2011 Books in Translation Chunkster Historical Fiction

The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones

The Hand of Fatima Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

Five words from the blurb: Christian, oppression, Moors, Arab, conflict

It has taken me over six months to complete this 970 page epic. The book gives a detailed history of 16th century Spain, revealing the horrific violence that took place in Grenada when the oppressed Christians battled against the Arabic Moors. The book is narrated by Hernando, the son of an Arab woman who was raped by a Christian priest. Having mixed blood Hernando finds it difficult to be loyal to either side and through strong friendships with those from both religions he tries to bring peace to the region.

This book is massive in terms of both length and scope. I knew nothing about this period of history, but a basic knowledge is assumed and so I found that I had to research some sections in order to understand what was happening. I also found that having a Spanish map available was helpful, as without knowing the geography it was difficult to know the distances involved for each journey.

At daybreak, they began to climb to Moclin, where a commanding fortress defended the entrance to the plains and the city of Granada. They covered the same distance as on the first day, but this time uphill, feeling the cold of the mountains penetrating their rain-soaked clothes until it seeped into their very bones. They could not leave Moriscos on the road, so all the fit men had to help those who were not well or even carry the corpses, as there was not a single cart for them.

The pace was often painfully slow, as many side stories were weaved into the main narrative. I would frequently struggle through 20 pages, abandon the book for a week or two and then try again, only to be caught up in a new plot thread that captured my heart and hurtled me through another 70 pages….where I would then stall again. It was frustrating and gripping in almost equal measure!

This book isn’t for the faint hearted – there are many graphic scenes of rape and violence. The massacres of entire villages are described in vivid detail and I admit that I sometimes skimmed over a few paragraphs to prevent the terrible images from entering my head.

I’m pleased that I read this book, if only to be made aware of this turbulent period of history. I think it could have benefited from being much shorter, but the basic premise of the book was very good.

Recommended to those who love historical fiction and are not afraid to invest a serious amount of time in a long, meandering book.


Stu of Winston’s Dad and Richard of Caravana De Recuerdos are hosting a Spanish literature month.
Head over to their blogs for lots of other Spanish literature recommendations!


2011 Commonwealth Writer's Prize

The Book of Answers by C. Y. Gopinath

The Book of Answers Shortlisted for 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

Five words from the blurb: India, satire, world, problems, society

The Book of Answers is a clever satire of society. It shows how willing people are to look for the easy answer to their problems and how politicians can be made to believe anything if it helps their career.

The book begins with Patros, an ordinary Indian man, inheriting a mysterious metal box. This box is said to hold a book containing answers to all the world’s problems.  The responsibility of owning this object becomes too much for Patros so he sells it, only to see it turn up in the hands of a godman a few months later. This godman soon finds himself advising the top politicians in the land. The only problem is that Patros knows the key to the box is hidden in Kerala, so the godman must be inventing every one of his ideas.

I often struggle with political satire, especially ones that originate from other countries, because I don’t know enough about the political parties involved. This wasn’t the case for The Book of Answers and I think this is because it can be seen as a parody of governments in general, rather than of a specific regime. The blind faith that officials put in their advisers can also be seen in many large companies and so I think this book will appeal to people whether they have an interest in politics or not.

The main joy of this book is the large number of cleverly formed ideas. In many ways it reminded me of The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung, a book containing many ideas that sound ridiculous, but turn out to have happened already. I don’t think that any of ideas in The Book of Answers have been implemented yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the less controversial ones were debated in the next few years. 

“We’ve been googling since early 2000. Today’s rules are different. You don’t have to know anything any more; you only have to know where to find it.” The Mahajan Commission recommended a more “user-friendly” approach, named Ambient Solution-Seeking or ASS. Answers to all exam questions would be in the Head Clerk’s safe, one set per examinee in sealed envelopes. To receive his envelope, each student had to find his key question – What is the capital of Nauru? What is the difference between manzanilla and manzanita? and so on. These quiz questions, written on chits of thick paper and inscribed with the target student’s name, were hidden in choice venues around the examination hall: behind toilet cisterns; within the sand in cuspidors; below the Head Clerk’s paperweight; inside vacuum-sealed packets of wafers; and within the paper cones in which peanuts are sold outside college gates. The student resourceful enough to find his key question and answer it correctly would receive the answers envelope from the head clerk and sail through the exams.

Sometimes the jokes were quite subtle and I’m sure this book would benefit from a re-read to pick up on everything.

This book wasn’t perfect – it lost some of its narrative drive in the middle and could have done with some editing to make the transition between some of the scenes smoother, but on the whole it was an enjoyable, entertaining read.

Recommended to anyone looking for something a little bit different!


Unfortunately this book isn’t published in the UK/US. I was lucky enough to receive an e-copy from the author, but it is possible to download it from Smashwords or Amazon.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a thoroughly readable and thought-provoking book. Eleutherophobia

Behind the humour, there is a very serious message about the nature of power corrupting and the inability of democracy…. Tony’s Reading List

This book reminded me partly of Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian, The Parrish Lantern


2011 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Other Prizes

Pao by Kerry Young


Shortlisted for 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
Shortlisted for 2011 Costa Prize for Fiction

Five words from the blurb: Jamaica, Chinatown, business, political, transforming

Pao is only fourteen-year-old when he arrives in Jamaica in 1938; fleeing the violence of the Chinese revolution. He finds a home with his mother and brother in Chinatown and they try to adjust to life in a country that is very different from their own.

I immediately fell in love with Pao and his numerous money making schemes. His transformation from innocent child to powerful man was engaging to read, but as he grew up and his crimes became more serious I found that I was slowly distancing myself from him and by the end of the book I didn’t like him at all. This could be seen as a negative, but it is rare for characters to undergo such a developmental arc and I actually found this transformation impressive.

The book does a fantastic job of explaining the history of Jamaica. Details of the violence and unrest are sprinkled through the text, giving the reader a good understanding of how the country gained its independence from the British.

So what with all him bicycle talk I never get a chance to tell Zhang ’bout the commotion, and how the dockworkers bring the whole of the downtown to a standstill. But it no matter. Next day it all over town ’bout how Alexander Bustamante get arrested because they think he the one leading the strike, and how the English government probably going to send a commissioner to look into the disturbances, that is how they say it, even though nobody can see no point in that because everybody already know what the trouble is – no work, no food, and no hope that anything going get better.

The Jamaican dialogue took a little bit of time to get used to, but once I adjusted it gave the book a fantastic atmosphere. I think this is one of those books that would benefit from an audio version as I’m sure it would come across better if narrated by a native speaker instead of the voice inside my head!

The main problem with the narrative was that as the book progressed increasingly large periods of time were skipped – this gave the book a disjointed feel. Sometimes characters were returned to after a long absence and I felt as though I no longer knew who they were and this meant I didn’t care about them.

I also felt that the story was a bit dull. So much seemed to be going on around the periphery, but the central story lacked that magical spark.

This book did a lot to explain a period of history that I knew little about and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for fiction set in Jamaica.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …an extremely interesting novel, perfect for summer reading. A Reading Odyssey

….the way it is written was very distracting, and eventually weakens the story itself. Jules’ Book Reviews

 Pao is an utterly beguiling, unforgettable novel of race, class and creed, love and ambition, and a country in the throes of tumultuous change. Book Dilettante

2011 Orange Prize

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

Island of Wings Longlisted for 2012 Orange Prize

Five words from the blurb: islands, family, love, minister, hardship

Island of Wings is set on the remote Scottish island of St Kilda and focuses on Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie, a young couple who arrived on the island in 1830. Neil MacKenzie is a minister who aimed to improve the lives of the islanders by building better houses and by trying to quash their pagan practices. The book describes the difficulties faced by the couple as they adjusted to life on an island plagued by famine and high infant mortality.  

The main appeal of the book is the way it describes what life on St Kilda was like 180 years ago. Much of the plot is based on actual events and the historical facts were well researched. There were a few dramatic scenes, but the realism meant that plot was often quiet and insular. 

The population relied on sea birds for almost everything and their uses were described in graphic detail:

George was appalled to see a girl of about four or five years old trying to pull the neck of a gannet over her foot as a stocking. The minister followed his gaze and explained. ‘They often make shoes out of the necks of gannets – they cut the head off at the eyes, and the part where the skull was serves as the heel of the shoe and the feathers on the throat offer warmth and waterproofing. They generally only last a couple of days, but at times there are so many birds that they can wear these disposable socks almost daily.’

I found these little details really interesting, but I suspect that others may tire of these facts and long for a more compelling plot.

The book was very easy to read, flowing smoothly from beginning to end. The subject matter was occasionally dark, but the atmosphere remained light so the reader was distanced from any pain and suffering that occurred. I would have preferred a greater emotional attachment to the characters, but the writing style did create an atmosphere fitting with the remoteness of the island, so I probably shouldn’t complain too much.

Island of Wings gripped me throughout. It was an entertaining read that gave a fascinating insight into this small community.



The thoughts of other bloggers:

A beautiful story, it portrays a difficult, rugged life with delicacy. Trees and Ink

Island of Wings is very much an interior portrait – within the island, within the marriage – and at times the closeness of the story becomes almost claustrophobic….  Books Under the Skin

This is the Orange title that I have been most gripped by in the last fortnight…. Cardigangirlverity

2011 Uncategorized

The Submission by Amy Waldman

The Submission Longlisted for 2012 Orange Prize

Five words from the blurb: 9/11, memorial, Muslim, conflict, tragedy

The Submission is a topical book, detailing the outcome of a “what if” scenario in which a Muslim wins the competition to design the 9/11 memorial. The plot switches between multiple narrators, giving the reader the opportunity to see the situation from every side.

I had very mixed feelings about this book – swinging between loving it and hating it at frequent intervals. It was packed with interesting discussion points and some of the scenes were beautifully described, but the characters were flat and I failed to connect to any of them.

The writing quality was also variable. Some passages were beautifully written, but I frequently found too much detail and longed for the sentences to be a bit shorter:

“I know the concerns,” he said gruffly: that it was too soon for a memorial, the ground barely cleared; that the country hadn’t yet won or lost the war, couldn’t even agree, exactly, on who or what it was fighting. But everything happened faster these days – the building up and tearing down of idols; the spread of disease and rumor and trends; the cycling of news; the development of new monetary instruments, which in turn had speeded Paul’s own retirement from the chairmanship of the investment bank. So why not the memorial too?

Flashbacks to 9/11 were tastefully done, with virtually no details given. I loved the way these scenes ended with the phone ringing, the terrible news implied without ever being described.

I expected this to be a thought-provoking book, but unfortunately I didn’t find that to be the case. The sad thing is that most of the events described in this book have happened already, either with the plans for a mosque near the World Trade Centre site, or with other events in London/around the world. This meant that the “what if” scenarios weren’t especially ground-breaking and I felt as though I’d heard all the arguments many times before.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is unaware of the shocking way in which Muslims in our society are treated, but for a book about such an emotive subject I found it surprisingly flat.


The thoughts of other bloggers: 

…this is a book that literally moved me to tears and I honestly can’t remember the last time a book did that. Steph & Tony Investigate

Despite a strong premise and beginning, Waldman’s overwrites this novel to a frustrating point. Nomadreader

Waldman gives her novel it’s own unique voice and memorable cast of characters that makes it stand out from any other non-fictionalized story it may resemble. Literary Musings


2011 Other Prizes Recommended books

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones Winner of 2011 National Book Award

Five words from the blurb: hurricane, threatening, family, pregnant, pit bull

When the Orange longlist was announced last week several people voiced their surprise that Salvage the Bones was missing. Intrigued by their passion I decided to give it a try and having read it, I agree. This book stands head and shoulders above everything else published this year. It deserved to win the Orange prize and I’m disappointed that it didn’t even make the longlist.

Salvage the Bones is set in Mississippi and follows one family as they prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The unconventional and potentially unlovable family are the owners of a prize pit bull, renowned for her fighting skills. At the start of the book she gives birth to a litter of valuable puppies that they attempt to protect as the hurricane approaches.

I worried that I might be subjected to endless descriptions of wind and destruction, but this book is very cleverly structured. The hurricane hits in the final few pages and the power is in what is left unsaid. The details of the destruction are brief, but their lightness still manages to convey the devastation.

The hurricane laughed. A tree, plucked from its branches, hopped across the yard and landed against Daddy’s truck with a crunch, stopped short like it had won a game of hopscotch without stepping out of the lines. The sky was so close I felt like I could reach up and bury my arm in it.

One of the most impressive things about this book was that it made me care about a family who take part in dog fighting. It takes great skill for an author to enable me to connect with people I’d normally abhor, but somehow Jesmyn Ward  made me to see past their cruelty and I connected with them on an emotional level.

The atmosphere in the book was perfect. The dialogue gave a fantastic sense of place and the descriptions were vivid throughout:

“We ain’t going nowhere.” Skeetah unlashes his arms and they come whipping out from his sides, and his voice is loud, and he’s like those little firecrackers we get on the Fourth of July that throw out sparks from all sides and jump in bright acid leaps across the hard dirt yard.

This isn’t a happy book. It is a powerful insight into the lives of a family who had numerous problems before the arrival of a hurricane. The ending left me wondering how they’d cope once the waters receded and, given the news articles I’ve seen, I can only imagine the horrors a sequel would contain. I’m sure I’ll remember the characters in this book for a long time to come.

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys emotionally powerful insights into the lives of other people.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…stunning, beautiful, tragic, heartbreaking, and wholly absorbing. Caribousmom

There is abusive sex and there is violence.  At times I wanted to stop reading but found I could not.  Page247

This novel absolutely broke my heart, but at the same time I can’t help but recommend that you read it too. Book Addiction

I also recommend listening to this NPR interview with Jesmyn Ward 

(Thanks to Caribousmom for drawing it to my attention)