Archive for the ‘prizewinners’ Category

Winner of the 2014 CWA International Dagger

Translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne

So there I am at the beginning of July, wondering how on earth I am going to manage to participate in Spanish Literature Month because I’m in the middle of a busy, busy, busy summer, when the CWA announce that this book, which I really, really want to read, has won the 2014 International Dagger.  I have a voucher which means I can get me mitts on it, without breaking the book buying ban (according to Mrs Peabody). I nearly fainted when it dropped through the letter box.  At 561 densely-packed pages, it’s not a quick read but it’s all kinds of everything I like.

I’m really enjoying historical fiction this year and this one pitches me right into the Peninsular War, specifically into Siege of Cadiz of 1811 about which I knew nothing. 561 pages later I know lots: Cadiz’s strategic position, the ineffectiveness of the French bombardment, mainly due to French command insisting on using howitzers and refusing to use mortars, and the intense economic battle, waged primarily at sea.  These were the days of the commercial corsair; mercenary pirates, we’d call them now, I suppose, but, having sailed the seas and braved the dangers of navigating the Bay of Cadiz, I can but be in awe.

Meticulous as the historical detail is (and let it be said, the translation –  I bet Frank Wynne learned English vocabularies he never knew existed), I’m not going to pretend that the research is always invisible. However, it is only the odd paragraph here and there that reads as a history lesson.  And there is repetition – perhaps a tad too much about the technicalities of French ballistics ….

That said, I’d rather read this than a history book, for it is alive.  It pulsates with characters and viewpoints from all social strata, many of them quite unique: a taxidermist French spy, a young French professor turned artillery expert, a corsair dying of tuberculosis, the corsair captain,  Pepe Lobo (I give you his name because he’s – well, you know – a hard man with chinks in his armour), Lolita Palma, a spinster in her 30’s and a shrewd business woman, fighting for the continued viability of the family firm.  (In the end using those in her employ as cruelly as Napoleon his troops.)

In the seam that gave the novel eligibility for the dagger, there’s a murderer who is flaying young girls to death together with the detective who pursues him, Rogelio Tizon.  Now he’s as complex a character as I’m ever likely to encounter, and not one I’d like to meet.  A brutal, violent man, who does not welcome reform (i.e. the abolition of torture as a legitimate tool of police interrogation).  After seeing him interrogate those he suspects, a process he almost enjoys, it’s hard to swallow his outrage at the serial killer.  Yet there is more than an intimation of “a curious intimacy” with the murderer. How else would he detect the pattern of the killings and their relation to the falling French bombs? Only Tirzon would have the mendacity to enlist the enemy into catching the killer, and to ensure that when justice is finally served, it is chilling ….

It may not be the fastest paced thriller in the world – in fact, given that the climax doesn’t relate to the crime at all, it could be argued that the criminal thread is secondary to the historical. The Siege is nonetheless an absorbing, magnificent adventure from start to finish.  


At this juncture I should rush off to read Pérez-Reverte’s backlist but consensus is that this is his finest novel to date.  Apparently though, if I enjoyed this, I’ll enjoy Dumas and Stevenson. Well, I love Stevenson but have never read Dumas.  Where should I start?

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

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An invite to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Award Ceremony took me to London last week, specifically to RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) on Great Portland Place.

where I met bloggers David from Follow the Thread and Stu from Winston’s Dad  as well as blogger-turned-vlogger William from Just William’s Luck.  I availed myself of the refreshments …. of course I did – the event was sponsored by Taitinger ….



A couple of glasses later and it was time for Boyd Tonkin to deliver his speech.


Salient points:

1) Translated fiction does have a wide-spread audience (Top 3 UK fiction bestsellers w/c 22/05/2014 were all translations)

2) A special mention to the Shadow IFFP panel (that made Stu and David smile)

3) Another special mention for The Mussel Feast. (A bitter sweet moment – oooooh, it hasn’t won but there’s never been a special mention before – hooray! And I must say the Peirene Nymph behaved with absolute grace on the night. One day, Peirene, one day.) 

4) The winner is The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright.  



The audience applauded heartily though I confess to mixed feelings. I am delighted for Comma Press, the author, the translator and the short story.  (That’s the second short story collection to take a major prize this year; the Folio Prize went to George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December.) But it’s not a winner, I’m likely to read.  It doesn’t appeal. (Cf Shadow IFFP review from Dolce Bellezza)

Still enough of my grumblings – there was champagne to imbibe and German author Birgit Vanderbeke and her translator, Jamie Bulloch to chat to.  I also met translators Frank Wynne and Shaun Whiteside.  And, of course, the nymph Peirene. (The rumour mill has it that she had a sore head the morning after … I confess, I made sure her glass was kept topped up …. What else can you do?  1 glass to commiserate, 1 glass to celebrate, and repeat ….)

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I’ve never had two 5-star reads in a row – never mind three!

1) Schottenfreude reviewed earlier this month.

2) The Boat – Nam Le  (2009)

A collection of short stories written by one of the Folio Prize judges, read on the way to and during the festival.   Looking at the awards it has garnered, I don’t think it hyperbolic to suggest that this book has won nearly every literary prize there is in Australia.   And rightly so.  I remember the buzz surrounding it on publication  and I bought the book only for it to wait for 5 years before picking it up again.  Kicking myself now of course.  One of the strongest collections of short stories I’ve ever read.  (And won’t it be interesting to compare it to the inaugural Folio Prize winning short story collection?)

Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia.  Speaking at the Folio Festival he said that he wasn’t interested in being the spokesperson for the Vietnamese immigrant, he wanted to explore more realities than that.  So while the collection is bookended with Vietnamese experiences (the first, an autobiographical (?) story of a Vietnamese author at the Utah creative writing centre and the last, the harrowing experience of Vietnamese boat people), other pages are populated by an adolescent hitman in Columbia, an elderly man dying of bowel cancer, high-school kids coming to terms with the mortality of their mother and the perils of dating, evacuees from Hiroshima (before the bomb), and feminist resistance in Iran.  The protagonists are all facing profound challenges and struggling to maintain control of their lives.  The worlds they inhabit are skilfully drawn and the psychologies intense, given the background stresses and dilemmas.

Do I have a favourite story?  Not really although, oddly, my least favourite Tehran Calling is proving to be the most memorable.  Le admitted that this was the story in which place was the most sketchy.  That may be so but the mood, the prevailing atmosphere of terror, brutality and claustrophobia is overwhelmingly oppressive.  My breathing’s constricting just thinking about it.  That being the author’s intention, I cannot but declare it a success.

I can’t find anything Le has published since. Is this a case of a successful debut being an impossible act to follow?  I do hope not.

3) The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (2012)

Another debut which has received mega praise in the blogosphere since its release.  I purposely avoided reading it until it became a book group choice.  Our discussion began with each group member summarising the book in an adjective.  Here are the results: enchanting, mystical, ethereal, magical, enigmatic, mysterious, whimsical, unputdownable.  Only 2 dissenting voices: putdownable and confusing.  You can’t please everyone but this pleased me.

There are oodles of positive blog reviews out there, so no need for me to repeat.  What I will say though, is that in contrast to Le (who to be fair didn’t live in Vietname for long), Ivey’s novel reads like a love-letter to Alaska and her familiy’s chosen way of life (growing their own food and hunting caribou, moose and bear for meat).  It was a revelatory read: Alaska not as harsh or as uninhabitable as I previously believed.  (Still in no rush to migrate.) And I was transported – not to the 1920’s but further back in time.  Life in these pages felt much less modern than the jazz age.  Engaging characters and a mystery – plenty to discuss at book group, particularly what happened to Faina.

The group guffawed when I said I thought she’d melted!  Perhaps I bought into the premise too much?

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For this year’s Triple Dog Dare (which I’ve signed up to for two months, because March has plans of its own), I decided to read as many titles from the 2014 IMPAC Longlist as I can make time for.  To fit Triple Dog Dare criteria, the books must have been in my TBR stacks on 31.12.2013.  When I did a quick tally, I found there were 15 stashed away, and I decided to concentrate in the first instance on translated fiction.

Léon and Louise – Alex Capus3stars.GIF

Longlisted for the German Book Prize 2011

Translated from German by John BrownJohn (2012)

If there’s any moral to this story, it has to be, love will find a way.  Léon and Louise meet as teens in 1918 but just as their romance begins, they are caught up in an incident of war and separated, both believing the other dead.  Léon marries Yvonne and settles down to family life (as far as his volatile wife will allow) while Louise becomes an independent mademoiselle.  A few years later, Léon spots her on the métro and phase two begins only for the Second World War to separate the lovers again.

We know it doesn’t end there because the opening scene, that of Léon’s funeral in Notre Dame, sees a mysterious and uninvited  woman in black pay respects to the dead man by ringing a bicycle bell.  Her identity is never in much doubt (the novel’s title gives it away) but the incident sets the prevailing mood.  While the characters live through the traumas and dof the 20th century, they do not despair.  They are survivors and there is always an undercurrent of humour and charm.  In fact, you could say that Léon’s existence is charmed.  He is threatened only by his naïvety during the Nazi occupation and its immediate aftermath (and those scenes are heart-thumpingly menacing).

This is an accessible novel with interesting historical background.  Its scope perhaps too ambitious for its page count (264) necessitating the peace-time decades to be glossed over and the chameleon-like qualities of the most complex character, Léon’s wife, to be summarised in a way that tells rather than shows.  That was a shame because she was, for me, more multi-dimensional than the two title characters.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante4_stars.GIF

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldsmith (2012)

The two girls at the centre of Elena Ferrante’s novel are also survivors.  Theirs, however, is a tale of a poverty-stricken childhood and adolescence in the Naples of the 1950’s. This is a harsh and violent world in which education depends on the parents’ willingness to make tough financial sacrifices. This wasn’t that long ago and I actually found this quite shocking.  These girls are of my generation and of the working class yet with such a different experience to my own. Up to this point I found the novel entertaining but my attention was waning.  Thereafter the fuse was lit and I was fully engaged.

Elena Greco meets her friend, the brilliant Lila Cerullo, on the first day of school.  Lila, who can read despite coming from an illiterate family, is clever and charismatic from the start.  She would be precocious, too, were it not for her violent father, keeping her firmly in her place and that means at home, labouring for him, instead on progressing onto middle school.  Elena’s  parents, though just as poor, are railroaded by a teacher into letting their daughter progress but their begrudging largesse comes at a price.  While clever, Elena must work hard to succeed in her studies and maintain her friendship with Lila, to whom she remains devoted and in thrall. 

This divergence of educational paths sets up two entirely different life journeys where for Elena, a typical adolescent, the grass is always greener.  So, when Lila makes the most of her very limited options in the most advantageous match that she can, Elena is envious. She hasn’t understood the doors that remain open to her and the doors that are closing on Lila.  It is Lila who presses on her the absolute necessity of continuing in education, even offering to pay for it.

“Thanks, but at a certain point school is over,” Elena says with a nervous, doubtless self-deprecating laugh. “Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

In a novel written entirely from Elena’s point-of-view, this is really the first time that we hear Lila’s thoughts and they turn the premise of the title on its head.  At this point the two girls are barely 16 and Lila realises the need to escape the constraints of her upbringing.  For all her hopes, there are worryinging indications that her marriage won’t have the desired outcome.  More hopefully, however, the scales fall from the severely myopic and bespectacled Elena as she comprehends the small-mindedness and boorishness of her family and her fellow villagers.

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she (the teacher) had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.

I’m actually find myself fretting, hoping that this epiphany hasn’t come too late, following her ill-advised romance with Alfonso …. Don’t tell me if you’ve read the 2nd part of this trilogy.  I’ll find out for myself very soon!

The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of A Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson5stars.GIF

Winner of the Swedish Booksellers Award 2010 / German Pioneer Prize 2011 / Danish Audiobook Award 2011 / Prix Escapades 2012

Translated from Swedish by Rod Bradbury (2012)

i’ve been blogging for just short of 7 years now and I’d never used the adjective before I awarded this the most preposterous 5-star read of 2013.  I can’t sum it up any better.  I mean whoever heard of a 100-year old man with enough flexibility in his limbs to climb out of a window?  Let’s just say that’s the least strenuous of his adventures which turn into a cat and mouse chase across Sweden after he steals a suitcase containing wads of cash.  A parallel narrative takes us back over his life and reveals that we are, in fact, dealing with a superman of sorts.  That explains the steely determination and resilience of the old fellow who flees his own birthday party.  It turns out that Allan Karlsson proved to be more influential to the course of 20th century history than Oppenheimer, Stalin, Franco, and Chairman Mao put together!

Suspension of disbelief is absolutely essential.  So too the quelling of the conscience asking whether it is right to laugh.  In places this comedy is blacker than black and in others absolutely immoral.  Oh yes, people get away with murder – quite gruesome murders too.  There’s an inept gang and an even more inept police inspector chasing Allan and his ever-growing entourage which comes to include an abandoned elephant. The question is who will muck it up first? (Answer – I can’t resist this –  the elephant.)

A riot from beginning to end with hidden messages about the dangers of politics and politicians.  I think that’s the message, not that I can prove it.  I was too busy laughing to collect the evidence.  Roll on the film! 


Of the 152 titles on the IMPAC longlist, 41 are translations. Of those, I have now featured 10.  Links to the others below.

The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker (Dutch) / 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool – Viola di Grado (Italian) / The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (Danish) / The Dinner – Hermann Koch (Dutch) / The Brothers – Asko Sahlberg (Finnish) / The Guard – Peter Terrin (Dutch) / The Method – Juli Zeh (German)

I hope to read more before the shortlist is announced.



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Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

My thanks to Tony, our host for January in Japan, for this choice of readalong title.  What a good un!

The Diving Pool contains contains 3 short stories; each with a female protagonist; each with, let’s just say, psychological issues.  I’m not going to say much about them here as they are too short and surprising to be ruined by any spoilers.  I do want to point out that Ogawa knows how to turn seemingly normal stories – a teenage crush, an expectant aunt, a woman seeking university digs for her younger cousin – into something macabre and twisted without hamming up the horror. Sometimes the shock is a sudden change in behaviour, seemingly incongruous, but later understood to be driven by personal resentment as in The Diving Pool.  Sometimes it is the accumulation of small detail that builds up a portrait of envy and jealousy as in the Akutagawa prize-winning Pregnancy.  If ever there was a demonstration of how to be kind to be cruel, this is it.   The third story, Dormitory, my favourite, only because it’s a bit of a puzzle.  It has the most surreal character I can recall, and the most emotionally detached.  We know something awful has happened or do we?  What were your expectations of the damp patch on the ceiling?  I know I was expecting it to be something much worse that it was and the way my imagination was led in that direction was masterful.

Anyway, I raced through these stories and enjoyed their creepiness and darkness so much that I immediately located the most recent collection of Ogawa’s stories, Revenge, in the TBR.  Methinks, second helpings are called for sooner rather than later.


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Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize

Winner of the 2013 Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award

Was I surprised that a crime novel won the Booker prize last year?  Not really.  Stuart Kelly, one of the judges, had revealed his penchant for literary crime at a Bloody Scotland event the year before.  I had an inkling …..

 Was I surprised that an historical novel took the prize for the second year running?  I was, although I realise that the judges weren’t having a The Luminaries vs Bring up the Bodies debate.  Although now that I have finished, I am.  Catton’s novel isn’t winning.

The crux of my problem is this.  I didn’t approach The Luminaries in the right way.  I had a copy and, after hearing Catton speak at last summer’s Edinburgh Book Festival about how a major concern was to make this novel an entertaining read, I was looking forward to reading it immensely.  Then I was offered a review copy of the audio book, which I accepted.

I began mid-October of last year.  It’s a massive undertaking particularly when I only listen to audiobooks when driving.   A 20 minute commute to work, 40 minutes per day, 5 days a week. I reckoned that it would take about 8 weeks to work my way through it.  Except that I never felt like listening the way home (concentration levels zilch after work) and then there were times when I didn’t feel like listening it at all ….. because in places it was just taking too long to get anywhere.  This book is not designed to be listened to in 20 minute snatches when concentrating on the roads; it is a book requiring long periods of attention, during which the reader or the listener can savour, even delight in the resurrection of the 19th century adverb and the author’s cleverness. 

How do I know?  Because I got home on the 30th of December and I still had about 10 hours listening time remaining.  At that rate, it would be time for the next Edinburgh Book Festival and I’d still be listening to it! So I decided to read to the end.  I was disheartened to realise that, after 2 months, I had only reached page 478.  Still 350 pages to go.  

3 reading sessions (about 4 hours) and I finished it on New Year’s Day!  This confirmed that a) I had approached it all wrong; b) if I’d read it, it would have probably taken me a week to 10 days to read cover to cover, and I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more.  This is taking nothing away from Mark Meadows’s reading, which is excellent, very listener-friendly, but ill-suited to the short bursts of attention I was giving his performance.

Much has been made of the structure.  I’m going to ignore the astrological references – of which there are many, some overt, others hidden, and which I find regrettable. I will, however, concentrate on the golden spiral; the rules of which dictate that each section must be half the length of the preceding.  In practice, the first section is 170,000 words (360 pages) long, and the 12th section only 96 words.  I admire the cleverness of this but it does mean that the beginning sections of the book do go on … and on … and on. If you love Dickens and Trollope, this is for you.   If not, you must persevere because there is a payback ….. eventually.  I haven’t seen this mentioned elsewhere but there comes a point (page 700) when the forward motion of the story stops and we begin to go backward in time.  That transition is seamless and from here on in, all the missing pieces of the jigsaw appear; questions are answered, not always explicitly, it is true, but that is entirely in keeping with Catton’s ethos of a literary crime novel.

Anyway, I have reached the end to find myself in a state of ambivalence.  I enjoyed the modern take on the 19th century epic in which Catton throws away the decorum of the originals, exploring in detail themes that could only be mentioned obliquely in those days. I enjoyed too the packaging of the novel that is both reminiscent of its ancestors yet highly original.  At times though the packaging got in the way and I found myself thinking, is this a case of all style and no substance?  I don’t find myself quite believing that accusation though, even if not able to speak coherently for the defence.  And so I break my new reviewing rule (only to review 4-star reads or above) with my first “review” of 2014.  Heck, I worked hard to get to the end page.  For that reason alone the moment deserves to be recorded for posterity.


Other opinions: Here’s a man who loved reading it.  Here’s a woman who loved listening to it.  And here’s someone who simply ran out of patience!

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Winner 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Translated by David Colmer

When his novel was announced the winner of the IMPAC award, Bakker spoke of the need to go lie down for a while. He’d recovered somewhat when I saw him at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival thanks to the prize-money allowing him to buy a isolated property (I think he said it was on an island) where he could enjoy the peace, quiet and the wonders of Mother Nature.

Those interests are very evident in The Twin.  Set on one of the few remaining farms near the IJsselmeer, the discipline and rigours of farm life set a undeviating pattern. The cows must be milked, the sheep cared for and the donkeys fed like clockwork. The landscape and the seasons are painstakingly depicted. The world turns and life continues on its predictable course …

… to death. In the upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse, an old man lies dying, Watched by a big black crow. His relationship with his son Helmer, the eponymous twin of the English title, is shall we say, complex. Henk, the other twin, the favoured son, is long dead and Helmer is still coming to terms with the loss. It has, without a shadow of a doubt marred his life. For starters, it meant that he had to abandon his plans for an academic career and return home to take over the farm. It never occurred to him to say no. So for years he has been consigned to this lonely existence and completely resentful of the father who ruined his life.

As the story slowly unfolds – Bakker does take his time with this – it becomes apparent that Helmer actually lost his brother when Henk fell in love with the beautiful Riet, who inadvertently caused his death. 30 years later and Riet reappears, wanting Helmer to take her own truculent teenage son, Henk (not the son of Henk by the way) under his wing and teach him some purpose. As you can imagine the undercurrents of this drama are quite strong and yet Bakker’s prose is so spare that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Helmer takes it all in his stride. It’s almost as if he’s in a state of suspended animation.

And yet the events here are an ideal opportunity for him to break out of his emotional paralysis and begin to live properly. As the psychological profile of the man deepens, it becomes more apparent that he’s not going o be able to do it. Small glimpses of happiness that are scattered throughout are evidence of what could have been (the delight and the antics of the neighbour’s small sons, the obvious tenderness Helmer feels towards his donkeys and his relationship with Jaap) actually emphasise the tragedy of a man trapped by circumstance and his own personality.

The cumulative effect of the story and the insertion of clever details (the neighbour spying on Helmer with binoculars, echoes of the past in the present, a frisson of homoeroticism) makes for a moving read, although the spare – actually the really spare prose – lessens the impact for me. Bakker says that his former career as a subtitle writer taught him what to leave out, and others praise his writing as subtle and restrained. In places though I found it rather frustrating, particularly when people did strange things with no accompanying explanation. This was true of The Detour also but the Emily Dickinson poem held that novel together wonderfully and it all came together in the end. While The Twin is undoubtedly sad and subtle, it remained a little mystifying.

Nowhere more so that in the subplot about the egg …. explanations in comments welcome.


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