Categories
2015 Books in Translation Novella Recommended books

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

 Source: Library

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Shortlisted for 2016 MAN Booker International Prize

Five words from the blurb: mountain, valley, change, solitude, great

A Whole Life is only 150 pages long, but it contains a beautiful, perfectly formed, story about the life of one man.

Andreas Egger lives in a remote mountain valley. One day his life is changed by the arrival of a company planning to build a cable car up the slopes. The book shows how this simple change slowly alters the feel of the valley, bringing tourists and skiers into this once peaceful place.

The writing in this book was outstanding and I frequently found myself noting down passages:

He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long-buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.

Andreas Egger was described in such a vivid way that I felt I knew him. I understood his fears and felt a deep compassion whenever he was faced with difficulty.

This book also manages to encapsulate the history of the region. We see the introduction of paved roads, cars and hotels – and also the impact of war. It’s amazing how much has been included in this book without it ever feeling cluttered – it takes immense skill to create such a slow, but rich piece of the writing.

In fact, I can’t find fault with anything in this little book. It is perfection in novella form!

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Categories
2000 - 2007 Memoirs

Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern

 Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: pain, avoid, bread, embrace, fresh

Shauna James Ahern was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of 38. This meant that if she ingested any gluten her small intestine would be damaged. She had to completely change her diet – avoiding bread, pasta and processed foods in which gluten could be hiding. Rather than become upset by the food she’d be missing, Shauna took the news positively – looking at it as an opportunity to improve her cooking skills and investigate new recipes.

Gluten-Free Girl isn’t just a book for people who’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease – anyone who enjoys reading about food will love it. Her passion for new ingredients and recipes shines throughout. She describes food in one of the most vivid ways I’ve ever encountered:

There is simply nothing like real butter. The first taste is smooth and full and has a certain cleanness. Then comes rushing in a hint of richness, as the butter starts to melt around the tongue. High, clear notes sing out. Like good cheese, butter has a taste of its origins – pastures, sunlight, green grass, and a farmer who wakes up early to milk the cows,

Unfortunately the recipes let this book down. Many were very basic and their only adaptation to being gluten-free was the word ‘gluten-free’ before ‘flour’ or ‘pasta’ in the ingredients list. I wish she’d included recipes for naturally gluten free dishes – especially the ones involving millet, amaranth and sorghum that she described so well within the text.

The only recipe that sounded tempting enough to make was the chocolate and banana bread, but unfortunately the inclusion of rice flour in the recipe meant it tasted gritty. I think gluten-free cookery has advanced a lot since this book was published and I’m sure that Shauna’s own recipes have progressed from this initial publication in 2007.

Luckily the recipes are only a minor aspect of this book and they should not put you off reading it. I recommend Gluten-Free Girl for the way it passionately encourages people to experiment in the kitchen.

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Categories
2016 Historical Fiction

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: WWII, London, teacher, love, triumphs

I loved Chris Cleave’s debut novel, The Other Hand, but his subsequent books haven’t been in the same league. With Everyone Brave Is Forgiven he has returned to form. The fact this is based on the experiences of his relatives has ignited a special spark in his writing – the passion and emotion shines through. I even discovered a few more facts about WWII!

The book begins in London at the start of WWII, with Mary North volunteering to become a spy. To her disappointment she is assigned to teach in a primary school, taking over the job from a man who is sent away on war business. Mary forms a bond with the children, particularly Zachary, the son of a black minstrel. But the main focus of the novel is love and the way war impacts on the relationships that are formed during this difficult time.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is very well researched and I loved learning about a slightly different aspect of WWII. There were a few disturbing scenes, but these were balanced by the humour present in the rest of the novel. It was lovely to see how the British public coped with the terrible situation by making light of their plight – the dialogue was fantastic and most of the jokes were new to me.

The imagery was also particularly vivid:

They were all turning to stone from hunger. They took  cover behind stone walls. They painted their trucks and their helmets and their guns to resemble stone blocks, as if by sympathetic magic some hardness might accrue. They saw rubble walls when they closed their eyes at night. Sometimes, when one was particularly hungry, the omnipresent yellow limestone had the exact hue of cheddar, and when the enemy’s paratroopers finally came it would afford about as much protection.

This book covers a subject that has been written about thousands of times before, but somehow Chris Cleave shows it to us in a fresh light. I’m sure it will be on a few prize shortlists later this year.


Categories
2015 Memoirs

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

Source: Free review copy received from Wellcome Book Prize Promoters

Shortlisted for 2016 Wellcome Book Prize

Five words from the blurb: Orkney, alcohol, searching, wildlife, hope

The Outrun combines beautiful nature writing with an honest account of one woman’s battle with alcoholism.

Amy Liptrot grew up on Orkney, but longed to escape the confines of these remote islands. At the first opportunity she moved to London, but found it hard to cope with the change of lifestyle. She turned to alcohol and her life quickly disintegrated. This book explains the difficulties she faced and how she overcame them.

I found the descriptions of alcoholism and the treatment of it interesting, but for me it was the nature writing in this book that stood out. I loved learning about the wildlife of Orkney and what it is like to live on these windswept islands. The details of her search for the elusive corncrake were especially good and I loved her descriptions of the birds and marine life that she glimpsed on her travels.

Amy has a special way of looking at the world and her insights were different from anything I’ve read before:

I stand up, alert, from my stone seat: I’ve made a breakthrough – stirred by the energy of the sea and the wind – in understanding my own behaviour. I didn’t find it in a therapist’s office, or by conscientiously working through the programme, or talking to Dee, but outdoors, watching the waves. I’ve been reading about fluid dynamics and the mathematical criteria for wave breaking, when the wave height is move than one-seventh of the wavelength. There are different types of breaking waves – spilling, plunging, collapsing, surging – but although they all collapse in different manners, there is only so much height any wave can achieve before it comes crashing down.

I loved the analytical writing style and the way it never became sentimental or self-pitying.

The Outrun is an engaging book which shows how the challenges of life can be overcome by slowing down and observing the natural world. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about wildlife, especially those with a passion for birds.

 

Categories
2016

Shtum by Jem Lester

  Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: autism, boy, school, fight, funding

Shtum is an emotional book about one couple’s fight to get their autistic son into an appropriate school.

One of my sons has Asperger’s so I have become friends with many other people whose children have autism. I’ve been to numerous support groups where I’ve heard stories about the battle parents face to get the support their children need. These groups are incredibly distressing to attend and the suffering these parents and children have to endure is shocking. Shtum gives a realistic portrait of the difficulties faced by these families. It is well researched and follows a path similar to many of the people I’ve met.

Unfortunately I think I’m too close to this subject to enjoy reading about it. Everyone on Twitter seems to love it – raving about the way the humour is mixed with the sadness. I’m afraid I am too aware of the reality behind the situation to find any of it funny and I found the whole reading experience distressing.

‘We’re being punished because we love and care for him and he’s not as good at autism as he could be.’ ‘He’ll never play autism for England.’
‘It’s like they’re persecuting us for not being completely destroyed by the situation. Things aren’t bad enough, yet. He doesn’t need to wear a crash helmet or headphones and we aren’t crack addicts.’ ‘Yet.’

The author clearly has experience of living with an autistic child, but sadly I found the whole story predictable. There was just something too ordinary about it. Unlike the magnificent, sadly underrated, The Mouseproof Kitchen by Saira Shah, it offered me no new insight – or uplifting side story to counterbalance the misery.

I’m really pleased that so many people are reading this book and enjoying it. Anything that improves society’s knowledge of autism is a good thing. It’s just sad that I’ve heard similar stories in real life far too many times before.

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The Thoughts of Other Bloggers

…an extraordinary, heart-rending story… The Book Magnet

It manages to be incredibly moving without ever feeling sentimental, and despite the often tough subject matter it’s frequently very funny. Breakfast at Libraries

…be prepared: it will break your heart into a million pieces and it will take one small piece away, so your heart will never be the same. Book Nerd Mermaid

Categories
Uncategorized

Books in Brief: Black Milk, The Best Thing That Can Happen to a Croissant and Stork Mountain

 Source: Personal Copy

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero

The Best Thing That Can Happen to a Croissant by Pablo Tusset

Five words from the blurb: obscenely, family, disappears, business, adventure

I bought this book because I was intrigued by the title. It was a fast paced, mildly amusing, thriller, but unfortunately it has dated badly. It was only published in 2001, but the details of dial-up internet/paper trail investigation etc made the reading experience feel quite weird. I also found that the continual swearing and male humor wore thin after a while. There were several good passages and the plot maintained a good momentum throughout, but the high philosophy of the ending was a bit bizarre and not in keeping with the rest of the book.

It was probably a good book ten years ago, but sadly only an average read now.

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 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Stork Mountain by Mirislav Penkov

Five words from the blurb: Bulgaria, grandfather, mysteries, ghosts, past

This book began really well, with a dramatic scene involving a sandstorm. The imagery and emotion was impressive and I will remember it for a long time.

The story revolves around an American student returning to Bulgaria to find his grandfather.  Details of Bulgarian history/mythology are given throughout and I loved the way realistic elements were blended with fantastical ones.

Unfortunately Stork Mountain didn’t quite work as a whole. Mirislav Penkov is clearly a talented writer, but the individual scenes didn’t connect well and I frequently found myself losing interest. I’m pleased that I read this book as I now feel more informed about the history of this area, but the author’s skill still lies with short stories for now.

 

Black Milk: On Motherhood and WritingSource: Library

Black Milk by Elif Shafak

Five words from the blurb: author, motherhood, conflict, history, depression

Black Milk looks the impact motherhood had on the lives of many famous authors – including Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing and George Eliot. It also details the author’s own experiences – which involve a dark depression and conflicting thoughts on whether or not authors benefit from having a child.

The book contained many interesting passages, but unfortunately it became a bit repetitive. I suppose this highlighted the fact that experiences of motherhood are the same the world over, but it led to me losing interest.

I also found the author’s conversations with her internal ‘finger-women’ a bit odd. It was good to see this side of her culture, but these passages jarred with the beautifully researched information in the rest of the book.

Black Milk is essential reading for anyone interested in feminist issues, but its repetitive nature means it is perhaps best read in sections, rather than all at once.

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