All good things come in threes – well, they do today, if you are a literature lover and your name is Lizzy.

1) We bloggers love shiny new books and today sees the launch of an online magazine devoted to them.  Hats off to Annabel, Harriet, Simon and Victoria, 4 indefatigable and passionate bloggers whose new collaboration, Shiny New Books, hits the e-newstands today. (Move over broadsheets.)

2) I heard about this at Aye Write! only yesterday.  The Romanticism Blog, sponsored by the Wordsworth Trust, also launches today to commemorate Wordsworth’s 244th birthday.  I’m not sure of the link but keep an eye on @wordsworthians. I’m sure they’ll let us know sometime today.  Last year I did a mini-themed read on the English Romantics and decided I would explore more deeply.  This initiative might just give me the impetus to do that.

3) Oh be still my beating heart – this one is especially for me (and for all German Lit in translation lovers).

The Goethe Institute is launching an online book club. From now on it’s German Lit Month every month! Discussion of Julia Franck’s Back to Back commences sometime today.  Again details on how exactly this is going to work are still a bit sketchy. I’ll be joining in around 17:00 BST.  I hope to “see” some of you there. (At least that’s where I think it is ….)

There’s something different about Aye Write! this year. I suspect it has more than a little something to do with the influence of the new festival director. Anyway I shall be there more often than not during the next 8 days (juggling work at the same time.) Unlikely to have the time to tell you the stories as I go along – I’ll catch up later. In the meantime, here are the pictures from today, which was, apart from an exploding microphone (poor Rosemary Goring!), perfect in every way.

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Here are some awards:

Chairman of the day: Chris Dolan who led 2 literary discussions. In the first 4 authors discussed the challenges of writing historical fiction; in the second 2 authors discussed the challenges of writing historical crime fiction. A little crossover, as you would expect, but not much. No readings at all! So no dead time. Erudite discussion all the way and a much greater insight into the craftmanship of  the novelists as a result. (And I suspect more titles added to my wishlist than would have been the case had I had to endure 6 x 10 minute readings.)

Discovery of the day: Stewart Conn – the first Edinburgh Makar (even though born in Glasgow). His event featured a 40 minute reading from his collected poems, interspersed with reflections and anecdotes from his life.  This might seem to be a contradiction of what I’ve just said but I enjoyed this also because it wasn’t just straight reading. The poems were put in context, nor did I find the language and imagery opaque and pretentious.

Wit of the day: David Ashton,  who has set his historical crime series in Edinburgh. When asked by myself, coz sometimes you just have to stir it, why Edinburgh, not Glasgow?, he replied …. Something controversial that I’ll have to tell you once I’ve read his books.  Plus he corrected me.  They’re set in the people’s republic of Leith, not technically Edinburgh at all!

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

It was a busy, busy month full of literariness but not much blogging.  Let me fill the gaps.

First weekend and I discovered Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Lyceum in Edinburgh.  (Actually I’ve been going to the theatre pretty regularly over the past few months but have never written about it.  Perhaps I should try my hand at being a theatre critic?) Anyway this play, about two vain and insufferable people, divorced from each other, who reconnect while on honeymoon with their new spouses, is pretty improbable but absolutely hilarious and definitely not politically correct. You wouldn’t get away with writing the spiralling domestic violence of the second act for laughs these days.  But I loved it and am really looking forward to seeing it again when I get my hands on the Anna Chancellor/Toby Stephens DVD, a version which has just come to the end of its London West End run.  I am also contemplating acquiring the BBC collection of Coward’s plays – can anyone recommend them?

Second weekend I attended the Folio Festival and the Folio Prize award ceremony ceremony in London.  I did manage to write about that.  I didn’t manage to get a ticket to the West End production of Private Lives, but I did bag myself a seat at Simon Callow’s one man show, Being Shakespeare.  This wasn’t quite what I was expecting – which was to see Callow transform into William Shakespeare himself.  Instead Callow narrated Shakespeare’s life story, showing episodes that influenced the plays and occasionally slipping into Shakespearian character.  Good but not as mesmerising as expected.

Around this time I had an unprecedented run of 3 5-star reads in a row.  I reviewed them here and here.  Then I started juggling longlist reads from the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, the IFFP and the BTBA.  Also preparing for next week’s Glasgow AyeWrite festival.  The books are good but it’s proving hard to match the magic from the beginning of the month ….

…. which might explain why I’ve watched three films in the last week.  (More than I’ve seen in the last year.) 

I thoroughly enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel and suspect I will add it to my personal collection when the DVD is released.  It is a wonderful, if tongue-in-cheek companion to the works of Stefan Zweig and Tilda Swinton’s cameo is fantastic.  Which is more than can be said for her main part in We Need to Talk about Kevin.  The problem with that film is that it was too arty and the editing gave away far too much, far too soon about the horror to come.  I wouldn’t have watched it to the end if a) I hadn’t read the book previously and b) wasn’t working my way through a mountain of ironing ….

The final film proved to be a real treat.  BBC Four are showing 4 Italian films based on the novels of Carlo Lucarelli.  I enjoyed his De Luca trilogy a couple of years ago and I’m going to enjoy the films even more.  Why?  Check out the actor playing De Luca ….. Bye for now.  I have a date with iplayer.

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?

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.



Not a picture of my TBR … for once


You’d think I’d be satisfied with the 3 longlists announced in the last 10 days: The Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.  Not a bit of it.  I’m eagerly anticipating the announcement of the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction on April 1.  That’s the longlist pictured above – one which won’t be publicised in full but which we can have fun guessing at in the meantime.

I’m pretty sure that bottom left is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and top right is my current read, Jhumpra Lahiri’s The Lowland.  Two books below that Hannah Kent’s superb Burial Rites.  Can you spot any more?


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