2011 Books in Translation

Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Heaven and Hell Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, boat, fishing, tragedy, solitude

I’m going to Iceland soon and so have been trying to track down as much fiction from the country as possible. Heaven and Hell has been on my wishlist ever since I read Kim’s 5 star review and so I bought a copy during my recent Icelandic fiction spending spree. In a strange twist of fate I received a review copy just 3 weeks later, accompanied by its sequel, The Sorrow of Angels, which is due to be released on 15th August. Having read Heaven and Hell I’m keen to read the next book in the trilogy and hope to let you know my thoughts very soon.

Heaven and Hell is a beautifully written book about a nineteen-year-old boy who witnesses a tragic event at sea. The atmospheric descriptions of the hardship that Icelanders had to endure in the 19th century were heartbreaking and the fine line between life and death was cleverly investigated.

The poetic writing was packed with snippets of wisdom. This is the sort of book that you can open at random and be sure to come across something beautiful within a few paragraphs:

Some words can conceivably change the world, they can comfort us and dry our tears. Some words are bullets, others are notes of a violin. Some can melt the ice around one’s heart, and it is even possible to send words out like rescue teams when the days are difficult and we are perhaps neither living nor dead. However, words are not enough and we become lost and die out on the heaths of life if we have nothing to hold but a dip pen.

This was the main joy of the book, but also a slight negative for me. The writing was incredibly dense and slow going. It was well worth the effort, but there were times when the plot became lost in a sea of reflections (pun half intended!)

I also found the characters cold and difficult to connect with. I know this is an accurate portrayal of their personalities, but it meant I didn’t care whether or not they lived or died.

Overall this book showed the power of nature and how fragile human life can be. It is worth reading for the vivid descriptions of the sea and snow alone, and I recommended to anyone who enjoys slow atmospheric books.





2013 Non Fiction

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

The Reason I Jump: One Boy's Voice from the Silence of Autism Translated from the Japanese by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell

Five words from the blurb: autism, childhood, son, inside, head

I love David Mitchell’s books and try to read as much about autism as possible, so I was very happy when an unsolicited review copy of this book dropped through my letter box. The book is written by thirteen-year-old Naoki Higashida, a boy who suffers from a form of autism that leaves him unable to communicate verbally. He has learnt to write by pointing to letters on a ‘cardboard keyboard’; enabling him to explain what life is like for him. David Mitchell came across this book when his son was diagnosed with autism. He found it so useful that he and his wife translated it in order to bring it to a wider audience.

In the book Naoki Higashida answers a series of questions about his condition, explaining the more difficult aspects of his day-to-day life and how others can help him.

Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly?
People often tell me that when I’m talking to myself my voice is really loud, even though I still can’t say what I need to, and even though my voice at other times is way too soft. This is one of those things I can’t control. It really gets me down. Why can’t I fix it?

Unfortunately I wasn’t very impressed. I admire what Naoki Higashida has managed to achieve, but as an insight into the condition this book wasn’t what I’d hoped. The content was very simple and none of it was new to me. I was also frustrated by how woolly and vague some of Higashida’s answers were. I know this showed his thought processes, but the scientist in me prefers the more concrete answers given by those who are experts on the condition. I’m perhaps unusual in having read so many different books about autism, but I think the insight into a child’s experience of autism has been better done in Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome by Luke Jackson or even this You Tube video:

It is also worth reading David Mitchell’s online articles about autism. This one in the Guardian is particularly good. 

If you are new to autism then The Reason I Jump  is a good introduction, but I think most people will soon want more information than this book provides.


Booker Prize Other

The 2013 Man Booker Prize Longlist

The longlist for the 2013 Booker Prize was announced earlier today. I wasn’t surprised that I managed to predict so few of the contenders – it is such a strange year for fiction! Nothing seems to be outstanding so far, but as many of the longlist haven’t been publihsed yet I’m hopeful that there are a few gems to be discoverd.

The 2013 Man Booker Prize Longlist:

Five Star Billionaire

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

Five words from the blurb: migrant, workers, Shanghai, Malaysia, adventure

Perfect for fans of Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

We Need New Names

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Five words from the blurb: shanty, Zimbabwe, mischeif, dreams, challenges

Perfect for fans of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Five words from the blurb: New Zealand, crimes, vanished, historical, mystery

Perfect for fans of C by Tom McCarthy


Harvest by Jim Crace

Five words from the blurb: village, outsiders, fire, witchcraft, scattered

Perfect for fans of The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

Five words from the blurb: Jewish, community, London, stranger, secrets

Perfect for fans of The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Kills

The Kills by Richard House

Five words from the blurb: crime, conspiracy, continents, multimedia, body

Perfect for fans of The Ipcress File by Len Deighton

The Lowland

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Five words from the blurb: Calcutta, childhood, tragedy, rebellion, transformed

Perfect for fans of Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph


Unexploded by Alison MacLeod

Five words from the blurb: Brighton, war, boys, Jewish, news

Perfect for fans of Ignorance by Michèle Roberts


TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Five words from the blurb: airmen, flight, Ireland, agreement, free

Perfect for fans of The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Almost English

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

Five words from the blurb:: London, mother, Hungarian, secrets, traditions

Perfect for fans of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Five words from the blurb: diary, girl, tsunami, change, life

Perfect for fans of Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World by Haruki Murakami

The Spinning Heart

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Five words from the blurb: Ireland, crash, tensions, violence, generations

Perfect for fans of The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

Five words from the blurb: grief, lost, myth, religion, lifetime

Perfect for fans of The Infinities by John Banville

My thoughts on the longlist

I’ve only read one book from this list: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I thought it was excellent and I can see it appealing to a wide cross section of people. I also abandoned The Kills (a spy story that failed to hold my attention) and TransAtlantic (you can read my thoughts on McCann’s novel in this post).

It is hard to comment on the rest of the choices as I haven’t read them, but I love the fact that so many are new to me. I hope to try them all over the next month or two and will let you know my thoughts.

What do you think of the longlist?

If you’ve read any of the books do you agree with my “perfect for fans of” selections? 

2013 Recommended books

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

Kiss Me First

Five words from the blurb: email, facts, identity, why, life

Kiss Me First is one of the most modern books I’ve ever read. Its insights into social media use and online identity are so relevant to today’s society that it will make readers look at their online activity in a whole new light. The book also deals with suicide and asks difficult questions about a person’s right to take their own life.

Kiss Me First revolves around Leila, a young women who is approached by friend from an Internet forum. He asks whether she’d be willing to take over the online identity of Tess, a women who’d like to commit suicide without bringing sadness to her friends and family.  Leila must learn everything she can about Tess so that she is able to convincingly take over her facebook account and all other online communication. This fraud should persuade Tess’ friends and family that she is still alive and enable them to live happily without her.

The premise of this book was very clever and I loved the way it looked at so many different aspects of modern life. I was particularly struck by the way an online presence can so easily become a substitute for face-to-face meetings and I hope that this story might be a wake up call for those who use their computer at the expense of “real life” interaction.

The pacing was perfect and it gripped me throughout. I loved the way that all the characters were flawed and I had sympathy with everyone involved. It is rare to read a book that carries its moral messages so lightly; allowing the reader to make up their own mind on the very difficult issues discussed.

And I must admit that as April 14th approached, I started to feel agitated in a way that isn’t normally in my nature. The realization struck that to know fully the ins and outs of Tess’s life would be a never-ending task, like trying to fill in a hole and realizing that it has no bottom.
Sometimes, during those last days, I felt like this didn’t matter. I wouldn’t actually need that much information to imitate Tess: people were mostly only interested in themselves, and didn’t attend much to others, even their close friends.

I also loved the fact that the central character had Asperger’s syndrome and this was never mentioned. Most people will probably not notice this, but it was refreshing to read a book that included a character on the spectrum without it becoming a big marketing tool – especially one that battered readers round the head with symptoms.

The writing wasn’t literary, but this is mainstream fiction at its thought provoking best.

Highly recommended.



I’d also like to praise the trailer for Kiss Me First. It is the best book trailer I’ve ever seen and if you have a facebook account I highly recommend you take a look at it here.


Booker Prize Other

Three Booker hopefuls that didn’t work for me…

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying books that have been tipped for the Booker longlist. Some I’ve enjoyed, but some just haven’t been for me. Today I thought I’d explain which ones weren’t to my taste, but please don’t let that put you off reading them – all are good enough to justify a place on the Booker longlist next week.

Ghana Must Go

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Five words from the blurb: father, African, love, jealousy, tragedy

Taiye Selasi has been championed by Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison, but this story of a Ghanaian father and his Nigerian wife living in America was too wordy for me. I nearly abandoned it after just 15 pages, but then it made me laugh so I perservered a bit longer. Unfortunately it failed to win me over and I gave up after about 75 pages.

The slippers. Battered slip-ons, brown, worn to the soles. Like leather pets with separation issues, loyal, his dogs. And his religion, what he believed in, the very basis of his morality: mash-up cosmopolitan asceticism, ritual, clean lines. The slipper. So simple in composition, so silent on wood, bringing clean, peace and quiet to God’s people the world over, every class and every culture, affordable for all, a unique form of protection against the dangers of home.

It clearly has a lot of great things to say and has amazingly vivid descriptions, but I just wanted to scream “GET ON WITH IT!!” as I waded through pages of endless meandering. If you enjoyed the above passage then you’ll find a lot to love in this book.


The Childhood of Jesus

The Childhood of Jesus Christ by JM Coetzee

Five words from the blurb: man, boy, relocation, dialogue, memory

I have a hit/miss relationship with Coetzee’s writing. I loved Disgrace, but haven’t enjoyed any of his other books. Unfortunately The Childhood of Jesus Christ also failed to win me over.

The plot is very simple and involves a man and a boy who travel across the ocean to a new land. Here they are taken to a relocation centre where they begin to learn Spanish. I’m afraid I can’t tell you what happened after that as I was too bored to complete it. The writing was flat and uninspiring and I just didn’t care about anything that was happening.

They are at the fountain at noon. It is already hot – even the birds seem lethargic. Away from the noise of the traffic they settle beneath a spreading tree. After a while Ana arrives, bearing a basket. ‘Sorry,’ she says, ‘something came up.’
‘How many of us are you expecting?’ he asks.
‘I don’t know. Perhaps half a dozen. Let us wait and see.’
They wait. No one comes.

I’m told that there is a lot going on under the surface and it is packed with symbolism, but it was too subtle for me. I abandoned it after about 120 pages.


TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Five words from the blurb: airmen, flight, Ireland,  agreement, free

I haven’t read Let The Great World Spin, despite buying a copy several years ago, but I’ve been keen to try McCann’s writing for a long time. As so many people think McCann is a certainty for this year’s Booker I decided to start with his most recent book.

TransAtlantic follows three different narrative threads: Alcock and Brown’s first non-stop transatlantic flight, a black American slave’s recolation to Ireland in 1845,  and a more modern story which shows one Senator’s attempt to bring peace to Ireland.

The book was clearly well researched and contained lots of interesting facts, but I’m afraid the passion wasn’t there. The first section in which Alcock and Brown attempt to fly across the Atlantic should have been tense – packed with fear, hope and heightened emotion. It wasn’t. The writing was excellent, but it failed to capture my heart and although I learnt a bit more about flying I didn’t care whether or not they made it.

Brown can close his eyes and see the chessboard of the plane. He knows the gambits inside out. A thousand little moves that can be made. He likes the idea of himself as a centre pawn, slow, methodical, moving forwards. There is a form of attack in the calm he maintains.

When the next sections maintained this cold narrative I decided to abandon it. I’m sure it’s very clever and deserves a place on the Booker longlist, but I’m afraid I need a greater emotional connection to the characters.

Did these books work for you?

Which do you think is most likely to make the Booker longlist? I’m not sure I could decide between them!

1990s Chunkster Classics

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

We Were the Mulvaneys

Five words from the blurb: family, farm, rape, tragic, consequences

Joyce Carol Oates was one of those authors I’d always wanted to try. She has written over forty novels so it was difficult to know where to start, but a quick Twitter conversation suggested We Were the Mulvaneys might be her best, so I bought a copy.

The Mulvaneys are a fairly wealthy family who live happily on a big farm, seventy miles south of Lake Ontario. The three brothers and their sister, Marianne, grow up as well respected members of their community, but everything changes when Marianne is raped and the family must cope with this massive emotional upheaval.

I initially loved this book. The descriptions of the family and their surroundings were vivid and engaging.

You could do an inventory of the Mulvaney staircase and have a good idea what the family was like. Staircases in old farmhouses like ours were oddly steep, almost vertical, and narrow. Our lower stairs, though, were always cluttered at the edges, for here, as everywhere in the house, all sorts of things accumulated, set down “temporarily” and not picked up again, nor even noticed, for weeks.

The pace was slow, but I didn’t mind as I loved becoming a part of their happy world. Their little stories about every day life were compelling and I came to feel I knew exactly what it would be like to live amongst them.

Unfortunately things went downhill after about 100 pages and I’m in the unusual position of having conflicting reasons why. On the one hand, I want to criticise the book for being too ordinary, failing to add anything new or interesting to the sad story of teenager who has been raped; but on the other hand, I didn’t think the plot was very realistic and POTENTIAL SPOILER HIGHLIGHT TO READ I thought that such a strong family would have bonded together, not fallen apart in that way. I guess the truth is that I just got bored. The plot was too slow to justify the length and I fell out of love with the characters.

Joyce Carol Oates is clearly a talented writer and I can see myself enjoying some of her other books, but I’m afraid this one wasn’t original or entertaining enough for me.


Which other  novels by Joyce Carol Oates would you recommend?

The thoughts of other bloggers:

 It is such a complete portrait of the human experience… Book Lust

…it was worth reading, if only to quench years of curiosity. Literary Amnesiac

I could write more about what happens, but I can’t be bothered to, which sounds dreadful, but that’s how the book made me feel by the end.  Book Snob