The Table of Less Valued Knights – Marie Phillips 4stars.GIF

less Valued KnightsI was delighted to see this novel appear on the Bailey’s 2015 longlist.  I’d meant to read it on publication but then forgot about it.  How could I with such a colourful dustjacket?

Anyway my delight was compounded when I did read it.  It is everything that the dustjacket promises.

The seats at the round table in Camelot are reserved for the illustrious knights, as indeed are the Pentecostal quests.  Further back, away from the king, is a second table, reserved for the less-valued knights: those that have become doddery with age or inglorious through less than stellar performance.  They are not usually the questing sort although there are occasional and odd exceptions.

The exception here is very odd and involves Sir Humphrey de Val who effectively steals a quest from the Round Table when he agrees to help the lady Elaine find her kidnapped fiancé. They are accompanied by his squire, a little giant who rides an elephant, named Jemima.  It soon becomes clear that Sir Humphrey hasn’t got a scooby.  This quest involves nothing more than visiting the blacksmith in every village to determine who has recently purchased a black suit of armour. (It was the knight in black who absconded with Elaine’s fiancé.)  The pace picks up when a magic sword called Leila attacks Sir Humphrey.  Attached to the end of the sword is a young boy – actually Queen Martha of Puddock in disguise, who is fleeing from her marriage to a huge-toothed oaf named Edwin, and searching for her missing brother and rightful king

Thus do two quests collide and the result is a well-informed, hugely enjoyable and sometimes bawdy romp through Arthurian tropes populated by goodies (Queen Martha and Conrad, the little giant) and baddies (King Prince Consort Edwin and his brother, King Leo of Tuft), those with less than pure motives (Sir Humphrey and the Lady Elaine) and the downright confused (the Locum of the Lake “They needed somebody to cover. Usually I’m the Woman by the Well, and I started off as the Child at the Crossroads.”)  Pace and humour never flag and everyone gets what they deserve … apart from the poor unfortunate unicorn pictured bottom left on the cover (but at least his death isn’t gratuitous).

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes 3stars.GIF
Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch
Longlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Another fantastic example of cover art and a superlative book trailer.

You’d think I’d have rushed to read this immediately on publication.  No, I circled round it for months, worried about the ethics of turning a monster into an object of fun.  “It’s not what you think” said the translator, when I queried him about it at last year’s IFFP prize-giving.  And still I circled …. It took this year’s IFFP long-listing for me to open the cover and read …

And guess what, it wasn’t what I thought it would be at all.

Adolf Hitler wakes up on a piece of wasteland in modern Berlin, in full uniform, character and ideology undiminished.  He needs time to get his bearings, time granted him when a newspaper kiosk owner, mistaking him for an out-of-work method actor, gives him shelter.  Introductions to TV executives and a career in television follow.  Hitler is rocketed to stardom and, because of his persona, he can say things that others cannot., things that people secretly agree with. People marvel at his ability always to stay in character, always sounding like Hitler.  This leads to some unexpected and laugh-out-loud exchanges.

Kiosk owner to Hitler on first meeting : “I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere.  Have you got a card? any flyers?

“Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe”, I said sadly. “In the end they were a complete failure”.

There’s plenty of situational comedy as well as Hitler comes to terms with the technological advances of the modern world and realises their potential for disseminating propaganda – the internet soon becomes a favourite of his and he regales against the misuse of TV that is daytime television.  Much is said about the vacuity of modern day life as he is fêted as a superstar.

This in itself would make for a light and fluffy read,  However, in the second half, a darker undercurrent asserts itself.  The C21st Berliners may be blind to this but it is the real Hitler at work.  Back in the day he was completely underestimated, viewed as a funny, little man.  Nevertheless Hitler was cunning with a charm that won people over. Those patterns begin to re-establish themselves in the final pages of the novel and that is disconcerting.   I don’t think Vermes is saying that history could repeat itself but who knows?  There are lessons we never seem to learn.  He is on record as saying that Hitler didn’t do it alone and he wants the ordinary man, who made the Third Reich possible, to examine himself and ask how he would behave when given the choice of a strong, charismatic leader.

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts – Teresa Solana 45stars.GIF
Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Solana on KindleTalking of the dark side, I have crossed over.  I never thought that the Kindle would be welcomed into this house, but needs must.  Time is doing what time does best, unfortunately, and heavy suitcases are becoming problematic.  I need to lighten my luggage when travelling this summer, and so it’s time to bite the bullet.  I thought I’d start with a collection of short stories from one of my completist authors. Happy to report that the experiment was a complete success!

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts is a collection of 5 satirical short stories.  The pretensions of the art world are lambasted in Still Life No. 41 when what is take to be a life-size statue turns out to be something much more morbid. A Stitch in Time demonstrates that underestimating the elderly can be fatal. The restrained vampire (“I’ve not sucked the blood of young girls for years because I accept it’s not the done thing.  It’s a barbaric custom.“) at the centre of A Thought that Counts is quite a likeable fellow until he makes a spectacularly bad judgment call.  In The First (Pre) Historic Serial Killer , Mycroft, the cleverest troglodyte ever finds detective work a bit of a challenge, but in the process of establishing motive solves “three murders, and in one fell swoop invented prophecies, gods and oneiromancy”.  Flushed with success, he considers inventing psychoanalysis as well!  The final story, my favourite, is undoubtedly the most macabre. A pathologist becomes obsessed with internal beauty.  Performing, at her behest, a autopsy on the ugliest woman he has ever encountered (She was short and stout and her legs were too short and her torso was too long.  … As for her facial features, she hadn’t been let off lightly there either.  Flabby cheeks, bulbous nose, bulging eyes and greasy spotty skin ….), he discovers her organs to be of such sublime extraordinary beauty that he was continually forced to catch his breath. It is a contradiction he cannot resolve and over the following months he becomes obsessed with finding the perfect organs again .. until one night a pretty nurse from pediatrics finds herself cast in the title role of The Offering ….

I loved these stories.  They’re clever, witty and satirical by turns, inhabited by diverse voices, and I could happily have read a collection twice as long – even on the Kindle.  I hope more Solana is translated soon.  I only have one more novel of hers to read which I’m saving until something else is published.  I just can’t bear the idea of having no new Solana to look forward to.

The first quarter of 2015 is almost over and the campaign to remove 500 books from my premises (without adding another 500) is ongoing.

So far this year I have donated 106 books to the library and sold a further 18.

Incoming: 25 review copies. Purchases? Therein lies a tale …

Participation in Eva’s #tbr20 (read 20 books before purchasing another one) got the year off to an excellent start. Purists didn’t count library or review books. I did because I was working to a deadline – I wanted to complete in time for the release of the new Ishiguro. As a result, I finished the beauties below on March 2nd.


I was elated. And I hadn’t bought a book for two months! A-mazing!

During the victory parade, however,  the troops of General Let’s-sabotage-the-bibliophile slipped in and out of the castle library walls, leaving behind a trojan horse.  Hidden within my book sale money, the unspent book budget for January and February and, as I now know, the budget for March, April and May! My strategy had been not to spend any of this until my London city break ….

My spectacularly failed strategy.

I may live 26 miles from the nearest bookshop but I’m only ever 5 seconds away from a buy-with-1-click button.  The Ishiguro was the crack in the dam. You know want happened next, and it happened again when the AyeWrite program was published, and again when the Bailey’s and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlists were published. The trip to London followed that with visits to Watermark Books at King’s Cross, Hatchard’s at St Pancreas and Foyles on Charing Cross Road.

The result?


So last week I started #tbr20 round two and retreated to work out an effective rearguard action.  (To be continued …)

I decided long before I opened the first page of Ishiguro’s latest, that I would not be reviewing it. The blogosphere will be awash with reviews I decided. Instead would tweet my reactions and then consolidate the tweets to tell the story. Let us begin ….

And there you have it. An experiment that didn’t work too well, because after a first chapter of much promise, I didn’t want my next tweet to be “Oh dear.  It’s gone off the boil.” 

And the temperature never rose again.  I had intended to devour the book in two sittings in time for Ishiguro’s Edinburgh event, but couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm. I made it to page 148, by which time Ishiguro’s job was to persuade me to finish…

The blogosphere has been awash with details of Ishiguro’s very comprehensive book tour and insights into the book.  So I’ll just mention a few points I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.

1) This was an Edinburgh Book Festival event.  The EIBF in March? Yes, indeed. Increased funding from a variety of sources means that there will be events throughout the year, not just during August.  This can only be a good thing.

2) The event was held in the Lyceum – my favourite theatre – though not ideal for audience questions when the audience was seated on 3 levels and there were ongoing issues with microphones.

3) Who knew that Ishiguro spent his gap year working as a grouse beater at Balmoral?  There is no better way to see the moors, he said.  You’re off the tracks and must not break formation.  If you meet a bush, you must go through it.  if you meet a bog, you must wade through it.  (Hence, the splendid evocations of Dark Age British landscapes, I suppose.)

4) On the somewhat cool reactions to The Buried Giant: I’m doing something different.  Critical reaction has always been the same, whenever I change direction.  Critics didn’t like me not being a Japanese writer when I published the quinessentially English The Remains of the Day.

5I never for one moment anticipated the furore about the fantastical elements in The Buried Giant.  When I’m writing, I’m so immersed in driving forward the plot (his actual word was desperate), that I’ll grab onto any device that helps me do that.

(Editor’s note: This is not convincing me to read further. I’m not a fan of the ageing Sir Gawain and the geriatric dragon …)

6) Audience question: Is Edwin a terrorist in training?  Answer: I wouldn’t say that but he is about to be radicalised. 

(Editor’s note: Now we’re getting somewhere …)

And indeed we were.  Ishiguro explained that the neutral non-realistic dark age setting allowed him to explore the theme of genocide without the story getting hung up on historical particulars. This is a land where things best forgotten remain that way.  Both in the collective consciousness and in the more intimate memory of a long marriage.

This was the point that persuaded me to read on and complete the novel.  Yes, I can see the advantages of the defamiliarisation and the threats that appear when difficult memories begin to emerge from the mists, but I do wish the details weren’t so opaque. Everything is symbolic or should that be allegorical? In which case what’s the purpose behind confiscating Axl and Beatrice’s candle in chapter 1? Or the meaning of the mysterious boat ride in the final chapter? As you can see, I had problems from beginning to end.  Guaranteed not to appear on my best of 2015 list.




Let’s start with a confession. I wasn’t a fan of Brecht when I was studying for my German degree and never in a million years thought I would revisit.  Well, it’s only been 35 years and the impetus was the recent production at the Lyceum in Edinburgh.    I started going to the theatre regularly a couple of years ago, when I branched out from the Book Festival and added the Edinburgh Fringe to my itinerary. Unsurprisingly I head to anything with German Literature connections and have thus far been treated to Kleist’s Penthesilea (completely bonkers, but it’s amazing what can be achieved in a tiny hotel room with a humungous piece of paper), Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (in German, with English subtitles) presented as a soliloquy, actor staring for long periods of time at a balloon; Hesse’s Siddhartha (Italian opera, with English subtitles), given full-scale West End musical treatment.  As a result, I was looking forward to Brecht’s play, even though no mark remained from my multiple readings many moons ago.

First though I decided to reread. It didn’t take long for my old boredoms to resurface. The commmunist/socialist arguments in the prologue when land is confiscated to form an agricultural commune because the land will be better cared for that way are yawnswothy because historical hindsight shows how that didn’t pan out.  The principle is illustrated in the remaining scenes during a time of revolution and civil war when the governor’s abandoned child is saved from certain death by the selfless actions of a servant girl.  The revolution fails, however, and two year’s later the child’s mother tries to reclaim the child.  Who is the real mother?  That is for judge Azdak to decide ….

This is a dramatic story of epic proportions. How do you go about staging events that span two years? Brecht resolves this through the use of a narrator to explain background and events between scenes.  Reading the play this amounts to tell not show and is, even if this is acknowledged as one of the greatest 20th century plays, boring.  

But then the Causcasian Chalk Circle is not meant to be read.  The story is meant to be told, the events are meant to be watched and the narrator, in the form of a funky hair-cut flicking, electric guitar wielding, singing superstar is a transformative power.  The first riffs rang out, the audience woke up and for the next two-and-a-half hours never blinked!

Photo credit – Theatre Scotland


The narrator is ably “supported” by a large cast of actor musicians, many of whom take on multiple roles in both genders as the play has an even larger number of characters.  But if the narrator is the superstar, the puppeteer is the megastar.  During the course of events, little Michael, the child abandoned in favour of his mother’s dresses (!), grows from a babe in arms to a mischievous toddler. This transition is effected by a series of puppets, manipulated by a man dressed in black, who soon becomes invisible.  The child becomes surprisingly real and the bond between him and his “adoptive” mother tangible.  The shock at the causcasian chalk circle trial, when the child really could have been ripped in two, was palpable and (my) tears were shed when justice was done.

Photo Credit – Alan McCredie

This was a highlight performance for me. The modern dress emphasising the continued relevance of the issues raised. (The chaos of war, the plight of refugees ..,) I’ll be keeping Brecht’s text to reread and relive it.  The run at the Lyceum ends this Saturday (14th March).  If you’re in Edinburgh or the vicinity and have the chance of a ticket, take it.  Not to be missed.

 Telegraph review

Making Michael – DNA Puppetry


When Peirene #16, White Hunger, dropped through the postbox last week, I was horrified to find that the whole of Series 5 remained in the TBR.  (Where does the time go?) Serendipitously I needed to read just three books to complete #tbr20.  The time was right for a catch up.

I’m not going to review all three in depth because a) time just isn’t on my side right now, b) The Blue Room wasn’t really my cup of tea. (Let’s just say as Tomorrow Pamplona was too testostorony, there was far too much oestrogen in The Blue Room’s pages) and c) Under the Tripoli Sky with its depiction of abused womanhood and an ignored child made my blood boil.  I need to calm down before writing about it.

I may come back and write full reviews of both at a later date because there is plenty to say.  As a whole, I found Peirene’s Coming of Age Series to be the most thought-provoking to date.

Today though I’m concentrating on my favourite of the three.  The review also serves as my first contribution to Stu’s Eastern European Literature Month.

The Dead Lake – Hamid Ismailov 
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

An unnamed narrator is travelling by train across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan when he meets an incredibly talented 12-year old busker.  The boy’s thick, adult voice and his snappy attitude belie the appearance of his body.  He is a 27-year old man trapped in the body of a child.

Conditioned by The Tin Drum, my mind immediately sprung to Oskar Mazerath, but, thankfully stunted growth is the only thing Yerzhan has in common with Oskar (thankfully, because the world’s only big enough for one Oskar.) As Yerzhan travels on the train with the narrator, he reveals the story of his life in a place that is beautiful, remote and utterly exploited.  His home, an isolated station on the Kazakhstan railway, lies in the vicinity of the Zone (the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site).  His childhood spent riding to school on horses, fox hunting with his grandpa, learning to play the dombra is punctuated by strange and frightening phenomena; a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling, sweeping tornado. Ominous to us with hindsight, but to Yerzhan this is everyday life.  (It would be – between 1949 and 1989, a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out at the SNTS.) Thrown to the ground, he gets up, dusts himself off and carries on with his daily business.

There appear to be no consequences and so, on the day when he is taken with his classmates to visit The Dead Lake – a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of a nuclear bomb – he casually strips off, takes a dip despite warnings to the contrary and his destiny is sealed.  In the words of one of his folk songs:

When I am one, I’m in the cradle,
When I am five, I am God’s own creature,
When I am six, I’m like the birch pollen,
When I am seven, I’m the earth’s dust and its rot,
When I am ten, I’m like a suckling lamb,
And at fifteen I frolic like an elf and gnome ….

Others face fates no less dreadful. While the older generations live to a goodly age, radiation sickness takes hold of  Yerzhan’s beloved cousin, Aisulu, who has grown inordinately tall.  The cost is extraordinary with Yerzhan and Aisulu representative of blighted lives in the hundreds of thousands. The train journey across the Steppes, which has already lasted 4 days when the story begins, continues throughout the entire novella and beyond the end page.  This emphasises the boundlessness of Kazakhstan, an area as large as Europe, and also the environmental devastation.   On page one:

At every way station, the train was boarded by ever more vendors – all women – peddling camel wool, sun-dried fish or simply pellets of dried soured milk.

Busy bustle everywhere. As the train crosses the Steppes, approaching Yerzhan’s home, the narrator is seized by a nameless fear, the feeling of something inevitable yet hidden, that could be here, just round the next bend.  By the time the train arrives at Yerzhan’s home station, Kara-Shagan, there are no signs of life, no chickens running around under the single elm some distance away, no old man with a little flag, no hay laid in for the winter, not even a single little cowpat anywhere.

The final sentence, which I won’t quote, couldn’t emphasise the plain fact more chillingly: it’s not just the lake that is dead.


The Walter Scott Prize released the 2015 longlist earlier this week.  It’s the first time they’ve done this, and I am delighted.  Also a little relieved because I’m feeling slightly out of kilter with the prize lists so far this year.  I had very little interest in the Costas and I have almost none in the Folio Prize Shortlist, so am happy that this list excites me.

The prize is in its 6th year and I have, thus far, read and written about all previous winners.  I intend to stick to that pattern even though I’m not committing to reading the whole longlist, or even the shortlist, when it appears. From the longlist, I’ve read 1, abandoned 2, and I will read the 4 in my TBR hoping that the winner comes from that selection. And maybe, because plenty of notice has been served, I might pick up one of two more titles once I’ve finished #tbr20.

In the meantime, here are 5 archive posts about past winners. All come highly recommended although the 2010 and 2013 winners are my personal favourites, and the 2015 winner is not only a historical novel but a cracking thriller as well!

2010 Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

2011 The Long Song – Andrea Levy

2012 On Canaan’s Side – Sebastian Barry

2013 The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng

2014 An Officer and A Spy – Robert Harris

2015 ???

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

It is time to acknowledge that I’ve fallen off the TBR Double Dog Dare bandwagon.  In my defence I’d been struggling with a lurgy for the best part of a week and suffered a relapse last Sunday. That German crime novel that dropped through the post (thanks, Little Brown) was just irresistible in my weakened state. 

I’ve been meaning to read more von Schirach since his debut short story collection blew me away 4 years ago.  Crime fiction written by a prominent defence lawyer is always going to offer an interesting perspective.  So interesting, that despite said lurgy, I whizzed through the latest,  The Girl who Wasn’t There, in just over a couple of hours.  And then, because nothing other than an afternoon of coughing and spluttering lay ahead, I repeated the exercise with his previous release, The Collini Case. (Offered by way of explanation in case I start to muddle up the details.)

Schirach’s style is dispassionate – what else would a seasoned lawyer be? The story in The Girl Who Wasn’t There is presented in spare prose – something that doesn’t usually thrill me – but there was something fascinating about the main character Sebastian von Eschburg. Von Schirach takes his time telling of the distancing effects that accumulate through von Eschburg’s childhood and young adulthood, and the sudden tragedy that makes the damage permanent.  Still von Eschburg shows remarkable resilience, becoming a renowned photographer. An observer rather than a participant in human life, preserving emotional distance from everyone … until a meeting with a stranger precipitates an emotional meltdown.

The second part of the novel sees an anonymous man, obviously von Eschburg, being interrogated and ostensibly tortured, by the police.  He is accused of  murder, despite there being no body and no clues as to the identity of the murder victim  The third part follows the court case, as von Eschburg is defended by an experienced lawyer, Biegler, who hasn’t the slightest interest in the celebrity of his client or the absence of the body.  “All that interests me in your case is the question of torture.”

This is verified during the case when Biegler gets to interview the officer accused of such.  The moral argument is aired, as is the legal, and it is a thought-provoking session, if I may call it that.  My viewpoint, curiously enough, dependent on von Eschburg’s innocence or guilt.  Established irrevocably by a final twist, which can be predicted by the careful story-telling in the first section.  Clever, clever, clever.

Caspar Leinen, the rookie lawyer in The Collini Case has a lot to learn, particularly about dispassion. He finds himself called to defend a 67 year-old Italian guestworker who has shot dead an 82 year old industrialist, Hans Meyer.  Initially champing at the bit in his first major case, his enthusiasm wanes when it transpires that Meyer is the grandfather of his childhood unrequited love, and a man he remembers with great affection. When he seeks to withdraw, he is given the following advice:

So? In the next trial the murder may remind you of some tragic childhood experience of your own. And the case after that could keep reminding you of a girlfriend you once had who had been raped. Then again, you might not like your client’s nose, or you’ll think the drugs he deals are the worst evils to afflict mankind.  You want to be a defence lawyer, Herr Leinen, so you must act like one.

His advisor is the prosecutor and the fascination in this story is the relationship that develops between the two men, despite their roles as professional adversaries.  The race is on to discover motive which, in the face of a defendant unwilling to help himself, Leinen does, demonstrating talent, tenacity and dedication. It costs him a great deal to reveal it but the lawyer in him takes over.

Taking the ages of victim and perpetrator into account, it becomes obvious that a secret from the Nazi past is involved and a stain on German Justice. One that appeared to be very much in the German consciousness in 2011 when the novel was originally published.  A few months after publication, the novel constituted one of the points of reference for a committee appointed to reappraise the mark left on the Ministry of Justice by the Nazi past, proving that von Shirach’s fictions are very much based in strange legal truths.

The Girl Who Wasn’t There4stars.GIF/  The Collini Case  (Both translated by Anthea Bell)

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)


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