2015 Books in Translation Novella Recommended books

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

 Source: Library

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Shortlisted for 2016 MAN Booker International Prize

Five words from the blurb: mountain, valley, change, solitude, great

A Whole Life is only 150 pages long, but it contains a beautiful, perfectly formed, story about the life of one man.

Andreas Egger lives in a remote mountain valley. One day his life is changed by the arrival of a company planning to build a cable car up the slopes. The book shows how this simple change slowly alters the feel of the valley, bringing tourists and skiers into this once peaceful place.

The writing in this book was outstanding and I frequently found myself noting down passages:

He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long-buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.

Andreas Egger was described in such a vivid way that I felt I knew him. I understood his fears and felt a deep compassion whenever he was faced with difficulty.

This book also manages to encapsulate the history of the region. We see the introduction of paved roads, cars and hotels – and also the impact of war. It’s amazing how much has been included in this book without it ever feeling cluttered – it takes immense skill to create such a slow, but rich piece of the writing.

In fact, I can’t find fault with anything in this little book. It is perfection in novella form!



2009 Books in Translation

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics) Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Five words from the blurb: ordinary, German, postcards, attacking, Hitler

Alone in Berlin begins in 1940 with a couple discovering that their only son has been killed fighting in France. Devastated by the news, the couple decide to drop postcards which attack Hitler across the city. This act of resistance is extremely dangerous and the couple risk their lives every time they step out of their apartment with a new piece of propaganda.

Alone in Berlin reads like a classic – the writing was simple, but had an effortless style:

It doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not.

The pace was excellent in the beginning, but as the book progressed it began to flag a bit. I think this was mainly due to the inevitability of the conclusion (or possibly because this 600 page book was written in just 24 days and could have done with a bit more editing!)

The book did a fantastic job of showing what life was like for ordinary Germans living in Berlin. The difficulties and fear they faced were shown without sensationalism. Each character was well drawn and I loved the flawed nature of their personalities.

I want to criticise the book for its unlikely coincidences, but on reading the afterword I discovered that it is heavily based on fact. This makes the story more poignant, but also more frustrating. Warning, minor spoiler: Their tiny act of resistance put many people in danger, but failed to achieve anything. I prefer to read about people who make a real difference in the world and this couple just seemed to bumble around without having any real impact.

My only real criticism is that the book lacked atmosphere. There weren’t many descriptive passages and there was an emotional distance between the characters and the reader. Luckily I know enough about Berlin to be able to conjure up my own mental images of the city, but I’d prefer to have these reinforced by the text.

Overall this book has many positives, but seems to fall down the more you think about it. Recommended to those who’d like to know more about life in Berlin during WWII, but prefer gentler reads. 


The thoughts of other bloggers:

… this book is beautiful, a quiet book of common decency...The Parrish Lantern

…the momentum of this novel, which is divided into four chunks, is lost in the big baggy structure of it. Reading Matters

 …the novel brings to life superbly drawn characters… Euro Crime

I read this as part of German Literature Month – take a look for lots of great reading suggestions!



The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach

The Carpet Makers (Orson Scott Card Present's) Translated from the German by Doryl Jensen

Five words from the blurb: knots, hair, Emperor, lifetime, belief

The Carpet Makers is a science fiction story that contains enough elements to entertain everyone, including those who don’t normally enjoy the genre. It begins on a planet where the people have spent thousands of years weaving intricate carpets for the Emperor’s Palace. Each carpet takes a lifetime to create and is made from the hair of the artist’s wives and daughters. The people live happily until one day strangers arrive, claiming that the Emperor has died and there is no longer a need for their carpets.

I loved the first chapter of this book! The introduction (written by Orson Scott Card of Ender’s Game fame) explains that it originally began as a short story and was only expanded into a novel at a later date. I think this shows. The first chapter was the best part of the book by a long way. The rest felt disjointed, like a series of short stories that often had little relevance to the book as a whole. Only one other chapter (the one with the Emperor) really impressed me:

“You mortals are fortunate,” the Emperor said slowly. “You don’t live long enough to discover that everything is vain and that life has no purpose. Why do you think I’ve done all this…have gone to all this effort?

The text was easy to read and contained many glimpses of brilliance, but I was often confused about what was happening. New characters were continually introduced and it was only towards the end of the book that everything came together and I understood the purpose of the story.

But, despite my reservations, I was impressed by many elements of this book. The concept was original and the moral messages were thought provoking. I particularly liked the discussion about society’s need to believe in something greater than itself. It wasn’t perfect, but I’m very glad I read it and would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different.




2013 Crime Uncategorized

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Snow White Must Die Translated from the German by Steven T Murray

Five words from the blurb: girls, vanished, convicted, mystery, solved

Snow White Must Die is set in a small village near Frankfurt. Eleven years ago two teenage girls disappeared and 20-year-old Tobias was convicted of their murder, despite a lack of real evidence. After serving time in prison he returns to the family home, but the tight-knit community are upset by his release and begin a series of attacks on his family. Then another girl goes missing and Tobias becomes the prime suspect. The police and local residents soon realise that certain aspects of the case don’t add up and do everything possible to discover the truth, before things deteriorate further.

Snow White Must Die is a long book with plenty of twists and turns. The narrative complexity and the strong character development reminded me of Tana French and I’m sure that anyone who enjoyed In The Woods will appreciate this one.

Some aspects of the plot didn’t feel entirely realistic, but that can be forgiven in this genre. It had a compelling plot and managed to hold my attention throughout –  I especially liked the way the conclusion can be guessed if the reader pays attention to the clues sprinkled through the text.

At one point in the book I was disappointed by the portrayal of a character with autism and was planning a big rant in this post, but without spoiling anything I’ll just say that this was rectified in the end!

I read this book for German Literature Month but it didn’t feel very German. I’m not sure if this is a positive or a negative and I guess that depends on what you are looking for. It could have been set in any Western country and this universal nature means it will have broad appeal, but I felt it lacked a sense of place. I’d have liked to see more German culture in the book, but I’m probably in the minority.

Overall this was a solidly good piece of crime fiction. Nothing about it particularly stands out, but it was an enjoyable diversion while it lasted.


Post Reading Note: After finishing the book I discovered that Snow White Must Die isn’t the first book in the series, but it is the first to be translated into English. I never normally read books out of sequence, but when reading this one I didn’t feel as though I was missing anything. In fact the police played a fairly minimal role in this book, with the main emphasis being on Tobias and the residents of the village. I’d be interested to read other books in the series and see if this improves my relationship with the Detectives.

Books in Translation

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

The Mussel Feast Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

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

Beside the Sea is one of my favourite books, but I’ve had less success with other Peirene releases. A few weeks ago Meike, the founder of Peirene Press, assured me that The Mussel Feast would be to my taste, so I decided to accept a review copy. She was right – this is a fantastic book and the ending is particularly good.

The Mussel Feast is a 112 page monologue narrated by a daughter as she waits for her father to return home for dinner. The father is expected to receive a promotion so the family cooks a large pot of mussels to celebrate.  A wonderful sense of foreboding mounts as the father is increasingly late; mirroring Beside the Sea in the way an ordinary situation slowly becomes unbearably tense.

She opened the wine and we felt terribly insubordinate. We sat around the dead mussels as if part of some conspiracy and drank father’s second best wine without him, gradually realizing that the mood had been spoiled for all of us.

The book is set in Germany and was written shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The repressed state that they live in is revealed over the course of the book, perfectly capturing what life is like for a family living under the power of a tyrannical father.

The writing was gripping, despite the meandering narrative, and the lack of chapter/page breaks encourages the reader to complete the book in a single sitting, giving the book maximum impact. 

This is a wonderful little book and I’m sure that a second reading would reveal even more depth. Recommended to anyone interested in thought-provoking international literature. 


The thoughts of other bloggers:

For a book so troubled in tone, I found it to be funny and inventive, and with surprising flashes of relatability to familiar aspects of family life… Tolstoy is My Cat

The style is curiously hypnotic… Book Word

…a work which is surprisingly powerful and layered for its size. Tony’s Reading List

1980s Books in Translation

The Cow by Beat Sterchi

The Cow Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Five words from the blurb: cow, relationship, man, abattoir, village

I was drawn towards The Cow because it is set in a small Swiss farming village at a time when Swiss mountain dogs were used to herd cattle and pull milk carts. As the owner of a Bernese mountain dog I was keen to learn more about their working life on the alpine slopes and was rewarded with some wonderful scenes of dogs working with cattle.

The book begins with Ambrosio, a Spanish man, arriving in the Swiss highlands in order to work for farmer Knuchel. The rest of the local farms are busy installing milking machines, but Knuchel is determined to avoid modernisation and stick to traditional methods. The book captured the time when life on these farms changed and by alternating modern scenes with ones from the past it was possible to see exactly what has been lost.

All the cows are named and some scenes are written from their perspective. It was unusual, but it worked really well and I came to know the cows; understanding their personalities and feeling their fears.

The only real negative was that this book contains horrific scenes from an abattoir and I have to admit that some sections were too disturbing for me. This is an example from the start of a scene – I think you can imagine how it progresses to become deeply disturbing:

The cow lifts her head. All wobbles and trembles: she pulls her weight on to her front feet. She’s trying to get up.
With nostrils dripping red, she trumpets through the slaughterhouse. She sits there and rolls her head round to the right, the left, the right again. I retreat……I close my eyes, with my back to the wall, I slip down into a crouch, and try not to think any more.

These scenes had more impact because they were surrounded by tranquil images of the cows enjoying life on the Alpine pastures, each with their own individual cow bell. Some of the abattoir descriptions were necessary to convey the issues, but there were too many for my taste.

Some reviews have suggested that this book will turn the reader into a vegetarian, but I found it simply encouraged the responsible sourcing of meat. Modern mass production of food is displayed in all its ugly glory and this book left me craving a time when all the animals were known as individuals, treated with love and respect, and never knew fear.

This is a disturbing book, but it carries an important message. Recommended to those with a strong stomach.

For more German language recommendations take a look at German literature month organised by Lizzy and Caroline.