Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Longlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award

Translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor

Juan Salvatierra is a mute, silent from the age of 9 following a riding accident.  He lives a tranquil life with his wife and two sons in a village on the Argentinian border with Uruquay, spending his spare time painting in the shed.  When he dies and his sons begin to unfurl the canvas rolls, they discover a mural two miles long on which their father has told the story of the past six decades.    Only one year is missing and the by-now-middle-aged boys decide that it must be found.

Salvatierra’s motivation? Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story.  His sons’ motivation?  To make complete what had been interrupted, so that the painting can be displayed in its entirety. As they work their way along the mural, they revisit their childhood, their adolescence.  Nothing is omitted in this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes in which the boys seem more alive in the light shining from the painting in some portraits he had done of us eating green pears when I was ten years old, than in our current lives with their legal documents and contracts.  (They are estate agents in Buenos Aires.)

The memories evoked are not always pleasant.  There are brief flickers of darkness but a spell is cast and the brothers pursue the missing section with a determination worthy of Don Quixote.  Yes, this is a quest, with the occasional dangerous moment though in the main this is a light-hearted adventure …. until the canvas from 1961 is found and with it Juan Salvatierra’s missing year …. and closely-guarded secret. 

More than the boys had bargained for, leading to discussions on whether what happens to someone belongs to his own time;  you shouldn”t bring it up again.  Conversely knowing the truth of a parent’s human foibles and mistakes can release you from their omnipresent grip, presenting you with the opportunity to strike out for yourself.  The narrator’s conclusion?

We occupy the places our parents leave blank ….. I inhabit the words that Salvatierra’s muteness left untouched. …. I feel that this place, the space of the blank page, is mine, independently of what the results might be.

What began as an adventurous quest for a missing painting has resulted in the discovery of the narrator’s own identity.


cf: Why this title should win the BTBA

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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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Shortlisted for the 2014 Folio Prize

I might as well say this upfront.  I was rooting for Schroder to emerge as victor at last week’s prize-giving ceremony.  I was utterly transfixed as I read this.  Could not wait to pick it up again when I had to put it down (which only happened twice).

I’ll say this as well.  I was rooting for Schroder to emerge as victor in the narrative – this despite what he does.  Not that it was ever likely, once he, a divorced man, takes his daughter on holiday …. without permission.  Kidnap in the eyes of the law but not according to Schroder’s increasingly desperate and agonising rationalisations.  

By the time he does this, you can see his point.  How he has backed himself into a corner by being too generous to his ex-wife during divorce and child care negotiations.  His attempts to regain lost ground doomed to failure … by a secret.  Something to do with the umlaut missing from his name and the Kennedys.

I shall say no more about plot so as not to spoil it for those who have yet to tread this reading path. However, be prepared to be put through an emotional mangle by as unreliable and as sympathetic a narrator as you will ever meet.  The format is that of a confessional, so we only get Schroder’s mentally distressed point-of-view.  We see his wife and his daughter and the assessment of their relationship and his motivations only through his eyes.  We can only judge him objectively through his actions and I was in no mood to judge him ….

…. until the backstory of his shabbiness towards his German-immigrant father unfolded.  This provided an emotional counterpoint to his all-consuming love for his daughter (and possibly an indication of why his wife was so dissatisfied).

I enjoyed the descriptions of the beautiful New England landscape (an area I hope one day to see for myself) which Schroder  and his daughter travel through on their trip; the beauty of the countryside in absolute juxtaposition to the ugliness of his family life.  What should have be an ideal and carefree escape increasing marred by realities and consequences which are not to be avoided.  A road to perdition, if you will.

3 weeks later,  I am still upset.  That is the sign of a brilliant read.  I have only one gripe. I skimmed pages 255-258 (Faber and Faber, hardback edition).  A case of overcooked mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.



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I need expend no words explaining why this book was the first of my 2014 acquisitions to be picked up after successfully completing the TBR Triple Dog Dare.  I probably needn’t explain how the book ended in my TBR either but I will explain just how irresistible the title was.  Schotten (Scots) – Freude (joy) – What on earth is a book about the joy of the Scots doing with a German title?  Except it doesn’t mean that at all.  It means the joy of Ben Schott, a non-German speaker, who together with Dr Oscar Brandtlow, obviously had a whale of a time inventing German compounds nouns to explain the human condition.

This explains the unusual/unique shape of the book.  German compound nouns can be grow to inordinate lengths.  Here are a couple of examples:

Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungsneugeruchsgenuss : The enjoyment afforded by the smell of a new car. (See footnote)

Überraschungspartyüberraschungsheuchlerei : Feigning surprise at a surprise party.

Not all the words are that long.  Here are some examples at the other end of the spectrum.

Fußfaust : Instinctively curling up your toes in mortification at someone else’s embarrassment

Betttrug : The fleeting sense of disorientation on waking in a strange bed.

German speakers will obviously delight in this volume, but you don’t need to be a German speaker to enjoy it.  For example, a German speaker would instinctively pick up the word play on the German words Bett (bed) and Betrug(fraud). However, the construction of and meaning of each German word is clearly explained thus:

Puns and idioms are explained on the adjacent page together with a miscellany of general information about the condition in question.  The resulting layout and design is an absolute pleasure and the sum total is sometime hilarious, but always clever and entertaining.


Miscellanies are Ben Schott’s speciality.  His obvious delight in compiling this book was matched by my obvious delight in reading it. But can I summarise my experience in one word?  I’ll think about that while you watch this recent discussion between Ben Schott, the quinessential (non-)German cultural icon @Neinquarterly and German translator Tim Mohr at the Deutsches Haus in New York.  A treat, if ever I watched one.

And finally, my one word summary: Fünfsterneleseerlebnis Five_Stars.GIF


Footnote: Not simply “new car smell” as translated in the book.

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Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix (2006)

I hadn’t intended for Antal Szerb’s debut novel to be my final read during Pushkin Press Fortnight – it was meant to be his second, Journey by Moonlight.  However, Gaskella had such fun with this, I decided to bump it up the TBR.  

Let me say from the off, I didn’t have quite as much fun as Gaskella. I found the darker undercurrents not only perturbing, but at odds with its farcical tone and its Carry On sexism.  As a result I wasn’t sure exactly how to approach the book – as a comedy or as a philosophical work about the darker side of man’s desires and spirituality. 

Janos Bátky, a Hungarian scholar who specialises in occult Rosacrucian texts, is invited by the Earl of Gwynedd to study the rare manuscripts, that are in his possession. Without further ado, Bátky finds himself making the acquaintance of some very dodgy characters – George Maloney, who attaches himself in, of all places, the reading room of the British Museum, and a certain Mrs St. Claire, who gives him a ring to pass onto the Earl.  Turns out Bátky has placed himself at the centre of a plot to kill the Earl and under more than a soupçon of suspicion …..

When he gets to Wales, events take a sinister and gothic turn.  The Earl evades another attempt on his life but refuses to go to the police.   A mysterious torch-brandishing horseman gallops around at night, and the crypt beneath Pendragon castle reveals an empty tomb.  Folklore, or the Pendragon legend, has it that this is Asaph Pendragon, the original Rosacrux, who rises from his sleep to defend his legacy in times of great danger.  And then an assassin falls from a balcony, his neck broken before he ever hits the ground …

At which point, Bátky finds himself sent back to London to retrieve a manuscript for the Earl.  The assassins seek to recruit him by fair means and femme fatale. The cat and mouse chase – the mouse being the Earl – continues for so long that I felt nothing of any consequence was to come of it.  Then suddenly a child is abducted, the implication being a child sacrifice is needed.  What for? I was never quite sure because devilry was involved and it was time to skim.

Thus I lost the plot – no, sorry, the thread, and chose to remain lost as the novel came to a dark and violent denouement, completely at odds with the light-hearted and witty romp that forms its core. It’s generally accepted that this novel is a satirical blend of gothic and romantic genres, crossed with murder mystery.  But – to quote from the blurb - beneath the surface, the reader becomes aware of a steely intelligence probing moral, psychological and religious questions, or as Janos Bátky explains: 

There are some things that have an inner truth, but become nonsense when spoken …. We live simultaneously in two worlds, and there are two levels of meaning.  One can be understood by everyone, the other is beyond words, and is utterly horrible.

A more curious mix, I never did encounter.


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Ellen Ullman began her IT career in 1980.  As mine began in 1983, there was a certain amount of cross-over and familiarity with the situations she describes in her 1996 memoir Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents, republished by Pushkin Press in 2013.  I won’t go into detail here but I do recommend this books for IT afficionados.  It is funny in a knowing-smile kind of way and normalises the parallel universe that is a life in IT (in the sense that someone else is using the vocabulary that is every day to an IT office.) It also made me reflect on career choices and the paths she chose that I didn’t.  OK she had a head-start on me and was located in Silicon Valley while I was in Europe and certainly not on the bleeding-edge.  But I could have gone freelance and I could have chosen not to become a non-technical manager.  Using Ullman’s analogy, I settled for marriage..  Whereas the footloose and fancy-free contractor is free to adventure where she will, taking advantage of the many start-up stock-options, accruing great wealth and losing it again in various market crashes.  I shall now assume that the losses where recouped, allowing Ullman the time to turn her many talents to writing.

Even though Ullman was (remains) a high-flyer, I recognised many situations.  Chuckled particularly about the meeting when she was asked to produce an intranet and needed to – in my terminology  - “wing it” to the project sponsors.  Intranets may now be taken for granted, but it’s still the case that IT people have to give a confident impression of knowing what they’re doing.  Research and the manuals come later and every day is still a learning curve. I liked too the description of the special “herding cats” skill set required of IT managers when dealing with programmers … But we’d best move on swiftly.  I still have staff and you never know who might be reading this.

Discussing Ullman’s second book and first novel, The Bug (2002), should place me on safer ground. Coming to it straight from the memoir, it’s obvious that this is a fictionalised account of some key experiences from the early days in the development of graphical user interfaces. Some experiences in the memoir are directly transposed to the novel which has as its main antagonist, UI-1017, the 1017th bug discovered in the development of a user interface, which takes over a year to eliminate.  During which time, management of the start-up company is transferred to the venture capitalists,  rivalries between the programmers and the despised testers come to a head, and the technical lead is driven to despair.  Professional angst unleashed by the bug is parallelled by torment in his private life.  Imagine if you will a double helix downward spiral and I can only be thankful that the most elusive bug I had to fix was found after only 10 working days of combing through a 300 page COBOL programme. It was a proverbial missing full stop. So efficient in its havoc-creating capability and yet almost invisible.  Like the tester who finally nails the fictional bug, I had my EUREKA! moment in the office that day too.

In her afterword, Ullman explains her approach. System workings are described using simile and metaphor which are associative in nature, rather than precise.  A certain degree of accuracy has therefore been sacrificed in the interest of making systems comprehensible and interesting to the non-technical reader.  There are lots of reviews on Amazon suggesting that she has succeeded.  I felt that the novel got bogged down in technicalities at times but that these became more fascinating as the conclusion approached.  As an (ex-)techie I was interested in the technical resolution.  In the end more so, than in the human dilemmas. So, although I enjoyed the novel, I can’t with hand on heart recommend this to a general literary reader – even if there is a very creative application of Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies.  I think we’re firmly in the region of cult novels here.  Nothing wrong with that and if you like to mix your IT with fiction, this is the book for you.

Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents 3stars.GIF /   The Bug 35_stars.GIF

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I cannot let Pushkin Press Fortnight pass without profuse thanks to Pushkin Press for its dedication to bringing the works of Stefan Zweig back into the anglophone consciousness  I’ve written about his wonderful short stories here and here.  Zweig was also a prolific non-fiction writer and Pushkin Press has been republishing many of his fine biographies in recent years. Of course I’ve been collecting them.  It was Zweig’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, Maria Stuart, that accompanied my move from Germany to Scotland many years ago.

Today, however, I will concentrate on the first piece in the volume Mental Healers: Mesmer, Eddy, Freud.  Zweig’s portrayal of Franz Anton Mesmer is highly sympathetic, showing his subject to be an honourable philanthropic man, whose destiny was of one born out of the due time.  His theory of “animal magnetism” involved, after he had dispensed with the use of magnets, the transference of energy from himself to his patients and the induction of a psychological crisis beneficial to healing.   I’m using Mesmer’s vocabulary there which even now sounds outlandish, perhaps a little uncanny.  With alternative therapies still struggling for professional acceptance in our modern world, it’s no wonder the 18th-century Viennese establishment hounded him from the city, the scandal of the blind pianist being the final straw.

Zweig is at pains to point out that Mesmer was a bona fide physician and was not indulging in quackery.  He practised according to a method even if he couldn’t explain it sufficiently to his detractors.  But did he heal the pianist Maria Theresia Paradies as he claimed? Zweig is even-handed in this regard pointing out that she never saw again once she had left his care.  And yet there is report written by her father, who was eventually bullied into removing his daughter from Mesmer’s hospital, which contains so poignant a description of the gradual rediscovery of the world of light ….. it would need a greater imaginative writer and psychologist than either poor old Herr Paradies or the practical minded Mesmer to invent such subtle observations and artificially to excogitate what the patient is alleged to  have said about her psychological moods.

That invention or reimagination is the core of Alissa Walser’s Mesmerized.  Reading over the contemporaneous report quoted in Zweig’s essay, I am convinced it was source material for the novel, which is also sympathetic to Mesmer, while at the same time showing human imperfection here and there. Walser does what Zweig cannot (at least in an essay).  She takes us into into the minds of both Mesmer and his patient using broken sentences.  Staccato phrases. An indirect stream of consciousness, which is not dissimilar to the voice within my own head.  No surprise, then, that I liked it … very much.  The story is made even more interesting by the addition of two female characters; Mesmer’s renegade maid, Kaline, and his older wife.  Zweig mentions the latter but only in her role as a rich widow.  Walser shows the frustrations she must have experienced as she and Mesmer were increasingly shunned by Viennese society and also the irony of a man who could manage the hysteria of his patients but not the passionate outbursts of his wife.  

Mesmer was also an accomplished musician and, as such, understood the effects of music on mood and well-being.  Could it have been the effects of sound waves on the human psyche that convinced Mesmer of the existence of other invisible energies, the energy he called “animal magnetism”?  Do we have another name for it now?  The irony is that mesmerism (hypnosis) was unknown to Mesmer!  Zweig explains Mesmer was a forerunner, tapping into new knowledge but not fully understanding it himself.  It was one of his French followers, Puységur, who made the breakthrough and opened the doors to psychoanalysis.

Now that’s a fascinating subject in itself and I look forward to reading the other essays in Zweig’s collection.  More relevant to this blog, however, is the reading trail that leads from Mesmer and Puységur directly to the German Romantics. To quote Zweig once more: Romance was no longer to be sought under druidical oak trees, or in the world of the “little folk”; extraordinary adventures could now find their setting in the sublunary sphere between dreaming and waking, between willing and compulsion. He mentions such literary luminaries as Kleist, Hoffmann, Tieck, Bretano, who pressed forward to the exploration of the bizarre, fantastic, and gruesome realm.  Given that my book of 2013 explored similar terrain, and left me wanting more, this is a path that I shall meander along for a little while longer.

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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 by Stephen Snyder

So when I said that second helpings of Ogawa were due sooner rather than later, I hadn’t intended for it to be just one week later.  And I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer, because if the stories in The Diving Pool were good, the stories in Revenge are great!  I’m adding Ogawa to my completist reading list forthwith (even if Hotel Iris looks a little dodgy).

Revenge is such a dark emotion, best served cold they say and in some of the situations in these eleven dark tales, that is certainly true.  In other cases, it is more hot-blooded while there are some situations where the prevailing motivation isn’t revenge, just something, sadder, wiser, deeper.  

The collection opens with a woman going into a bakery to buy some strawberry shortcake.  A cheerful opening you might think, but it becomes apparent that this purchase is something of a ritual.  It is her son’s birthday … Only he died in tragic circumstances a number of years before.  His story unfolds.  As does that of his mother in another story further on in the collection.  So too the story of the baker who is seen weeping in the back of the shop.  Stories spring from the connections between an expanding cast of characters, male and female, young, middle-aged and elderly, until they circle back to the discovery of the small boy’s body.  Very clever.  My lack of notes gives me the perfect excuse to reread to gain a better understanding of the connections.

Motifs repeat themselves and it didn’t take long for the appearance of fruits, be they strawberries, kiwis or tomatoes, to sound alarm bells.  I also learned to take the straightforward with the grotesque.  These stories are very addictive particularly if you like twists – not only in the tail but also in the middle and sometimes at the beginning too!

This is the best single-author collection of short stories I’ve read, almost but not quite perfect.  Ogawa crosses the line of admirable cleverness to tricksiness when she inserts the metafictional, turning Revenge into a collection written by one of her own characters.  Just one game too many for me.  My only other quibble is that this left me wanting more … The time has arrived for Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.



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Like many I experienced a feeling of desolation when I turned the final page of The Lewis Trilogy last year.  So I was delighted when I realised that Peter May’s new standalone novel was once more to take me to an island setting.  Even more so, when I realised not one, but two.

The eponymous Entry Island is located inside the St Lawrence Gulf and was the place where Scottish immigrants, forcibly evicted from their homes during the Highland Clearances, were quarantined.  In May’s novel it is also the setting of a contemporary murder investigation during which the sometimes erratic behaviour of the lead interrogator, Sime, is coloured by a) his failed marriage, b) his insomnia, and c) his conviction of knowing the prime suspect, Kirsty, despite never having met her before,

It is this third strand that leads us back to the Hebridean past via two pieces of jewellry and the journals of Sime’s ancestor; a past that is both evocative, informative and engrossing, detailing the harsh lives in the blackhouses on the Isle of Lewis, the even harsher realities of the Atlantic crossing and the difficulties once the Canadian shore has been gained.  Not forgetting the doomed love story that continues to haunt the contemporary narrative …

which I confess, convinced me less. Complex human relationships are authentically drawn and the landscapes, as ever, finely and lovingly painted.  BUT (yes, a big one) was there ever such an incompetent set of detectives?  (Sime is part of a team.). My disbelief turned to incredulousness when they completely disregarded a major incident ….  May also reuses plot elements from The Blackhouse – similarities to Finn’s background and for a moment I thought we were going to see a repeat of the denouement on Sula Gheir. On second thoughts, perhaps these are playful nods to the fan base. If so, I, like that.  Also echoes and foreshadowings of the past leaking into the present.  Yet, like Sime, there was something that wouldn’t let me go, that preoccupied me. The Gaelic pronunciaton of Sime is Sheem but, in my English head, he was Sime, short for Simon. Combine that with the surname of the prime suspect, Cowell, and somehow it wasn’t as atmospheric imagining you-know-who running around ….  



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