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My best books of 2022

I’ve been crazy busy since the start of the year and likely will be for another month or two yet, so my usually late posts may be even later. I’m temporarily covering for an extra team while its new head is being recruited and it makes for not a lot of downtime. It’ll pass though. On to my best of last year!

2022 was a bumper reading year, not least because of a decent length holiday in July involving several long train trips. I read a lot, 101 books in total, though that includes a fair few novellas and a small number that I abandoned part-way in.

For 2023 I’m changing tack. I’ve a few absolute chunksters I’d like to get stuck into: Anna Karenina; Ulysses; A Suitable Boy; The Books of Jacob and more. Each will probably take weeks so my reading count at end of 2023 is likely to be much lower, but quality rather than quantity really is the thing here.

One wrinkle with reading longer books is that more of them will be on kindle. Porting an 800 or 1,000+ page tome on public transport isn’t that great an experience; Moby Dick doesn’t easily fit in a pocket. It’s a shame as I do prefer hardcopy, but realistically most really long books just won’t get read in hardcopy.

Anyway, that’s the plan for this year. Here though is my best of the year just gone. My top choice of the year is at the end but otherwise these are in the order I read them.

Best book that shouldn’t really be on the list: The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald

I loved this, but then I’m not sure there’s any Fitzgerald’s I haven’t loved. I also read her At Freddie’s this year which I think is actually in many ways the better book, and should really be on the list instead of this one. This though won the prize for its mix of innocence and romance and as ever very dry humour. A gem.

Best Renaissance romance: Tell them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, by Matthias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell)

Of course it’s not really a romance in any meaningful sense at all. I just adore alliteration. Instead it’s another Enardian exploration of the gulfs between east and west and between people, here told through the lens of an imagined trip by Michelangelo to Constantinople. Brilliant, and also bitesize which makes it not a bad Enard entry point.

Best mixed audio/text experience: Border, by Kapka Kassabova

I read three books last year that I had both on kindle and audible. Sometimes I actually read, sometimes I listened while walking. It wouldn’t work for everything but when it does it works pretty well.

This is non-fiction, a travelogue exploring the history, folklore and complex present of the Bulgarian borderlands. It’s very good, not what I’d normally read but even so I plan to read more by Kassabova.

Best book most people wouldn’t read if it weren’t by Ernaux: Happening, by Annie Ernaux (translated by Tanya Leslie)

What is there to say on this one? An unflinching report of an illegal abortion that Ernaux had as a young woman. It’s unsentimental but not unsympathetic and for me easily one of Ernaux’s best. I know the topic is difficult but this really is excellent.

Best book I didn’t think would be on this list: Cold Enough for Snow, by Jessica Au

I found this a bit slight when I first read it, but it’s held up well in memory. It’s beautifully written with a little but not too much ambiguity. It’s a lovely exploration of a mother-daughter relationship and overall very atmospheric. A slow burner but a keeper.

Best book about bullying, adolescence and meaning: Heaven, by Meiko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

This was my first Kawakami and confirmed me as a fan. The central character is the subject of brutal bullying and makes friends with a girl in his class in the same situation. Is that really enough to found a friendship on though? This is another difficult read, mostly for the descriptions of bullying, but it pays off. The scene where the protagonist asks one of the bullies for an explanation of why he thinks it’s ok to behave like that remains absolutely sharp in my memory.

Best book that I most regret buying on kindle rather than hardcopy: Cursed Bunny, by Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur)

I genuinely considered this for my book of the year. Typically I buy short stories on kindle because I mostly read them in bed. This was no exception but I just liked it so much I like the idea of it sitting on the bookcase. Irrational, but then desires largely are.

There’s been a bit of a genre recently of short story collections using fantasy or horror elements to explore contemporary lives, particularly women’s lives. This for me is the best of them, the book that pushes past the limits of form to do something genuinely interesting. A keeper.

Best evocation of a dying order: The Leopard, by G.T. di Lampedusa (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)

I was lucky enough to read this on the train to Sicily. It’s an extraordinary book, widely and rightly praised. The characters are as richly drawn as in any Russian classic, the grandeur and decline of the old Sicilian order is vividly painted and overall it’s a bit of a triumph. Another strong candidate for my book of the year.

Best book about nuns abroad: Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden

I took a fair bit of persuading to read this and I’m not sure why. It was recommended by readers I trust and it opens well. Eventually I did take the plunge and I’m glad I did. The evocation of the mountain, the tensions of the small community of nuns far from anywhere they have any good reason to be, it’s marvellous. Like quite a few mid-20th Century female novelists Godden deserves a much greater profile than she has.

Oddly enough this isn’t my only book in the nuns abroad category, because of that sf series by Lina Rather I’ve been reading about a convent inhabiting a living spaceship and dealing with their internal issues against a backdrop of interstellar war. One of the more original sf premises I’ve come across in a while.

Best blackest noir: Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes

And this one really is black. This was my first Hughes and it was very impressive. Three characters, a town in fiesta, heat, dust, death and stark moral choices. It’s all here. If you’ve any fondness for noir this is an absolute classic.

Best novel that wasn’t what I expected: Will and Testament, by Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund)

My first Hjorth was her Long Live the Post Horn! It’s a gently comic tale involving public service and an EU postal directive. Turns out it’s not necessarily representative of Hjorth’s other work and while this was great it wasn’t quite the wry and charming tale I was expecting.

Here we’re in territory of family trauma, conflicting narratives and how you move forward when people won’t even accept what happened to you because it changes the narrative of their own childhoods. It’s a powerful book that may need a bit of a trigger warning for some. A trigger warning of course doesn’t mean don’t read it, just that it may be worth knowing some of what’s coming.

Best sheer loveliness: Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym!

That is literally the only explanation needed for this being on my end of year list.

Best choral novel: Space Invaders, by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer

This is a really impressive little book. It’s about Pinochet’s Chile and uses a semi-choir of childhood voices and the metaphor of the then-current space invaders game to capture the brutality of life under the regime. Fernandez creates an incredibly effective dreamlike collage of memory, metaphor and dread. Absolutely superb and I’ve already bought her novel The Twilight Zone.

Best book of the year: Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan

Because it just had to be. I read some truly great novellas in 2022, some of them listed above. Regardless of length though this is simply a masterpiece. It’s an examination of history, moral responsibility and moral choice and yet it’s written with a jewel-like clarity and precision. Keegan’s Foster is also brilliant but I try to have no more than one book by an author in my end of year regardless of how great (and Keegan really is great).

This and Foster are also ones I regret buying on kindle to be honest. They’ve since come out in rather nice paperbacks and they’re just so good. If you haven’t read this then I urge you to do so.

And that’s it! I’ve a small number of honourable mentions that on another day might have made the list: Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (with a superb audiobook adaptation by the way); Elisa Shua Dusapin’s The Pachinko Parlour; and my perennial favourite Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova’s Return to Venice. End of year lists mean hard choices though and the ones above aren’t too bad a selection.


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December ’22 round-up

I never do my end of year write-ups before January. There’s two reasons for that. One is that I always hope my next read will be amazing, and that’s as true in late December as it is say in mid-March. The other reason is that I like the sense of completeness of the year definitely being done and being able to look back over it as a reading whole.

As it’s now January my end of year should be up soon. In the meantime, I did have a good December. I usually do if only as there’s more time to read when I get a break from work (hence July being such a powerhouse of a reading month this year). Even so, the worst in December was fun but forgettable and the best were outstanding.

Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett

We start with a good book that wasn’t entirely me. This is a series of maybe-linked short stories, some very short indeed. They all feature an unnamed woman living in an English village. She’s a solitary sort but happily so and the stories are observations and vignettes from her life.

It made Radhika’s Best of 2016 list and I can see why as it’s nicely written and has very much its own voice. It would make a good later winter/early spring read and it’s published by Fitzcarraldo which is always a good sign. Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers was less taken though and writes a countervailing negative view here. I’m somewhere between Radhika and Lisa on this one. I liked it but didn’t love it and it’s not a keeper for me.

Carmilla, Sheridan Le Fanu

Before Dracula there was Carmilla. Actually, my understanding is that before Dracula there were quite a few vampire tales. Enough so that it’s a bit odd nobody in Dracula says “hey, are we dealing with a vampire here?” Still, Carmilla is one of the more famous ones.

We’re in gothic potboiler here with a lovely young woman who lives in an isolated castle with her father and minimal staff. The beautiful Carmilla literally crashes into their lives after a carriage accident and they agree to look after her while she recovers her health. Is Carmilla all she seems though? No, of course she’s not. Before too long our innocent heroine is fading from an illness that’s claiming the lives of many of the area’s young women and her attachment to Carmilla is starting to look distinctly unwholesome.

It’s often said there’s a lesbian subtext to Carmilla. In modern terms that’s true, but for when it was written I’d say it was probably less a subtext and more neon highlighting. It’s a clear influence on Stoker’s later Dracula and it’s a lot of fun. One for anyone with a fondness for classic Gothic fiction. Guy Savage wrote about it here.

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami (translated by Jay Rubin)

It’s years since I’ve read any Murakami. I used to be something of a fan but I got tired of his idiosyncrasies. I’m not sure why I suddenly went back to him but I’m glad I did, as while the usual Murakami issues with depictions of women remain this was strong. I’m not at all surprised it was a massive hit for him.

We open on a flight in the 1980s. A muzak version of The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood sends the narrator back into his memories and of a time as a young college student when he was in love with two different women. We know right from the beginning that one of them killed herself.

This is a dark novel, much more so than I expected. For some reason I had the idea that it was a rather sweet love story, rather than a story of mental illness, depression and suicide.

The narrator as ever with Murakami works in a jazz shop (part time as he’s a student) and loves F. Scott Fitzgerald. The female characters all want to sleep with him (it’s that which drives most of the story). It’s Murakami.

Even so, despite my caveats and Murakami’s issues it is powerful. Tony wrote about it here having read it first when he was younger and again more recently. He rightly brings out the youthful energy of the book and its copious charm, but also the dark undercurrents of mental illness against a background of social change. If you’ve ever wanted to try Murakami to be honest you could do much worse than starting with this one.

Space Invaders, Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

This is a candidate for my end of year list. Again it’s an act of narrative memory, here adults looking back on their time as children in 1980s Chile under Pinochet. It’s a slight volume, novella more than novel, but spectacular in how it builds an atmosphere of dread and everyday brutality.

It’s a mix of dreams, mingled voices, metaphor and memory and yet despite being really genuinely cleverly put together is also immensely readable. Jacqui refers to it as a literary collage, which is nicely put and captures something of its layered complexity.

Jacqui has written more on this here than I have time for and I strongly encourage you to read her review if you haven’t already. This made Jacqui’s end of year list and I’m not even slightly surprised.

The Kaiju Preservation Society, John Scalzi

Kaiju if you don’t know are basically giant monsters like Godzilla or the creatures from the recent Pacific Rim films. John Scalzi is an extremely successful SF author that I’ve not previously read and I fancied something lightweight at this point in the month. Scalzi himself described this as a pop song of the novel and it’s the slightly silly tale of a New York delivery guy who ends up working for a cross-dimensional organisation that protects kaiju that live on a parallel earth.

It’s fun and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it appear at a movie theatre near you at some future point. It’s let down a bit though by pretty much all the characters having the same wry comic tone which makes them a bit samey. Still, I wanted a light novel and it certainly delivered on that. Good thing it did too, because up next was…

Days in the History of Silence, Merthe Lindstrom (translated by Anne Bruce)

Delighted to see the translator on the cover here. This is a Norwegian novel about an aging couple told from the wife’s perspective. Her husband literally hasn’t spoken a word for years now. She’s become his carer, but it seems less a case of dementia (at least at first) and more that he chose silence.

As the novel develops it becomes apparent the silence goes back much further than when the husband literally stopped talking. He comes from a family that was wiped out in the Holocaust and is left with trauma from that but his wife never wanted to discuss it, to acknowledge it. They’ve never even told their now adult children. She gave up a baby for adoption when she was 17, but she won’t speak of that either. More recently they sacked their much-loved housekeeper but while it’s easy for the reader to guess why they can’t explain it to their children because there’s so much the children don’t know of their lives.

It’s powerful and well written but for me it became claustrophobic and airless. This terrible marriage, these people who’d somehow wasted their lives in silence. Guy wrote about it here (which is where I learned about this one) and was hugely impressed by it so it’s one you may wish to consider.

New Hope for the Dead, Charles Willeford

This is another one that Guy introduced me to, here. It’s one of Willeford’s Miami-based Hoke Moseley novels. Hoke’s part of the homicide squad, all of whom have been told to live within the city district which is an issue as Hoke is financially crippled by his divorce settlement. He’s also just got his first female partner, Sanchez, and while he’s no problem with women cops it’s painfully apparent he’s no idea how to connect with a woman on an equal working level.

Hoke and Sanchez are called to a drug overdose, but the dead junkie was the son of a drug-gang lawyer and he was living with his step-mother who Hoke thinks is gorgeous and up for going to bed with him. The suicide doesn’t feel quite right to him anyway and investigating it gives him a reason to keep talking to the step-mother…

I liked the last Hoke Moseley novel I read and this one is just as much fun. I said in my review of the first of these “If you’re even slightly a crime fan, I can save you some time on this review. You’ll like this one. Go pick up a copy.” I stand by that.

The Topeka School, Ben Lerner

This is an interesting one. My wife bought me this for Jolabokaflod (look it up, it’s delightful). It’s very much a novel of the Trumpian post-truth era. We’re in the 1990s and Adam is a college student and debate star, but college-level debate isn’t as most of us would imagine it. Instead it’s all about the spread – getting as many assertions in as you can so your opponent loses not because your argument is better but because they can’t keep up.

The book’s told from Adam’s own perspective and from the perspectives of each of his parents, who have their own issues and stories both being members of a nationally famous therapeutic community. Adam’s mother has had breakaway success which has made her something of a celebrity, putting strains on her friendships and marriage and exposing her to the hatred of men she’s never met who take exception to her work.

So we’re in an examination of toxicity here, both in the public sphere through the debating tournaments whose champions will become the politicians of our own age and privately through the men who feel entitled to harass a woman they’ve never met because she wrote something they didn’t like.

It’s semi-autobiographical. Lerner was a debating champion and his mother was an academic who had breakout success, but that’s not what’s interesting about it. What persuades here is seeing how we got where we are (or at least how contemporary America got where it is, but it’s not like Europe’s exactly immune to this stuff). A difficult read in many ways, but difficult because persuasive.

Journeys, Stefan Zweig (translated by Will Stone)

I usually have a short story collection on the go alongside my full-length reads. In late December I instead read this collection of feuilletons by Stefan Zweig, each a short piece by him on a location such as Antwerp, Seville and Bruges.

These pieces were written over a span of years ranging from the 1920s into the late 1930s. The latter are inevitably more powerful. I sometimes find Zweig a bit overblown as an author and that was the case for me with most of these here, but that diminishes as he has more serious subjects to write about and his account of a London shelter for Jewish refugees was genuinely moving.

Karen wrote about this here and liked it a lot more than I did. In fairness, I’m not as much of a Zweig fan as most so if you do like Zweig the odds are you’ll be closer to Karen on this than me.

In Our Mad and Furious City, Guy Gunaratne

Final book of 2022 and a great justification of why I don’t like to write end of year posts too early. I don’t know yet if this will be on my best of 2022 list, but it’s definitely a candidate.

We’re on a North London council estate. A soldier has been killed and the streets are full of tension. The novel follows a few of the estate’s residents, most of them friends but one an older woman and another a paralysed old man reliving his memories of coming to Notting Hill from the West Indies decades before.

This is a great London novel. One of the characters is named Selvon and as with Sam Selvon’s masterful The Lonely Londoners Gunaratne captures not just the lives of his characters but their speech too. It’s a vernacular novel, ennit, but written with skill so that each voice is quite distinct and even if you’re not familiar with the way people speak in that part of London you become familiar with the rhythms of it.

Unusually for me I both read this and listened to it, as I had it both on Kindle and Audible. If you do listen to audiobooks this might be worth taking that way as the voice acting is pretty much the best I’ve encountered and really helps bring the characters and style of speech to life.

This got huge attention back when it came out and deservedly so. A great book to end the year on.

Right, that’s December ’22. See you soon for my best of the year post!


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October/November ‘22 roundup

Yes, it’s a double post because I’d like to finish my 2022 posts by and large within 2022…

On which note, I’ve started thinking about my reading for next year and I’ve noticed I tend not to read many long novels. I think that’s partly just because they are a big commitment, but also because the thing with blogs is you want to be part of a conversation (even haltingly as I am these days). If you read just one book in a whole month then you can feel less a part of that conversation.

The thing is though, while I love a novella, there are some really good long books out there that totally justify their length. So I’m thinking 2023 may be when I try to read fewer books but tackle some that require sustained attention.

Anyway! October and November. Both good solid reading months and a couple of stand-out reads.


I’ll Sell You a Dog, Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey)

This is my third Villalobos and he remains a favourite. Here it’s the tale of a retired taco seller who moves into an apartment building where the residents are all semi-compulsory members of a book club who quickly become obsessed with the idea he’s writing a novel. It’s a satire on art and literary criticism and very, very funny.

Content warning (I know, how millennial of me), there are several dogs killed over the course of the book which is normally a total deal-killer for me. It’s not dwelt on in terms of the details or frankly I’d have had to stop reading, but it is one of the running jokes and is I think among other things a bit of a commentary on the contrast between the brutality of life and the pretensions of art and literature lovers, but that may be just my own pretensions speaking.

That warning makes this maybe not your best choice as a first Villalobos. If though you already like him this is another star turn on his part.

Perfecting Sound Forever, Greg Milner

On paper this is a fascinating concept – a history of the technology of recorded sound and its impact on music. For me though this didn’t work. I encountered several fairly basic scientific howlers in the first chapter plus some quite repetitive and meandering language. I know very little about recording technology but I do know some basic physics and if a book gets the stuff I do know wrong it dents my confidence that I can trust the rest.

One example, bizarrely Milner thinks Neanderthals didn’t have art. Fine, it’s not a book about human evolution but he uses it as the basis for an admittedly short bit of speculation and he’s so profoundly wrong on that point I found myself wondering what research he’d done in other areas or if he’s just working on what he believes to be true and making assertions.

There’s no point really to an educational non-fiction book once you lose trust. Others have loved this though so if the concept appeals I’d suggest looking at some wider reviews. I bailed.

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar

My October piece of science fiction and a very strong choice. This is a series of connected short stories set in the future space port of Tel Aviv. What makes it work so well is Tidhar’s focus is not on the spaceships and colonies and all that (much as I do sometimes love all that), but in the sense of life continuing on the ground much as it ever has.

A man returns from Mars to encounter his former love, both of them now much older but no wiser. A young woman falls in love with the semi-roboticised veteran of a forgotten war. A construction worker trades with transhuman intelligences in the hope of building a legacy to pass to his children and grandchildren. The trappings of society have changed, but people haven’t.

If you know your SF history there’s a lot of references buried in here which are fun to discover but they’re not necessary for the core of the book. Tidhar creates a future that is utterly persuasive not in its details, of course those won’t come true, but in its sense of a lived place with people making do as best they can just as they always did. It’s a tremendous achievement.

Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark, Celia Fremlin

I adored Celia Fremlin’s The Hours Before Dawn. What I didn’t realise then was Fremlin also wrote a lot of short stories. They tend to be in the same vein as Dawn – claustrophobic psychological horror/suspense, with every now and then a story having a low key supernatural element. They’re not quite horror, but they certainly are horror-adjacent.

This is I think Fremlin’s first collection and it’s very good, particularly for a winter read. Radhika wrote up a slim Faber volume which comprises some of the best of this collection here and Guy has written up lots of Fremlin here. I’ll be reading more by her.

A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright

Typically I don’t read much non-fiction, but I felt like a change in October and read a few titles out of my normal range. This one is a series of essays on societal collapse which were turned into a book back in 2004. It examines how various civilisations have failed and tries to see if there are lessons we can draw from them to avoid the same fate.

It’s well written and extremely interesting. Wright does indeed draw some lessons, but I had the feeling he wasn’t that hopeful we’d learn them. A good and thought-provoking read but not one that gave me much hope for the future. We’re no smarter after all than those who’ve gone before us and our better insights and understanding of the world doesn’t seem to translate much into better behaviours.

Turned Out Nice Again, Richard Mabey

Richard Mabey is a well regarded English nature writer, most famous (I believe) for his book The Unofficial Countryside on how nature persists in edge lands and wastelands in our towns and cities.

Here he writes about the British relationship with the weather, how we feel and talk about it. It’s a very personal book, in some ways quite slight but also quite short so it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Mabey’s interest is less in the climate than in the weather, a much more transient phenomenon (though of course the two are intimately connected which he recognises).

This would make a good rainy afternoon book or perhaps one for a train journey.

Some Tame Gazelle, Barbara Pym

Now we’re talking. October ended on a high with Pym’s first novel. It features two sisters each in their fifties living together in their pleasant but ordinary village and harbouring quiet passions for the local vicar and a series of curates. Their quiet and orderly lives are disrupted by the arrival of visitors at the vicarage, some old acquaintances and some new. Could love disrupt their lives? The genius of Pym is that with any other novelist you’d be rooting for that outcome whereas here you find yourself rather hoping it doesn’t and things can go back to normal.

It’s hilarious, warm, wry, intelligent, utterly charming. In fact, I lack the words for it. No question but that it’ll be on my end of year list.

Lots of people have reviewed this, all glowingly. In no particular order there’s reviews by Jacqui here, Guy here, Karen here and Ali here. Honestly, if you’ve not read this you can find out what I read in November later. For now you should be getting this.


I’m assuming if you’re reading this you either already had Some Tame Gazelle or have rushed out to buy it. So, on to November!

The Terrorists, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Joan Tate)

The tenth Martin Beck novel! Last of the series! Sadly, it was a bit disappointing. Beck and the crew are all as enjoyable as ever, but the crime here is an extremely convoluted series of political assassinations by a James Bond-style international criminal conspiracy and it felt like I’d jumped suddenly into a different genre. If you’ve read the rest you’ll want to read this and it has its strengths but for me it’s easily the weakest in the series. Oh well.

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Possibly a bit of a cheat this, as actually I read the Dracula Daily Email. This is a project where each day you get emailed the bit of the novel which is written as taking place on that day. It changes the novel’s sequence slightly as it’s purely chronological which isn’t quite how Stoker does it. It is fun though and will run again next year.

The early sections with Jonathan Harker are the highlight (he’s a much more robust character than generally portrayed in adaptations). Dracula’s castle, the ‘brides’, Dracula’s sheer monstrousness, it’s all very well done.

Less well done is any scene with Professor Van Helsing, who comes over as a crackpot who this time happens to be right and who has some of the worst dialogue I’ve read in really quite a long time.

Overall it’s Dracula. Iff you’re at all interested I’d encourage you to join up for next year. Details here.

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula le Guin

So I blame this one on Karen and her recent journeys in children’s and adult fantasy fiction. It inspired me to revisit one of my childhood favourites, A Wizard of Earthsea. Ged, a goatherd in an insignificant village on a minor island is born with a great power of wizardry and the book follows his journey to the famed college of magic and beyond in an attempt to undo the harm he let into the world with some of his early magical experiments.

It holds up pretty well as an adult read. There’s a nice mythic quality to it. It’s part of an original teratology and a couple of subsequent later sequels in addition and I’m not sure if I’ll go on to any of those, but this stood up well as a standalone.

So, thank you Karen for inspiring me to revisit this old classic. I hope to revisit Lord of the Rings next year, in that case absolutely and directly inspired by Karen’s rereading of it.

Casanova’s Return to Venice, Arthur Schnitzler (translated by Ilsa Barea)

So I mentioned at the opening to this post a couple of stand-out reads this month. The Pym was one. This is the other.

I love Schnitzler’s work and I’ve read most of his that are in translation. For some reason I’d missed this one. A mistake, but a happy one as it meant I had a top-notch Schnitzler still on the shelf to be discovered.

Giacomo Casanova is in his fifties. He’s tired of his exile and wants to return to Venice. His powers are waning and increasingly young women he’d once have eyed as conquests now instead eye him as an irrelevant old man.

Casanova finds himself staying at the estate of a couple he helped many years ago with money for their marriage. The wife has designs on him but he’s more interested in the daughter. Trouble is, she seems more interested in a young army officer who reminds Casanova painfully of his younger self.

It is brilliant. Melancholy, well written, a beautiful meditation on aging but with a wickedly amoral underpinning and a slight swashbuckling edge (it is about Casanova after all). Lizzy Siddal gives an excellent account of it here. Lizzy is actually much less taken by it than I am but as a good reviewer still brings out its qualities.

Dark Eden, Chris Beckett

This is a novel which I think will be a future SF classic, the way people now refer back to classic SF of the 50s and 60s. A small colony exists on a planet with no sun, the only light coming from the plants and animals native to it. The colonists are primitive but with memories of a founding couple who unwillingly settled there. The society is riddled with genetic defects, the result of massive early inbreeding, and waits for when Earth will come back to rescue them all as their ancestors hoped they’d be rescued.

Change comes when a teenager questions the social settlement. He’s noticed that the hunting each year is a bit worse than before, but nobody’s willing to move in case Earth can’t find them when it comes. Generations have been born and died waiting for Earth to come. He decides to take action and the result is social schism, conflict and a fundamental undermining of their social contract.

Although the protagonists are largely teenagers this is not a YA novel, instead they’re used to create a generational clash between the old but failing order and a new order which isn’t sophisticated enough to take the good of what their elders built and jettison only the bad.There’s hard science clearly underpinning the whole thing, but since the characters don’t understand it most of it isn’t explained (though you can work it out as a reader if you want to).

Beckett creates a fully realised and very alien world then sets it into motion. It’s an absolute classic and deservedly received a lot of attention when it came out. There are several sequels – it eventually became a teratology and I plan to read them all.

Findings, Kathleen Jamie

This is an essay collection by Orkney-based poet and naturalist Kathleen Jamie. It’s a book full of quiet moments beautifully observed. Jamie watches peregrines nesting from her kitchen window, explores the Edinburgh rooftops and skyline with the aid of a telescope, goes to watch salmon leaping in their attempt to return to their spawning ground. It’s a book rooted in the natural world and that includes at times some ugliness, but put in context and without losing sight of the magic of things which ultimately are quite ordinary (if far away from a city dweller like me).

Ali wrote this up really well here. Like Ali my favourite essay was the one on the Corn-Crakes, a bird I’d never heard of that was once so ubiquitous that every book set in the pre-industrial British countryside would have had its dialogue accompanied by the bird’s distinctive crex-crex cry, rarely recorded precisely because it was so ubiquitous. Just a superb book and one that would make a wonderful Christmas present whether for someone close to you or just for yourself.

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken)

I’ve read two of Nors’ short story collections and didn’t really love either, so I didn’t have huge hopes for this. It turns out though that I’m much fonder of Nors’ long form fiction than her short (or maybe I just really like this one).

Minna is a composer. Minna has just had a breakup. Minna needs rehearsal space. Minna’s ex’s cousin has one. Minna’s ex won’t return her texts.

As you’ve probably guessed the book is written in a series of staccato sentences, though each standing on its own line so they run down the page like a poem rather than as a paragraph as I did it above. You’d think it would be gimmicky and annoying, but somehow it works well and it creates a kind of flatness which helps emphasise that everything Minna is going through is just life.

I was surprised by this one. Partly because I hadn’t liked the short stories as much as others seem to but also because it’s often very funny. There’s a great bit where Minna is on holiday and runs into a former music student who always wants to enthusiastically share their awful compositions with Minna. Minna can’t face spending her holiday with this person tagging along but is too polite to say so and instead tries not to be noticed. It’s very human as indeed is the whole book. I don’t think it’ll be on my end of year but it’s at least up for consideration which isn’t bad given how I didn’t take to Nors previously.

And that’s it!


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#WiTMonth retrospective

This is the second year where for Women in Translation Month I only read books by women in translation. Last year that was really successful, this year my choices weren’t all quite as strong but there were still some very definite winners.

Before we start though, here’s my pile of potential reads. Let’s see which I actually managed…

Paradais, by Fernanda Melchior (translated by Sophie Hughes)

It’s hard to go wrong with Fitzcarraldo and Fernanda Melchior has had a lot of attention. Her Hurricane Season didn’t quite appeal, but I’m a sucker for novels in gated communities (or hotels, or boarding houses…).

Polo is a junior gardener on the Paradais estate. Franco is a similarly aged teenage boy who lives on the estate. Polo can buy drink outside the estate and smuggle it in. Franco can pay for it. So they pool resources and regularly get drunk together. All fine until Franco comes up with a plan to address his lust for his attractive neighbour and Polo’s need for money at the same time through a spectacularly poorly planned kidnapping attempt.

It’s well written, of course, and Melchior captures intensity of male adolescence well (I’m not saying female adolescence is any less intense, but having been a male adolescent I thought this extreme but recognisable). That said, this is in places a very ugly book with a lot of sexualised violence and some really brutal scenes. Too much so for me in fact. I’m not denying Melchior’s talent, but I prefer my ugliness leavened a little. Tony wrote a much more positive piece about this here which goes into more detail.

The Last and the First, Nina Berberova (translated by Marian Schwartz)

I’ve enjoyed several of Nina Berberova’s short stories/novellas, but this was my first novel by her. Ilya Stepanovich is a young farmer making his life in Provence. His step-brother Vasya is lured away from the farm to Paris with the promise of a return to Russia. Between them they personify the conflict in each of the Russian emigres between making a new life in France or seeking to preserve the lost Russia of memory.

Berberova always writes well, but I think I prefer her short fiction. The characters here were a bit too emblematic of their respective causes for me and I thought the greater length perhaps led to a loss of the subtle uncertainty I associate with Berberova. This was still a solid read, but I don’t think it’ll be an end of year contender.

Mr Darwin’s Gardener, Kristina Carlson (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah)

This is an interesting one. It’s an exploration of the clash of science and faith told through the lens of the village an elderly Charles Darwin lives in, casting a huge celebrity shadow over the villagers’ ordinary lives.

Darwin himself isn’t a character here, more a prompt for villager reflection. Interestingly Carlson moves the narrative voice between individual characters (such as the eponymous gardener) and a sort of combined community voice. This is particularly well done in a scene with a church congregation, moving from them collectively during the service to their individual voices scattering as they leave.

It’s skilfully done and it manages that tricky task of both being a bit experimental while also highly readable. There’s a lot packed in to a short space here and it’s one I think I may return to in future. Grant wrote well about it here, particularly on the book’s style, and Tony unpacks some of the structure and talks a bit more about the style here (both pick up on that church scene).

Oldladyvoice, by Elisa Victoria (translated by Charlotte Whittle)

Oldladyvoice (great title) is a debut novel set in the ’90s. Nine year-old Marina is the narrator. Like most child narrators she’s precociously clever, but her home situation is unstable. Her mother is seriously, perhaps terminally, ill. Her mother’s boyfriend Domingo is nice but he’s naturally more focused on the mother. That leaves Marina’s grandmother with whom she’s very close.

There’s a strong element here of Marina’s developing sexuality, her longing for a first kiss and fascination with Domingo’s adult comics some of which have breasts in them! There’s a lot too though on the intense importance of making friends and being accepted.

For me the main issue was that the narrative voice just didn’t always persuade me. At times it felt very much like I was reading an adult author, not a nine year old. Sustaining a child voice over the length of a full novel is genuinely hard and Victoria mostly pulls it off, but for me not entirely.

Grant liked this a bit more than me and specifically says “she is far from being a precociously irritating child narrator” (I agree she’s not irritating…). He rightly calls out the joyousness of the book which is perhaps its greatest strength. Despite my reservations it is absolutely packed with life.

Karate Chop, Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken)

This was published in one volume with Nors’ novella Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space, but I’ve split them out. Karate Chop is a series of generally very brief short stories told in a fairly flat style. They’re enjoyable, but perhaps because of the brevity didn’t stick much in memory. If you’ve read other Nors and liked it you’ll like this (I have and did), but other than that I can’t remember enough to say too much about it. It may be that I’m just not Nors’ reader.

Byobu by Ida Vitale (translated by Sean Manning)

This is another interesting one and very difficult to describe. Byobu is in a sense the central character, but he is a blank with no real personal characteristics to speak of. Each chapter is a short reflection on an often surreal incident in Byobu’s life. It’s packed with references most of which I didn’t get (Vitale is Uruguayan which may have been an issue there) and is less a novel than an exploration of ideas.

WG has written extremely well about this here. She got this far more than I did, seeing that it was something of an everyman story exploring what it’s like to be alive today and taking pleasure in the language. I’d recommend you read her review since honestly this just didn’t connect with me and I struggled to get to the end of its short 85 page length.

Will and Testament, Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund)

Now we’re talking! I loved Vigdis Hjorth’s Never Mind the Post Horn (it made my 2021 end of year list). Will and Testament is just as well written but tonally very different.

This is not one I have trouble remembering. When the family patriarch dies the four adult children split over the inheritance. The narrator is long estranged from her parents, but sides with her brother against her two sisters over the apparent favouritism the parents have shown them.

Complicating matters further is the question of why the narrator became estranged (you’ll guess quickly, not least as she refers to Festen a fair bit). Her sisters want to build bridges now the father is gone, but they’re not willing to accept the roots of the narrator’s trauma.

This is properly meaty stuff, with great characterisation and a central family conflict that many of us will recognise. Even without the added complication of the narrator’s childhood the impact of the will on the family dynamic is brutal and believable.

Superb and highly recommended. Caroline wrote about this here and Heavenali here if you’d like more details. Interestingly Heavenali didn’t like it, so its useful to read her piece for a countering view.

The Pachinko Parlour, Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Here Dusapin explores intergenerational and intercultural tensions. Claire, a young French-Korean woman, visits her grandparents who own a small pachinko parlour in Japan. She takes on a job teaching French to a local child and plans a trip to Korea for her grandparents who’ve never gone back after fleeting the Korean war.

Claire’s Korean isn’t actually that strong, she’s better in Japanese, but her grandparents despite living in Japan for fifty years or so have never really mastered the language. That’s one reason they may not be really communicating, but far from the only one as Claire puzzles over why her grandparents seem so unengaged with the whole holiday in Korea project…

This is another one I think I’ll return to. It seems slight, but there’s a lot in here. It’s perhaps not quite so strong as Winter in Sokcho (though that could just be because Winter seemed to come from nowhere whereas now we have an idea of Dusapin’s style). Even so, it’s a strong read and the exploration of the gulfs between people is deftly done. Jacqui wrote characteristically well about it here.

When Women Kill, by Alia Trabucco Zerán (translated by Sophie Hughes)

Finally, a bit of non-fiction. I dislike the true crime genre so I only read this because of the author and because I got it on subscription. Then again, I take out book subscriptions precisely so I’ll be exposed to books that I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen.

Zerán explores four Chilean murders committed by women and through them explores larger questions about the role of women in society. It’s interesting, her careful research is evident and the light each of the cases sheds on Chilean society is fascinating.

Despite all that, I wasn’t wholly persuaded by the overall thesis. At one point Zerán comments that the press only take photos of the women on their way to or from court or prison. She takes this as a sign of society’s wish to whisk them out of sight, but surely it’s simply that it’s the only time their pictures can be taken? It felt to me more a practical issue than a sociological one.

To be fair to Zerán she escapes the usual challenge in true crime of an air of prurience because her goal here clearly isn’t simply to entertain. For me though it remains a genre I struggle with. One can impose meaning on these events, but each one is so particular on its facts that I’m not sure how much they really tell us about anything other than that people sometimes kill and sometimes they have reasons we can understand and sometimes not.

And that’s it! Here’s my photo of the final stack I read (minus the Nors as I read that on Kindle). Not bad and thanks again to #WiTMonth for encouraging me to broaden out my reading a bit.


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July roundup

I know, it’s very late, but I’m still catching up post-broken finger.

Oof but July was a month. Great books and lots of them. Some chunksters too, but then we had a two week holiday with a fair bit of train travel and I love reading on long train journeys.

The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng

I read Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain around 14 years ago. My review is here. It was a sweeping and sumptuous epic. I enjoyed it but did criticise it for every character being a bit too amazing.

Here a retired Chinese-Malaysian judge returns to her childhood home. This sparks memories of the period shortly after the second world war where as a young woman she controversially became the apprentice to an exiled Japanese master gardener. He later disappeared, possibly killed by communist guerrillas, possibly in an accident, possibly who knows how?

Like Gift it’s a dense rich soup of a novel. There’s history, big characters, cross-cultural tensions. Also like Gift there’s a slight tendency for all the characters to be larger than life, but even so I really enjoyed this and as the autumn nights roll in it would make a good novel to escape into on darker evenings.

The Day of the Owl, Leonardo Sciascia (translated by Arthur Oliver)

I read this out in Italy. A man is shot and killed in a Sicilian piazza as he runs for a bus. Nobody sees anything. Not the passengers, the driver, the people in the square. Everyone just happened to be looking the other way, which doesn’t make the investigating mainland policeman’s job particularly easy…

It’s a short and easy read and it brings out nicely how organised crime can stifle a place. It won’t make my end of year list but definitely worth reading if it sounds of any interest. Kimbofo did a good writeup of it here.

The Leopard, G.T. di Lampedusa (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)

Now this, this will make my end of year list. Simply brilliant. A profound examination of the decline of a culture through a single family. It’s another rich read here of an 1860s Sicilian prince whose family’s diminishing fortunes reflect those of the wider aristocracy and old regime. It’s exceptionally well written and incredibly evocative of Sicily (which I can swear to that because that’s where I read it).

There’s a good review of this at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat here. Caroline captures my own surprise not at how good this is (everyone told me that) but how subtle and varied it is too.

Black Narcissus, Rumer Godden

So I said it was a strong month. A group of Anglican nuns go to found a convent in remote Himalayan mountains where a group of monks previously failed. Their internal tensions threaten to tear them apart, but even more so the unforgivingly vast and inhumanly beautiful landscape. Outsiders do not prosper here.

There’s something quite special in conjuring up such a sense of space yet at the same time making it claustrophobic. Each of the characters is well captured as are the dynamics between them. An exceptional novel. Jacqui did a good write up of it here which prompted me to finally read it. Recommendations for further Godden to try would be very welcome.

The Locked Room, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Paul Britten Austin)

A battered Martin Beck and an increasingly politicised and incompetent Swedish police force investigate a bank robbery and a literal locked room mystery. A man found dead in a room locked from within has been shot in the heart. There’s no weapon at the scene so how did it happen? Suicide is the initial police ruling, but Beck unsurprisingly finds that a bit unlikely in the absence of a gun. The tone is darker than before and it’s perhaps not as easy a read as some in the series, but still satisfying.

Ride the Pink Horse, Dorothy B. Hughes

One of Jacqui’s recommendations (here) and a blisteringly good one. Three men come south from Chicago to Santa Fe during its annual fiesta. Two of them are separately chasing the third. What follows is as black a noir as any I’ve read.

Sailor is a thug formerly on the payroll of a corrupt senator. He’s intent on getting the payoff he thinks he deserves. The Senator is also being chased by a Chicago cop who hopes he can turn Sailor and bring out the good man he believes is buried deep under Sailor’s violence and pride. It’s an explosive mixture and Hughes deserves a much higher profile than she has. I’m writing this over two months after reading it and it’s still burned into my mind. Brilliant.

The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi

A climate-change inspired SF novel in which cities in the Southern US wage semi-legal resource wars with each other and the cartels all fuelled by the collapse of water supplies. Water rights are power. (Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes explores a similar theme.)

The McGuffin is a water right that ranks ahead of all others, giving legal priority that can be backed up by violence and sabotage. That’s all fine and the politics of water shortages is a genuine real-world issue that really could get very nasty indeed, but for me the novel was let down by the degree to which it absolutely wallows in horribly detailed descriptions of torture, sexual violence and murder. It all became a bit too relentless. I bailed before the end.

Foster, Claire Keegan

Novels from a child’s point of view are very hard to pull off. Here Keegan makes it look effortless. This is a beautiful novel about a young girl sent to live with childless relatives when her own family’s new baby arrives.

What emerges is a portrait of neglect seen through the girl’s wonder at her new home and temporary parents. There’s an examination too of community and of the lives of the couple who’ve taken her in and much more besides. It’s extraordinary and I can’t recommend it too highly. Radhika wrote a tremendous review of this here which captures the complexity and depth this packs into so few pages. Sadly the cover misleadingly makes it look like a misery memoir.

Petulia’s Rouge Tin, Su Tong (translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz)

This is an interesting one. It’s a fairly short novella published in ebook form by Penguin Australia. We’re in 1950s Shanghai and the state has just closed down the Red Delight Pavilion brothel, sending the women from it for work reeducation.

Petulia ends up in a factory (which isn’t as bad as the phrase work reeducation suggests, though it’s a lot less comfortable than the brothel was). Her friend Autumn Grace gets away and sets up with an old customer. The book then follows their lives over the years.

It’s very well done. In under 80 pages it creates a world I’ve no personal familiarity with (beyond other Chinese books and films) and it nicely contrasts the clash of cultures between old and new China as well as the flawed humanity of the former prostitutes compared to the Puritanism of the Communist women ‘reforming’ them and a nearby convent of Buddhist nuns. Worth looking out for.

If it does catch your interest there’s a very good review of at the Cha Review of Books and Films here. The review does pretty much tell you the whole plot but it’s not a plot driven novel and the review also provides some context and analysis which I found fascinating.

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan (translated by Heather Lloyd)

A reread, but in a different translation. I previously read the acclaimed Irene Ash translation (review here). This time I tried the recent but perhaps more controversial Heather Lloyd.

Lloyd has been criticised for lacking some of the elegance and sparkle of the Ash. However, Lloyd’s is seen as more accurate than the Ash. It’s that classic translation dilemma of how to balance fidelity to text against fidelity to spirit.

Having read both and looked at a French copy to compare with the original it’s clear to me that Lloyd is more faithful to the French. Ash omits sentences, sometimes paragraphs, and sometimes changes meanings too. It’s not massive but it runs through the book. Ash also heavily edits the sex scenes.

I still love the Ash, but my view now is that Ash acted both as translator and as editor, adapting the original to an English readership who would be less comfortable with some of the original content.

So which should you read? Both, obviously, they’re not that long and the comparison is interesting. Jacqui wrote a fuller review of the Lloyd Bonjour here and wrote a bit on the translation here.

A Certain Smile, Françoise Sagan (translated by Heather Lloyd)

Penguin generously put two Lloyd translations in a single volume so I carried on to (re)read A certain Smile. My review of the Ash is here. I liked it a bit less this time, though whether that’s the translation or simply the effect of reading it back to back with Bonjour is hard to say. I suspect the latter to be fair to Lloyd.

Again the Ash translation is leaner but less accurate. Having now read the Lloyd translations I think they’ve got a bit of unfair stick. It’s not Lloyd’s fault that people’s impression of Sagan is founded on slightly inaccurate translations and there is real value in more accurate ones. On the other hand, the Ash translations are still a lot of fun. There’s room for both.

And that’s it! August was also a packed reading month, but September was much quieter. Now my finger is pretty much recovered I’m hoping to get those updates up before too long.


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September ‘22 round-up

September was a much lighter reading month than July and August, though given how much I read in July and August that’s hardly surprising. It’s also fair to say that I got bogged down in Sándor Márai’s The Rebels which I should probably have simply bailed on. I think it was Emma at Bookaround who talked once about it being a warning sign when you keep putting a book down then forgetting to pick it up again even though you’ve time you could be reading in.

Nothing this month that will trouble my end of year list (maybe Eversion if I have an SF category, but I suspect it’s more a fun read than a lasting one, we’ll see). Still, some new authors and if I never took the risk of new writers not connecting with me I’d never discover the new ones that I love.

Picnic in the Storm, Yukiko Motoya (translated by Asa Yoneda)

There’s been a trend lately of slightly surreal/absurd short stories which shed light on ordinary life, often women’s lives. They tend to be recognisable situations but through an off-kilter lens. Here for example a saleswoman keeps having to bring new clothes to a customer who won’t leave her changing room. In another, a woman goes to the gym against the advice of her co-workers who think she’ll become unfeminine, yet as she grows increasingly muscular her husband seems utterly unaware. In the longest a wife finds that she’s becoming more like her dullard husband, not just in the usual way of couples picking each other’s habits but more fundamentally in mind and even body.

The stories are well written, but didn’t really connect with me. It may be that this sort of quiet surrealism simply isn’t my thing. It would be wrong to call these whimsical, there’s serious points being made, but I didn’t find them substantial. If though you’re a Hiromi Kawakami fan this could be a real find for you.

Cop Killer, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Thomas Teal)

This was the ninth of the Martin Beck novels and it’s a clever one. A murder takes place in a quiet provincial town. Separately, two cops on car patrol end up in a shootout with some fairly amateurish burglars that ends up with a cop dead and a nationwide manhunt. So far so typical in many senses, but the small town is home to the man convicted of the murder in the first book. It’s been so long in series he’s now been released. Has he returned to his old ways?

The murder investigation is the star here, but the manhunt is also very well done as is the need to juggle the two investigations. It’s a very solid entry in the series and I love the callback to the first book.

Eversion, Alastair Reynolds

This is a fun one. An early 19th Century polar expedition seeks a passage through the ice to some curious structure. The ship’s doctor, a drug addict, is troubled by memories that don’t belong and is caught between the two shipboard factions – crew and expedition. Is there more going on though?

Yes, yes there is, because quite soon after (this is on the back cover so not really a spoiler) disaster strikes. The doctor wakes up from disturbing dreams. It’s the late 19th Century and he is troubled by memories that don’t belong but that seem oddly close to the polar expedition he’s part of…

This is huge fun. It’s very much boys’ own adventure stuff but through an SF lens and Reynolds is clearly enjoying himself. It’s a clever twist on the old time loop concept except here it’s never quite the same situation, but more an echo. This one works best if you already know your SF fairly well, but if you do it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

Dark Neighbourhood, Vanessa Onwuemezi

Bit more on this one than most of the others I’m talking about this month.

By way of context, I like to mix short story collections in among my wider reading. It breaks things up and I think often it’s good for the collections many of which aren’t really designed to be read in one go from start to finish. So, in September, I tried Vanessa Onwuemezi’s debut collection published by the generally reliable Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The first and for me best story is the eponymous Dark Neighbourhood itself. In some fantastical quasi-post-apocalypse setting people queue endlessly to go through a portal into what exactly? Nobody knows save that surely it must be better. The narrator is a trader in junk, detritus of the pre-whatever-happened world, objects often given value as much by our attachment to them as for their utility.

It’s an interesting story with a lot of resonance. It also includes a stylistic technique that Onweumwezi uses from time to time. Unexplained gaps in the sentence, pauses which perhaps reflect speech or perhaps add emphasis. On this story it works well, but the technique is repeated in some of the later stories and for me repetition diminished it.

Otherwise, this collection didn’t quite land for me though I do plan to retry one of the stories, Cuba, a story about a hotel cleaner. It’s actually available for free online from Granta here. I’ve been fairly critical here, but I do think some readers will really respond to Onwuemezi (it just doesn’t look like I’m one of them). I’d recommend therefore following that link and giving her Cuba a try, it’s short but gives you a feel for her style. Onwuemezi is a very poetic writer, and I think poetic fiction requires a connection of sensibility between reader and writer even more than most forms of fiction.

The Master Key, Masako Togawa (translated by Simon Grove)

So the premise is great. A residential building inhabited only by woman, each of whom has her own story to tell (or to hide…). There is though a master key that’s kept behind reception. Anyone who can get hold of that can gain access to any room they want.

No surprise that someone does, and what follows is secrets unearthed, feuds pursued, and murder.

This is a mix of character vignettes of various women in the building and the wider story of the consequences of the stolen key. The problem is I’m not a golden age crime reader and here the explanation for what’s going on is so convoluted it requires a character to literally spend the last few pages explaining it all in a long section of exposition. I can forgive a bit of exposition, but in a film at least when the detective unveils the culprit in the drawing room it’s dramatic. Here it’s just an over complex plot that only makes sense once the author basically tells you what’s been going on.

If you’ve read it and loved it please do say. It may just be that this isn’t my genre.

The Rebels, Sándor Márai (translated by George Sirtesz)

There’s something endlessly fascinating about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a period and place which produced some truly great writers and which has inspired many others.

In The Rebels it’s May 1918 and a group of young men in a provincial town are awaiting their inevitable call-up. One has already been called and returned home missing an arm. They create a society which rejects convention, stealing objects for the sheer joy of it and praising each other according to how daring the theft is and how useless the object stolen. They embrace absurdity.

Into this comes a middle aged actor who becomes one of their circle, but if you’re wondering whether it’s healthy for a middle aged man to be be hanging out with a bunch of teenagers, well, that’s a good question.

The book opens with one of the group finding that one of the others has been cheating them at cards. But which? It’s the first sign that things are not as idyllic as they appear, but with the prospect of slaughter at the front for all of them it was always a false idyll. From there we get into issues of class, wealth and more.

It’s an interesting book and the concept is strong. Unfortunately it didn’t wholly work for me. There’s a big set piece scene involving the boys staging a private play with the actor and the scene becomes a bit overblown (theatrical in fact, but in a book that’s mostly naturalistic). Worse though the scene goes on far too long, for me dissipating the building tension that Márai had created. The result was that I felt the book lost some momentum as it came into the home straight, so that the end when it came was less shattering and more a bit of a relief. Stu wrote about this here and I think liked it a bit more than I did.

And there we are! I’ll post October fairly soon.


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Belated June update

Quick because I want to post my August #WITmonth reading before too long.

So, my finger is much improved though still fairly sore as I’m doing my physio exercises. It’s all part of the healing. Still, while I couldn’t type as you’ll see I was able to read, and I read a lot. Some really good choices among these too.

July and August posts will follow over the next couple of weeks.

The Murder of Halland, Pia Juul (translated by Martin Aitken)

An interesting one this, but then it’s from Peirene Press and their titles are always interesting. More of a novel about the aftermath of crime than about the crime itself. A man named Halland is shot leaving his partner Bess to pick up the pieces of her life without him. Bess is left examining her choices and what a life with such a sudden gap now looks like.

It’s well done, but didn’t quite work for me as while I get that Bess is disassociated I found her lack of curiosity about what exactly happened and her repeated casual failure to share obviously relevant information with the police all just a bit unlikely. I get the book isn’t about the crime, but I didn’t really buy the level of disengagement from the crime that the book’s focus required. Reviews by Heavenali here and by Guy Savage here. Both liked it more than me.

The Visitors, Jessi Jezewska Stevens

This one came from And Other Stories. C, a New Yorker, starts to hallucinate a curiously knowledgeable garden gnome. It’s just after the 2008 crash and the Occupy movement is at its peak – in fact here we depart a bit from our own history as Occupy gains even greater momentum. C’s life is coming apart, she’s romantically interested in her best friend Zo despite not previously being attracted to other women and her art supplies shop is drifting. It’s interesting and I can definitely see why And Other Stories published it, but somehow for me the many interesting parts didn’t quite gel into a greater whole.

White Tears, Hari Kunzru

I’m a massive Hari Kunzru fan, though I’ve never read his first novel which sounds quite different tonally to what came later.

We’re back in New York where sound expert Seth is paired up with trust fund rich kid Carter Wallace and between them they’ve become one of the hottest musical production outfits in town. Carter is obsessed with early African-American music and with authenticity. Seth is obsessed with the technology of sound and with Carter (and with Carter’s attractive sister too).

Seth accidentally records someone singing an unknown blues number in the park. Carter puts some music around it and uploads it only for it to be hailed as a lost early recording of an artist who everyone thought was never caught on wax.

What follows is a tremendous mix of obsession, racial tension, cultural appropriate, history, noir and more. It’s perhaps a ghost story, perhaps something stranger. I loved it.

Heaven, Meiko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

Lots of people have talked about this one, but Jacqui pushed me over the edge to reading it with her review here. ‘Eyes’ is a fourteen year old boy nicknamed for his lazy eye. Kojima is a girl in his class seen as dirty and poor. Both are victims of horrific bullying (which Kawakami doesn’t shrink from describing). They become friends, but less from an actual connection as from shared trauma.

The book becomes an exploration of meaning, not least when Eyes confronts one of the bullies and gets him to explain why Eyes is a target. Kojima meanwhile believes that her suffering gives her a kind of strength, that it’s something to be accepted or even embraced. She is stronger than Eyes, that’s true, but in letting her suffering define her is she being eclipsed by it?

This is a tremendous, clever and convincing novel. A very strong contender for my end of year list.

The Way Inn, Will Wiles

This is my second Will Wiles, after his tremendously entertaining The Care of Wooden Floors. Here it’s hard to beat the Guardian sub’s tremendous byline for their review: Terence Conran meets HP Lovecraft.

Neil Double is a conference surrogate. He goes to conferences on behalf of clients, attends the symposia, collects leaflets, produces a report all so that his clients can get the benefit of the conference without actually attending. Neil loves conferences, he loves the anonymity, the interchangeable corporate hotels, the opportunities for casual hookups, the lack of anything truly real.

Unfortunately for Neil things start unravelling when he’s staying at a Way Inn, one of an international chain, near a major conference centre which he manages to get himself banned from. That’s bad, career threatening, but not as bad as the discovery that the Way Inn may not be just a hotel chain but in fact some kind of infinitely replicated Escherian space or even entity…

It’s corporate satire meets horror and it’s a lot of fun. The first half is probably stronger when the sheer absurdities of the bland environments Neil inhabits are to the fore and the weirdness of the hotel is as much the intrinsic weirdness of these non-places as anything extra-dimensional. The second half goes a bit more full gonzo, which worked for me but has a bit less connection to lived experience.

Will is an architecture writer as well as novelist and he really knows these spaces. He’s also very funny. It’s a powerful combo and it’s refreshing too to see someone writing about the world so many of us inhabit and yet that so few novelists know much about.

The Abominable Man, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Thomas Teal)

The seventh of the Beck novels. An elderly policeman riddled with cancer is murdered in his hospital room. Who could hate such a distinguished figure so much that they’d murder him when he was dying anyway?

It turns out a lot of people hated him that much, because here Sjöwall & Wahlöö are turning their gaze on the Swedish police force, its militarisation and its brutalities. The much-decorated officer was a monster, the investigation inevitably runs into issues as any attempt to uncover motive reveals a lot that still-serving officers don’t want brought to light.

This is a blistering instalment both in its critique of Swedish society and simply at the level of a crime novel. Tremendous stuff. If you do have space for a crime series in your life this is definitely one to consider.

Legacy of Molly Southbourne, Tade Thompson

The fourth of Tade Thompson’s Molly Southborne series. I hadn’t actually expected a fourth of these and much as I enjoy Thompson’s work I’m not sure I needed one. Molly Thompson is the product of a Cold War experiment which leads to her replicating imperfect clones when she bleeds. Here the clones, many of whom are psychotically violent, face a foe going right back to their origin.

It sounds like nonsense I know, but Thompson can write and he is as capable with thriller motifs as he is SF ones. Here he’s giving the explanations the previous books lacked, but the previous ones had enough depth that I’d pretty much worked it all out anyway. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t essential for me.

Confusion, Stefan Zweig

I enjoy Zweig, but I’m not really a fan. Here an elderly professor looks back on his life and reflects on his youth. To his students he’s devoted his whole life to scholarship, but in fact he wasted his early years at university until an encounter with an inspired and passionate lecturer changed his life.

As ever with Zweig it’s all about big passions burning brightly. The puzzle here is the professor’s old mentor, a trudger academically who at times becomes lyrically passionate and inspiring. What’s his secret? Why is he sometimes so extraordinary and yet at other times so mundane? Why is his relationship with his wife so strained, what are the rumours that none will speak out loud?

You can probably guess. It’s enjoyable but not for me among Zweig’s best. Karen writes well about it here.

Cursed Bunny, Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur)

Spectacular. This has been widely praised and deservedly so. It’s a short story collection that uses horror and the fantastic to critique contemporary Korea.

I’ve read quite a few novels and short story collections recently containing sort-of magical-realist elements. Like in The Visitors above for example. I’m growing a bit disillusioned with it as a trend. The results are often a bit unsatisfying as nothing really needs explaining and it’s all metaphor.

Bora Chung escapes that in two ways. Firstly, through the sheer quality of her writing. Secondly, because there is a persuasive logic to each of these stories even if sometimes it’s a dream logic. Like Mariana Enriquez the stories read as having a deeper sense to them than just here’s a fantastical element which sort of illustrates a theme. It’s more robust than that.

Grant wrote well about this here. It’s definitely going to be on my end of year list.

At Freddie’s, Penelope Fitzgerald

You can’t go wrong with Penelope Fitzgerald. Here we’re in a fading 1960s stage school run by the eponymous and extraordinary Freddy. A larger than life woman in her 70s so canny that when a theatre calls to complain about one of the child actors provided Freddy ends the call with them contributing free carpets to the school.

The school’s in trouble and not for the first time. The teachers are underpaid, the lure of TV is making Freddie’s theatre-only stance look very outdated, the finances are distinctly underwater…

Add together a possible investor, a couple of new teachers, a possible child prodigy and the indomitable Freddy herself and it’s just huge fun. A wonderful evocation of theatre life and the perpetual tension between the love of the arts and the practicalities of actually making a living from them. Top notch Fitzgerald, but then that’s true of pretty much all Fitzgerald.

Jacqui wrote a good review of this here which talks much more about it.

And that’s it! Looking back June was a really good month for me. I’ll post about July soon.


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Injury interrupts play

Hi all. I’ve got a broken finger on my left hand. Nothing serious, but it means typing is hard right now. My June update and maybe July will therefore be running a bit late – sometime mid or late August I’d guess.

June incidentally was a really strong reading month. I’ll do short write-ups of each of these once I can:

The Murder of Halland, Pia Juul

The Visitors, Jessi Jezewska Stevens

White Tears, Hari Kunzru

Heaven, Meiko Kawakami

The Way Inn, Will Wiles

The Abominable Man, Sjöwall & Wahlöö

The Legacy of Molly Southbourne, T. Thompson

Confusion, Stefan Zweig

Cursed Bunny, Bora Chung

At Freddie’s, Penelope Fitzgerald

Not a dud among them.

In the meantime, here’s a photo from Bologna, which we spent some time in during our July holiday:


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May 2022 roundup

May was an interesting month in reading terms. I tried a mix of new and familiar authors and read a lot of good books, but despite their quality there were few that I actually loved. None I think that will make my end of year list.

Before I go into those, looking back at the past few months it’s interesting to note which books have stayed fresh for me. For example, Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow is lasting in memory better than I thought it would.

Some of the books that have stuck with me are by authors I’ve known and loved for a while now – Penelope Fitzgerald, Irmgard Keun, Matthias Enard and Elizabeth Taylor. Others are by authors new to me but who I fully expect to return to – Claire Keegan, Tessa Hadley, and Chris Powers. Somewhere in between is Annie Ernaux, whose The Years I liked and respected but whose A Girl’s Story and Happening I found much more emotionally powerful (perhaps inevitably given the scope of Years compared to the narrower focus of those two).

There’s lots else I’ve enjoyed this year, but those are the authors I’ll be making a point of returning to. All that said, on to May!

Seesaw, Carmel Doohan

Seesaw uses a young woman’s relationship crises as a lens through which to examine the wider issues of the refugee crisis. That might sound a bit absurd, but it’s similar in that sense to Madeleine Watt’s The Inland Sea which uses a young woman’s self-destructive impulses and mistreatment of her own body as a mirror through which to examine wider issues of climate change and humanity’s mistreatment of the natural world.

Seesaw’s parallels are a little less on the nose than Inland Sea, but there is still a common theme of miscommunication and impasse. It also struck me as capturing something of how many of us actually navigate these issues. The protagonist cares about the refugee crisis, she volunteers and tries to get involved, but the rest of her life doesn’t stop for it and her impact is minimal next to the scale of the challenge.

There’s been a piece trending online recently arguing that nobody is writing state of the nation novels, that it’s all interior fiction. It’s an absurd argument. Seesaw is a state of the nation novel. As it closes Trump is on tv praising ’very fine people on both sides’. It’s also an interior novel. The one doesn’t preclude the other.

Minutes from the Miracle City, Omar Sabbagh

I can’t now recall how I discovered this. It’s set in contemporary Dubai and is something of a love letter to the city. It shows various people – a Pakistani taxi driver, a Ugandan waiter with dreams of becoming a writer, a Moroccan beautician, an Emirati journalist recently returned home from London and more – and how their lives intersect and impact each other in small ways and large.

It’s an interesting book, but given Dubai’s fairly awful record on treatment of non-natives I was left a bit unpersuaded by its portrayal of Dubai as melting pot. Of course, I may simply be projecting my own prejudices on a city I’ve not been to and if you do have connections with the city I suspect you might want to check this out.

A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood

Apparently this is seen by many as Isherwood’s best novel, though I preferred his Berlin novels (though I understand he had doubts about them). George is a middle aged Englishman living in 1960s California. His lover has died leaving George bereft, awash with grief. The novel traces a day in his life.

It’s superbly well written and beautifully observed, capturing much of the pain and the rewards of life. In fact, for a novel overshadowed by death it’s suffused with life.

If you’ve read any other Isherwood you should read this too, even if it did leave me a little cold on this occasion. If you haven’t I’d still probably start with the Berlin novels.

Murder at the Savoy, Sjöwall and Wahlöö (translated by Joan Tate)

Number six in the series and by this point they’re getting much more openly political. This one opens with a rich businessman being murdered while dining at the Savoy. His killer escapes, but seemingly through luck rather than plan. It looks like a professional hit, but what hitman would carry out a killing in such a public place and with apparently no escape route in mind?

Beck and the team are under huge political pressure here to find the culprit quickly, not least because senior political figures may have turned blind eyes to the murdered man’s illegal arms dealing.

This wasn’t my favourite of the Beck sequence, but they’re never less than solid and this again has memorable characters, a satisfying plot and yet again a tremendous portrayal of police work as actual hard work. A ten novel series is a fair commitment, but I’m not regretting this one at all.

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is a hard sf writer I’ve long loved. This is one of his more recent and shorter novels. After a ceasefire between two interstellar societies, war criminals from both sides (plus a few people accidentally caught up with them) are being shipped in suspended animation to a prison planet. Disaster hits the ship and the prisoners wake up to find themselves badly off course. Worse, it appears they’ve been asleep for a very, very long time and there’s no home to go back to.

The survivors split into four factions – the two sides from the war, the small number of civilians being transported and the handful of crew survivors. The question for them all is can they find a way to live together given the terrible things so many of them have done? It’s a good premise, brought further to life by the main character being obsessed with hunting down one particular war criminal who left her for dead, her conflict a microcosm of the larger one.

This is a solid Reynolds for me rather than a great one – I preferred his recent and very good time travel thriller Permafrost in which the consciousnesses of a handful of scientists are sent back to the present day to avert an apocalypse. Still, I enjoyed it and I can imagine rereading it at some point.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe

One of the earliest reviews on this blog is Alan Sillitoe’s excellent Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. It’s taken me almost 14 years before reading more by him.

Loneliness is of course famous from the film and is the longest story here (almost a novella really). Along with the other stories we’re in territory that’s familiar from Saturday Night with northern working class lads out to screw the world and taking no prisoners as they do so.

The trouble is, it’s a little one-note. Saturday Night is brilliant, but these didn’t add a lot to it for me. I recommend that, not sure I recommend this. By contrast, Stan Barstow’s short story collection The Desperadoes also explores northern working class life but with a far richer palette ranging from comedy to tragedy to everything in between. Go read The Desperadoes is what I’m saying here.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell)

My second Enriquez collection. She’s an Argentinian writer and her stories blend horror and social comment, but what surprised me is the extent to which they work as pure horror. These are not stories for the squeamish. I grew up reading horror fiction, much of it pretty lurid, and Enriquez can give any of them a run for their money.

As ever, the Argentinian dictatorship looms large. The ghosts, curses, returned dead are nothing against the real life terrors of the disappeared or those trapped in abusive families. It’s dark stuff, but very good.

Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson

An Australian classic. Tirra Lirra explores the life of Nora Porteous who has returned in old age to her childhood Australian home after long years in London. We see her growing up, her suffocating suburban marriage, her later independence in London and now her return to where it all started. It’s a short book, under 200 pages, but as so often with memory it takes a while for everything to come into focus as Nora intersperses the present with the past and initially skirts round some of the less appealing bits.

Anderson is brilliant on the constraints Nora faces, going from the limits imposed by family to the far greater strictures of marriage where her husband tries to control her by withholding even the meagrest allowance. He seems a dull monster, but the book subtly undermines some of its own messaging with Nora at times wondering if she can still see the real man past the caricature he became for her afterwards. Similarly, Nora reflects on the limits put on her artistic talent, but on her return home she discovers that some of her childhood works done before she escaped to London were actually good and remain much admired, while she has nothing particular to show from the period when she had actual artistic freedom. It’s a clever book that makes its points about women’s lives well without ever being didactic. I can see why it’s a classic.

Guy Savage did a great write-up of this here which inspired me to read it. I agree with Guy by the way that it’s not a depressing book – it contains much that could be depressing, wasted years and lost opportunities, but it contains a lot more too. I’ve read a couple of novels recently which portray a whole life from cradle to grave and generally they’re bleak affairs, too much so to be entirely credible. Here Anderson shows not only the disappointments and frustrations, but also the joy, humour and resilience.

A World of Love, Elizabeth Bowen

I bought this ages back, before Bowen’s The Hotel, but never got round to reading it. It’s the story of a young woman, Jane, growing up in a crumbling Irish estate (are there any other kind in fiction?). The family dynamic is complex and claustrophobic. Jaded and fashionable Antonia owns the estate, but doesn’t know how to work it. Maud’s mother, Lilia, is married to Antonia’s half-brother Fred but years ago was in love with Antonia’s brother Guy who died in the war. Meanwhile Jane’s younger sister Maud runs half wild about the place. Among it all, Jane without realising it has become ‘a beauty’ leading to change when she’s noticed by ageing English neighbour Lady Latterly…

This is a novel in which in a sense nothing happens, yet it’s full of tension and drama. Early on Jane discovers some love letters clearly written by Guy, but perhaps not to Lilia. Lilia lives with Antonia because Antonia long ago felt responsible for her, and because Antonia needs Fred to run the estate, but Lilia has no ownership rights of her own and lives effectively as Antonia’s guest. It’s a situation that’s lasted years, inherently unstable yet unchanging.

While I preferred The Hotel, this is very well written and I do plan to read more Bowen. I’ll likely try her A House in Paris next. Heavenali did a really good write-up of this one here which I’d recommend reading as she has a much better grasp of Bowen’s work than I do.

And that’s it!


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April 2022 round-up

This was a strong, strong reading month. I read a lot of books, but more importantly I read a lot of good books. Many of these I wouldn’t have discovered (or at least wouldn’t have tried) without the blogosphere so thanks to those of you who’ve been busy posting about Tessa Hadley, Annie Ernaux and Jessica Au who I might well otherwise have missed or ignored.

The Past, Tessa Hadley

Simply brilliant. My first Hadley, but definitely not my last. It’s that classic middle class English novel thing about a bunch of fairly privileged people in the countryside not doing very much, but as ever execution is everything. Here family tensions come bubbling out as adult siblings take their partners and in one case basically an acquaintance on holiday to their old rural family home which they’re considering selling. There’s a lovely mid-section which ducks back several decades showing how events then inform events now. Just a really well constructed book. Lots of reviews of this one, but Jacqui’s here is the one that tipped me over into actually reading it.

Betty Boo, Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Miranda France)

Sadly my last Piñeiro, in the sense that I’ve now read everything by her in translation. Happily I believe more is coming. Here a former best-selling crime writer and washed-up former star crime reporter get together to investigate a murder in a rich gated community. They’re supported by the star reporter’s young replacement which makes for one of the novel’s better strands as the older reporter slowly and rather reluctantly becomes mentor to the younger.

Piñeiro explored the same territory in her Thursday Night Widows and unfortunately for me that one was simply better. The central characters here are great, among her best in fact, but the crime got a bit far-fetched and it all just felt a bit less tight than usual. It’s not bad, in fact it’s pretty good, but for me Piñeiro has written better. Guy wrote a great review of it here.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is a somewhat prolific SF writer that I quite like, so you’ll probably see more by him here in due course. This is a rather gentle picaresque novel set long long after an unspecified apocalypse has reshaped the earth. The archivist central character travels through a strange futuristic landscape with ominously intelligent ants and sentient coral in search of I honestly don’t remember what. The plot is actually pretty minimal, it’s very much about the world and journey and I rather enjoyed it.

Dead Stars, Álvaro Bisama (translated by Megan McDowell)

On to darker and more difficult fare here. The wife of a couple about to finalise their divorce sees in the paper that a woman she knew years before has just been arrested. Memories unfold from her and her husband as they each look back on a history shaped by politics both national and personal.

Technically this is pretty impressive. The chapters are small, sometimes just a sentence, and yet Bisama captures both a time in Chilean history and the history of a marriage. My ignorance of Chile’s recent-ish past means that I’m sure I missed a lot of context, but not so much this still wasn’t a fascinating read. Tony of Tony’s Reading List gives it a good write-up here.

Mothers, Chris Powers

I write these posts in the order I finished the books. In most cases that’s also the order that I read them in. Short stories though I space out, so typically by the time I finish a collection I’ve already been reading it (possibly interspersed with other collections) for a couple of months or more.

Chris Powers wrote an entire series in the Guardian on the art of the short story. He’s therefore set himself a bit of a high bar in bringing out his own collection. Fortunately he meets it. I thought this superb. The stories range in length and subject matter but show a real appreciation of the craft of the short story. Three of the stories are connected and some common themes run through the collection, but it’s the sheer skill Powers brings to this that made me love it. It’s hard to discuss Powers’ technique without spoiling some of the stories, but I will say that I immediately reread some just to see how he pulled them off.

David Hebblethwaite wrote a review of this which you can find from his blog here along links to an interview and to a couple of the stories (my favourite of the collection, The Crossing, and probably my least favourite, Johnny Kingdom).

The Many, Wyl Menmuir

There’s been a trend recently in horror cinema of horror as metaphor. Of course horror has always acted as metaphor, but recent films have made the link much more explicit exploring themes such as bereavement, male violence, fear of dementia, big topics. It’s not a hugely successful trend, mostly as later in the film you tend to get a tension between the logic of the horror narrative and the logic of the metaphor. Put simply, if you’ve established that the true horror is dementia then the metaphor demands the protagonists come to terms with their issues, but that doesn’t make any sense when in the fiction they’re grappling not with a declining family member but with some flesh-eating monster. The Babadook inspired the trend and did pull it off. Its successors less so.

Anyway, The Many. A man moves to a remote fishing community where he has bought up the home of a young fisherman who died in a tragic accident. The community aren’t exactly welcoming. So far we’re in the classic territory of the tension between gentrifier and local community (the film Bait explores this very well). Here however the narrative is slippier. The fish in the bay are few and mutated. Some unexplained (government? corporate?) agency buys the catches anyway. Reality seems at times slippery. I’ve made it sound like SF or horror, but it’s not, it’s metaphor.

It’s well written if at times perhaps a little too oblique. By the end however the metaphor for me rather overwhelmed the narrative with the result that it becomes a bit neither one thing nor the other. Too solid and real in the most part to work as fable or allegory. Too openly unreal to work simply as story.

I should say in fairness that plenty of folk, including the Booker jury, liked this a lot more than I did. You might find you have more in common with them than me on this one.

Babette’s Feast, Karen Blixen

I so wanted to like this. I’ve not seen the film Babette’s Feast but I have read and liked a Dinesen before (with some mild caveats).

The stories here are lengthy fables as much as anything else. Honestly I can barely remember any of them and I had to push myself to finish this. Blixen/Dinesen typically gets pretty good reviews so this may be just a case of bad chemistry, but I find it hard to write about this since all I really remember is that I didn’t like it.

The Fire Engine that Disappeared, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Joan Tate)

I’m reading one of these a month now. This is another great entry. Here a house fire results in several deaths and prompts an investigation when it becomes apparent it wasn’t an accident. With several victims though which one was the target? It’s not my favourite of the series but it’s definitely a solid entry with consistently great characters and a satisfying story. If you’ve any interest in the Scandinoir genre at all these are definitely worth reading.

Happening, Annie Ernaux (translated by Tanya Leslie)

What to say? I didn’t love The Years as much as many have (though I did like it a fair bit). A Girl’s Story I thought was great. This is something else. It’s the account of Ernaux’s illegal abortion in the 1960s.

Ernaux is unsparing, not just of the procedure itself but also of just how trapped she is in a society where condemnation comes easily but access to vital medical services is dependent on chance acquaintances being willing to risk punishment to point you in the right direction. Ernaux shows too how when you’re in trouble you really can’t predict who will help, who will try to take advantage and who will turn their back. It’s brilliant. Jacqui wrote an excellent review of this here. I know it’s a dark subject matter and I know you probably don’t want to read it, but this is great and honest writing and I recommend it very highly indeed.

Cold Enough for Snow, Jessica Au

A young Chinese-Australian woman walks through Tokyo trying to connect with her now elderly mother. It’s a slight novella, nothing really happens and the book is elusive enough that we can’t really be certain how much of what we read is real. This is a book of mood and moment. I’m not absolutely sure the whole is greater than the parts, but the parts are very good indeed and the whole comes in at under a 100 pages.

I’m pretty ruthless these days on what books I keep, due to space constraints. This has made the cut because I believe it will bear rereading. It’s a bit like poetry – what’s not said carries as much weight as what is, perhaps more. Kaggsy captures it well here.

And that’s it. Phew!


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