I’ll start the third Women in Translation month in usual fashion, listing the books read and reviewed in the past 12 months, but I’ll make no apology for the lack of linguistic diversity.  I’m concentrating on the German Lit TBR this year (actually, probably for ever and a day looking at the mountainous height of it.)

17 read, with 13 reviewed as per the hyperlinks.  Not a bad effort at all.  Titles of my favourite 5 are in bold.

Dark Heart of the Night – Leonora Miano
Translated from French by Tasmin Black

The Vegetarian – Han Kang
Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith

The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante
Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

They Divided the Sky – Christa Wolf
Translated from German by Louise von Flotow

August – Christa Wolf
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

This Brave Balance – Rusalka Reh
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

The Secret of the Water Knight – Rusalka Reh
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

Erebos – Ursula Poznanski
Translated from German by Judith Pattinson

Fly Away, Pigeon – Melinda Nadj Abonji
Translated from German by Tess Lewis

The Weight of Things – Marianne Fritz
Translated from German by Adrian Nathan West

Who is Martha? – Marjana Gaponenko
Translated from German by Arabella Spencer

Summerhouse, Later – Judith Hermann
Translated from German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

I called him Necktie – Milena Michiko Flasar
Translated from German by Sheila Dickie

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything – Daniela Krien
Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Five – Ursula P Archer (Fantastic! – Review to follow)
Translated from German by Jamie Lee Searle

The Happy City – Elvira Navarro
Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

It’s time to face it: My annual summer blogging slump has coincided with #spanishlitmonth. There are just too many distractions this year; sunshiny days here and there, Brexit, the massive Edinburgh Book Festival TBR (20 strong – 6 read and only 17 sleeps to go) plus a major life change. 10 working days from now, I join the ranks of the (early) retired. Now you’d think the prospect of all that free time is a cause for great celebration – and it is – but I’m not planning on spending it hunkered down with the blog and my books. I’m intending to travel for a while and sorting out the plan for that is highly distracting. My bucket list of things to do is almost as long as my TBR! But more on that in September – post Edinburgh Book Festival.

For now, back to the event in hand, Spanish Literature Month and my attempts to focus on it with varying degrees of success.

The main objective was a re-read of Don Quixote, as I am looking forward to a reading workshop with Andres Neuman in Edinburgh on 19th July. I have a memory of reading and enjoying this in my late teens. I’m beginning to think it is a false memory because at 100 pages, I’ve put it to one side. It’s became apparent during my reading of the Walter Scott Shortlist earlier this year, that I’m not much inclined to episodic narratives. Is there anything more episodic than Don Quixote? I can’t see me picking this up again without encouragement. Will Andres Neuman convince me to do so? I also have a copy of William Egginton’s The Man Who Invented Fiction, which is calling to me loudly in this year of #cervantes400. Perhaps a leisurely parallel read is called for. Later in the year.

Elvira Navarro’s The Happy City is a much shorter read. This book consists of two interconnected short stories with adolescent protagonists; the first, a young Chinese immigrant. When his parents emigrated to Spain, the toddler Chi-Huei was left behind with his aunt for 5 years, until such time as they established themselves and could send for him. As he grows older, he is expected to spend time helping the family business. There’s no time for a childhood, what with school, the family business and being bullied as the outsider. A couple of friendships are formed with local girls, one of whom could be a romantic interest. Sara, however, has preoccupations of her own, which are disclosed in the second story. Not that I had much truck with her obsession with a homeless man. Though I recognised the duplicitousness of a rebellious teenager in her. Hmmm. I had much more sympathy with Chi-Huei, particularly as the damage to his relationship with his mother, caused by those early years of absence, surfaces in later years. I can’t say I enjoyed this read though. The stories, particularly the second one, are vignettes, studies of a particular moment in time, and we’re right back to my current problems with episodic narratives again.

Thankfully I had more success with Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel. Although if you want proof that my mind was/is(?) not in the right place, at one point I contemplated abandoning even this! Too many repetitions – it seemed to take an age (which is saying something as the tale is only 96 pages long) to stop looping round the incidents of the protagonist’s love interest ignoring him. (Ironic, given that those loops in time are the precise point.) I shall say no more at this stage except that I ended up loving this recognised masterpiece. I must return to it soon, both to appreciate it more and write a review worthy of a novel (novella?) Borges called perfect.

Finally I picked up another small piece – The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez, which I bought a couple of years on the back of Annabel’s review (which seems not to have been republished on her new domain.) Suffice to say this is a book about book lovers, the dangers of obsessive book collecting and of reading while walking. (2 of the 3, not the latter, apply to me.) It also encompasses the tragedy of a £20,000 book collection going to rack and ruin, exposed to the elements, after being turned into a physical beach house. No surprises that this little volume touched me more than any of the other books mentioned in this post!

In one word ….. Wimbledon.

I’ll catch up in the second half of the month.

Hasta la vista.

1st July already?

Blimey – it’s true, time speeds up as you get older.

So today is the first day of the second half of 2016 – a year of huge changes, with even more to come on the UK front, I suspect.  But I’m leaving that well alone.  This blog is about my literary life, and nothing else.  (Though I might make an exception later in the year, as something really big, personally speaking, is on the horizon …)

But for now, it’s time to check in on those reading and other book related objectives for 2016.  Everything  was going so well at the end of Quarter 1.

End of Quarter 2  – Cue disaster on nearly all key performance indicators (KPIs).  😫

KPI 1 – Books read: 50
KPI 2 – From the pre-2016 TBR: 39 (78% Target for the year is 80%)
KPI 3 – Books translated from German: 17 (34% Target for the year is 40%)
KPI 4 – Books culled: 143
Purchase allowance = (Books read + books culled) / 5 = 38
KPI 5 – Purchase allowance balance = -12

(This means that for all the jiggery pokery I’m operating a one book read: one book bought ratio.  The TBR will never reduce at this rate ….)

My self-discipline went awry during June.  There was my avoid-the-Euros Independent Book Shop week related gallivant around the Borders and Northumbria  and, of course, the publication of the Edinburgh Book Festival programme on 10th June, following which the inevitable spate of  acquisitions.  Still I’m starting on my #20booksofsummer today and that should help the realign the statistics somewhat.

I sat down last night to choose my 20 books and, given my plans for a very busy summer quarter (Jul-Sept), involving #spanishlitmonth, Edinburgh Book Festival, a trip to Prague, and Bloody Scotland, I wrote down the list below in about 5 minutes.  So that’s the target for the end of September to read 20 books from this list, even though they are unlikely to improve KPIs 2 and 3, given that the list comprises mainly of 2016 releases/acquisitions and hardly any German Literature.  (Not to worry, I can make up for this in the final quarter of the year.)

Are there any on my list that you particularly recommend?




imageOne after the other reviews extolling the perfection of Maggie O’Farrell’s latest and most ambitious novel come rolling in. I appear to be out of kilter with general consensus though.

What was I missing?  1) The emotional engagement I had with Esme Lennox  and 2) a novel that turned the pages of its own accord.

This will surprise many – it surprised me, particularly as the first chapter is simply hilarious, one of the best first chapters I’ve read in ages.  And the following chapters, establishing the stories and tragedies of Daniel, his ex-film star wife, Claudette, and their immediate family pulled me in.  There is something profound and sympathetic about the flawed characters in this book,  and it is this honesty that is the novel’s greatest strength.

Somewhere around page 250, though, I found myself wondering whether to read to the end.  I did, but reluctantly.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t as in love with Claudette as Daniel (though I did mellow towards her in the final third of the novel).

I did tire of the “technically dazzling” (Guardian) structure.  O’Farrell tells this story of mental and marital breakdown from the point-of-view of no less than 7 different characters. (There may be more, but I can name 7 off-hand.) These narratives are not told  in chronological sequence.  Episodic incidents shuttle back and forth through time.  Secrets revealed in one chapter unfold in minute detail 100-150 pages later.   Obviously the events aren’t of prime importance, the impact of those events on the minds of the characters is.  I have nothing against working the reader like this per se,  nor of the post-modern inserting of a museum catalogue of the ex-film star’s artifacts or of an interview with her former film director partner.  But the resulting repetitions do extend the length of the novel, in my opinion unnecessarily at times.  My biggest problem, however, was that in many of the chapters the narrative voices didn’t differentiate themselves sufficiently. (Perhaps this is where listening to the audio book enhances the experience.)

That said, there is some wonderfully perceptive writing.  I’ve already commented on the insight of the psychological character studies.  I also appreciated the details of the physical tortures caused by eczema (based, if I remember rightly from previous author events, on the experience of the author’s daughter), and must admit that Niall, the eczema sufferer was my favourite character.  Landscapes too deserve mention.  Whether rural Donegal,  or the salt desert of Bolivia, O’Farrell transported me directly to her chosen locations. As for the place of the title,  the place that is home, that is for Daniel to decide upon. The novel is, at its core, the telling of his finding it.




I am a football widow.  I am OK with that.  With the Euros running from 10.06.2016-10.07.2016 my free time is my own, and I haven’t got a minute to spare!

What Lizzy did

I’ve been shadowing the Walter Scott Prize and last weekend saw me go to the Borders Book Festival to hear the shortlistees and attend the prize giving.  I am absolutely delighted that my favourite won!  This tends to suggest that this year’s judges and I have a lot in common.  Here’s Simon Mawer at his moment of victory.  (Rather grainy photo, taken with mobile phone from back of marquee.)


That was Saturday evening, but that was half way through my long weekend and  a lot of water had flowed underneath the bridge by then.  A lot – I got soaked as I wandered through the grounds of Abbotsford – home of Sir Walter Scott – on Friday afternoon.  OK so that’s an occupational hazard in Scotland and I had the survival kit – raincoat and prerequisite brolly, which are always, but ALWAYS kept in the car boot.  It wasn’t windy and and it was warm.  All in all it was a wonderful afternoon.  Scott had a lovely home and a magnificent library.  Of course, having lost his money in the financial crash of 1825, he had to work his butt off to keep his creditors at bay and keep his hands on Abbotsford.  But the fact that he paid back 50% of his debt (approx 5 million pounds in today’s money) by the time of his death in 1832 speaks volumes for the man.

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The two Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize events were taking place in Melrose on Saturday afternoon/Saturday evening, so the morning was mine to do as I pleased.  A stroll into Melrose along the banks of the River Tweed in SUNSHINE was a rare and glorious treat.  Saturday 18th June coincided with the start of Independent Book Shop Week and, being in Melrose, gave me the opportunity to start a #bookshopcrawl to celebrate.  (Usually I don’t – home being 40+ miles away from an independent book shop.)

Cue visit to Masons of Melrose – a small, but classy shop, beautifully designed to take advantage of every square foot of space.  When you walk in, you might be forgiven for wondering where you are.  The candelabra says this shop has aspirations beyond its square footage!  Floor to ceiling bookshelves positioned around a central counter, replete with greetings cards of the kind that enticed me to spend a small fortune, and keyrings that I now regret having left behind, the wall-to-ceiling book shelves are filled with a judiciously curated selection of books.  Off the main area there a little cubby hole for the kids too. Kids will also love the bookshelf in the main area (although parents might not) stuffed with cuddly toys …..

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As I was making my purchases, and asking for permission to take the photos you now see, the lady at the counter recommended a book shop 1o miles down the road in St Boswells.  I’d never heard of St  Boswells, never mind the Main Street Trading Company, but I set out on Sunday morning to investigate ….

Well,  I fell in love.

A gruffalo, a book burrow for kids to listen to audio books (and adults, including Lizzy to shamelessly misappropriate for a photo opportunity), a book bag with matching note book to die for,  a selection of books for which overdrafts were created, and a cafe with a strong brew to calm my fluttering heart, it’s no wonder the place was heaving …. on a Sunday morning.  Unfortunately (or should that read thankfully?) Main Street Trading Company is located 73 miles from home.  It cannot be my new local (unless I move to St Boswells …..)

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Following this (expensive) reconnaissance mission,  it was time to cross the border into England.  Heading for Alnwick (pronounced Annick) in Northumberland, I was on my way to the mythical Barter Books.  A busy place in a converted railway station, I wouldn’t have gone, had I known about the nightmarish car park .  (I am a nervous driver, unused to busy single-track car parks …).  Regardless, the pain of parking was rewarded once I entered this cornucopia of used books.  It is massive, and I decided to walk the periphery and circle inwards to get my bearings.  This is the view once you get to the far side.


Where to start and how to survive this overload of 300,000 potential acquisitions?  With rules – very strict rules.  No novels (I have more than enough in the TBR) and books must be as new.  90 minutes after entry, and having bartered a bag of books, I walked away with 3 non-fiction titles for my reference library.  (Folio Society edition of The Thrty Years War, biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, Taschen Art Volume on Wiliam Morris.) They cost me a fiver.   I am a happy bunny and I may just brave the nightmare parking once more.

Because I will return to Alnwick.  If only to return to my first literary crush …. Hotspur!


King Henry IV Part One – O-level English text.  I was sweet16 and bedazzled by Henry Percy. Flawed hero of the piece … or perhaps even tragic hero?  Certainly not villain. My English teacher organised a debate and was worried I might win it! I didn’t – my classmates had more sense – but here I am 4 decades later, meeting my hot-headed Hotspur in the metal in the grounds of Alnwick Castle for the first, but not the last time.  Others may return to the site of Harry Potter’s quidditch tournaments or the site of Downtown Abbey’s 2014 Christmas Special, but Hotspur’s the man for me!

What Lizzy Will Do

This was the trip that kept on giving, and you might think that I’ll start reading my new acquisitions.  Not a bit of it, because today was the day Edinburgh Book Festival tickets went on sale. So now I’ll got an immediate baker’s dozen TBR, including Don Quixote!  Add in a couple of (short) titles to cater for Spanish Literature Month in July and the odd bit of whimsy, and I might successfully complete a #TBR20.  (Possibly at the 9th attempt so far this year.)

P.S I’m in dire need of more free time.  Could someone extend the Euros 2016 beyond 10.07.2016?


imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Marian Sutro is a British operative working with the French resistance.  In 1944 she is betrayed and finds herself in Ravensbruck concentration camp; an experience she barely survives – No longer the confident woman she had been.  Following the war, she tries to return to normal life, but there are the Nazi War Trials to endure.   She marries a – shall we say – compromise candidate, but as she regains her spirit, she finds life in the early 50’s too humdrum.  The Cold War needs to be fought, and, gradually she is sucked back into the life of an intelligence agent.  However, deeply concerned at the imbalance of power resulting from the creation of the atom bomb, the scene is set for Marian to turn traitor in the name of peace.

When I read Mawer’s Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room, I had reservations about both structure and characterisation.  No such issues here.   I found the psychological portrait of Marian’s recovery fascinating.  Her wartime experiences are pivotal but appear mostly in – deeply disturbing – flashback.  She is walking a tightrope – struggling to maintain her balance in a world that considers her a heroine, that wants her to relive the nightmare giving evidence at the war trials, when all she wants is to bury her past and move on.  When she does so, her past catches up with her and seemingly casual acquaintances attain much deeper significance.

There is, of course, also the political tightrope at the heart of events.  This is the Cold War era before MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and, within its pages Mawer explores the rationale of those who were willing to pass scientific secrets to the Russians.  This is where the pace picks up, especially as Marian becomes involved in a honey trap à deux.  Highly immersive reading. Impossible to predict the outcome.

But who has all the insider information, because it’s made clear that this information is not contained in Marian’s official papers.  A framework device, for which I’m a complete sucker (blame Theodor Storm) takes care of that.


Having completed my reading of the entire 2016 shortlist, I’m now faced with a decision.  To which novel should I award my shadow prize?  Mrs Engels was in prime position until I read Tightrope, and now I’m torn.  Given the scarcity of historical source material, McCrae’s Lizzie Burns is a finer feat of literary imagination.  Yet Mawer’s novel, set just a handful of years before I was born, is meticulous in its historical detail, and  has made me ponder the origins of the MAD world I was born into more than I have ever done before.  I need to go away and argue with myself for a few days.  Hopefully I’ll come to a decision before the official announcement on Saturday afternoon.