2012 Books in Translation Non Fiction Recommended books

HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhH Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

Five words from the blurb: mission, assassinate, Nazi, novelist, truth

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this book, but it is all justified. HHhH breaks the mould, creating a new genre that will change the way you look at non-fiction and lead you to question the accuracy of everything you read.

The book tells the compelling story of two Czechoslovakian parachutists who were sent to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Nazi secret services. Dropped near Prague in 1942 the pair spend months plotting the event, relying on the support of a secret network of people. The book also charts the rise of Heydrich, explaining the important role he had in the creation of the Nazi death camps.

Throughout the book the author explains the research he did to obtain each fact and ensures that nothing is ambiguous. To retain the gripping narrative style Binet frequently makes things up, but every time he does so the passage will be followed by one that explains exactly which parts were fabricated:

That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet – a man who’s been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself.

I loved this honesty and it made me realise how many difficult choices authors of historical fiction must make each time they write a scene.

I love meta-fiction and so appreciated the way the author addressed the reader directly. His chatty style was easy to read and often amusing. He made some blunt, often scathing, comments about other historical fiction authors, but although I didn’t always agree with him, it was refreshing to read about someone not scared to voice their opinion.

I’ve seen a few comments about people avoiding this book because of the Holocaust connections, but although the death camps were mentioned, this book does not describe them in graphic detail. It isn’t a depressing book; it is a gripping story revolving around whether or not the parachutists will be successful in their mission. It does take a while for the pace to build, but the final few chapters were some of the most exciting I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down and was totally engrossed in the story of these men.

HHhH shares many themes with The Street Sweeper, but unlike that amazing book, this is flawless. HHhH has leaped over The Street Sweeper to become my favourite read of 2012 so far.

Highly recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

I kept finding myself frustrated. Just when a section of non-fiction was beginning to really grip an authorial intervention would break the spell.  Just William’s Luck

The style is an unusual construction, but for me it was highly effective and extremely engaging. The Little Reader Library

I remain, however, equally fascinated and irritated by this volume – I still can’t call it a novel. Gaskella

2011 Books in Translation

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé

A Novel Bookstore Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Five words from the blurb: place, books, envy, secret, literary

A Novel Bookstore revolves around a secret committee, established to select the finest books for a new shop. This book shop will not sell new releases, but will only stock books specifically selected by the committee because of their importance and their ability to move and influence the reader.

For as long as literature has existed, suffering, joy, horror and grace, and everything that is great in humankind has produced great novels. These exceptional books are often not very well known, and are in constant danger of being forgotten, and in today’s world, where the number of books being published is considerable, the power of marketing and the cynicism of business have joined forces to keep those extraordinary books indistinguishable from millions of insignificant, not to say pointless books.

A Novel Bookstore is billed as a mystery because members of the committee receive threats and then suffer violent attacks, but anyone looking for a mystery will be disappointed as this aspect of the book is minor and ultimately disappointing.

The main benefit of this novel is that it recommends a large number books to the reader.

Among the books he wanted for The Good Novel were Dernier amour, by Christian Gailly, which, blown away, he mentioned to me; Sous réserve, a first novel by Hélène Frappat; and, among the foreign novels, short stories by Roberto Bolano. Francesca liked Tristano muore by Antonio Tabucchi, La réfutation majeure, by Pierre Senges, and more than anything, Segalen’s complete Correspondence, published at last.

The main problem, for the English reader, is that most are unavailable in this country. Some books are mentioned briefly, others described at length, but all the ones that intrigued me were impossible to track down.

In a Bengalese novel that I love, The Night on the Shore, the author devotes twelve pages to a description of the preparation of a traditional rich dish for weddings. It’s an unforgettable passage.

This is, perhaps, the point the book is trying to prove. These gems of literature are buried under a sea of averageness and only those with a specialist knowledge will be aware of their existence.

Most blog readers will be familiar with debates about what makes a book important and whether or not readers are wasting their time by reading lighter, more entertaining books, but if you are interested in these discussions you’ll find plenty to hold your attention in this book. I thought the arguments were put across very well, but I had heard all the points before and found reading over 400 pages of them a bit tedious.

This is a book for literature lovers and I’m sure the dream of owning a perfect bookshop will resonate with a lot of people, but although I found some aspects of the literature debate interesting I thought this book was too long for its weak plot.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

While acknowledging that it is highly flawed…I also have to acknowledge that Cossé created a very appealing nook for a book lover to read in for a while. Nonsuch Book

….an engaging read which held my interest, despite the basic implausibility of the story…. A Common Reader 

…it makes me think about what reading means to me, what novels mean to me, what writing means to me. Of Books and Reading

1990s Books in Translation Novella

Breathing Underwater – Marie Darrieussecq

Breathing Underwater Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Five words from the blurb: coast, daughter, clues, looking, mistake

Last year I was amazed by the power of the novel, Beside the Sea, and so asked for recommendations of books with a similar level of impact. Breathing Underwater was suggested as a book that not only shared the themes of Beside the Sea, but also the power. I found it interesting to compare the two novellas and I think this pair would make an interesting combination for those studying differences in writing style.

Breathing Underwater follows a woman who walks out on her husband and then takes her daughter to the seaside. Her husband hires a private detective to track them down, but this isn’t a fast-paced chase. The events are very slow, with each scene intricately described.

She leaves the child on top of the dune. She feels something like relief, a pause; the intuition that she can leave her there, absorbed by the sea, eyes straining from their sockets; in the redundancy of the fishing poles, sinkers, floats, and even the buckets and shovels. She won’t rush down to the beach straight away, she won’t run off to drown in the waves; unlike logs blazing in fireplaces or outdoor bonfires, the sea does not make itself our friend, it doesn’t crackle within arm’s reach: you look at it for a long time before it dawns on you that you can touch it.

The book had very little plot and I often found that the surroundings were so well described that I forgot what was happening.

The reader is a casual observer of events, never quite understanding what will happen next or the reasons for the actions. This was a problem for me as it meant that I felt no emotional connection to the characters. The multiple narrators in this short book increased this sense of detachment.

If you enjoy slow, thoughtful narratives then I’m sure you’ll love this book, but I’m afraid the writing was too flowery for me and I don’t think it came close to matching the emotional power of Beside the Sea.


2011 Books in Translation

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

The Last Brother  Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan

Five words from the blurb: boy, friends, island, prison, Jewish

The Last Brother caught my attention earlier this year when several of my favourite bloggers started to rave about it. I’m really pleased that I acted on their recommendations as this is a fantastic little book that deserves a wider audience.

This short book is very hard to review without giving spoilers and so if you are sensitive to them I suggest that you avoid reading all reviews and dive straight in. The blurb on the back of the book also explains the entire plot so I recommend that you avoid that too.

The Last Brother is set on the island of Mauritius and tells the story of Raj, a nine year-old boy, who has had a difficult childhood. His abusive father gets a job as a prison warder and this leads Raj to discover that WWII is being fought on the other side of the world and Jewish exiles are being shipped and detained on his island.

Now that I knew who was hidden there within the darknes of the pathways, knew the walls that towered around them, heard the sound of the grass beneath their feet, heard their singing in the evening, I viewed them with great sadness…

I had no idea that Jews were imprisoned on Mauritius during WWII so it was good to be educated about this lesser known piece of history.

The book was beautifully written; the prose simple, but engaging. I quickly connected with Raj and felt enormous sympathy for his situation. In many ways this book reminded me of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but with a more realistic plot.

I liked the way the book was narrated by a 70 year-old Raj. This allowed an adult perspective to be given, whilst still allowing the childhood innocence to shine through.

My only criticism is that the book was very predictable.  I knew exactly what was going to happen from the beginning and I’d have liked a few extra snippets of information to add to the impact of the inevitable ending.

Overall this is a quick, easy read with an emotional undercurrent. Recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a powerful novel that packs a huge emotional punch. Devourer of Books

…a haunting novel which has been beautifully translated from the French. Caribousmom

It’s a beautiful treatise on the need for love and the scars inflicted by loss. S. Krishna’s Books

2010 Books in Translation Richard and Judy Book Club YA

No and Me – Delphine de Vigan

 Richard and Judy 2010 Winter Read

Translated from the French by George Miller

No and Me is a simple story about a 13-year-old girl who has an intelligence that isolates her from her peers. Difficulties at home make her life even harder, but everything changes when she befriends No, a homeless girl a few years older than her.

The book is very quick to read and contains a nice, heartwarming story, but I found it too straightforward to satisfy me. It felt like a children’s book and the teenage protagonist emphasised this classification.

Several serious issues were raised, but although it contained some emotional scenes I thought the book lacked subtlety. Everything was explained in easy to understand terms – perfect you teenagers, but a little patronising for intelligent adults.

Before I met No I thought that violence meant shouting and hitting and war and blood. Now I know that there can also be violence in silence and that it’s sometimes invisible to the naked eye. There’s violence in the time that conceals wounds, the relentless succession of days, the impossibility of turning back the clock. Violence is what escapes us. It’s silent and hidden. Violence is what remains inexplicable, what stays forever opaque.

I also thought that some of the story line was a bit far fetched, or at the very least over simplified. I don’t want to give anything away (although you can probably guess what happens!) but I have serious doubts about whether the events in this book could happen in real life, especially in the given time frame.

If you are interested in books about teenagers coming to terms with difficult situations then I recommend that you read Luke and Jon instead. The writing quality is far higher and I guarantee that you’ll find it more emotional.

Recommended to those who like simple, sentimental books.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

…its simplicity is part of its charm. Lovely Treez Reads

Beautifully written, touching and original…. Steph Bowe

No and Me is a very powerful book and I think that it is perfect for young adult readers…. Dot Scribbles


Hector and the Search for Happiness – Francois Lelord

 Translated from the French by Lorenza Garcia

Hector and the Search for Happiness is a short, quirky book about one man’s search for happiness.

Hector is a young psychiatrist who decides to travel around the world finding out what makes people in other countries happy. As he learns about their feelings he makes notes, developing a set of rules which he uses to find happiness within himself.

The writing was very simple, almost child-like and the entire book can be read very quickly. 

I think my main problem with this book was that it wasn’t really a novel. It had much more in common with a self-help guide, a type of book that I avoid. Perhaps I’m just lucky enough to already know that the secret of happiness relies on strong relationships and not material wealth, but I felt I gained nothing from reading this book.

I found the lessons to be patronising and there were several points when I wanted to throw this book across the room.

Lesson no. 12: It is harder to be happy in a country run by bad people.

and possibly even more annoying:

Lesson no. 22: Women care more than men about making others happy. 

I think this book will appeal to fans of Mitch Albom and self-help guides, but I found it to be overly sentimental.

It seems as though I’m the only one that didn’t enjoy it….

It was very sweet and I think it had a number of good lessons in it. Medieval Bookworm

 ….has a genuine edge to it, with on-the-button observations about human beings and the way they think and behave. Vulpes Libris

…. it is warm and insightful, and it cleverly avoids the pitfalls of silliness and sentimentality. Fleur Fisher Reads

Did you enjoy Hector and the Search for Happiness?