2008 Books in Translation Novella

The Blue Fox by Sjón

The Blue Fox Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb 

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, priest, Down’s Syndrome, landscape, fate

The Blue Fox is a confusing little book. It only really makes sense once you’ve finished it and have had plenty of time to reflect on the beautiful, but often strange passages.

The book is set in Iceland and begins with a captivating series of scenes in which Skugga-Baldur, the local priest, heads out in freezing conditions to try to capture a rare blue fox. This story is woven with several others, including that of a girl with Down’s syndrome and a ship wreck, but to say much more would spoil the mystery.

The writing in this book is fantastic. Much of it feels like a giant poem, especially the hunt scenes in which individual lines are given their own page. But, even when entire pages are given over to text the writing still sings with its vivid descriptions and almost mythical atmosphere.

In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanted play of colours they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering gold dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and there in their wild caperings.

The only downside is that its fragmented nature meant I couldn’t bond with any of the characters, but despite this problem the wonderful descriptions of the landscape and the glimpses into Icelandic culture meant that this book was well-worth reading.

Recommended to those who enjoy beautiful writing and are willing to work hard to piece together a fragmented story.


Those who’ve already read the book might be interested in this animation of it as I found it gave me even more food for thought:



The thoughts of other bloggers:

...a rather exquisite, highly nuanced novella… Reading Matters

 haunting and mesmeric and so different from anything else I’ve read. Stuck in a Book

…bold, memorable and wholly its own. Just William’s Luck


2008 Orange Prize

Monster Love by Carol Topolski

Monster Love Longlisted for the 2008 Orange Prize

Five words from the blurb: perfect, next door, gullible, alive, wrong

A few weeks ago I read Kim’s review of Carol Topolski’s new book, Do No Harm, and noticed that Kim described Topolski’s earlier book, Monster Love, as: 

“…one of the most disturbing novels I’d ever come across.”

These words are like catnip to me and so I checked out a copy the next time I went to the library.

Monster Love is set in a beautiful suburban street. A new couple, the Gutteridges, move in and they appear to be a normal couple, but behind closed doors they are subjecting their daughter to an almost unimaginable horror. The book is told from the view-point of those who knew the Gutteridges; people who feel a terrible burden of guilt on discovering the truth, as with hindsight it is possible they could have done something to prevent the suffering.

With her, it was like reaching for something quite ordinary, like a knife or a fork, and banging your knuckles against a pane of perspex. You have a couple more goes until, blowing on the bruises, you give up and look for the cutlery in another drawer. She was never anything but polite, never challenging or controversial, smiled prettily at one’s jokes, but it never felt like a response, more the logical result of a calculation.

This book had a fantastic beginning – a dark sense of foreboding built up as we slowly discovered what was happening inside that home. I found the insight into the minds of all the people frighteningly realistic and the scene in which the police finally entered the house was shockingly well written.

Unfortunately everything began to unravel once I knew what had happened. I found the couple’s reasoning all too believable, but the book had lost its forward momentum. All my sympathies were with the child and the guilt ridden acquaintances and so discovering the events in the couple’s past that had triggered their malice held little interest. I also found that the characters all tended to sound alike and so the chapter headings were vitally important in revealing who was speaking.

Topolski’s career as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist has clearly been useful in creating a realistic insight into the minds of a wide range of people, but I wish that the truth had been revealed later in the novel.

Despite these criticisms this book had enough to interest me all the way to the end and I’m keen to try her latest book, Do No Harm, at some point in the future.


Have you read anything written by Carol Topolski?


The Story of Forgetting – Stefan Merrill Block

The Story of Forgetting

Five words from the blurb: Alzheimer’s, truth, forgetting, family, history

The Story of Forgetting is a novel about a rare form of Alzheimer’s that affects sufferers at a devastatingly young age. Seth is just fifteen-years-old when his mother is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. He realises that he knows very little about her past and so decides to investigate, discovering some surprising secrets about her childhood.

An intertwining narrative describes the life of twins, one of whom has the condition and one who doesn’t. The use of twins to show the decline in ability was extremely effective and led to some of the most touching scenes in the novel.

The book was inspired by real events in the author’s family history and combines detailed scientific information on the condition with a gripping narrative. The book shows the difficulties faced by the families of those affected, explains the history of the disease, and goes some way towards explaining how the brain is affected. This means that it is more than just a story and could also be used as a piece of reference material for those interested in learning about early-onset Alzheimer’s.

The human mind knows itself the least. The human mind may be able to trace the origin of life through billions of years to hydrothermal vents in the ocean’s floor, it may be able to comprehend and replicate the means by which the sun produces energy, it may even be able to describe events that took place at the beginning of the universe, 13.7 billion years ago, but when it comes to exactly how we have made these discoveries, exactly how our thoughts are thought, we know a minuscule amount. And much of what little we do know we’ve learned indirectly and for the saddest reasons, by the ways the mind malfunctions.

The large amount of science meant that it didn’t have the emotional impact of other books on the subject, but I think this could be seen as a good thing. There were some sad scenes, but overall I found this book to be more informative than emotional. Some people will probably find the science too detailed, but I appreciated the way in which the studies weren’t dumbed down for a mainstream audience.

The plot was clever and although I found much of it predicable there were still a few surprises sprinkled through the text.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Alzheimer’s and the quality of the writing means that I am keen to try Stefan Merrill Block’s new novel, The Storm at the Door, when it is released later this year.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

This novel touched my heart with its sensitive portrayal of the human suffering associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Caribousmom

….some of the passages about the origin of life and memory and human evolution were just gorgeous.  Fyrefly’s Book Blog

……it’s a book to read slowly, and savor. Boston Bibliophile

2008 Non Fiction Other Prizes

Leviathan – Philip Hoare

  Winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

Five words from the blurb: whales, humans, Melville, history, gigantic

I didn’t mean to read Leviathan this month, but I picked up a copy and couldn’t put it down. Leviathan contains everything that you’d ever want to know about whales; including their natural history, their interactions with humans and their role in literature.  

The book was packed with the type of facts that I love –  almost every other page contained something that I wanted to share with whoever happened to be closest to me. My family began mocking my new obsession with whales, but how can you not want to share a fact like this?!

A sperm whale can create a two-hundred-decibel boom able to travel one hundred miles along the ‘sofar’ channel, a layer of deep water that readily conducts noise. It seems strange that such a physically enormous creature should rely on something so intangible; but bull sperm whales, by virtue of their larger heads, generate sounds so powerful that they may stun or even kill their prey. These directional acoustic bursts, focused through their foreheads and likened to gunshots, are the equivalent, as one writer notes, of the whale killing its quarry by shouting very loudly at it.

I also discovered:

  • A sperm whale can eat 700 squid in one day.
  • Sperm whales were not filmed underwater until 1984.
  • A killer whale used to live in Windsor Safari Park.
  • A man is said to have been recovered alive from the stomach of a sperm whale several hours after being eaten by it.

I now have the ability to talk about whales for several hours!

One slight problem I had with the book was that I hadn’t read Moby-Dick. I’m sure that some of the sections would have been more meaningful had this been the case, but it has at least persuaded me to read it soon.

The only other tiny issue I had was that most of the photographs were very small and grainy. I can understand why this would be the case for the older examples, but even some of the more modern ones were unclear.  This book would have been improved greatly with the addition of a few larger, clearer photographs.

On a more positive note, I thought the writing was fantastic. It effortlessly guided the reader from one topic to the next; managing to move from lighter humor to the darker aspects of whaling without any drop in pace.

I loved this book and will be forcing it into the hands of several people over the coming months. I highly recommend that you get hold of a copy.

2008 Other Prizes Romance

Star Gazing by Linda Gillard

I don’t read many romance novels, but I received an email from the author explaining that this book had been short-listed for 2 awards in 2009 – Romantic Novel of the Year and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award, the UK’s first environmental book award. This combination of awards intrigued me and so decided to give it a try. I was surprised when readers of Women’s Weekly voted it the best romance novel of the last 50 years as I thought that a more well known author would win, but it made me very curious about the contents of this little book.

Star Gazing is set in Scotland and focuses on Marianne, a blind woman who was widowed in her twenties. Now in her forties and living with her sister in Edinburgh she has resigned herself to a life alone, but all this changes when a mysterious man turns up on her doorstep.

I was immediately impressed by the quality of the writing. The descriptions of what life is like when you are unable to see were amazing and I felt that I came understand how she viewed the world.

I tell sceptics and doubters that I go to the opera because opera pours a vision of a wider world into my ears in a way that excites me. Plays, novels and poems move, entertain and educate me, but they don’t rock me to my foundations and make me see. I can read Tolstoy’s account of the French retreat from Moscow, either in Braille or as an audio-book, but I have never seen a city. Or snow. I’ve never seen a man, let alone an army. Tolstoy uses a visual language that I can read, haltingly. It’s not my mother tongue.
But music I can ‘read’ much more easily. In fact, I don’t need to read it at all. When I hear music it goes directly to my heart, it pierces my soul and stirs me with nameless emotions, countless ideas and aural pictures.

The characters were all well developed and engaging, but this book turned me into a gossiping woman! It was a very weird experience that I have never encountered with a book before. I found that I didn’t like the central character and wanted to slap her on numerous occasions. I told several people about the stupid things she’d done and had lengthy conversations about her decisions. This makes the book a perfect choice for book groups as I guarantee that you will enjoy discussing the events in this book.

I also had a problem with some of the plot towards the end of the book. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but a few things were a bit far-fetched and I’m afraid I’m a miserable sceptic who has trouble believing that people can have visions of future events.

Despite these criticisms I think the fact I wanted to talk about this book so much proves its quality. I don’t think it is the best romance novel of the last 50 years (The Time Traveller’s Wife  and The Dark Side of Love are my favourites), but it is an original, heartwarming book. 



The Well and the Mine – Gin Phillips

The Well and the Mine has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever come across:

After she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash.

The book is set in a small American mining town during the 1930s and gives a vivid portrait of a community struggling to cope with the Depression.

The blurb implies that the book is a mystery revolving around who threw the baby into the well, but anyone looking for a mystery will be disappointed. The identity of the person who throws the baby is revealed, but is really of no consequence. Instead the book is more like a character study; revealing the thoughts and relationships of those living in the American South at the time.

Unfortunately the book was too slow for me. Very little actually happens. I admired the quality of the writing and the rich characters that were described, but I longed for the people to actually do something.

Recommended to people who enjoy gentle books.

Others enjoyed this more than I did:

The writing is pitch perfect. There is a subtle dialect that is charming without being over-powering. Educating Petunia

A real gem of a book paved with so many perfect moments that I can do no justice… Leafing Through Life

I loved this book. The writing style is sparse and yet at the same time lyrical. Page After Page