Books in Translation Other Prizes

The 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist

The shortlist for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced this morning. I was lucky enough to receive the list a few days ago and was pleased to discover that I’d already read the majority of the books. A Meal in Winter was the only novel I hadn’t tried so I decided to pick up a copy from the library and read it over the weekend – an easy task since it was so short! Unfortunately I can’t comment on the short story collections, but hopefully my summaries will give you a good idea about the other books.

Strange Weather in Tokyo Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Five words from the blurb: romance, old, teacher, friendship, solace

A beautifully written story about the friendship that develops between a young woman and one of her former high school teachers.


The Mussel Feast Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Five words from the blurb: German, family, issues, revolutions, understand

Gripping novella which shows how life in a repressed state mirrors that of a family living under the power of a tyrannical father. It’s amazing how much complexity is crammed into such a small book!


A Meal in WinterTranslated from the French by Sam Taylor

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

Five words from the blurb: soldiers, capture, Jewish, prisoner, choice

Simple, atmospheric story about German soldiers who have been asked to track down Jews for execution. I can’t fault the writing, but I’ve heard a similar stories many times before.


A Man In Love: My Struggle Book 2 (My Struggle 2) Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett 

A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Five words from the blurb: father, life, holidays, neighbours, children

This book was much lighter than A Death in the Family, the first in the series. I found it lacking depth and became bored by its ordinariness. I’m afraid I abandoned it, but others love its honesty.



Revenge Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Five words from the blurb: woman, bakery, disconnected, chaos, cruelty

I enjoyed The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa, but I’m afraid my dislike for short stories means I haven’t tried this one. I you enjoy the short form then I’m sure you’ll find a lot to appreciate in this one.


The Iraqi Christ Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim

Five words from the blurb: surreal, absurdities, Iraq, human, war

This collection of stories has been described as ‘Arabic Gothic’. It sounds so different from anything else I’ve read that I’m tempted to try it, despite the short story format!

Who should win the IFFP?

Obviously I can’t comment on the quality of the short story collections, but I think The Mussel Feast will be hard to beat. For such a short book it combines a staggering amount of information. It has everything from emotion and tension, through to complex ideas about power and communism. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for it!

Who do you think should win?

For other opinions on these books read the reviews of the Shadow IFFP Jury, a group of bloggers who’ve read the entire IFFP longlist:

Dolce Bellezza  (twitter @bellezzamjs)
Follow the Thread (twitter @David_Heb)
Tony’s Reading List (twitter @tony_malone)
Winstonsdad’s Blog (twitter @stuallen)
Messengers Booker (twitter @messy_tony)
and the blog free Jacqui Wine ( twitter @jacquiWine)
Other Prizes

Brief Thoughts: Jack Glass, Men We Reaped and The Lie

Jack Glass (Golden Age)

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Five words from the blurb: society, crime, asteroid, murder, freedom

Jack Glass started well, with a group of prisoners being left on an asteroid. These men will only survive their ten-year prison sentence if they work together to produce food and water, mining the rock for everything they require. The dynamics of this new society was well drawn and each of the characters jumped from the page. Unfortunately things went downhill in the second section. The new characters failed to engage me and I became increasingly bored with the story. The third section was even worse and I ended the book very disappointed. It’s a shame it failed to live up to its early promise. 


Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Five words from the blurb: black, poverty, loss, family, struggle

I loved Salvage the Bones so was excited about trying Jesmyn Ward’s memoir. Unfortunately I found that the story was diluted by the inclusion of too many people. I found it too fragmented and lacking the emotional power of her novel. I’d have preferred a more intimate story, focusing on a smaller group of people.


The Lie

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

Five words from the blurb: man, returns, war, quiet, consequences, truth

I’ve had a mixed experience with Helen Dunmore in the past (The Siege is one of my all-time favourites, but I wasn’t as fond of The Betrayal) so I wasn’t sure what I’d make of this one. Unfortunately The Lie failed to grab me. It was too slow and gentle. Individual paragraphs were well written, but the central character was distant and I failed to become invested in him. This combined with a meandering plot to create a novel that wasn’t to my taste.


Have you read any of these?

Did you enjoy them more than I did?

2013 Other Prizes

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel Winner of 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Five words from the blurb: world, guides, tourist, return, dreams

Questions of Travel picked up almost every literary award possible when it was released in Australia. It also received a very mixed selection of reviews. I was interested to see how I’d react to this divisive book so I accepted a review copy. Unfortunately I’m still unsure what to make of it – my reactions are almost as mixed as the reviews!

The book focuses on two main characters: Laura, an Australian travelling the world in hope of finding the culture that she feels is missing from her country and Ravi, a Sri Lankan forced from his home by horrific events. The book has very little plot, but instead it explores the thoughts and emotions of those travelling away from home.

I shouldn’t have liked this book and thought about abandoning it on several occasions, but every time the lack of action began to bore me I was re-engaged by a fantastic piece of writing. I have done a lot of travelling and the experiences described in the book often rang true:

Laura had read widely to ready herself for adventure: traveller’s tales, histories, guidebooks. They warned of pickpockets. rabid dogs, unboiled water, children’s eyes in which the incautious might drown. But no one mentioned the sheer tedium of being a tourist. Dreaming of travel, Laura had pictured a swift slideshow of scenes. But oh, the long, blank hours that linked! … It was like being trapped in a particularly irritating Zen koan: In order to advance, the traveller must stay still.

The analysis into the motivations for travelling were fascinating and I think most people will be able to relate to some aspects of it. It was also nice to see details about how the Internet has made the world a smaller place and comparisons between finding ideas online rather than by travelling were thought provoking.

This is a book to be savoured slowly. The meandering plot often frustrated me, but once I decided to treat it more like a series of essays than a novel I began to enjoy it more. The fact I finished all 500+ pages, despite the lack of a compelling plot, is a testament to the quality of the writing. It isn’t for everyone, but if you appreciate good writing and are interested in travelling then this is the book for you.




Books in Translation Other Prizes Uncategorized

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Strange Weather in Tokyo Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell

Shortlisted for 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize

Five words from the blurb: romance, old, teacher, friendship, solace

Strange Weather is Tokyo is a beautifully written story about the friendship that develops between Tsukiko and one of her former high school teachers. The pair meet by chance in a bar and over time their relationship blossoms into a strange love affair.

Very little happens over the course of the book, but I was captivated by the quality of the writing. If the same story had been set in England I’d have probably been bored, but there is something about the Japanese way of life that fascinates me. I loved the atmospheric descriptions of the bars and food had a high prominence – it was mouthwatering:

With renewed determination, I seized a piece of the fish with my chopsticks and dunked it in the gingered soy sauce. The firm flesh had a slightly peculiar flavour. I sipped from my glass of cold sake and looked around the bar. Today’s menu was written in chalk on the blackboard: MINCED BONITO. FLYING FISH. NEW POTATOES. BROAD BEANS. BOILED PORK. If sensei were here, he would definitely order the bonito and broad beans first.

It is probably worth pointing out that the cover of this book is quite misleading. The floating woman implies some supernatural element, but this book is firmly grounded in reality. Anyone looking for the more bizarre aspects of Japanese fiction will be disappointed.

Despite the slow pace of the plot I read this book very quickly – it only took a few hours to reach the emotionally charged end. It’s the perfect way to be briefly immersed in Japanese culture.

Recommended to those who love all things Japanese.




For more Japanese book reviews see Tony’s January in Japan blog..

Books in Translation Other Prizes

Death of an Ancient King by Laurent Gaudé

Death of an Ancient King Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

Winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lyceéns 2002 and the Prix des Libraires 2003

Five words from the blurb: King, old, wedding, conflict, honour

I recently had a wonderful Twitter conversation with @thetoietlis about French fiction. She recommended many books, but Death of an Ancient King caught my eye as she said it was too dark for her. I bought a copy knowing it would also be perfect for Paris in July – a month long celebration of French literature and culture organised by BookBath and Thyme for Tea.

Death of an Ancient King has a fable-like quality and can be seen as warning against the futility of war. It begins with King Tsongor preparing a lavish wedding for his daughter, but on the eve of the big day a former suitor appears, claiming that she is promised to him. The King is unable to resolve the situation and a war breaks out between the two potential husbands. 

The entire book was quick and easy to read. It flowed beautifully and gave no indication that it was in translation.  Unlike @thetoietlis I didn’t find it too dark. There were descriptions of battle, but the scenes were described in a detached way, so I was never disturbed.

The days and months passed to the rhythm of warriors advancing and retreating. Positions were taken, then lost, then taken again. Thousands of footsteps carved out pathways of suffering in the dust of the plain. They advanced. They retreated. They died. The bodies dried in the sun, were reduced to skeletons. Then the bones, bleached by time, crumbled, and more warriors came to die in these heaps of man-dust.

I loved the first 80 pages, but after that scenes of war took over and I became less interested. If these had been reduced by about 75% the book would have had far more impact. 

King Tsongor was a fantastic character and I found his story the most interesting. I wish that we’d learnt more about his past and the story surrounding his footman had been given more prominence. 

Overall this was a compelling story with a good moral heart, but there was too much fighting for me. 


Laurent Gaudé is an interesting author and I’m keen to try more of his novels. Have you read any of them?


2013 Books in Translation Other Prizes

The Son by Michel Rostain

The SonTranslated from the French by Adriana Hunter

Winner of the Prix Goncourt 2011, Selected for Waterstones 11 2013

Five words from the blurb: meningitis, death, son, grief, life

Michel Rostain’s teenage son died suddenly from a virulent strain of meningitis. The Son is the fictionalised story of a family who lose their son to the same disease. It is written from the perspective of the teenage boy, Lion, and this omniscient narrator gives the book a special inquisitive perspective. The realistic nature of the text leads me to believe that much (all?) of this book is based on real events and this insight makes other books about grief seem insignificant.

This is one of the most emotionally powerful books I’ve ever read. It is one of the only books that has enabled me to completely understand what it is like to go through a devastating sequence of events. I hope I never have to experience anything like this, but if the worst happens this book has given me the comfort of knowing that life can go on afterwards.

The depth and range of emotion present in this book is breathtaking. It never becomes overly sentimental or shys away from showing the darker side of humanity. Shortcomings are open for all to see and this vulnerability only adds to emotional impact of this book.

I’ll be dead four hours later and Dad’s spending money in a supermarket. As of now, he will forever loathe the inevitable stop-off for the weekly shop. He’d always been disparaging about those nowhere-land places – shitty music, mediocre products, insidious layout, stooped ghost figures trundling from one shelf to another. But he still went every week, one of many contradictions. To think he lost some of the last few moments he could have spent with me alive – the memory of it destroys him.

The deep sadness is layered with hope; showing how friends and family can help each other through grief. It is a roller-coaster of emotion, and does have more downs than ups, but I think it is worth the emotional investment. The ending is beautiful and I only hope that Michel Rostain and his family had a similar outcome to their own tragedy.

Highly recommended.