2010 Books in Translation Other Prizes Thriller

Red April – Santiago Roncagliolo

 Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Winner of 2006 Alfaguara Prize

Red April appealed to me for a number of reasons. The fact that the author was the youngest person ever to win the Alfaguara Prize (the most prestigious award for Spanish Literature) intrigued me. This, along with comparisons to Roberto Bolaño and a translation from the Queen of Spanish literature, Edith Grossman, had me requesting a copy from the publisher. I’m really pleased that I did as it is a fantastic book.

Red April is set in Peru and follows an unambitious police prosecutor who finds himself at the centre of a bizarre murder investigation. The corruption and unstable political situation of the country make the task of discovering the murderer even harder, especially when he discovers that few people are interested in the truth.

The book reminded me of 2666, but the crucial difference between the two is that things actually happen in Red April.

The plot is fast paced and reaches a satisfactory conclusion, successfully combining a complex thriller with deeper political commentary.

“The party has a thousand eyes and a thousand ears,” said Durango, smiling with inexpressive eyes fixed on those of the prosecutor. “They’re the eyes and ears of the people. It is impossible to lock up and kill all the people, somebody’s always there. Like God. Remember that.”

The religious beliefs of the Peruvians are also covered – I loved learning about their rituals and festivals. If nothing else this book taught me a lot about their way of life.

If I had to make a few small criticisms it would be that the political situation isn’t fully explained. This means that prior knowledge (or a bit of googling!) is required to fully appreciate some sections.

The characters are also hard to love. All of them commit some form of evil during the course of the book. This means that it isn’t possible to empathise with anyone – you have to simply enjoy the story telling without connecting with anyone on a personal level.

Overall, this is an impressive debut novel that I’d highly recommend to fans of Roberto Bolaño or similar Spanish literature.

Blogging Discussions Other

Do bad books exist?

If you had asked me that question a few years ago then I would have immediately reeled off a list of several bad books. I was under the impression that the world was piled high with them and that good ones were hard to find.

Since I discovered blogging my attitude has slowly changed.

I am finding it easier to discover books that I enjoy reading, but I am also beginning to think that there is no such thing as a bad book. Whenever I come across a book that I hate, I discover a whole army of people who love it. I can’t think of a single book that hasn’t had at least one person stepping up to defend it. We all have a very different taste in books and so it makes sense that one person’s reject is another person’s gem.

Publishers receive thousands of manuscripts each year and only publish a select few.

Surely any book that is chosen to be published is the cream of the crop? Some people prefer the ordinary, others the bizarre – I prefer a mixture of the two!

Family Legacy

Even all those unpublished manuscripts must have some merit, even if it is just to bring joy to the families of the author. My Granny had a short story published a while ago. I don’t normally enjoy short stories, but I love hers – simply for the fact that her personality shines through. I think it is fantastic for a family to have a legacy that will last for years after that person has died.

Guilt free negative reviews?

Thinking about books in this way also makes me feel less guilty about writing negative reviews. There is no such thing as a bad book – I’m simply not the target audience for a the specific one.

Authors should also be comforted by this notion. They should stop worrying about trying to find hundreds of people to read their book and concentrate on finding a handful of people who are the perfect match for it. They should also stop worrying about bad reviews – all this means is that their book has slipped into the hands of someone who isn’t right for it.

What do you think?

Are some books genuinely bad, or do all books have some merit?

2010 Novella

Beatrice and Virgil – Yann Martel

I loved Life of Pi so much that I bought a copy of Beatrice and Virgil from the US, months before it was released in the UK. Unfortunately my enthusiasm failed to pay off as I was very disappointed by it. 

Beatrice and Virgil is a book about the Holocaust, but there are many points when it is almost impossible to see the connection.

The book begins with Henry, a successful author, ranting about a publisher refusing to let him write a book which combines non-fictional accounts of the Holocaust with fictional ones.  One day Henry receives a strange package from a taxidermist, also called Henry, and is so intrigued he heads off to meet him. The taxidermist has written a play about a monkey and a donkey who live on a shirt. This play becomes the focus of the book, as the two Henrys discuss how to improve it.

The play is an allegory for the Holocaust, but the continual use of symbolism drove me mad. I’m afraid that I’m the type of person who prefers to call a spade a spade! I loved The Kindly Ones because it showed the Holocaust in all its horrific rawness, but although Beatrice and Virgil didn’t shy away from graphic violence, I found myself cringing as I read it rather than experiencing the sense of shock and sadness that I should have felt.

Another problem I had with the book was that it felt disjointed. For such a small book there were a lot of random elements thrown together, some so odd that they left me totally baffled. There was one point where they spent 8 pages trying to describe a pear – my eyes were rolling throughout:

BEATRICE: Like an apple?

VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to…kissing.

BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.

The end of the book contained a section called Games for Gustav. This is a series of questions about the moral dilemmas faced by those affected by the Holocaust.

Your ten-year-old son is speaking to you. He says he has found a way of obtaining some potatoes to feed your starving family. If he is caught, he will be killed. Do you let him go? 

Each of these would make an interesting premise for a story, but placed together in this way I found them to be manipulative and irritating.

Overall I found that the whole book made my blood boil with rage. It could be said that this is a positive reaction; that it is far better for an author to create a book that is memorable in its dreadfulness than one which is dull and forgettable. I’ll leave you to make up your own minds!

Beatrice and Virgil is the perfect book club choice as I guarantee it will create discussion – people will be arguing about this book for years to come.

What did Yann Martel have to say about his book?


On 3rd June 2010 I went to see Yann Martel talk about his new book at the South Bank Centre in London.  He was an entertaining speaker, willing and eager to answer questions from the public and regularly able to make us all laugh. I tried to make as many notes as possible, but the following is a summary of what he had to say – not direct quotes from him.

Why did you write the book?

I had noticed that there was an absence of fictional books about the Holocaust. People seem to be relaxed writing about wars, but are scared to write about the Holocaust. I wanted to fill this gap, so this book is an attempt to meet the Holocaust without being a witness.

Why did you use animals in the book?

The inspiration for using animals came from The Life of Pi. It is an obvious literary device, but I wanted to select animals that would be guides through the Hell that is the Holocaust. Selecting Dante’s guides seemed like a natural choice.

Why did you spend eight pages describing a pear?

Language trivialises pears. The section shows that no amount of words can adequately describe a pear, so how can we describe something as complex as war if we can’t even describe an object as simple as a pear?

What is the sewing kit about?

The sewing kit contains a lot of random literary elements. I wanted to list them together to see how many people would recognise and how many would “stick”.

Why did you give the central characters the same name?

The two central characters are both called Henry. This is because I didn’t want people to deduce anything about their personality from the name. I wanted to show that a person only lives the way they do by the random lottery of where they are born. We are all essentially the same.

Where is the book set?

The setting of the book is deliberately never mentioned. This is because I wanted the book to be universal – it could equally be set in almost any country of the world.

What is your next book about?

Three chimps in Portugal (note – I couldn’t decide if this is true or just a joke!)

What do you think?

Did you enjoy Beatrice and Virgil?

Is a book a success if it is memorable and provokes discussion?

Orange Prize Other

Who is going to win the 2010 Orange Prize?

I have now finished my Orange short list reading. Unfortunately I didn’t make it to the end of all the books, but I’ve read enough to know their writing style and basic plot.



I was very disappointed by the Orange short list this year. It wasn’t just that I didn’t really like any of the books, but I felt that most of them didn’t deserve to make the short list.

When I read the 2009 Orange short list I didn’t like all the books, but knew why they had been selected and could see the quality of the writing.

In 2010 all the best books were left on the long list.

I think that leaving these three books out of the short list was a big mistake.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett stars4h

Hearts and Minds – Amanda Craig

The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton stars4 

I think that The Help and The Rehearsal deserved to fight it out for the winning position this year. I have no idea why they weren’t selected and I highly recommend that you take a look at them!

My Reviews and Ratings for 2010 Short List

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle – Monique Roffey

A Gate at the Stairs – Lorrie Moore

The Very Thought of You – Rosie Alison

Black Water Rising – Attica Locke

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver stars1 (DNF)

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel stars1 (DNF)

Who is going to win?

In my opinion the only book that deserves to win is Wolf Hall. I didn’t enjoy reading it, but it had the writing quality of a prize winning book. The problem is that the same book has never won the Booker and the Orange prize before. The Orange prize tends to favor fiction over literary fiction and so I have a feeling that Wolf Hall will struggle to win.

Those Orange judges are making very strange selections this year so it is impossible to know which book they will pick. If I try to get inside their minds then I imagine The Very Thought of You has a very good chance. It is a flawless example of a romance book and I think it will have broad appeal.

If I was going to place a bet then my money would be on The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.

I think it is one of those books that will improve with re-reading (something I’m hoping the judges do!). It did have a good plot and although I found it to be a slow read, it has left a good impression on me.

The Bookies Favourite?

The bookies favourite is Wolf Hall. They put The White Woman on the Green Bicycle and The Very Thought of You as the least likely choices, both with odds of 8/1. It is tempting to place a bet….

The winner of the Orange prize will be announced on 9th June.

Who do you think will win?

2009 Chunkster Historical Fiction Orange Prize

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver

 Short listed for the Orange Prize 2010

I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible so was hoping that I’d like The Lacuna too. I even saved it to be my last read from the Orange short list as a special treat to myself. Unfortunately my expectations were dashed as I really struggled to enjoy The Lacuna.

The Lacuna begins in Mexico in 1929 and covers an interesting period of history in both America and Mexico. The fictional characters are mixed with real people such as Lev Trotsky, so this book is a departure for Kingsolver in that it is her first work of historical fiction.

The book began slowly and I found I had to concentrate really hard just to understand what was happening. I quickly ensured that I only read the book in large chunks when I had nothing to distract me. Unfortunately this hard work didn’t pay off as I wasn’t rewarded by an entertaining story. I found the writing to be very passive and although some of the descriptions were interesting I was never drawn into their life. I was just a bored observer.

The market in Coyoacan is not like the Zocalo downtown, where everything comes ready-made. The girls in blue shawls sit on blankets with stacks of maize they just broke from the field an hour before. While waiting for people to come, they shell off the kernels. If more time passes they soak the corn in lime water, then grind it into wet nixtamal and pat it out. By day’s end all the corn is tortillas.

The characters were flat and I found it impossible to connect with any of them. There was just no emotion in the book – even scenes of horrific acts were observed in a pleasant way. I became increasingly frustrated by the light, monotonous tone and so considered giving up at several points. The length (nearly 700 pages) was the main reason I eventually gave up. It would have taken me a week of reading to complete this book and I didn’t want to dedicate such a large chunk of my reading time to a book that I wasn’t enjoying. I gave up after around 200 pages, but in many ways I wish I had done so much earlier.

Overall, this book was a big disappointment.


The thoughts of a few other bloggers:

Throughout the story, important things were happening, but since I didn’t feel any connection to the main character, it became very hard for me to care. Fyrefly’s Book Blog

….the ending is amazing! A Book Sanctuary

At times Kingsolver seems to believe that she has to write for the lowest common denominator, a reader who knows nothing of history and has no chance of divining meaning. Book Gazing

2009 2010 Other Prizes

Good to a Fault – Marina Endicott


Winner of 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, Finalist for 2008 Giller Prize.

Good to a Fault follows 43-year-old Clara as she makes a series of life changing decisions. The chain of events starts when Clara crashes her car into one containing a homeless family. At the hospital it is discovered that the mother of the homeless family is suffering from cancer. Feeling guilty (or just trying to be a good citizen?) Clara takes the three children and their grandmother into her home while the mother receives treatment for her cancer. Clara, used to living by herself, struggles to cope with with the sudden noise and complication of living with children, but she does her best to adapt to the difficult situation.

The book raises interesting questions about whether it is possible to be selfless, helping others just because you are a nice person; or whether there is always another motive. In this case Clara could be viewed as trying to obtain the family she has always wanted, secretly hoping that the mother will die so that she can adopt them. Clara’s true thoughts are kept cleverly hidden, leaving the reader to decide for themselves how virtuous she really is.

It is an interesting premise, but unfortunately I found the book far too long. The middle section really dragged for me and I felt that at least 200 pages of this 480 page book could have been removed without losing much. The writing was mainly dialogue, so it moved along at a reasonable pace, but this book had the distinct disadvantage of being read straight after Beside the Sea. The relationship between the children just didn’t jump off the page in the same way and I found their characters quite flat and lacking in emotion.

The ending was very well done, but I’m afraid this didn’t make up for the slowness of the rest of the book.

Overall, I recommend this to those who are looking to read a quiet book about some nice characters and anyone interested in what it means to be a good person.


The majority of people loved this book:

The book is so good I was surprised I hadn’t heard more about it. Compulsive Overreader

…a bit unwieldy and much too long. S. Krishna’s Books

….there is a quiet intensity about it that completely drew me in. She Reads and Reads

I drank in every word of this perfectly true-to-life (but never boring) book. The Writer’s Pet