Category Archives: Sample Saturday

Sample Saturday: Translated fiction

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books that made their way onto my TBR shelves from Japan, Peru and Iceland.

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

I’ve had mixed experiences with novels by South American authors. I loved The Armies by Colombian author Evelio Rosero Diago but struggled with his countryman, Gabriel García Márquez. Dom Casmurro by the exotically-named Brazilian author Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis was a hoot but Isabelle Allende didn’t knock my socks off.

I’ve never read any Peruvian authors however, which is how I came to own The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s the sixteenth novel written by this past winner of the Novel Prize in Literature and is described as “engaging tale of two men who find themselves under threat.”

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

The Discreet Hero follows two honourable rebels: a small businessman who finds himself the victim of blackmail; and the successful owner of an insurance company who plans to avenge himself against the two lazy sons who want him dead so they can claim their inheritance. With the love and support of the women in their lives, these two men are willing to risk everything to try and seize control of their destinies. ..

I’ve read a few pages from the beginning of the book which begins with the arrival of the blackmail threat. It’s written in a very fluid style and since the synopsis sounds interesting, I’m planning to keep this one.

The Verdict: Keep

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

When I took this book off the shelves I discovered inside, the delivery note which tells me that I bought it in 2015. I have no idea why i wanted it but it may have been that I saw the author’s name on another blog site.

Immediately I see a problem: the back cover tells me that this is the second in a trilogy. Did I not know that when I bought the book or did I know it but was given to understand you didn’t have to have read book one in order to enjoy book two??

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

As the villagers gather in the inn to drink schnapps and coffee with the boy reads to them, Jens the postman stumbles in half dead, having almost frozen to his horse. On his next journey to the wide, open fjords he is accompanied by the boy. Both will risk their lives for each other, and for an unusual delivery.

So that sounds like a stand alone story. But a review in The Independent makes it clear that the trilogy follows the boy’s life. In book one he survives a fishing trip that led to his friend’s death, book two takes him on perilous expedition “that in its elemental terrors and existential challenges recalls a Nordic version of one of Cormac McCarthy’s journeys. ” It seems futile just to dive in with book 2 and thus missing out on some formative elements in the boy’s character. I could, of course, buy part one but the association with McCarthy was the deciding factor – if Stefansson’s book is anything like The Road, I know it will not be to my taste.

The Verdict: Abandon

The Decay of The Angel by Yukio Mishima

Another balls-up on my part. The Decay of The Angel is the final part of The Sea of Fertility tetralogy and I’ve not read, nor do I own, the first three books.

I must have been half asleep when I bought this book because it quite clearly says on the cover that it’s the final part of the tetralogy. They are all connected via the central character of Shigekuni Honda, who is a law student in book one (Spring Snow) and a wealthy retired judge in The Decay of the Angel. Each of the novels depicts what Honda comes to believe are successive reincarnations of his schoolfriend and his attempts to save them from the early deaths to which they seem to be condemned by karma.

I can’t see any value in reading just this book but the question is whether I want to read all the earlier ones too? Has anyone read this tetralogy and can give me a view? I’ve seen it described variously as “mesmerising” and emotionally and intellectually limited,

The Verdict: Awaiting Opinions

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves this week. Maybe two depending on your insight about the Yukio Mishima.

Sample Saturday: Bargain Shop Buys

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that I bought in charity shops or bargain book shops. They still all bear their price stickers…..

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru

I bought this in a discount book shop in Michigan during one of my frequent work trips. I knew the name of Hari Kunzru as one of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” , chosen in the same year the accolade was awarded to Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. When I saw this priced at $2 it seemed too good to miss the opportunity to experience a “new British talent”.

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

Chris Carver is living a lie. His wife, their teenage daughter and everyone in their circle know him as Michael Frame, suburban dad. They have no idea that as a radical student in the sixties he briefly became a terrorist – protestin the Vietnam War by setting bombs around London. And then one day a ghost from his past turns up on his doorstep, forcing Chris on the run …

I’ve read a few pages from the beginning of the book which takes place on Chris/Michael’s 50th birthday. While his family are out collecting stuff for his party, he hurriedly packs his clothes and passport and drives off in his car. Clearly the narrative is going to wind back to a surprise encounter with a person from his past.

I notice from the author’s explanation that the book is loosely based on some revolutionary underground movements active in London in the 1970s. It’s a topic I don’t know much about but I’m interested enough to keep this on the shelves.

The Verdict: Keep

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A charity shop purchase made the year after I read (and loved) her novel Bel Canto (the link takes you to my review). I don’t know anything about the book other than it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012.

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever. But Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery – especially from her investors. When Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher is sent to investigate, a curt letter reporting his death is all that returns. Now Marina Singh, Anders’s colleague and former student of Dr Swenson, must retrace her friends perilous steps and uncover the secrets hidden among the remotest tribes of the rainforest.

It sounds promising; I’m drawn by the idea of a quest and the culture clash in the rainforest. I just hope that anacondas don’t make much of an appearance since I have an aversion to snakes…

The Verdict: Keep

Bad Dirt by Annie Proux

The cheapest book of the three, it’s also the one where I’m struggling to understand why I wanted to add it to my bookshelves. I’ve only ever read The Shipping News by her and while I enjoyed it at the time, it didn’t leave me feeling I was keen to read anything else she has written.

It’s a book apparently set in a community in Wyoming, where she has made her home. I clearly bought it thinking it was a novel but it wasn’t until the very end of the back cover blurb that I now see its a collection of short stories.

They are about a set of characters who live in “an isolated expanse of wasters and dreamers where the inhabitants say there’s no place like home. Where men grow bears competitively and where Bible classes wonder ‘What kind of furniture would Jesus pick?”

It sounds as if it could too easily veer towards caricature for my taste. Plus, since I am not a fan of short stories at all, I know it not one for me. I don’t feel too bad about letting this one go – it cost me all of £1.

The Verdict: Abandon

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves again this week. Thanks to everyone who weighed in last week on my question about whether to keep The Accidental by Ali Smith – you persuaded me to let it remain for now.

Sample Saturday: Literary Prize Contenders

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that were short or long-listed for some of the major literary prizes.

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

The Accidental by Ali Smith

This 2005 novel by the Scottish author Ali Smith was Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. It follows a middle-class English family whose holiday in a small Norfolk village is disrupted when Amber turns up on their doorstep claiming her car has broken down.  Her arrival has a profound effect on all the family members.

It’s written largely in stream-of-consciousness and free indirect style, with multiple narrators I think. The first is the family’s 12 year old daughter Astrid.

I’ve read a later novel by Ali Smith – How To Be Both – which I loved but I’m not sure about this one. Child narrators are such tricky things to get right – the few pages I’ve read of this novel make her seem quite precocious.

The Verdict: Undecided. I need your help to make a decision. Should I keep or let go?

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

If you like authors who can combine great storytelling with erudition, Umberto Eco is probably your man. He was a scholar of medieval studies and semiotics until he published one novel, The Name of The Rose, which propelled him into the world of best selling, intelligent fiction which a story of a series of murders in a late-medieval monastery. 

The Prague Cemetery is his sixth novel, published in 2010 and shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. It tells the story of a notorious antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – document which purported to describe a meeting in Prague during which Jewish leaders discussed their plans for world domination.

According to the back cover, The Daily Telegraph called this book “an extremely readable narrative of betrayal, terrorism, murder …” But I can’t find the full version of the review to see if that extract was a fair representation of what the reviewer thought of the book as a whole.

I did find The Guardian review which commented: “Once again, [Eco] includes a great deal of eclectic learning, organised (to a greater or lesser extent) around a potboiler plot.” That sounded pretty good but the reviewer then went on to call the book “a tiring plod.”

I don’t much care for books that are plodding so this is headed for the charity shop.

The Verdict: Ditch

Maps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

Nadeem Aslam is a British Pakistani novelist who won the Betty Trask Award with his first novel Season of the Rainbirds. Maps for Lost Lovers is his second novel and was shortlisted for  the International Dublin Literary Award and longlisted for the Booker Prize.

It’s is set in the midst of an immigrant Pakistani community in a northern English town where a pair of lovers disappear and are believed murdered. According to the blurb the novel “opens the heart of a family at the crossroads of culture, community, nationality and religion and exoresses their pain in a language that is arrestingly poetic.”

I’m tempted by this one. It’s the portrayal of the immigrant communities that have grown up in many parts of England, that is drawing me to this book. This is a world captured so memorably by Monica Ali in Brick Lane but I’ve yet to find anything set in a different part of the country.

The Verdict: Keep

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves. It’s not going to make any dent in the overall tally however because I’ve been on a buying spree in recent weeks. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??

Sample Saturday: Words From The East

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that are set in the East.

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

Of these three books, this is the one that has been on the shelves the longest.

I bought The Bookseller of Kabul in a charity shop thinking it was a true life account of a bookseller’s battle with political and religious opposition to books. My interest in the book waned when I discovered it is a fictionalised portrait. So I put it aside.

But looking at it again, and with the benefit of a little web research, I see that it’s written by a Norwegian journalist who stayed with an Afghan family in Kabul for several months after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Seierstad changed the family’s name to protect them from reprisals but otherwise made no attempt to paint the bookseller in a positive light.

According to The Guardian reviewer, Seierstad’s decision to tell it like it was, makes the book fascinating. Her portrayal of the way women are treated and the tyrannical manner in which the bookseller rules his family is “compulsive, repulsive and frightening.”

I’m thinking it could be worth reading but much will depend on the writing style.

The Verdict: Reprieve

The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

I love novels set in India but haven’t read much beyond the big names like Anita Desai , Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry. The Age of Shiva, the second novel by the mathematics professor Manil Suri, offered an opportunity to redress that situation.

The synopsis seemed promising. It’s set in India in 1955 when the country is five years into its status as an independent nation free from British rule. The central character is a 17 year old girl who falls in love, gets married and moves to Bombay. But it’s not the fairy-tale or passionate life she had imagined.

The novel imagines her life over the course of 25 years, flashing back to her childhood in what became Pakistan, and reflecting tumultuous events in the history of the new state of India.

I’ve read a few reviews which indicate the historical context is treated with a heavy hand – somewhat of an info dump. I’ve also dipped into a few pages and decided this isn’t one that will light my fire.

The Verdict: Set Free

Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt

According to the publisher’s blurb, Red Sorghum is “a legend in China … a book in which fable and history collide to produce fiction that is entirely new and unforgettable.”

There’s always a degree of hyperbole in those back cover blurbs. I’ll have to ask my former colleagues in China whether this book really is legendary. Maybe it is purely because the author is first ever Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Chinese government were quick to congratulate him though fellow authors have criticised him for failing to support writers who have been punished but the government.

As for fiction with new and unforgettable, the Swedish Academy (who manage the Nobel Prizes) head Peter Englund did say of his work: “He has such a damn unique way of writing. If you read half a page of Mo Yan you immediately recognize it as him”.

Red Sorghum is Mo Yan’s first novel. It spans three generations, telling a story of a family through a series of flashbacks as the Chinese battle both Japanese invaders and each other in the turbulent 1930s.

That historical period is what’s drawing me to this book. But I’m also conscious that the style will be challenging. One reviewer called it “exquisite and irritating”. because it’s very fragmented “close-packed with chronological displacements and curtailed actions. Rather like Salman Rusdie’s Midnight’s Children I suspect; a book I admired but found hard to enjoy.

The Verdict: Reprieve

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves. It’s not going to make any dent in the overall tally however because I’ve been on a buying spree in recent weeks. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??

Sample Saturday: 3 Doorstep Novels

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three of the chunkiest books on my TBR shelves. As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

A sticker on my copy of Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas tells me that I paid £2.50 for this in a charity shop. I have no idea why I wanted it because I’ve never read anything by hi; not even his much acclaimed novel The Slap. Maybe I was trying to expand my reading of Australian authors?

Tsiolkas’ novel is about the hopes and dreams of Danny Kelly, a 14-year-old working-class boy with an immense talent as a swimmer. He and his family sacrifice everything to help him become a golden boy in his sport and put him on a path to represent Australia in the Olympic Games. His selection would also silence the rich boys at the private school to which he won a scholarship. But the plan goes horribly wrong.

I’ve read about 20 pages of the book and it hasn’t wowed me. It feels two-dimensional and too much of a “this happened, then that happened” style. Can I take 510 pages of this especially when I’m not particularly enamoured of sports-based narratives? It feels like it would be a plod.

The Verdict: Set Free

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker Translated from French by Sam Taylor

This 614 page book by Swiss author was a huge it in Europe when it was published in 2014 though its reception in the United States was more muted. Some critics there thought it was cliched and lacklustre. The Guardian reviewer commented:

So many critics seem to have been knocked on their behinds by Dicker’s novel that I can’t be sure I’m not missing something in filing what you might call a minority report. They see a masterpiece; I see a completely ordinary, amiably cartoonish and well aerated page-turner that does nothing interesting in literary terms at all.

The novel is a thriller set in a coastal  town in New Hampshire where the young successful Marcus Goldman heads in search of inspiration for his next book. While staying with his college professor, Harry Quebert, the body of a 15-year-old girl is found on the property. She’d gone missing 33 years earlier. Quebert is accused of her murder, Marcus sets out to clear his old professor’s name and to uncover the truth. His publisher sniffs a good opportunity and offers a multimillion dollar advance for a book about Goldman’s investigation.

Do I want to read this? The story moves along quickly – by page 40 we’ve already had the discovery of the body. But that’s not surprising for a thriller. I can live with that providing the quality of writing isn’t sacrificed for pace. But from the pages I’ve sampled I fear this book is nothing special.

The Verdict: Set Free

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

This comes in at a hefty 884 pages but then, as the title indicates, it’s actually four novels published between 1957 and 1960.

Durrell called it “an investigation of modern love”; a novel in which he experimented with a premise that people and events seem different when considered from different angles and periods. So he presents three perspectives on a single set of events and characters in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during the Second World War.

The four volumes concern the same characters, but each of the several narrators tell the novels’ complex tales from their own viewpoint, and they write at different times.

I’m tempted to give this a go, by reading at least the first book. I’m attracted by some reviews I’ve read that say one of the novel’s strengths is the way it evokes the city as a melting pot of cultures.

The Verdict: Reprieve

So that’s two fewer books on the TBR shelves. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??

Sample Saturday: Gifts And Giveaways

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books that I never purchased myself. I either won them in a giveaway or they were given as a gift. As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which to part company with and which to keep.

The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer. The blurb tells me that Otto Laird is an architect once renowned for his radical and controversial designs. Now he lives a quiet life communing with nature and writing eccentric letters to his friends, that he never posts. His peaceful existence is disrupted when he learns that his most significant and revolutionary building, a 1960s tower block estate in South London is set to be demolished.

I see that the book is described as a “charming debut that will restore your faith in second chances”, “funny and poignant.”. That doesn’t fill me with confidence. Books described as charming rarely hold much appeal for me.

I’ve applied my 30 pages test and the tone isn’t wowing me.

The Verdict: Set Free

The Altogether Unexpected Disappearance of Atticus Craftsman by Mamen Sánchez. Translated from Spanish by Lucy Greaves

And now for the book with the longest title in my collection. I can’t remember how I came to own this one. It’s a hardback edition so I’m unlikely to have bought it for myself.

Goodreads describes it as “A fiendishly fun and charming novel” Oh dear, that word charming again.  I’d be tempted to let this one go but for the blurb inside the front cover. It begins: “Atticus Craftsman never travels without a supply of Earl Grey and a favourite book.”

A man after my own heart in fact.

It might be the most ridiculous idea to base my decision on a fictitious character’s tea drinking habits, but I’m tempted. I can tell from the first few pages that it will be a light read but maybe that’s just what I’ll need in coming months.

The Verdict: Reprieve

Overdrawn by N J Crosskey

This one turned up in a Secret Santa with some bookstagrammers in Wales. It’s a sombre dystopian novel that follows a couple in their 60s who are battling against serious health issues. The setting is Britain, a country where the health service has been privatised and ill and elderly citizens are encouraged to “Move On” – a euphemism for euthanasia. 

The Guardian chose this as a book of the month and described it as ” often a harrowing read, though one which offers redemption and a modicum of hope.”

This could be a challenging read but one that asks some searching questions about our attitudes to care for older people. Not one I can face reading in the current climate but I’m putting it back on the shelves for when I feel more mentally equipped

The Verdict: Reprieve

So that’s one more less on the TBR shelves. I’ll give the other two a reprieve for a year – if I haven’t read them a year from now, they’ll be given away too. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??

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