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)

11.02.1915 saw the arrival of a babe destined to become a legend, the seeds of which were sown when as a 18 year-old, he decided to walk from The Hook of Holland to Constantinople.  Talk about a gap year project.  The story of the first stage of the journey through Holland, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia (as it was in 1933) to the borders of Hungary was published in A Time of Gifts. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told “you must read this”.  And so, to commemorate what would have been PLF’s centenary, I have finally done so.

This is not simply the story of a hike.  It is a rite of passage into adulthood.  PLF,  an albeit privileged, highly educated and well-connected young rebel widens his horizons, expands his understanding and learns to be thankful through the generosity of strangers.  A time of gifts indeed.  Knowledge gained in the 4 decades that passed between the adventure and its publication enabled PLF to weave in historical and cultural detail that must have initially passed him by. The result is an enlightening and heartwarming travelogue that gave almost as much to this reader as to its writer.

Among the many surprises and delights that I encountered:

– a winter revisiting of Holland, Germany and Austria and some fond memories of my own. Let’s not question the sanity of starting this trip in December but I certainly felt cozy, snuggled into my fleece blanket gazing out at the white stuff lying on the ground, as PLF made his way through the winter storms

– the shock that not everyone had the time of their life in Munich (as I did)

– an eyewitness view of the ordinary German during the early years of National Socialism

– a bibliophile’s pleasure in viewing some very fine private libraries

– the addition of more destinations on my to-be-visited list

– an impromptu trip to Prague (just one day after I’d booked a flight for my 1st trip there)

– a less jaundiced view of human nature (much needed in the onslaught of current news)

I’ll treat myself to the second volume, Between The Woods and The Water, as soon as I finish #tbr20.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

Now that I am eight

I shall pat myself on the back for nailing the challenge I set for myself when I was seven. I was to read 7 books of 450 pages or more before today. How did I do? (Hyperlinks to my reviews)

1) The Tower – Uwe Tellkamp  – Winner of the 2008 German Book Prize (1024 pages)
2) The Goldfinch – Donna Tart – Winner of the 2014 Pultizer Prize for Fiction (880 pages)
3) A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving – A contemporary classic (676 pages)
4) The Siege – Arturo-Perez Reverte – Winner of the 2014 CWA Historical Dagger (672 pages)
5) Germany: Memories of A Nation – Neil MacGregor – Lizzy’s 2014 Book of the Year (640 pages)
6) An Officer and A Spy – Robert Harris – Winner of the 2014 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize (496 pages)
7) This is Where I Am – Karen Campbell – Best crime novelist turned to literary fiction (481 pages)
8) The Story of A New Name – Elena Ferrante  – Author Added to Lizzy’s Completist Reading (480 pages)
9) Virginia Woolf in Manahattan – Maggie Gee – Longlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize (472 pages)

The idea behind this challenge was to discover if I still had patience and the attention span to enjoy longer books. I think that’s a resounding yes. I’m relieved about that.  The blog does exert its own tyranny at times – the must read something short, so have something to write about mentality – which I have proved I can ignore.  This is a good thing for my reading.  Not so good for blog stats or rankings. (C’est la vie.)

So what are my plans for year nine?  While I am tempted to challenge myself to read half-a-dozen non-fiction books, I have decided that year nine is for enjoying myself, following my whims (especially as I am mulling on a non-book-related challenge for the summer.) It will be interesting to see where those whims take me.

 © Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)  

I’m reading from the Impac and Folio Prize Longlists and decided that a couple of shorties (i.e novellas) would help the #tbr20 cause along quite nicely.

I’ll start with Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, which appears on the 2015 Folio Prize longlist.  I heard so much about this upon release last year.  Reviewers fell in love with it one after the next and I can certainly see some of the charm.  The story, to be truthful, is nothing outstanding – a domestic drama of courtship, marriage, parenthood, adultery. It’s the manner of the telling which lifts this novella beyond ordinariness.   Like the jigsaw on the dustjacket, this story is told in fragmentary pieces that need to be put together to form the bigger picture.  Fortunately the fragments are chronological, so it’s not too difficult to piece them together.  

Told from the wife’s point-of view, I read the collection of small, concise paragraphs like a collection of memories jotted down in a notebook: a memory about the husband, her child, feelings interspersed with philosophical bon-mots. The ebbs and flows of a long-term relationship reflected in all honesty: that time of initial discovery,  fondness,  love, happiness, familiarity, sadness, disillusionment, bitterness, counselling, reconcilation. At the moment of greatest difficulty the narrative switches from first person (I, we) to third (the wife, the husband) to denote estrangement and distance.  The concision of thought lending an at times poetical melody to the text.

Some have described it as postmodern, an adjective shared with Kristina Carlson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which is longlisted for the 2014 IMPAC prize. This is a much more complicated prospect; its ambition to depict the collective mind of an English village during the advent of Darwinism.   Set in Darwin’s home village of Downe, Darwin remains off page, leaving them to his gardener, Thomas Davies;  a grief-stricken widower, with two young children, who eschews religion and adheres to his employer’s theories.  Unsurprisingly he takes his comfort from nature.

He is both distanced from and surrounded by a multitudinous and at times motley cast of characters.  The village drunk doctor, the publican, the grocer, a book group, a would-be author,  the wife-beater, the do-gooders, the gossips.  We see them at home with all their imperfections, we see them grapple with the questions that Darwinism has brought to their faith, we see a microcosm of society and we need to pay attention. I haven’t read a review of this book that hasn’t used the adjective polyphonic because that’s what it is. Ofttimes the villagers act like a chorus, each having their say in a single scene, not always explicitly and individually introduced.

I can’t say I did pay the necessary attention (despite the publisher’s warning that this book needs to be read slowly and savoured). There’s no doubt that I would benefit from a second reading, to pick up on what I missed first time round. This is an incredibly detailed and quiet text, and I’m not the most attentive reader of those.   Still I came away with positive impressions.  It’s clever, thoughtful, sympathetic to the foibles of human nature and open to the restorative power of nature.  Perhaps a little less sympathetic to those not accepting of Darwin’s theories. The criticism implicit in the portrayal of their flaws? I can’t quite make my mind up about this. Hence the need for a second reading of an admirable historical portrait in  fine, nuanced translation from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

Runaway – Peter May

I love it when books bulid connections of their own.  Murakami’s Colourless T (for short) charts a young man’s recovery from a grievous hurt after more than a decade.  Peter May’s stand-alone novel, Runaway, proclaims that “Hurt will haunt you”.  Turns out it haunts someone for five decades!

Parts of the novel are based on his own experience of being a runaway at the age of 16, leaving Glasgow behind to hopefully land himself a record contract in London. Exactly what Jack Mackay and his friends try in 1965. It is interesting to speculate how much of this reflects May’s own experience. In view of what is to transpire, I do hope, not too much!

The novel doesn’t start there, but in 2015 in London with a murder, news of which proves to be a catalyst for Maurie, now dying from cancer in Glasgow. He determines to return to London to settle an old injustice and convinces his former travelling companions, Jack and Dave, to take him.  After Jack coralls his lazy and unemployed (unemployable?) grandson as chauffeur, they set off on the same route as that taken 50 years earlier.

The two difficult journeys make up most of the novel and allow May to contrast youthful vigour and the frailties of old age, the fire and the ambitions of the young and the disappointments of lives lived settling for second best.  He also explores the sociological parallels between 1965 and today (e.g drug culture, social deprivation). What can go wrong when a bunch of naive teenagers set off to grasp life by the horns? What can go wrong when a bunch of geriatrics set off to even an old score? (Un)surprisingly past patterns repeat themselves in both dangerous and humorous ways.

The novel comes alive when the boys reach London in the middle of the Swinging Sixties. A group of penniless wannabes from Glasgow need a lucky break. One is forthcoming, though not the one they would have chosen. It does, however, pitch them into the thick of things. Their wide-eyed wonderment gradually turns more knowing. Relationships are threatened by emotional inexperience and growing tensions, that will eventually lead to the murder which opens the novel.

May takes his time depicting the journeys south and the colour of the Swinging Sixties. Perhaps a little too much as I did feel that the 1965 climax was rushed and depended on not one, but two plot devices which didn’t quite ring true. (Cf: Footnote) Minor quibbles.  I remember having a few of these with his previous novel, Entry Island.  That went on to win the 2014  Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year.  On that basis I predict another  – er – runaway success.  

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)




(Footnote: Memory aid to self: phone call, fall guy)


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