child, although it wouldn’t have been among my favourites and I probably wouldn’t have read it more than once. Three stars.

The Long, Dark, Tea-time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

This was the second book I read for the Semi-Charmed Winter 2014 Reading Challenge and I’m so glad I put it on my list! This book was for the category “Read two books with a different meal in each title”, which means as of right now it doesn’t get me any points because I need to read a second book to get them.

The plot:
It’s kind of difficult to describe this book without spoilers, so instead of writing my own text, here’s the blurb from the back of the book: “When a passenger check-in desk at London’s Heathrow Airport disappears in a ball of orange flame, the explosion is deemed an act of God. But which god, wonders holistic detective Dirk Gently? What god would be hanging around Heathrow trying to catch the 3:37 to Oslo? And what has this to do with Dirk’s latest–and late– client, found only this morning with his head revolving atop the hit record “Hot Potato”? Amid the hostile attentions of a stray eagle and the trauma of a very dirty refrigerator, super-sleuth Dirk Gently will once again solve the mysteries of the universe…

My review:
In case you couldn’t tell from my introductory sentence, I LOVED this book! I’m sure you’ve all heard of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series if nothing else. Well, this book has nothing to do with that series, but it’s just as good. It was written in 1987, but it’s perfectly possible to read it now. The only thing that seems dated (other than the lack of mobile phones) is that it’s impossible to get a pizza delivered. People who are older than me… is that really true? Could you not get pizza deliveries in the UK in 1987? I honestly don’t remember a time when you couldn’t order a pizza and have it brought to your house! But anyway, on with the review… Adams’ writing is as insightful and funny as ever. The main premise of the book seems to be “what happened to the immortal gods (Norse ones in this case) once people decided they didn’t need/believe in them any more?”, and the plot admittedly does get a bit thin at times,  but the writing itself was so good that for the most part I didn’t even notice. The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul is a sequel to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but you can just as easily read it as a stand-alone book. I’ve forgotten the majority of the first book and that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this one at all. I’m not being very articulate here, so I will sum by saying if you have any interest at all in Norse gods, Douglas Adams or indeed the fantasy genre you should definitely read this book. 5 stars!

Peony in Love by Lisa See

I read this book ages ago as part of the 2014 Summer Reading Challenge. This one was for the category “Read a historical fiction book that does not take place in Europe”, which earned me 15 points. I chose to read this book having previously read Snowflower and the Secret Fan by the same author, which I found absolutely fascinating!

The plot:
Peony, the sheltered daughter of a wealthy Chinese family, is betrothed to a man she’s never met and is obsessed with a play called “The Peony Pavillion”. For her 16th birthday, her father plans to host a performance of said play. To maintain proper standards, women have to watch from behind a screen, but through the cracks, Peony manages to catch sight of an elegant, handsome man who she immediately falls in love with. Thus begins Peony’s story of love, desire and destiny.

My review:
First of all, I need to say something that some may consider to be a spoiler. However, it is important for me to mention it for the rest of my review to make sense: The majority of the story is told by Peony after she’s already dead. I don’t know about anyone eles, but I would have liked to know that before starting to read. I was expecting a book that would allow me to learn more about Chinese customs, history and belief, instead what I got was basically a ghost story. If I’d wanted to read a ghost story, I would have chosen a ghost story to read!! I also didn’t really like the character of Peony. I know she was supposed to be young (and therefore naive), but her love-sick ramblings just annoyed me. Even after she’d been dead for years and we were given the impression that she’d matured in some way (at least she’d managed to start thinking for herself) she reminded me of a love-struck teenager. And yes, I know she was supposed to be 16, but if the story hadn’t made that clear I would have guessed more like 13! Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was beautifully written… this one felt amateurish and clichéd. I did learn a little about Chinese death rituals and their beliefs about the after life, which was interesting, but honestly that couldn’t make up for the incredibly boring, sickly love story. Very disappointing! I might still give this author another chance, but if I’d read Peony first she would have gone straight to my “do not read” list!

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I read this book as part of the 2014 summer reading challenge with Megan at Semi-Charmed Kind of Life. This book was for the category “Read a book written by a blogger” which is worth 25 points.

book5The plot
If you’ve read the Hyperbole and a Half blog, then I don’t need to tell you what the book is about. And if you haven’t read the blog then why not? Have you been living under a rock? 😉 Basically, both the blog and the book feature anecdotes from the author’s life complete with hilarious cartoon-style pictures. The book has some stories that have featured on the blog plus some new ones.

My review
I knew before this book even arrived that it was going to be a good one. I love the blog, so I was fairly confident that I was going to love the book. And I did. Simple blog is my favourite character, and Allie’s post on depression should be a must read for everyone (here’s a link, go read). This book gets ALL THE STARS! (If you don’t get that, go read the blog!) Allie is very, very funny – even when talking about serious topics – and I love her drawings. The only disappointing thing in my opinion was the lack of Alot in the book. The Alot is my absolute favourite blog post by any blogger, ever! Also, some of the later stories weren’t quite as good. But overall, the book is amazingly excellent and definitely gets 5 out of 5 stars from me.