2000 - 2007 Books in Translation

Autofiction by Hitomi Kanehara

Autofiction Translated from the Japanese by David James Karashima

Five words from the blurb: love, disturbed, woman, sinister, meaning

I love Japanese fiction and so snapped up this book when I saw it in my local library. The title refers to the practice of writing fictional autobiographies and so it is hard not to think about how much of this book has been experienced by the author. I’m hoping that Rin and Shin, the couple described in this book, are entirely fictional and that the meta-fictional elements are clever plot devices rather than descriptions of real events.

Rin is deeply in love with her husband, but she is paranoid that something will destroy their happiness. On the way home from their honeymoon she begins to suspect that her husband is flirting with a flight attendant. Her thoughts quickly escalate until she is certain her blissful life is over. The book then travels backwards in time, revealing the reasons for her overactive imagination.

I often imagine that people are trying to kill me. And by doing so, I can turn every day into a fight for survival. Nobody has a time or place where they are free from the danger of death. People forget that. People live their lives with the basic assumption that they will still be alive the day after. I can’t live like that. A plane might come crashing into me at any moment and kill me. A truck might smash into me or I might suffer a heart attack, a stroke or even a subarachnoid haemorrhage. So I’m always standing face to face with the prospect of imminent death.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I found the first and last chapters to be totally engrossing. It was fascinating to see inside Rin’s disturbed mind and by the end I understood why she had these feelings.

The central chapters were less appealing. I found her meandering thoughts difficult to engage with and felt that whole sections added nothing to the reading experience.

The writing was easy to read and, unlike a lot of similar Japanese fiction, wasn’t unnecessarily dark or scary. Some scenes could be described as emotionally disturbing, but there wasn’t any gore or graphic violence.

This is a short book, but it is an interesting addition to the field of literature that looks into the paranoid mind.

Recommended to fans of Japanese literature.


Have you read anything written by Hitomi Kanehara?

Is her debut novel, Snakes and Earrings, similar to this?

2012 Other

Two Gripping Reads

A Land More Kind Than Home

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

Five words from the blurb: autistic, violence, tragic, religion, family

A Land More Kind Than Home is set in North Carolina and follows the family of Christopher, an autistic boy who is murdered during a church service. The book is based on real events and reveals the shocking way in which some people use religion to justify their horrific actions.

“Then you should know Matthew 9:33.” he said. “If you know your Bible, then you should know it says that ‘when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke.’ And I reckon you should probably know Matthew 17 too, about the man who brought his son to Jesus because he was sick with a disease brought on by a demon and the disciples didn’t have the faith enough to heal him.”
“I know both of them stories,” I said. “I’ve read them both many, many times.”
“They ain’t no stories,” he said. “You can believe me when I tell you that.” This book was captivating throughout.

The pace was perfect and it was packed with atmosphere, allowing the reader to become immersed in southern American life.

The characters were well drawn and I felt a deep empathy for the entire family. My only criticism is that the book focused on the grieving family. Their reaction to the murder of Christopher was sensitively portrayed and moving, but I longed to hear from the other members of the congregation. I wanted to know how they felt about the murder of a child and why they allowed it to happen in front of their eyes. Hearing things from the point-of-view of the murderer would also have added another dimension to the story.

The story was engaging, but its simplicity meant that I ended the book feeling a little disappointed. I’m afraid I like my books to be a little more complex.


Signs of Life

Signs of Life by Anna Raverat

Five words from the blurb: affair, memory, incomplete, control, truth

Signs of Life is narrated by Rachel. Ten years ago she had an affair that went terribly wrong. The book reveals what happened all those years ago in a narrative so gripping it was impossible to put down.

The plot was fast paced, with hints as to what happened sprinkled through the text. The narrative jumped forwards and backwards in time, but the story was easy to follow and although it was sometimes deliberately misleading, I was never confused as to what was happening.

The writing was simple and direct, but there were a few deeper thoughts to keep literary fiction fans happy.

“I don’t know where the line is between passion and obsession but I think obsession is passion that gets stuck.
Perhaps boundaries are like horizons; not fixed, they move as you move, like the end of the rainbow. It’s like trying to see when water turns to steam – you can never find that precise moment.

Unfortunately everything went downhill at the end. The build-up was fantastic, but the final few pages left me asking “Is that it?” I was expecting something something much more complex/clever.

If you loved Before I Go to Sleep then I suspect you’ll enjoy this, but I’m afraid I was a little disappointed.


Commonwealth Writer's Prize Other

The 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Shortlist

Yesterday the 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlist was announced.

The prize is

Awarded for best first book and is open to writers from the Commonwealth who have had their first novel (full length work of fiction) published between 1 January and 31 December 2011.

The shortlisted books are:


Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua (India)

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Pakistan)

The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya (India)

The Book of Answers by C.Y. Gopinath (India) (eBook only)

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (Sri Lanka)


Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku (Zambia)

Jubilee by Shelley Harris (South Africa)

The Dubious Salvation Of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss (South Africa)

Canada and Europe

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards (UK)

The Town that Drowned by Riel Nason (Canada)

Dancing Lessons by Olive Senior (Canada)

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Canada)

The Dancing and the Death on Lemon Street by Denis Hirson (UK)

Pao by Kerry Young (UK)

The Caribbean

Sweetheart by Alecia McKenzie  (Jamaica)

The Pacific

The Ottoman Motel by Christopher Currie (Australia)

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (Australia)

Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane (Australia)

Me and Mr Booker by Cory Taylor (Australia)

The New Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is my favourite book award – I seem to love more of their winners than any other book prize. This year the format has changed slightly in that the prize is now only for debut authors and shortlists are not given for each region (I divided the above shortlist into regions out of curiosity)

The only problem with the award is that most of the books are not available globally. Only 11 are available in the UK (the ones in the above list with links to Amazon).

I’ve read 4 of the shortlist already:

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

Important, powerful book about the loss of a traditional way of life.

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

Beautifully written, but bizarre look at memory and loss.

The Dubious Salvation Of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss

Entertaining story from POV of an 11-year-old boy, unfortunately ending isn’t as good as first half.

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Moving story about a difficult relationship between a mother and her son.

Two of the other books available to the UK are about cricket (The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya and Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka) and so as I have an aversion to the sport I’m reluctant to try them. That only leaves a few, so I should be able to read them before the winner is announced on 8th June.

Have you read any of the shortlist?

Which book would you like to win?




A Division of the Light by Christopher Burns

A Division of the Light

Five words from the blurb: woman, robbed, witnessed, camera, changed

I am heavily influenced by endorsements from certain authors and I’d probably have avoided this book if it hadn’t received a rare endorsement from Kazuo Ishiguro. A story about an obsessive photographer didn’t appeal to me, but having read it I have to agree with Ishiguro – A Division of the Light is

A strange, brilliant work

The book begins with a woman being mugged on a quiet street. The event is witnessed by Gregory, a successful photographer. Instinctively Gregory takes several photographs of the crime and becomes obsessed by the photogenic nature of this ordinary woman. He persuades her to meet him again and over several months the pair form an awkward, but realistic relationship.

The story is quite simple, but I was captivated by the vivid imagery. 

It is not the crime that excites the photographer’s attention, but a chance configuration of shape and texture – the smooth opacity of the lenses, the knotty tension in the victim’s hands, the summer clothing rubbed along the ground. These, and the dishevelled hair that screens a face he cannot quite see and that could so easily have smashed into the pavement.

Describing individual photographs is a difficult task for a novelist, but Burns made the images come to life. I could picture the beauty of Gregory’s work and grew to admire his obsessive search for the perfect image.

The author lives in West Cumbria and mentions places like Sampson’s Bratfull. I used to live in the same area and so appreciated the descriptions of the rugged countryside. But although the author is English this book doesn’t feel as though it originates from this country, it has a universal feel that is hard to explain. If pushed I’d say this book has a Japanese outlook mixed with cosmopolitan European influences. If that sounds strange, that is because it is! I haven’t read anything quite like it. This is one of those special books that is gripping and easy to read, yet stands up to deep scrutiny.

My only criticism is that all the passion revolved around the photography – I longed for the people to come alive in the same way. I was interested in what happened to the characters, but never really cared about them. In the end this was a minor problem and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. 

The quiet, simple plot won’t be for everyone, but if you appreciate vivid writing you’ll find a lot to admire. If I was a Booker judge, I’d put this on the longlist.


1960s Classics Crime Non Fiction

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood : A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences (Penguin Modern Classics)

Five words from the blurb: American, family, murdered, crime, killers

In Cold Blood is a modern classic. I’d heard so many positive comments about this true crime book that I was convinced I’d fall in love with it. Unfortunately, although I can see why it played an important role in the development of the genre, I’m afraid it didn’t bowl me over.

In 1959 an American family were brutally murdered in their home. In Cold Blood describes what happened by explaining the movements of both the victims and their killers.

I’d been warned about the powerful nature of this book and so ensured that I only read it during daylight hours, but I was surprised by how little emotional impact this book had on me. The actual murder was described only briefly and never through the eyes of the victims. I was relieved that I didn’t have to witness their fear, but a part of me wished that there were more details of the murder from the perpetrator’s point of view.  It might have helped me to understand how it is possible to murder an entire family and whether they had doubts and fears about being caught. Although the motivation for the murder was eventually revealed I wished that we’d learnt more about what caused them to begin their criminal career.

The book was very well written and engaging throughout, but the fact the reader knows everything from the beginning means that there is no mystery or intrigue to move the narrative forward.

The journalistic nature of the writing style meant the reader remained detached from events. I longed to get inside the heads of the people, instead of just witnessing their actions.

Next they were interested in rope. Perry studied the stock, tested it. Having once served in the Merchant Marine, he understood rope and was clever with knots. He chose a white nylon cord, as strong as wire and not much thicker. They discussed how many yards of it they required. The question irritated Dick, for it was part of a greater quandary, and he could not, despite the alleged perfection of his over-all design, be certain of the answer.

I think my main problem is that I’ve read so many similar books. If I’d read this when it was originally published then I’m sure I’d have been impressed by creation of this new genre, but the fact that this book’s successful formula has spawned hundreds of replicas means that it doesn’t have the same impact now. This simple investigation of an individual crime, whilst shocking in its nature, failed to teach me anything new. I wanted some insight into the criminal mind or some thought-provoking questions to be raised. The sad fact is that this crime is quite ordinary nowadays. I’m not shocked by it and the tame nature of the descriptions means that I am likely to forget about it quite quickly.

It seems unfair to penalise the original book because people have copied its style so successfully, but it also seems wrong to rave about a book that is no longer the best of its genre. As a compromise I’ll give it four stars. It is a classic.

I know a lot of people love this book. Can you explain why it is so special?

Orange Prize Other

The 2012 Orange Prize Shortlist

The shortlist for the 2012 Orange Prize has just been announced as:

The Forgotten WaltzThe Song of AchillesHalf Blood Blues

State of WonderPainter of SilenceForeign Bodies

My thoughts on the shortlist

The 2012 Orange shortlist contains an eclectic mix of books. All are well written and none look out of place on a prize shortlist; but whilst I’m not surprised by the inclusion of any single book, the shortlist as a whole is a bit of a shock.

  • I correctly predicted only two of the shortlist (The Forgotten Waltz and State of Wonder).
  • The two books that I felt were the strongest contenders (There But For The and Gillespie and I) were both eliminated.
  • The judges don’t seem to need to bond with characters in the same way I do, as (with the possible exception of Half Blood Blues) all the characters are difficult to bond with.
  • The judges don’t seem to appreciate experimental writing as both There But For The and The Blue Book were eliminated.

This surprising shortlist means that guessing an eventual winner is very hard. None of the books stand out above the others and whilst I think The Forgotten Waltz is the best of the group a part of me would like to give some publicity to a lesser known author.

What do you think of the shortlist?