I suppose this is the second of my “resolutions” for 2014, though I dislike using that term as they often feel a little too strict. Over the last couple of months my interest has been increasing for translated fiction. Predominately because of Stu’s excellent blog, but also because I am aware that I often push these to one side to focus on Anglo-American releases that are so often talked about. The realms of translated fiction are often hidden away in the news from the industry; it is hard to keep up with the new releases and the authors because of the sheer number of them. Without people like Stu in my Twitter timeline and on my RSS reader, many great titles would slip past me.
With that in mind, I want to include more translated titles in my reading time. As with my experimentation post, I have the material here (subscriptions to Peirene Press, And Other Stories) I have stacks of translated fiction on my Kindle, too. I hope to familiarise myself with more cultures and countries through many publishers that are entirely new to me. Another idea to boost this hunger for translated novels is to concentrate on one country with others in the background.
I have always had a passion for Italy (sadly, I still haven’t managed to visit the country, though) and their art and culture. I try to keep a sense of what occurs there and how life is lived. Every nuance of their culture is a fascination for me, from food to film or art to literature. I won’t call this “a project” as they don’t always go well, what with the ups and downs in life and also the strict sense of reading one per month or whatever is too forced. I end up avoiding the books even more.
I have started buying up some Italian fiction and also some other novels in translation, but I need lots of recommendations. I’m turning to you lovely people to give some shout outs to your favourite translated books and please let me know if there are any specific Italian novels I should be hunting for.
2013 is soon drawing to a close and this means that several things are occurring on blogs around the world. ‘Best of’ lists are already doing the rounds and it’s lovely to see everyone’s choices, though from looking reflectively at the industry, this year has been a little unexciting in terms of fiction. Most lists have similar titles in them and I’m struggling to find any books to add to my wishlist that I was unaware of. Feel free to link me to a few that contain some obscure choices, please!
Next up will be the inevitable New Year Resolutions posts. This year I don’t have any overall resolutions, but I do have a few ideas that I want to incorporate into my reading habits. This year I didn’t read as much as I usually would for various reasons but mainly due to poor time organisation (though this is improving). So, my main hope for next year is to read a little more by squeezing in time where I wouldn’t usually.
I have two other aims for 2014 and one of those will be blogged very soon. For today, I want to focus on one of these aims and that is to read with more experimentation. By this I mean to explore and incorporate things such as short fiction, essays, letters and poetry into my reading diet, rather than tacking them on as a side thought. With subscriptions to Granta, The Paris Review, The Letters Page and many others, I have the material here to read, but they often languish on the shelves (be they physical or digital) while I escape into yet another novel. They are often pushed to the bottom of the pile for some obscure reason and I want to change that in 2014.
So, I have searched through my shelves and found plenty of books that are now sorted into piles and placed with a little more pride. These will hopefully draw my eye a little more and with a renewed sense of organisation I will try to fit in a short story or a handful of poems in those snatches of time between parenting, study, work and other hobbies.
In an entirely unrelated note, if someone has cracked the magic behind the time turner or the technology behind time travel, I would be very interested in hearing their findings.
I was going to wait a while before writing this post, but as I am currently reading my final 2013 book and moving onto 2014 releases for work, now seems like an ideal opportunity. Also, doing it a little early may allow for some inspiration for Christmas presents. 2013 has been a good year for fiction, though this year I didn’t read as much as in 2012, nor did I read that many obscure titles. In fact, the list below is a little predictable. Regardless, these are my ten favourite books (loosely listed – no hard and fast positions – with my book of the year at the bottom!) from this year.
I didn’t get to read as much Science fiction this year as I would have liked, but the latest novel from Stephen Baxter ticked all of my boxes and then some. Mixing a first contact premise with humanity spreading its reach, Proxima contains plenty of mystery, excitement and beauty. Baxter writes with his usual skill to create a cast that is entirely fresh while holding a familiarity that allows the reader to relate to the aspects of humanity and exploration.
It has only just occurred to me that while I have raved about this subtle and poignant Japanese novel on Twitter, I completely forgot to write about it on the blog. As with any wonderful Japanese fiction, Strange Weather in Tokyo feels as if created from clean lines and the spaces between words. A short and punchy novel that dabbles in mystique and romance while dealing with the relationships between two loners meeting after years apart. There’s also some magical realism sprinkled within the pages that adds a sense of flair.
There has already been so many words written about this funny, acerbic and sharp novel that is told through letters and emails. I’m not sure I need to repeat what others have said but if there is one novel that I have bought for many people and sung so many praises, this is it. Maria Semple writes comedy with such ease that the laughter spills from the reader with as much simple ease. Funny, moving, intelligent and a genuine surprise that came from nowhere and impresses from start to finish.
Royle has sculpted a work that is as readable as it is subversive. What opens as a piece about a man who teaches creative writing and keeps a few obsessions turns into a sprawling tale of mistakes. Tumultuous is a word that comes to mind here. The pacing and tone of the novel is riotous and chaotic but thankfully one never feels disorientated. It is in parts gripping and repulsive, but most of all it’s a read that will linger and you will recommend. Royle’s writing is a joy, even in its darkest moments.
The first fifty pages of The Machine was hard work. It is a slow opening that requires a lot from the reader. At the root of this tale is a love story that is riddled with emotion and the macabre. James shows how far one would go to rebuild a love lost. To be honest, the entire feel of the novel has a tense and overbearing aspect to it, James is vague about the plot and he lets it unfold organically as the pages turn. After a few days the memories of The Machine were burning and I found myself pondering certain aspects of it. It is only then when I realised that this is James’ best book yet.
As with the previous books, Benediction took me through a range of emotions because of the skill with which Haruf writes. The author has the power to use pensive sentences to hollow out your heart and fill it with memorable characters. By using such sparse language the emotion seeps out of the page more effectively. The book has a bittersweet tinge to it, in that Haruf will never allow his cast to rise above their issues and solve all their ills. Kent Haruf is a true master at his craft.
This translated novel has been steadily kicking and thrashing in the undercurrents of the literary world and by God it was worth the wait. At its core, this is a story of family and also of good and evil. There are moments of pure fantasy where the book steps into more speculative areas but still holds a solidity to bind you to the goings-on. It’s easy nowadays to throw the word masterpiece at something purely for good story and prose, but Pig’s Foot deserves this outlandish accolade as it ticks every box of what a modern classic should contain.
This brilliant novel explores many different themes; philosophy, Buddhism, Japanese culture, depression. Ruth handles each of these with a light and poetic touch, yet digs deep to an emotional core that leaves the reader reeling. The story flits between varying perspectives but never becomes overly complex. Each point of view enhances the others in a way that elevates the story and also a connection to the cast. Ruth’s use of language is bewitching and absorbing; it transports the audience to the back alleys of Tokyo and the coastal waters of Canada with ease. Magnificent through every page.
Haig’s characters leap out of the page and into your heart, whether they be the confident physicist or the brooding teen. Each word flows so effortlessly, it is made to look so simple. While this story is immensely entertaining, it is the undercurrent that is the most important. It is what is in the spaces between the words that is most important, here. This is Matt’s ‘fuck you’ to depression and the blackness of life. The Humans is a romantic look at people, at what builds us and what we have achieved. This can be seen in the wistful glances of poetry and music. If you took out all of the narrative aspects, The Humans could be seen as a collection of essays from a man pondering his own existence.
Wyld uses interweaving narratives to reveal the horrific history behind Jake Whyte. Jake is a sheep farmer who is running away from her past in Australia – told in alternate chapters beginning at the end of her story and working backwards. As a huge fan of broken people in sombre situations, Wyld has become a favourite of mine. At times shocking and saddening, in turns, beautiful and spellbinding, Wyld is a future master flexing her muscles. Evie is one of Britain’s best writers who uses language in such a stunning way that I was left breathless often. The beauty of this novel is in the way that the writing and plot entwine. Evie Wyld is ridiculously good, stunning, imaginative, subtle and every other superlative I can think of.
This all started some time ago, when Jackie from Farmlane books tweeted a link to a piece on Flavorwire listing the “Top 50 incredibly tough books for extreme readers“. This of course spawned plenty of conversation as to what people have read off of the list and what they might want to attempt. While chatting to Jackie, Rob (from Adventures with Words) and BookLovingGirl, we… for some reason… decided to all read Underworld by Don DeLillo together. The idea was to start within a couple of weeks, but as Jackie noticed, today is DeLillo’s birthday, so there is no better time to get started.
Underworld is a notoriously difficult book to read and takes plenty of time to get through. Between the four of us we’ve decided to start off reading 30 pages per week (this may or may not increase) so we can allow for plenty of other books to be read.
If you would like to join in, please feel free to do so, whether you have read it before or not. 30 pages a week isn’t much really and when we all get to the end a discussion can begin as to whether it really is one of the great American novels and whether it was even worth our time. Do let us know if you are going to join us.
The remarkable thing about Jesmyn Ward’s memoir is that her story isn’t a rare occurrence. Every day black people in so many countries still suffer the fate of becoming a low class to the white people around them – the ones who rule the economy, the job markets and the future of generations to come. When Jesmyn tells the story of a young black man dying, she is painting a picture that many want to turn away from. Some people want to brush the failures of our social systems under the rug whether they are directly to blame or just feeling guilty. Men We Reaped aims directly at the heart of a problem that existed, and still does, within the southern states of America.
Throughout this short and emotionally driven book, Jesmyn tells of her life growing up in Mississippi and of several men around her who died, including her younger brother Joshua. By telling their stories she highlights the struggle that black people face every day. Her stories are full of poverty, broken families and drugs but she unveils her personal knowledge as to why so many young black people suffer these fates. These are the stories that echo through the trailer walls or that are exchanged in the smokey backseats of cars. Tales of real struggles, but also, strength and the beauty of family.
Jesmyn doesn’t paint a bias picture or one dominated by the masculine presence in her memories. Amongst the upsetting tellings of people dying and taking drugs, there are moments of chest bursting pride at how hard her mother worked to ensure her children were fed. There are memories or her aunts and sisters that inspire misty moments of a family love that others would fight bitterly for. Even though Jesmyn at times voices her opinion that a black life is seen as having no value, she adds her own values in the loyalty and pride that her community had. This isn’t an uplifting book, it is sad and depressing to know that humans – people – have lived through these situations. This is made worse knowing that it still occurs each day.
Each sentence is propelled by passion and realised within stunning sentences that capture a moment in time like a photograph. But these pictures come with all of the authors emotions bleeding through the words. Men We Reaped is an incredibly important memoir that not only touches on economic predicaments, but also must take into account the voracious and casual aspects of racism. There are plenty of standout moments where racism is depicted, but the one that struck me the most was the casual use of racist terms that Jesmyn faced in her school life. The seemingly offhand way a classmate of hers would sling an offensive word at her highlights a sinister presence that could easily oppress another human being.
At times I found passages very hard to read through the brimming anger within me or the upset that burned my eyes. In others, this darkness was balanced with humour that showed the strong bonds of friends and family. Jesmyn Ward deserves many accolades and praise for the courage it took to write this poignant and powerful memoir. I am yet to read any of her fiction and must now seek out all of her writing just to revel in the words and sense of environment she creates.
There was a moment around 175 pages in when I lulled in the plot of Essie Fox’s latest Victorian drama. I was becoming weighed down by intricate details and a story that was excruciatingly slow at moments. However, and this bit is important, that feeling passed within 30 more pages as I began to fully appreciate the work that had gone into creating such a plot. One that causes plenty of emotional reactions to the actions of the cast.
I’m not generally used to plodding along through such dramatic and ponderous plots and revelling in the minutiae of an authors imagination. Particularly when the author uses such authentic language. Once I set my mind to the fact this would be very different to many of my recent reads, I began to connect with the novel in a very passionate way. Most notably through bluster and rage at the actions of certain characters.
Alice was born in the oppressive heat of India during the late 1800′s. After her mother died in childbirth and several years later her father passes away, Alice is sent to live with her malicious aunt Mercy. Here, the story takes on the feel of a traditional fairytale as aunt Mercy begins to mistreat Alice and scheme a life in which she will benefit greatly from Alice’s misery. There were many times throughout that I want to scream and holler at this despicable human because of her actions. Essie has created her own version of the archetypal ‘stepmother’ and this is made worse by the man that Alice soon meets through her aunt.
What follows is a tale of woe and heartbreak, one that causes those sparks of anger in a reader and heightens the bond created between the audience and the heroine. Alice is a wonderfully naive teenage girl living in a time where women mattered little in society. She is treated with disdain and betrayed in every possible instance until she feels that she may be losing her mind. Despite her first person narration, we see what she cannot and she confides her trust in us. Essie has done a great job of creating a connection to her readers that feels fragile.
Some may, like myself, find the novel a little restricting in places. While Essie’s words are often strong and her details beatifically complex, they can sometimes be overwhelming. However, a fan of Victorian fiction would likely roll their eyes at my opinion here. There is no doubting the talent on display, not just in character construction or writing, but the plot itself is wonderfully worked with plenty of bumps in the road that arrive in the form of twists and turns. There are plenty of unexpected moments where Essie asks you to shrug off your conventions of common sense and open your imagination to exquisite moments of sleight of hand.
Books like this make me glad I no longer use star ratings and ask you to read my thoughts. Any fault mentioned here most likely rests with me and my inexperience of such novels. When I look past my own issues, all I can see is a cracking story populated with mystery and surreal characters that genuinely excites.
Wikipedia states ” Sark is a small island in the Channel Islands in southwestern English Channel, off the French coast of Normandy.” This brings to mind bright summer days and afternoons whiled away on the coastal beaches. You only have to glance through images online to see a majestic beauty that sparks with whimsy and nostalgia. To be honest, it’s hard to capture such an atmosphere and environment in words. That is exactly what debut author Rosa Rankin-Gee has achieved and that setting is the perfect backdrop for this subtle story of unlikely love and friendship.
Jude is a wonderfully complex central point in the main cast of three. She journeys to Sark one summer to tutor Pip, though they are both in their late teens and Pip doesn’t need any tutelage. Joining this duo is the cook and general dogsbody of Pip’s family, Sofi. The three enjoy the wistful summer, drinking, smoking and flirting that appears heady and hazy to the reader. The author has created a romantic setting fuelled by the idea of promiscuity – giving the reader a sense of voyeurism.
This is encapsulated in the attitudes between the cast. Jude has been forced into rooming with Sofi which opens her eyes to a freer lifestyle; one of sleeping topless, swimming naked and ditching work to explore nature… And each other. Throughout the first two thirds of the novel a love story is teased, as is a potential lifelong friendship. Discussions arise of journeys to Paris, which sets up a slightly muddled and tumultuous finale. Sadly, this final section doesn’t love up to the preceding prose or story. That’s not to say it’s bad, but the sensation stirred within the reader at first becomes lost.
What makes this a stand out debut are the descriptions of Sark itself and the dialogue that occurs between the cast. It all feels so familiar and natural. Teasing and banter are rife fuelling many laugh out loud moments as well as some poignant instances that bring about a readers head tilt of sympathy or admiration. I felt drawn in and a part of the ‘moments’ in these people’s lives. Once the book closed there was a void where Jude, Sofi and Pip had existed. Rankin-Gee fully encapsulates that feeling of sadness that accompanies the end of summer, as you head back to school or university.
Ultimately, this is a book that pulls the emotions from your past and lays them out as a backdrop for awkward teenagers as they attempt to find themselves. The scorching heat of the blinding skies comes across and mingles with sexual tension that drives the plot and mood of this great novel.