2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Thriller

I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti

I'm Not Scared Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt

Five words from the blurb: Italian, village, children, discovery, scare

I bought a copy of this book a couple of years ago after seeing several bloggers rave about it. For some reason I expected it to be chilling and so avoided reading it until I could do so in daylight hours. This was unnecessary as it was a much less scary than I anticipated.

The book is set in a small Italian hamlet where six children have the freedom to explore the surrounding countryside. One day nine-year-old Michele is dared to enter a derelict house on the outskirts of their village and is shocked by what he discovers there.

The story was narrated by Michele so was much simpler and faster paced than I expected it to be – I flew through the entire book in just a few hours. There was something wonderful about the childhood innocence of the narration, but it also frustrated me. I felt I was being pulled along too quickly, forced to almost skim the words instead of slow down and think about the difficult issues that were being raised.

‘Papa! Papa!’ I pushed the door and rushed in. ‘Papa! I’ve got something to…’ The rest died on my lips.
He was sitting in the armchair with the newspaper in his hands looking at me with toad’s eyes. The worst toad’s eyes I had seen since the day I had drunk the Lourdes water thinking it was acqua minerale. He squashed his cigarette-end into his coffee cup….
Papa drew in air through his nose and said: ‘Where have you been all day?’ He looked me up and down. Have you seen yourself? What the hell have you been rolling in?’

The book has been described as a ‘literary sensation’ and I think that is the wrong term. I’m Not Scared is a more mainstream piece of fiction and is the type of book I’ll be pushing into the hands of a wide variety of friends. It is particularly good for showing that translated fiction needn’t be difficult or boring.

Some people might find the ending frustrating, but I was impressed by the suspenseful nature of it and the way it forces the reader to think about the book for much longer than they would if everything was tied up neatly.

Overall I found this to be an entertaining read, but it lacked the depth to be considered outstanding.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …a gripping read with strong emotional impact. Medieval Bookworm

The ending went beyond ambiguous to just plain lacking. Carpe Librum

If you intend to read this book make sure you’ve got a few clear hours to do so, the storytelling is so rich and vivid you won’t want to abandon it until the final, devastating climax is reached. Reading Matters


2000 - 2007 Uncategorized

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

The Book of Illusions

Five words from the blurb: grief, silent, comedian, mystery, journey

I’ve owned a copy of this book for a while, but avoided reading it because of the plane crash mentioned in the blurb. I decided to pick it up straight after my holiday as this gave the greatest length of time to remove potentially disturbing images from my head before having to fly again! I’m pleased I made this decision as there were some scenes I’m glad I hadn’t read immediately prior to boarding a plane.

The Book of Illusions is a simple story about a professor whose wife and children are killed in a plane crash. Overcome by grief he begins to lose his grip on the world, but everything changes when he sees Hector Mann, a silent comedian, on television. The film is the first thing to make him smile in months and so he begins a quest to watch everything this man has ever produced. This strange obsession leads him to discover that Mann had a mysterious life and no-one knows what happened to him.

This story was strangely compelling. The pace was slow and there were large chunks where little happened, but the writing quality was so good that this didn’t really matter. There were a few unlikely coincidences, but these were necessary to make the story more interesting, so I was willing to forgive them.

The observations on grief were particularly accurate, giving the reader immense sympathy for the professor. My emotional connection to the characters was strong and I was impressed by the complex and flawed nature of them all.

The only real problem with the book was its lack of impact. I finished it about 3 weeks ago, but could remember next-to-nothing about the plot until I jogged my memory by reading some sections again. It was all subtle and clever –  which was entertaining at the time, but not compatible with leaving a lasting impression. The plot was strangely reminiscent of the silent comedies described within the book:

Most silent comedies hardly even bothered to tell stories. They were like poems, like the renderings of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit, and because they were dead, they probably spoke more deeply to us now than they had to the audiences of their time. We watched them across a great chasm of forgetfulness…

Overall this was a beautifully written book containing lots of interesting passages. Recommended to those who like slow, thoughtful books.



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?

2000 - 2007 Historical Fiction

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch

Five words from the blurb: Londoners, 1940s, streets, secrets, liaisons

The Fingersmith is one of my favourite books so I had high expectations for this one. The Night Watch wasn’t quite in the same league, but I was impressed by Waters’ ability to bring war-torn London to life.

The Night Watch begins in 1947 and goes backwards in time, showing how WWII affected four Londoners. It was a fairly quiet book, concentrating on the relationships and emotions of ordinary people living within the capital.

Every scene was vividly described and the characters were all well developed. I’ve read lots of books about WWII, but this was the first to really make me understand what daily life was like for those who weren’t fighting on the front line.

The period detail was fantastic and it was especially nice to recognise the places in London and to learn how landmarks that I am familiar with were utilised or damaged during the war. The resilience of the characters and their attitude to the ever-present danger of the bombings felt accurate and it was nice to see positive stories layered with the darker ones.

She’d never thought of that before, about all the secrets that the war must have swallowed up, left buried in dust and darkness and silence. She’d only ever thought of the raids as tearing things open, making things hard.

The only negative was the lack of forward momentum.  I’d heard a lot about the amazing backwards structure of this book, but I’m afraid I wasn’t impressed by it. I felt that it would have been stronger with a conventional timeline as the reversal seemed like a gimmick.

Overall this was a beautifully researched piece of historical fiction, packed with atmosphere. I’d have preferred a stronger narrative, but it is still an impressive book and I recommend it.


2000 - 2007 Non Fiction Uncategorized

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Epic True Story that Inspired 'Moby Dick'

Five words from the blurb: whaleship, sinking, crewmen, dramatic, survival

In the Heart of the Sea is an account of the events that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. In 1820 the whaleship Essex was attacked by a spermwhaleBy combining historical narratives, Philbrick gives a shocking insight into the plight of the twenty crewmen who escaped into lifeboats in the middle of the Pacific. It is a gripping story that shows what happens to the human body when it is starved of food and water, but it is also a chilling reminder of what people are capable of doing in order to survive.

I found the first third of this book slow going. This was because it gave a solid introduction to the whaling industry – facts I was already familiar with from reading the outstanding Leviathan by Philip Hoare. I can’t fault this section and don’t feel it should have been written differently, it is just unfortunate in being the second to inform me of these facts.

Luckily the story quickly began to take a route I was unfamiliar with. The book clearly explained what life at sea was like and I was gripped to the adventure, willing the men to survive. The details of what happened to them as they became dehydrated were disturbing to read, but I also found them strangely fascinating:

Morning came quickly and, with it, a return to the agonies of hunger and thirst. They were now so severely dehydrated that they had begun to lose the ability to speak. “Relief,” Chase wrote, “must come soon, or nature would sink.” They wandered the beach like ragged skeletons, pausing to lean against trees and rocks to catch their breath. They tried chewing the waxy green leaves of the shrubs that grew in cliffs, but they were bitter to taste. They found birds that made no attempt to escape when they plucked them from their nests. In the crevices of the rocks sprouted a grass that, when chewed, produced a temporary flow of moisture in their mouths. But nowhere did they find fresh water.

The period detail was fantastic and the life of a whaler was brought vividly to life. I also liked the way it documented what happened to the women who had been left behind on Nantucket. Their independent life was inspiring to read, showing how a community coped without men in a time when many thought it wrong/impossible.

If you like historical fiction packed with adventure then this is for you. The fact it is all true only adds to its brilliance.




2000 - 2007

Not Without Flowers by Amma Darko

Not Without Flowers

Five words from the blurb: women, Africa, dilemmas, confronting, social

Not Without Flowers gives an insight into Ghanaian culture; raising interesting discussions about polygamy, the treatment of mental health and HIV, and the difficulties faced by an ordinary family trying to raise enough money for a decent funeral.

The book begins with a distressing scene in which those with mental health problems are found chained to the floor, having been beaten by witchdoctors attempting to rid their bodies of evil spirits. It then goes on to introduce a man with five wives. He commits suicide after discovering that he has HIV and the family have to deal with the double grief of his death and his diagnosis.

I loved the way the book introduced me to many issues I was unfamiliar with. The emotions associated with polygamy were particularly interesting:

Many wives who suspect their husbands of having extra marital affairs usually pray for one thing, especially when they know they can’t stop him or what is going on. They pray that they never see nor hear nor smell the affair. She had. She had seen her, had heard her and had smelled her at her workplace and in her bedroom. But in this society where polygyny is a norm, how is a wife to receive adequate sympathy and understanding for a pain she must be suffering as a result of a husband’s unfaithfulness? The pain itself, that she is feeling, is doomed and becomes her failure. She is expected not to feel that pain at all. She is supposed to feel lucky enough to be the one wearing his ring, which should enable her to bear his little pleasures.

Unfortunately I found the book disjointed. Individual scenes were fantastic, but the plot jumped around between a large number of people and so it was impossible to bond with any individual. Things improved towards the end, but I would have preferred the story to concentrate on a fewer number of characters.

The book also contained some surrealism that I didn’t understand. Dreams seemed to come true and there were some potent symbols and visions that clearly had meanings I was unaware of. I think a greater knowledge of African mythology would improve enjoyment of this book, but I guess that will come from reading more books like this one.!

I’m pleased that I read Not Without Flowers because it introduced me to many new themes and ideas. It is a perfect choice for Ghanaian Literature Week and I recommend that you head over to Kinna’s blog in order to find out much more about literature from Ghana.