2011 Books in Translation Chunkster Historical Fiction

The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones

The Hand of Fatima Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

Five words from the blurb: Christian, oppression, Moors, Arab, conflict

It has taken me over six months to complete this 970 page epic. The book gives a detailed history of 16th century Spain, revealing the horrific violence that took place in Grenada when the oppressed Christians battled against the Arabic Moors. The book is narrated by Hernando, the son of an Arab woman who was raped by a Christian priest. Having mixed blood Hernando finds it difficult to be loyal to either side and through strong friendships with those from both religions he tries to bring peace to the region.

This book is massive in terms of both length and scope. I knew nothing about this period of history, but a basic knowledge is assumed and so I found that I had to research some sections in order to understand what was happening. I also found that having a Spanish map available was helpful, as without knowing the geography it was difficult to know the distances involved for each journey.

At daybreak, they began to climb to Moclin, where a commanding fortress defended the entrance to the plains and the city of Granada. They covered the same distance as on the first day, but this time uphill, feeling the cold of the mountains penetrating their rain-soaked clothes until it seeped into their very bones. They could not leave Moriscos on the road, so all the fit men had to help those who were not well or even carry the corpses, as there was not a single cart for them.

The pace was often painfully slow, as many side stories were weaved into the main narrative. I would frequently struggle through 20 pages, abandon the book for a week or two and then try again, only to be caught up in a new plot thread that captured my heart and hurtled me through another 70 pages….where I would then stall again. It was frustrating and gripping in almost equal measure!

This book isn’t for the faint hearted – there are many graphic scenes of rape and violence. The massacres of entire villages are described in vivid detail and I admit that I sometimes skimmed over a few paragraphs to prevent the terrible images from entering my head.

I’m pleased that I read this book, if only to be made aware of this turbulent period of history. I think it could have benefited from being much shorter, but the basic premise of the book was very good.

Recommended to those who love historical fiction and are not afraid to invest a serious amount of time in a long, meandering book.


Stu of Winston’s Dad and Richard of Caravana De Recuerdos are hosting a Spanish literature month.
Head over to their blogs for lots of other Spanish literature recommendations!


2012 Novella

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

The Colour of Milk

Five words from the blurb: farm, girl, write, unforgettable, year

The Colour of Milk is short, but it packs an emotional punch. The book is set in 1831 and is narrated by Mary, the illiterate daughter of a farmer, who is given the opportunity to learn to read and write. Through her basic, but engaging writing we learn about one turbulent year in her life. A year in which she leaves her family home for the first time to become a maid for the vicar of a neighbouring village.

There was nothing new about the story, but the execution was perfect. Every character was well drawn and every sentence felt necessary. The plot was quite simple, but Mary’s character was engaging and I loved her honest, direct approach to life. The understated descriptions meant that the reader is made to fill in the blanks themselves and this gave the actions a deeper impact :

i don’t know what he hit me with. i don’t know how many times he hit me. i closed my eyes and let him do what he did.

The lack of punctuation and the unusual sentence structure took a while to get used to, but once I’d adjusted I loved the unique tone:

and there was a shed with pots in and trays of soil. and here was a house made of glass what had things growing in it.
and i sat on the grass. and it was not cold.
and the birds were settling in the trees.
and i was tired for i had not slept the night before when i was at home.

The ending was predictable, but somehow that didn’t matter. The quality of the writing made it shine and gave it an emotional power that I wasn’t expecting. I’m sure that this book will require a lot of readers to get their tissues out!

This is one of those books that feels like a classic from the moment it is published. I’m sure it will stand the test of time and will be loved by generations of readers.

Highly recommended.



Three Mini Reviews


Wonder by RJ Palacio

Five words from the blurb: facial, abnormality, protect, cruelty, school

Wonder was originally published as a children’s book, but it is now being marketed for adults. The story is narrated by Augie, a ten-year-old boy with a facial deformity, who is attending school for the first time. Augie has previously been home schooled, but he must now learn to live in the cruel world and try to be accepted for who he is.

If I had a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing.

This book was fast paced and gripping, but it was obviously a children’s book. Some of the scenes were emotional, but they lacked subtlety and the moral messages were repeated too often. I found it too simple and predictable to be a satisfying adult read.

This is the perfect discussion starter for school children studying bullying, but I’d be hesitant to recommend it to adults.


The Doctor Will See You Now

The Doctor Will See You Now by Max Pemberton

Five words from the blurb: NHS, doctor, hospital, elderly, patients

Max Pemberton is an NHS hospital doctor working mainly with elderly patients, but also spending time in A&E. This book is a non-fiction account of his work; highlighting the highs and lows of his stressful job.

I really enjoyed reading this book – I found it entertaining, but also enlightening.

There are some rather unusual things that a doctor can prescribe for their patients. Years ago people used to be prescribed Guinness, and in fact, while working in surgery in my first year I twice prescribed a tot of whisky for patients. It’s very difficult to justify six years at medical school when you’re writing ‘Famous Grouse’ on someone’s drug chart.

It was packed with funny anecdotes, but also discussed the important issues facing the NHS today. I found some of the hospital policies unbelievable and am pleased that this book brought them to my attention.

Recommended to anyone who’d like to know what really goes on inside a hospital. Doctor to You is the source to find out the best doctors in your area.

Lacrimosa Translated from the French by Vineet Lal

Lacrimosa by Regis Jauffret

Five words from the blurb: suicide, letters, lover, depth, soul

Lacrimosa is an epistolary novel composed of letters between Charlotte, a woman who has just committed suicide, and her lover. The book is written in the second person singular, a form that I struggle to connect with.

Dear Charlotte, You died on a sudden whim from a long illness. Suicide gushed through your brain like an oil spill and you hanged yourself. You had been living in Paris for fourteen years but on 7 June 2007 you took the train to Marseille. As if humans had the memory of an elephant and sometimes returned to dig their grave near the place where, in the past, they’d forced their way out of their mother’s womb to set foot in life.

I also had trouble with the idea of a dead person writing letters, but I persevered to the end as the book was short and strangely compelling. I finished Lacrimosa feeling depressed (as you’d expect from the subject matter), but also confused as to the point of the book – it seemed to end exactly where it started and there was no real plot to speak of.

I admit that there were some beautiful passages, but I’m afraid this didn’t make up for meandering depressive nature of the rest of the book.

Recommended to those who love the sound of an experimental book about grief.


Have you read any of these books?

Did you enjoy them?

Non Fiction

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum

Five words from the blurb: slum, Mumbai, family, connections, shocking

My favourite book is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry so I am drawn towards other books that are set in Indian slums. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Katherine Boo, after she spent four years living with the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai’s international airport. The book is a non-fiction account of their lives, highlighting the terrible situations that they have to endure and the corruption that is a part of their every day life.

The book reminded me of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. The journalistic writing style was engaging and all the facts were given in a clear and precise way. The most interesting aspect of the book was learning that corruption was actually useful for some of those living in the slums – being able to manipulate officials was one of the only ways that slum residents were able to improve their lives.

The main focus of the book was the legal trial of one family falsely accused of murdering another slum resident. I liked the fact that the book didn’t simply concentrate of their basic survival and introduced the Indian justice system to the reader. The journalistic style of writing enabled the facts to be given without prejudice, giving the reader an insight into the way slum residents are treated by authorities.

My main problem with the book was that I was familiar with the plight of those living in Indian slums already.

To jumpstart his system, he saw that he’d have to become a better scavenger. This entailed not dwelling on the obvious: that his profession could wreck a body in a very short time. Scrapes from dumpster-diving pocked and became infected. Where skin broke, maggots got in. Lice colonized hair, gangrene inched up fingers, calves swelled into tree trunks, and Abdul and his younger brothers kept a running wager about which of the scavengers would die next.

Tragically the story of these people isn’t new and I’d read about similar events many times before.

I also thought that too many people were introduced. The writing was clear enough for me to be able to place them all and understand their part in events, but I failed to form an emotional connection to them. Several people died during the course of the book, but I’m afraid that I didn’t care enough to get the tissues out. Perhaps this was intentional:

Annawadi boys broadly accepted the basic truths: that in a modernizing, increasingly prosperous city, their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would matter not at all.

I wish that the book had concentrated on Abdul. As a teenager his perspective on life was the most interesting to me and I think that having one central focus would have given the book a greater depth of emotion.

If you have no idea what life in the slums is like then I suspect this book will shock you. I can see why many people are naming it as their book of the year, but without that emotional connection to the characters I was unable to fall in love with it.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 Touching, informative, observant, and irresistably readable, I cannot recommend this fine book enough. BookeyWookey

 …an eye-opening read that introduced us to the extremes of a rapidly prospering city. Take Me Away

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is beautifully written, informative, and an important piece of investigative journalism. Between the Covers

Discussions Quiz

The Blurb of the Future?

Last week I read an interesting article about the data collected by e-readers. Unknown to most readers these electronic devices collect a vast amount of information about the way we read books. This data could be  analysed and displayed alongside a book to help the reader make purchasing decisions, or used by publishers to create books that are more engaging. I am fascinated by this and wonder if the publishers of the future are likely to embrace this new data.

With the huge increase in books available, mainly fueled by the rise of self publishing, I wonder if statistics could become the new gatekeepers?

Could this be the blurb of the future?

Average Reading Time

Without the ability to flick through a physical copy it is difficult to judge how long a book is. Knowing the average length of time taken to complete a book would be a useful addition to the blurb.

Percentage of Readers who Complete the Book

Knowing how many people complete a specific book would also be of interest to me, although this would have to be viewed in conjunction with ratings data. A low completion rate could indicate complexity or books that divide opinion and so would not necessarily be an indication of quality.

Average Number of Reader Highlights

This would be one of the best indications of quality. Outstanding books have an enormous number of different quotes that could be highlighted, whereas good reads that are for entertainment alone may not have an individual passage that stands out.

Average Reading Pace

I’d find a graph of average reading pace very useful. I enjoy both slow, complex reads and fast entertaining ones, but need to be in the right mood for each. Some books are marketed in a confusing way and the reading pace is not always obvious from the cover. It would mean that I’d never end up trying to understand complex theories on public transport again!

It would also be useful to know whether the pace of the book increases towards the end or remains slow throughout. Some books have slow opening chapters (as they develop the characters and the setting), but suddenly increase in pace later on. Knowing when this cliff-hanger occurs can be helpful.

Other Statistics

Other statistics like the average number of different sittings the book is read in, or the percentage of people who go on to buy other books from the same author, would also be interesting, but I don’t think they’d have any influence on my book purchasing decisions.

Publishers could benefit too

Publishers could study this data to discover more about the way we interact with books. Before publication they could find the point at which most readers abandon a certain book and edit that section to make it more engaging. They could also mine the information to discover the chain of events that lead customers to buy more books from the author.

Consumer feedback has been used by film and television companies for years, but this is a completely new development in the field of publishing. It may prove useless in the unpredictable world of literary fiction, but if it can be used to improve profitability in commercial fiction then there’ll be more money available to take risks in other areas. I think that analysis of reader behaviour can only be of use to the industry,

Would you like to see statistics about the books you are thinking of purchasing?

Do you think publishers could benefit from mining this reader data?


Three Abandoned Books

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I initially struggled with this book – the Spanish, the swearing and the numerous footnotes all combined to distance me from the characters. I persevered and after about 30 pages I adjusted to the writing style and began to enjoy it. Unfortunately things went downhill after that. The plot moved very slowly (if at all) and I became bored. It seemed like the same old coming-of-age tale that I’d read hundreds of times before, but mixed up with side stories from all sorts of other family members that I struggled to connect with. After about 100 pages I realised I had no interest in finding out what happened next and so I abandoned it.

The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Five words from the blurb: epidemic, children, speech, lethal, disappears

The Flame Alphabet was recently selected by Flavorwire as one of the 10 of the Strangest Apocalypses in Literature; I think you’ll struggle to find a weirder premise than this. The book is set in a world where the sound of children is toxic to adults.  One couple, Claire and Sam, become physically unable to live with the speech of their daughter and so decide to abandon her. The plot gets increasingly weird and after 100 pages I could no longer cope and so abandoned it.

The writing was of outstanding quality and there were moments of genius sprinkled throughout the text, but the narrative was disjointed and I became increasingly frustrated by the bizarre plot twists. I think some of the more profound sections of the book went over my head because I do not have a strong knowledge of the Jewish religion.

We endured lurid speculation on what we might be doing in the woods. We were called forest Jews and in the newspapers cartoons depicted what awful work we’d undertaken. The Jew, in these images, sits on a jet of steam that charges him with a special knowledge. God’s air, heated to a vapor, is blown over the mystic. The Jew fits his sticky red mouth over the nozzle and sucks. Into a vein in the Jew’s leg comes the cold, clear liquid.

If you’re willing to put the effort into trying to piece together the complex message of this book then I’m sure you’ll be rewarded, but it was all a bit too much for me. 

Little Women (Oxford World's Classics)

Little Women by Louisa M Alcott

Five words from the blurb: delightful, girls, womanhood, world, romantic

I know that this is a classic, loved by millions, but I’m afraid it annoyed me from the start. It falls into that ‘charming’ category that has me running away screaming!

“How nice my handkerchiefs look, don’t they? Hannah washed and ironed them for me, and I marked them all myself,” said Beth looking proudly at the somewhat uneven letters which had cost her such labor.

I found the girls irritating. Their discussions were childish and shallow and their “problems” were so insignificant that I felt annoyed at having to hear about them.

I abandoned it after about 40 pages.