Categories
2000 - 2007 Books in Translation

Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol

Cold Skin Translated from the Catalan by Cheryl Leah Morgan

Five words from the blurb: Antarctic, man, castaway, deranged, sea

I hadn’t heard of this book, but when I spotted it in a charity shop with an endorsement from David Mitchell on the cover I snapped it up. I’ve had amazing success with Mitchell’s recommendations and this didn’t disappoint either. Cold Skin is a beautifully creepy read, with a gripping plot that raises interesting questions about humanity.

Cold Skin begins with a young man taking up the position of weather observer on an island in the Antarctic Circle. He is left in this desolate environment for a year, with only the lighthouse keeper for company. This blurb led me to believe I’d be reading a quiet book about freezing temperatures and loneliness so I was shocked to discover that it is really a battle for survival involving giant humanoid toads!

The characterisation was fantastic. The interaction between the unnamed weather man and the lighthouse keeper was beautifully observed and I loved the way their differing personalities clashed. It’s unusual for the two central characters to hate each other so much and I found this a refreshing change from everything else I’ve read recently.

It had many similarities with Blindness by José Saramago, but I found Cold Skin easier to stomach. Giant toads don’t exist so they don’t give me nightmares; instead they made me think about fear and the instinctive behaviour it creates. It also cleverly showed Man’s impact on the environment, questioning our desire to control any elements of nature we don’t like:

The last flash of lightning illuminated my mind. I had a thousand nameless monsters against me. But they weren’t really my true enemies any more than an earthquake has a vendetta against buildings. They simply existed.

The pacing of the book was perfect. It wasn’t a thriller-like roller-coaster of emotion, but the tension slowly mounted and clever concepts were added throughout. The ending was also fantastic. I won’t spoil it, but I can’t think of many other books that end so perfectly.

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Highly recommended.

.

Cold Skin is a great companion read for War with the Newts by Karel Capek. I’ve only read two books containing humanoid amphibians and have loved them both. Can you recommend any others?

Categories
Orange Prize Other

Who will be shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction?

I’ve now tried all the books on the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction longlist and overall I was very impressed by the quality of the books. It is probably the strongest year I’ve ever seen and narrowing it down to six books is a tough job. I cut it down to 11 books very easily, but deciding which 5 extra ones to remove was more science than judgement – something that probably doesn’t exist on a judging panel!

Here’s my prediction for the 2014 shortlist:

The Signature of All ThingsEleven DaysThe Lowland

A Girl is a Half-Formed ThingThe GoldfinchThe Luminaries

  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Reasons for my selection:

  • Eleven Days is outstanding and deserves to be put through, no questions asked.
  • Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies wouldn’t be out of place on the shortlist, but I don’t think they’ll pick two experimental books and I think A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is the stronger of the two.
  • The Signature of All Things is the best piece of historical fiction on the longlist.
  • The Luminaries will glide onto the shortlist without any disagreement because of its ambition, scope and writing quality.
  • I don’t think they’ll put two books about immigration/identity through. Americanah is a fantastic character study, but I think The Lowland will pip it at the post.
  • The Goldfinch is loved by the majority of readers. I think several members of the judging panel will be rooting for it. 
  • Burial Rites would probably have made the cut in previous years, but I think it is sadly outclassed this year. The Luminaries and The Signature of All Things take up all the historical fiction quota.
  • The Flamethrowers and All the Birds, Singing are also strong contenders. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either on the list, but I couldn’t justify removing any of my six to include them.
  • The longlist contained a few odd choices so I predict that I’ll be wrong and at least one left field book will make the cut. Possibly switching The Goldfinch for Still Life with Bread Crumbs?

Who do you think will make the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction shortlist?

Categories
Book Prizes Orange Prize

Three books from the Baileys’ longlist

The Dogs of Littlefield

The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne

Five words from the blurb: dogs, poisoned, manicured, lawns, Massachussetts

The Dogs of Littlefield started well, with interesting observations about dog owners. I found their arguments about the shared use of a park interesting as I’m sure the UK will be subject to similar debates about the control of dogs in the near future.

A mystery around the poisoning of local dogs looked like a promising thread, but unfortunately this petered out, leaving only wry observations of the residents in this little town. If you enjoy slow character studies then this could be for you, but I’m afraid it was too subtle and ordinary for me.

.

The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto

Five words from the blurb: Pakistan, brothers, war, devastating, morning

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is set in a small town in Pakistan, close to the Afghan border. It follows three brothers over the course of a single morning as devastating events change their lives forever.

I found the story fragmented and was irritated by the continual flashbacks. The plot was also a bit predictable, with a terrible inevitability that I feel bad for criticising. The politics and culture of the area was well described, but I’m afraid I failed to become emotionally engaged.

Unfortunately it is the same tragic story I’ve heard many times before, with no spark of originality to grab my attention. Recommended if you’re particularly interested in the politics of the region.

 .

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

Five words from the blurb: photographer, New York, country, life, lens

Still Life with Bread Crumbs is an entertaining story about a photographer who is struggling financially. She leaves her stylish New York apartment for a cheaper cottage in the country. Here she meets a variety of local residents, each with their own story to tell.

The writing was fast paced and vivid, but I’m afraid the story was too ordinary for me. I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters and the reflections on loneliness and aging were nothing I hadn’t heard before.

If you enjoy lighter fiction, towards the chick-lit end of the scale, you’ll probably love this, but I’m afraid it didn’t have enough depth for me.

.

Did you enjoy any of these books more than I did?

Categories
2009

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

Labor Day Movie Tie- In Edition: A Novel (P.S.)

Five words from the blurb: mother, love, stranger, secret, betrayal

Labor Day is set in a small American town and begins with thirteen-year-old Harry and his divorced mother looking after an injured stranger. They quickly realise that this man is an escaped prisoner, but he charms them so they agree to hide him from the police.

The characters were all beautifully drawn and I completely understood their motivations. The depiction of Harry was especially realistic and I loved his adolescent view of the world.

The book was packed with flaws, but some of these added to the book’s appeal – especially for those planning a book group discussion. The writing continually introduced good concepts, but the sentence structure was clunky and so the real beauty of the statements was watered down :

No doubt Richard’s father, like my mother, had once held his infant son in his arms, looked into the eyes of his child’s mother, and believed they would move into the future together with love. The fact that they didn’t was a weight each of us carried, as every child does, probably, whose parents no longer live under the same roof. Wherever it is you make your home, there is always this other place, this other person, calling to you. Come to me. Come back.

The plot was unrealistic and the treatment of the issues was heavy-handed, with twists and characters added just to ensure all sides of the debate were covered. The ending also tied things up too much for my liking – I’d have preferred the book to have ended about two chapters earlier, leaving some ambiguity to events.

This review sounds negative, but I loved the fact that the scenes were larger than life. This made them memorable and allowed me to forgive most of the flaws. I don’t recommend Labor Day to someone looking for great literature, but if you’re after a gripping story then this could be for you.

.

The film is released in the UK today. I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ve adapted it, but think I’ll wait until the DVD is released.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

 ….a unique and creative story about love, family, believing in others and loyalty. The House of Seven Tails

… one of the most ridiculously one-dimensional, unrealistic stories I’ve read in a long time. The Book Stop

I loved how this book challenged my thoughts on right and wrong and made me think about love and loss in a different way.One More Page

Categories
2014

Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies

 Reasons She Goes to the Woods Longlisted for 2014 Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize

Five words from the blurb: girl, secret, dark, sinister, lyrical

Reasons She Goes to the Woods is a dark story about a deeply disturbed little girl. She is violent and often escapes to the woods in order to be alone. Some reasons for her behaviour are revealed over the course of the novel, but much is left to the reader’s imagination.

The book has an unusual structure, with every chapter lasting exactly one page. The writing quality was fantastic, but I quickly became frustrated by the rhythm of the book. I found the layout distracting, my mind concentrating on this rather than becoming absorbed by the characters. If you enjoy poetic vignettes then you’ll love this experimental style, but I prefer a more conventional narrative.

No matter what she does, it’s impossible for Pearl to shake off the feeling that there’s a raw, weeping patch growing on her heart, and that someone is pressing on it. It’s not as if I care about stuff, she thinks, but tonight the burning starts the moment she lies down, and chews away until she jerks herself out of bed and runs to open the window.

Some of the scenes were disturbing, but I reached the end of the book without really understanding their purpose. They seemed to exist purely to shock the reader, something I’m not keen on.

The ambiguous nature of the text means that it will probably work well as the focus of a book group discussion, but as an individual reader I felt I gained little more than a few disturbing new images in my head.

.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

…disturbing and unputdownable, an uneasy but thought-provoking read.  Annabel’s House of Books

…it was so sick. Book-ish Variety

Original, offbeat, short and bitter-sweet. Amazon Reviewer

 

.

Categories
Other

My favourites have been released in paperback!

Just a quick post to let you know that three of my favourite books from 2013 have now been published in paperback: 

Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity: A Dozen Kinds of Love

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

This book will make you look at disability, parenting and society in a whole new light. The world would be a better place if everyone read it.

My Notorious Life

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

An atmospheric book set in 19th century New York. It deals with the controversial subject of abortion in a sensitive and thought-provoking way. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys intelligent story-telling.

 Kiss Me First

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

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.

If you haven’t already, I hope this will encourage you to try them   :-D