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10 books to read this Spring (maybe)

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and the Bookish requires me to list 10 novels on my to read list this Spring. An impossible task I fear for one who finds planning and reading do not make for happy bedfellows. I’ve tried – really I have (quit  rolling those eyes would you please) over the last five years. I have pledged my allegiance to various challenges short and long and dutifully listed what I would read as my entry ticket to such events. The list making is the fun part. After that it all goes down hill rapidly. The minute a book title goes on a list, I seem to lose all interest in reading it and instead much prefer something lurking in the darker recesses of the bookcase. So I’ve given up essentially and just read what takes my fancy at the time. 

My list of 10 is therefore offered with full disclosure that I might read all of these. I might read some of them. It’s conceivable, being as fickle as I am, that I will read none of them.  I reserve the right to completely change my mind in the next few weeks (scratch that, I mean next few hours). The most likely one I will read is the book I drew in the Classic Club SpinDiary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.

Diary_of_a_Nobody

My one and only commitment is that whatever I do read, it will be from the collection of books I already own – this is in support of my 2017 goals. 

10-to-read - 2017

Hell’s Gate by the French author Lauren Gaude is due for publication by Gallic Books in April.I have a NetGalley copy for review. Gallic describes it as “A thrilling story of love, loss, revenge and redemption in Naples and beyond.”

GhostBird by Carol Lovekin: Another title by the independent Welsh publisher Honno Press that I picked up as part of my plan to read more fiction from my fellow countrymen and women. This was Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops
Book of the Month in April 2016.

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane: One of the titles I have in mind for Reading Ireland 2017 – I’ve read only one novel by Keane (Devoted Ladies – under her other name of M.J Farrell) so I’m keen to see if this one resonates more with me.

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen, translated from Finnish by  Lola Rogers. It’s described by The Independent newspaper as a tense family drama. I was more interested in their assessment that “When The Doves Disappeared is indeed a thrilling page-turner but it is equally a shattering family drama and an unsparing deconstruction of history.” I bought this as part of my quest to broaden my reading horizons with authors from many parts of the world.

Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis, I picked up a second hand copy of this about four years ago. Its one of only two books I own by an author from Indonesia. The cover has a rather dark, retro feel which apparently matches the mood of the book. It was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest, and depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.

His Bloody Project  by Graeme Macrae Burnet. A historical thriller that was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. I meant to read it before shortlist was announced and got a bargain electronic copy but it wasnt the right format – I wanted to be able to flick back to previous chapters etc which is never easy on an e reader. But now my sister donated her print copy to me, I have no more excuses.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (note that I erroneously had this attributed to Dodi Smith until an astute reader spotted the error). I know, I know, you are astounded I have never read this classic. So am I. And so I will. At some point

The Finkler Question  by Howard Jacobson. One of the remaining titles on my Booker project list. It has its fans and its detractors. I’ve read the opening chapter and enjoyed it.

Sacred Hunger  by Barry Unsworth. Another Booker prize winner that has been highly recommended by many of you who follow this blog.

How many of these will I actually read? I dare you to make a forecast…..

 

2016 best laid plans go awry

The story of my 2016

Around this time last year I went on record with this statement about my goals for 2016.

2016 is going to be all about completion. ….

I plan to make it a year where I finish at least one of these projects: the Booker prize, Classics Club project and my World of Literature Project.

I deliberately avoided making definitive reading plans knowing how useless I proved to be in past years in sticking to them. Instead I opted for something more general thinking it would give me more flexibility and increase the chances of success.

Guess how I did on this goal?

You got it in one. It was a complete fail. Not a near miss or even a creditable effort. Not only didn’t I finish one of those three projects I barely made any inroads into the Classics Club list, reading just one ‘classic’ in the entire year (Mrs Dalloway) which leaves me with 22 still to read to achieve the goal of 50 classics by August 2017. It’s unlikely to happen….

I fared slightly better with my intention of reading more books by authors outside the western canon – 4 new countries were ‘visited’ in 2016 which takes my total to 35. Not a stellar performance but at least its going in the right direction.

Star billing goes to the Booker Prize project however where I managed to read a further 7 of the winning titles. Just 15 more to go now …

So why didn’t I achieve any part of this plan?

Either:

a) I was too ambitious  or

b) I spread my efforts too broadly and would have done better being more focused or

c) I picked the wrong goals or

d) I am really bad at sticking to plans and get easily distracted.

Judging by some articles I’ve read recently about how to be effective at setting and achieving goals the issue was really a combination of b) and d).  I got distracted by the long and short lists for the 2016 Booker prize so instead of reading previous winners I became too engrossed in who might win next. I also got carried away with Net Galley.  Some lessons here that are influencing my 2017 goals. What are they you wonder? I shall leave you in suspense for a few more days….

 

Good reads from Scotland

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We’re back in the land of the Celts for the choice of our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. Our featured country is Scotland where our guide is Joanne who blogs at PortobelloBookBlog.

Let’s meet Joanne

portobello-readingHi, I’m Joanne and I live in Portobello, Edinburgh right by the sea. A lot of people probably don’t realise that Edinburgh has a seaside as it is probably better known for tourist attractions such as Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and the Royal Yacht Brittania. I’ve always lived in Edinburgh though was born and brought up in Leith, now famous thanks to The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith or infamous thanks to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. I’ve lived in Portobello for 18 years now and it is very much home. So a natural choice when I came to pick a blog name was Portobello Book Blog. I mainly read and review contemporary fiction, crime, thrillers and romance novels. I run regular features where authors can answer a set of spotlight questions or write a guest post about their work. I also feature other book bloggers every Friday in my Blogger in the Spotlight feature. You can follow me on my blog or via my Twitter account @portybelle and my Facebook page.

Q. Do you enjoy novels set in your own country or do you feel authors don’t always do a good job of representing it in their fiction?

I do enjoy books set in Scotland. It’s always fun to read about a place you know really well and spot any changes that authors make. In general I think authors represent Scotland well. There are some books which are rather dark and depict a side of Scotland I might not like (reference Mr Welsh above!) but that’s not to say they’re not realistic. I think what authors sometimes don’t do very well is incorporating a Scottish character in a book set elsewhere. Quite often I find they can be quite stereotypical having red hair and saying ‘och’ a lot! And really, we don’t tend to wear kilts these days except at weddings, graduations or other special events.

Q. Who are your favourite Scottish authors?

Oh this is a difficult question. What makes an author Scottish – is it being born here, living here or writing books set here? I do enjoy Ian Rankin’s books, Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie series are immensely entertaining and I think James Robertson is brilliant. Liz Lochhead was at our local book festival in October and she was superb, though I confess I don’t tend to read much poetry. Doug Johnstone is a local author who I think is terrific. I’ve enjoyed all his books, they are fast paced tense thrillers and he puts his characters is some awful situations!

Q. Are there any  Scottish authors who are not quite as well-known but you think are up and coming or deserve more attention?

This is also a difficult question as I have been lucky enough to have been asked by lots of local authors to read their work. So they are well known to me but perhaps not to a wider audience. This year I really enjoyed A Fine House in Trinity by Lesley Kelly, a crime novel which was longlisted for the William McIlvanney prize (previously called the Scottish Crime Book of the Year). Helen MacKinven is an author writer whose novels Talk of the Toun and Buy Buy Baby are full of dark humour and are both excellent. She uses dialect quite a bit which gives her characters a really authentic voice. I might have included Graeme Macrae Burnet had you asked me this a few weeks ago but since His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, I think it’s fair to say he has a much higher profile these days. Other debut novelists I’ve read and enjoyed this year are Lesley Anderson, Jackie Baldwin, Stella Hervey Birrell, Shelley Day, Mary Paulson-Ellis

Q. Scotland seems to have made a mark when it comes to crime fiction with some really big hitters like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid. Any reasons you can think why the country is so successful in terms of crime genre – what does it say about the Scottish mentality maybe or is it something to do with the infamously long nights and rain?? 

Scotland has a bit of a reputation for ill health and hard crime and I think a lot of that comes from poverty. As in so many areas, coal mining, the steel industry, the shipbuilding industry and the fishing industry have either vanished completely or employ dramatically fewer people. Low income and unemployment can lead to desperation and that’s when crime happens. I suspect that the dark nights and often dire weather also lead to a bit depression. I’ve heard it said that Scots are hardened to cope with the climate and our often shocking sporting results, though Andy Murray is doing his bit to restore national pride! All these things combine to create a dark mentality which, in my friend’s words, ‘enjoys a good murder’! But to balance that, Scotland is a country with stunningly beautiful countryside, picturesque lochs, magnificent mountains and islands and many authors make good use of this physical beauty in their work creating a more positive picture.

Q.We know about Nordic noir – is there such a thing as Scottish noir?

Tartan noir! As you mentioned above, Scotland seems to be producing a lot of very successful crime writers. I would say that Tartan Noir draws on Scotland’s traditions and history. There is often an element of good versus evil and the idea that there is a constant battle within each of us (like Jekyll and Hyde). Quite often the main characters are flawed and not always likeable. Then again, sometimes it’s the criminal who is drawn in a sympathetic way. That’s the Scottish contradiction for you! The general mood can often be bleak and this can be mirrored by the weather or dark nights. Bloody Scotland is an annual crime festival celebrating crime writers from Scotland and beyond, which is growing bigger and more successful every year. Not everyone likes the label ‘tartan noir’ though is it does somewhat reinforce the shortbread tin image of Scotland.

Q. Looking beyond crime, who are some of the classic Scottish authors? Many will know of Walter Scott but who else comes to mind?

Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Burns, Jessie Kesson, Neil Gunn, James Hogg are all writers I would consider classic Scottish authors. More recently I would include Nigel Tranter, Alasdair Gray, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney, Norman MacCaig Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robin Jenkins.

Q. Which authors were required reading on the Scottish schools’ syllabus – people considered required reading? 

My two daughters are in 4th and 6th year at High School just now and will both be taking exams in English at the end of the year. Firstly, I have to say that I don’t think that pupils now have to read as much as I did when I was at school! I remember reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns although there was a lot of Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy too. I’ve just had a look at the current list for National 5 and Higher level exams and they include James Robertson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anne Donovan, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Janice Galloway, Robert Burns and John Byrne. So a lot of what I studied some years ago is still there along with more modern Scottish authors. There are definitely more women writers on the list now which is good to see.

Hope Joanne’s guest post has given you a taste for Scottish authors. If you’re tempted to explore further you have until Sunday to hot foot it north for BookWeek Scotland which ends on Sunday, Nov 27.  Or if that doesn’t work out for you just take a look at the Scottish Book Trust website. 

The View from Here: What to read from South Africa

viewfromhere

We’re off to South Africa for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world.  We’ll be in the capable hands of Penny who blogs at 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only. 

Let’s meet Penny

pennyI work at one of South Africa’s major retailers. Over the years, I’ve taken on many different roles mainly relating to the buying/planning space. However my passions lie in reading, hiking and birding. My blog is called 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only. I didn’t even know reading challenges were a thing then. In 2014, I read a chance remark, on a reading Facebook group, to the effect that there is so much South African Fiction now, one could go a whole year and read nothing else. I thought it would be fun to try that out; I keep year lists for birds in the Southern African region, so why not books? At the same time, I decided to write a review on every book I read and start a blog.

Q. Authors like Andre Brink, Alan Paton and Doris Lessing are names that many people outside of SA would recognise. Is their work the reading experience considered to be ‘classic literature’? If not, what are some of the classics of fiction from S.A? 

These writers (Doris Lessing to a lesser extent) could be regarded as classics of SA Literature, if not ‘classic literature’. It depends what is meant by classic literature; if this is meant to refer to works that, in some way, emulate works of the Western canon, then possibly not. I do not necessarily believe ‘classic literature’ to be an ideal to which our writers should be aspiring. Good writing, literary writing are very subjective terms; more important to me is if I have a quality reading experience in which I am engaged, in which characters are multi-dimensional, plot is intriguing and I learn more about the human condition.

There are many novels that meet these criteria, amongst them Afrikaans writers translated into English. These are amongst some of my favourite novels and include writers such as Karel Schoemann, Etienne van Heerden, Marlene van Niekerk and Ingrid Winterbach. Another ‘classic’ is Down Second Ave by Es’kia Mphahlele, a marvellous work that, though autobiographical, experiments with form and reads as fiction. It is set in the 1930s in a township in Pretoria and illuminates how much discrimination was endured by black people even before apartheid. Anyone interested in SA Literature should also make sure they read Bessie Head’s work, even though she may well be considered as a Botswana writer.

Q.  Would you consider there are some distinct differences between literature from South Africa and those from some of the other African countries like Nigeria for example? 

I am no expert on literature from other African countries so this is merely my opinion. Until very recently, I had only read a few Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Flora Nwapa. I would say they are far ahead of South Africa, having experienced their independence from colonial rule much earlier. We have only been a democracy since 1994 and prior to this, we were not producing much fiction. Possibly Nigeria have been marketing themselves as the African Lit for longer and more widely too.

With respect to the reading experience, I find SA Fiction quite different. Not so much with contemporary writers, but the classic Heinemann novels are often quite dense and heavy going.

South African writing is drawn from many different cultural communities that add variety to our topics, characters and interactions. This I see as a distinct difference. We have Black, White, Indian (both Hindu and Muslim) and mixed race communities (so-called ‘coloured’ people) all writing fiction. South African writers explore many genres too, like crime fiction and speculative fiction.

Q. South Africa has produced two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and J M Coetzee in 2003. How far do you think their work is representative of the issues and challenges of the country? 

I cannot comment on Gordimer as I have only read one of her books, The House Gun, published in 1998. I did not like it much as I found it cold and detached. Personally, I found JM Coetzee’s pre-Disgrace (published 1998) novels to be more representative of the country then, allegorical as they might have been. The writer I believe to be truly representative of South Africa is Zakes Mda. Although both Coetzee and Mda live in other countries now, Mda’s topics are still strongly South African while Coetzee seems to have focussed on being a stranger in a new country (isolation has always been an underlying theme in nearly every book he has written).

Since I was in my early twenties, I was hungry to read books set in my own country that, in some way, might reflect my lived experience and my surroundings; books in which I would recognise the environment but be introduced to aspects that were hidden from me. The first novels of this nature that I discovered were Andre Brink’s novels written in the seventies; the next was J.M. Coetzee’s, The Life and times of Michael K. published in 1983 (for which he won the Booker prize; still my favourite Coetzee). Then in the nineties, I discovered Zakes Mda’s She Plays With the Darkness published in 1995. I love all his novels; particularly The Madonna of the Excelsior and Heart of Redness.  One of the things I love about Mda’s novels are the way they are grounded in history and also explore contemporary life. He has also written many plays but I am not familiar with them.

Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books that show a more contemporary side to life in South Africa – how it is dealing with life post-apartheid for example?

I have so many recommendations for books written post-apartheid, I could never list them all here (check my blog for some of them). I have already mentioned Zakes Mda and some Afrikaans writers. Add Eben Venter to that list (especially for his most recent novel, Wolf, Wolf). Niq Mhlongo (Dog Eat DogAfter TearsWay Back Home and short story collection, Affluenza) does a great job of representing ‘township’ life; (during apartheid, black people were prohibited from choosing where to live and were not allowed to live in areas designated as white; these areas were called townships or in vernacular slang; eKasi).

Thando Mqolozana tackles the taboo subject of Xhosa initiation rites in A Man who is Not a Man, as well as student politics in Unimportance. Nthikeng Mohlele, writes in a cerebral, philosophical style – try Small ThingsRusty Bell and Pleasure. Henrietta Rose-Innes is another favourite of mine; I particularly enjoyed The Rock AlphabetNineveh and The Green Lion. K. Sello Duiker, who committed suicide at the age of 30, produced two brilliant novels in Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams. These two books are tough reads; not for the faint-hearted.

On a lighter note, our crime fiction is excellent (it says something that I regard crime as ‘lighter’, I suppose). Deon Meyer is our most well-known crime fiction writer. He writes in Afrikaans and is translated into English. A lover of this genre should read all his books; start at the beginning with Dead Before Dying and continue to the 10thand latest, Icarus. This is not necessary as they do stand-alone but I always enjoy knowing what characters had done before.

Q.  What would you recommend to someone who has never read any S African authors? Where would you suggest they start?

This is a tough one because the answer  depends on the readers’ preference with regard to topic, genre and style. An extremely serious reader may want to trace the development of SA fiction by beginning in the last century while another may be more interested in South Africa today.

If the latter, Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is as good a place to start as any as it dips into every decade since the seventies. Zoe Wicomb writes of a ‘Coloured’ family that ‘tries for white’ during apartheid in Playing With the Light. Although I am not usually a fan of non-fiction, there are several books that are written in the fictional style that I have really enjoyed; anything by Jonny Steinberg who has covered topics that vary from farm murders (Midlands) to prison gangs (The Number) to HIV and Aids (Three Letter Plague). He investigates his areas of interest through in-depth, intimate interviews with individuals and teases out information that fascinates as much as it shocks.

Zukiswa Wanner’s, London Cape Town Joburg, moves between these three cities and with her protagonist, uses an outsider’s voice to illuminate the ins and outs of aspects of SA life in the business, political and personal world. Lauren Beukes is our darling of speculative fiction; inventive, imaginative and highly readable. Her second novel, Zoo City, is set in a Johannesburg that, though imagined, is strangely familiar. Then there is Finuala Dowling, said to be the ‘home-grown Jane Austen’ of SA Lit. In The Fetch and Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, she writes of the minutiae of life with wit and sparkle and a strand of pathos.

This is merely a taste and there are many more.

Q. How important are prizes like Caine Prize for African writing to contemporary authors

My feeling is that they are important as they do bring previously unknown writers to the attention of both publishers and readers.

Another prize which is important is the Etisalat Prize for Literature which is awarded to first time African writers of published books. It was inaugurated in 2013 and books by South African writers have been short-listed each year. The 2014 winner, Penumbra was by South African novelist, Songeziwe Mahlangu. One of my favourite novels of last year,What Will People Say by Rehana Rossouw, was short-listed last year. I highly recommend this novel; set in the Cape Flats, it is a heart-breaking tale of parents trying to do the best for their children in an environment dominated by gangs, drugs and politics at the time of the State of Emergency during the eighties.

Q. Which contemporary S African authors do you think we could be hearing more from in the future – people who may be at an early stage of their career? 

Names to watch out for are Mohale Mashigo whose first novel, The Yearning, was published this year. It is an accomplished debut, well-written and with a compelling plot. The Reactive by Mashande Ntshanga gives the reader a glimpse into the disaffectedness of youth who live in a world of trauma, untimely death and limited opportunities. Yewande Omotoso’s second novel, The Woman Next Door is a great read. I think it is quite a feat to capture the personalities of two women in their eighties, as she does here. Nakahane Toure and Panashe Chigumadzi have both published debut novels in the last year.

 

 

 

The View from Here: What to read from Japan

BellezzaContinuing The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to Japan with the help of Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. From her home in the suburbs of Chicago she keeps a close eye on Japanese fiction and hosts a Japanese fiction challenge each year to share her love of literature from this part of the world. 

Let’s meet Meredith

I have been an elementary teacher for 32 years, and it is one of the great joys of my life. But, another passion of mine is the love for literature. When blogs were first coming into existence I found a few related to books, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that. Discussing books with fellow readers was such a rare thing for me, because while there are book clubs, so many of my friends and acquaintances did not want to read translated literature as I do. So, my blog has leaned more and more toward toward that genre.

Q. You are the host for a Japanese literature challenge. Why does fiction from this pat of the world appeal to you so much? 

I have hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge for ten years, which surprises even me. It was most popular in its second year, during which I “met” many of the people with whom I still blog. But even today, those who love Japanese literature still look forward to the event which begins in June and ends in January. I have always held a fascination for Japan, particularly with origami which I use constantly in my class for lessons and rewards. I wanted to learn more about Japan’s authors, and through my own challenge and its participants, was able to expand my knowledge of Japanese literature.

Q. What was the first book by a Japanese author that you can recall reading and enjoying? What made it so special?

The very first book I remember  reading was Kafka on The Shore by Haruki Murakami. I loved it so much, I have since read it three times. But, I do not presume to know all of what he’s saying in that, or any of his other, novels. I love that Murakami suggests, in his own words, that readers should be “wide open to possibility”. To me that means there is not just one interpretation of the life lessons he so ingeniously writes about.

Q. Authors like Huruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto have done a lot to bring Japanese writing to the attention of people around the world. What about writers from an earlier phase in the country’s history – are there some ‘classic’ works of fiction we should look at? 

Some of the books that I would term classic Japanese literature are by authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki. I have particularly enjoyed Naomi by Tanizaki, and The House of Sleeping Beauties by Kawabata.

Q. One comment often made about Japanese fiction, is that plot development and action have often been of secondary interest to emotional issues. Has that been your experience or would you say that’s a fairly simplistic assessment?

One of the most difficult things about coming to Japanese literature, for me, was that there often wasn’t the  beginning-middle-end I had come to expect from western literature. Once I could suspend my disbelief, and look at the writing more as a “slice of life”, I could enjoy the books much more. It was a necessary change of mind set for me, otherwise I felt rather lost in a Japanese novel. Unless it was a crime thriller, of course, of which the Japanese are so stupendous at writing.

Q Which contemporary Japanese authors do you think we should be paying more attention to?

I wish that I knew more about the contemporary authors outside of the crime/thriller genre. I have a great passion for the young writers of this genre, particularly Keigo Higashino and Fuminori Nakamura.

Has this whetted your appetite?

If this has given you an enthusiasm to discover more about  Japanese literature, there is still time to join in the Japanese Literature Challenge because it runs until January.  The idea is that participants would read at least one work of Japanese literature – be it classical or contemporary, mystery or thriller. See the introductory post here  If you are looking for inspiration there is a recommended reading list available too.

The View from Here: Good reads from Ireland

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We’re staying with the Celtic nations for the choice of our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. Our featured country is Ireland and who better to give us the insight on this country’s literature than the blogger who has co-hosted Reading Ireland month for the past few years: Cathy at 746books 

Let’s meet Cathy

cathyJust over two years ago, as I went to buy yet another book, I decided to do a count and see how many unread books I had to hand – on my shelves, my iPad and my Kindle. It came to 746 and I was so shocked! I was reading around 30 books a year and worked out that if I didn’t buy any more books, it would still take me about 25 years to read all the books I had in the house! So, I set myself the challenge to not buy any more books, read all 746 and blog about it along the way.

I’ve rediscovered my love of Irish literature in particular, so I also blog about the Irish literary scene and review new books by Irish authors.

Outside of blogging, I am a mother of 5 year old twins and work in an Arts Centre in Northern Ireland so I’m kept pretty busy!

Q. Who are your favourite authors from Ireland (north and south)?

This is a really hard question, because I love so many! My favourite novelists would be Bernard McLaverty, Brian Moore, Edna O’Brien, Colum McCann and Nuala NiChonchuir, but I also love playwrights like Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh and poets like Paul Durcan and Sinead Morrissey.

Q. Why did you start the Reading Ireland Month? 

I had spotted a few reading months relating to Germany and Japan and just thought, why not?! March seemed like the perfect month for it and I decided to team up with my old friend and fellow blogger Niall at The Fluff is Raging to broaden the scope of the month to include posts on movies, music, TV and travel as well as books. I see it as a real celebration of all Irish culture and I love spreading the word about all the great writers that have come from this tiny island! Last year we had over 100 posts and we are hoping for even more this year!

Q. Does literature from Ireland have a particular atmosphere or style, something that maybe makes it stand out as distinctively “Irish”? 

This is an interesting question that I think about it a lot. What is it about a small island like Ireland that has produced 4 Nobel Prize winners and a host of world class writers, playwrights and poets? Alongside Greek and Latin, Ireland had one of the earliest ‘languages’ Ogham which dates back to the 4th century AD. There is a great oral tradition of storytelling and myth making that carries on throughout Irish history. In ancient Irish society, the poet was revered and was second only to the chieftain and I think we still carry that reverence today. Add to that a turbulent history of invasion, immigration, famine and war and you have a fertile ground for literature to flourish in.

For me, Irish writing is lyrical and poetic, with a real sense of vitality, always with an eye to the past and to the tradition from which it has come.

Q. What books are creating a buzz in Ireland at the moment?

There is a great range of young authors making a buzz in Ireland at the moment. Writers like Colin Barrett, Danielle McLaughlin, Belinda McKeon, Rob Doyle, Anakana Schofield, Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume and Eimear McBride are all being talked about on a national level. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Guardian First Novel Award and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won the 2014 Bailey’s Prize for Women.

The buzz isn’t only about writers though – there are lots of fantastic literary magazines from Ireland exploring new work, like Banshee and The Stinging Fly and Tramp Press is an exciting new publisher working to promote the voices of women in Ireland, old and new. A fabulous book to check out is Dubliners 100, published by Tramp Press where new and established writers from Ireland created a ‘cover version’ of their favourite stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s a great introduction to Irish writers you may not have heard of!

There is also a great surge in crime writing coming out of Ireland, Tana French is an obvious example of this, but writers like Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville and Jane Casey are writing very interesting Celtic Noir!

Q.  Who are the authors you would consider ‘must read’ for people who wanted to deepen their knowledge of Irish literature?

This is a hard question to answer as the breadth of work there is to choose from is vast. There are the classic writers like Swift, Wilde and Stoker and the modernists like Beckett, Joyce and Yeats. I have a list of 100 Irish Novels on my blog which is a great starting point for anyone interested in Irish Literature. It is in chronological order and spans from 1729 to 2014 and really highlights the diversity and quality of Irish Literature. There were so many books I wanted to include, that I could have made the list go up to 200!

Q. Most keen readers will know of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Are there any authors you think deserve more attention? 

irish women writers-2There are a lot of women writers who deserve attention and have been in the shadows for too many years. Writers like Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien can more than hold their own with the titans of Irish literature. There is a famous Irish Writers poster, which was very popular in Ireland and featured only male writers. Last year the Irish Times recreated the poster with only female writers and there is a real feeling that readers are starting to hear and to listen to these voices. I would recommend The Long Gaze Back which is an anthology of short stories by Irish women writers edited by Sinead Gleeson. It is a fascinating collection of work featuring writers like Maria Edgeworth, Maeve Brennan and Elizabeth Bowen alongside less well known writers like Norah Hoult.

 

Q. Talking of Joyce … he seems to divide readers. Where do you stand on the love him/hate him debate? 

I feel like a wee bit of a fraud at this point, as I haven’t read Ulysses! I know, it’s embarrassing, but it is in the 746 so I will be reading it at some point. I have read Finnegan’s Wake and The Dead and would some down on the ‘love’ side, solely for the short story ‘The Dead’ which is a perfect short story and contains one of the most beautiful passages ever written:

‘A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’

 

readingireland

Hope Cathy’s guest post has given you a taste for Irish authors. If you’re tempted to explore further now is a good time to join Reading Ireland Month which runs until end of March.  Find out more info on the sign up page on Cathy’s blog. Follow the Facebook page here or join in the discussion on Twitter using 

 

The View from Here: Good reads from Wales

viewfromhere

 

A few people have asked me for a ‘View from…” guest post about literature from my native land of Wales. I’ve been searching for a book loving Welsh blogger for a year now and haven’t had much success. So I thought I would mark our national day – March 1 – by giving my own insights. Not sure how it will work to answer my own questions but I’ll give it a go. 

 Let’s meet Booker Talk

My real name is Karen.  I was born in South Wales and apart from a few years where I went off to university in England, I’ve lived here all my life. Despite several attempts I have never mastered my native language. It’s a tough language to pronounce – many words don’t seem to include a vowel and then there are the dastardly ‘ll’ and “dd” combinations which always trip up people from outside the country. I started my blog on books and literature in February 2012, intending it to be a way of tracking my reading of novels from the Booker Prize list. It’s just grown from there as I got more involved with other bloggers who got me interested in literature from around the world.

Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Wales?

I would love to be able to highlight some titles that are unique to Wales but sadly that’s not possible. We seem to be reading pretty much what the rest of the world is reading. In the local branch of Waterstones last week for example there was a buzz around the table promoting all the Elena Ferrante books and at the ‘Buy one, get one half price” tables which had many of the latest paperback titles. The one area where you’ll find a big difference in our buying habits is in non fiction – more specifically in sport. Rugby isn’t just a sport here; it’s almost an obsession with each outing of the national team treated with almost religious fervour.  Hence just about anything that features rugby will get attention. Stick a photo of a hulking guy in a red shirt on the cover and the money will roll in.

Q. Who are some of the big Welsh authors?

Bookshop in Laugharne, the village where Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood

Bookshop in Laugharne, the village where Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood

They don’t come much bigger than Dylan Thomas. He’s a legend in Wales. I wonder if that’s as much to do with his bad boy image and early death as his poetry. The latter is sublime though not always easy to understand. If you already know his play for voices Under Milk Wood try some of his prose work – A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a classic  but the lesser known Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog is well worth reading if you want an idea of what influenced Thomas in his formative years. It’s a collection of autobiographical short prose stories set in his home city of Swansea which reveal snatches of his life from childhood to his first job as a newspaper reporter.

Other big names are Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame and Ken Follett, author of a clutch of crime and historical best sellers  like The Pillars of the Earth. More modern era writers include Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) and Cynan Jones who won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction last year with  The Dig, (a novel notable for its lack of punctuation).

Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?

The challenge is there are so many names I could suggest. A number of these authors were notable in their day but have since disappeared from view for reasons I find hard to fathom. Let’s start with Jack Jones who was a novelist and playwright from the 1930s/1940s. His style probably feels a bit old fashioned now but if you want a sense of what life was like in Wales during the decades when it provided the coal that fuelled much of the world, take a look at his first novel Rhondda Roundabout (there’s that “dd” to get your tongue around) which later became a play. The novel chronicles the hardship of people from the valleys of South Wales against the back set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the General Strike and the Great Depression.

A name I strongly recommend is John Cowper Powys who has been likened to Thomas Hardy because of the role the landscape plays in his novels. Four of them from the 1930s: Wolf SolentA Glastonbury Romance (the most known of this group); Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle are often referred to as his Wessex novels. They’re set in Somerset and Dorset but draw a lot upon Welsh myths.

Coming more up to date you’ll find  someone I’ve written about on this blog a few times: Gwyn Thomas. He deals with some of the same themes as Jack Jones but in a more biting style. The Alone to the Alone is a perfect demonstration of how he uses comic hyperbole to make a political point. Even more current is Carys Davies who won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize with her collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike. It’s a virtuoso performance that I loved when I read it last year despite the fact I’m not a great fan of the short story format.

Q. Why don’t we see more Welsh language fiction available in English? 

Wales is a small country and the percentage of the population using the Welsh language is tiny (4% was the last figure I saw). It’s also not a language that you find used outside the country with the exception of a community in Patagonia. Which means there is a limited market for Welsh language books and not many publishers despite the valiant efforts of indigenous authors. I can’t even recall a book translated into English in recent years that has garnered much attention.

 

 

 

The who’s who guide to world fiction: Review

guide to world fictionWhen I decided a couple of years ago it was time to broaden my reading horizons and seek out more authors outside my usual zone of UK and USA, I didn’t realise how tough it would be to find writers from certain countries. Many blog challenges that seemed promising initially turned out to simply list books set in the country not written by a native. Many websites didn’t distinguish between fiction and non fiction or just gave the author’s name but no indication of their style or genre. If it were not for one website – Complete Review – and a small number of bloggers who are passionate about reading books in translation, I would have struggled.

If only, I mused,  there was a comprehensive reference guide to authors from different parts of the world. My life would be much easier.

A fairy godmother has now granted my wish in the form of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. Orthofer is the founder, managing editor, and lead contributor to the Complete Review which operates as an aggregator site for reviews and book news. It pays particular attention to contemporary work in translation and original language from around the world.

Orthofer has now expanded that content to bring us in book format The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, a superb resource for English language readers interested in fiction from around the world. The guide is divided into profiles by region and country each of which contains a commentary on literature from that part of the world and a multitude of author names to explore from 1945 to the present day. The Guide could easily just be page after page of lists but Orthofer avoids this with his short but insightful summaries about trends in each country.

How well does he have his finger on the pulse in each of these countries? I used the section on my home country of Wales as a test. Actually I was impressed to find there was  a section on literature from Wales – we’re such a small nation that we usually get overlooked or lumped in with our big neighbour England. Orthofer accurately comments that government support for the Welsh language has led to a resurgence in Welsh language writing. He gives examples of both 20th century and contemporary Welsh language writers and those writing in English (Robin Llewelyn, John Williams for example) but it was odd not to find even a mention of people who I consider to be big names from the past like Jack Jones and Gwyn Thomas. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high but I’d love to know what people from some of the countries he includes, think of his selection.

While the country profiles are  a useful gateway into each location, the part of this book I enjoyed reading most was Orthofer’s introduction in which he analyses the current state of literature in translation and why so little of it exists. American and British publishers continue to show reluctance to invest in translated works, he notes. Even the university presses concentrate on very narrow slices of international literature. Despite the presence in the United States of so many foreign authors, most of them are unknown to American readers. When the American houses do go for a work in translation “… too often it is the second-rate works – the earnest prizewinning novels and imitative local thrillers – that make the cut and disappoint both readers (with their mediocre quality) and publishers (with their low sales).”

In Europe, Germany’s support for translated works has led to greater exposure for Scandinavian and eastern European countries while readers in France benefit from the more generous support given to translation in that country.  Orthofer sees two glimmers of brightness however. One is that other countries, most notably India and southern Africa, have made a concerted effort to translate more works from their regional languages. The second is via the determined efforts of some small and nimble publishers determined to raise the profile of great writers from all parts of the world. As Orthofer says early on in his book: “Great literature and great books know no borders.”

End Notes

The Complete Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M. A Orthofer is published by Columbia University Press. Many thanks to the publishers for making this available via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. As an indicator of how much I appreciated this book, I’ve now gone and bought my own copy.

 

 

I’ve started so I’ll finish

Janus

Janus: The Roman god of beginnings and transitions

I can’t prevaricate any longer. The cobwebs are starting to settle on the brain already and if I leave it much longer I will never remember my top books from 2015.

The outstanding book of the year was almost, but not quite,  the last one I read – Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient. It’s a beautifully written story of four damaged characters who end up in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War 2.  I enjoyed reading his most recent novel The Cat’s Table a few years ago but The English Patient was in a totally different league. Now I want to dig out the film version again ..

Other favourites from the year were: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton which has to be the most gloriously produced book I’ve experienced for many years. The cover design showing a miniature of the house that features in the book, was so delightful I went in search for some info on the illustrator and came across a fascinating little video about how a design company made the house. Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac was my first experience of this author but will certainly not be my last.  Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton was as moving on a re-read as it was decades ago when I opened the pages for the first time.  Three discoveries came in the form of The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw and from the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar and The Redemption of Galen Pike, a tremendous short story collection by Carys Davies. I don’t usually care for short stories but Davies’ book knocks spots off all other collections I’ve read.

Were there any duds? Well yes, a few. Three were so bad I couldn’t finish them: In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman; Between  Tides by V.Y. Mudimbe and The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende.

That’s 2015 done.

What’s on the horizon for 2016?

Despite all the reading challenges I’ve seen in the last few weeks (I’ve been keeping a list here and it’s upwards of 30) I’m trying really really really hard to resist temptation. I like the idea of them but the reality is that I’m really hopeless at sticking with them. The minute I feel I have to follow a list, my interest in the books drops off markedly. Even if  the title was one that excited me when I bought it, the minute it gets written on a list starts to make it feel too much like a chore or a ‘to do’ list for work. Hence why I managed just 8 out of the 12 books on the TBR Challenge I joined last year.  I was all ready to join a Reading Shakespeare challenge but I’ve changed my mind.

I prefer the idea of reading projects rather than challenges. They somehow sound more relaxed and I can go entirely at my own pace. I have three on the go at the moment which are steadily making progress. I’m just over the half way mark with my Classics Club project, have read 27 of the 46 Booker-prize winners and novels from 30 countries around the world as part of my World of Literature Project.

2016 is going to be all about completion.

I plan to make it a year where I finish at least one of these (the Booker prize). I may even get close to finishing the Classics Club but I won’t make that a goal because I want space to be flexible, to go with the flow of whatever takes my fancy. I also want time to dip into a few short projects – Ali’s #Woolfalong reading project is perfect since I already have 4 Woolf titles in the bookshelves. Later in the year there’ll be a Reading Ireland month and a Spanish literature month which are already tickling my fancy. The beauty of these projects is that they’re short and free of pressure to read a particular number of books or to make lists in advance.

Here’s to a year of unconstrained delight……

 

The View from Here: Good reads from Denmark

viewfromhereContinuing The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to Denmark with the help of Marit, who blogs at boegernekslabyrint  and at latinamerikalitteratur (both are in Danish). Until retirement she worked at the central library of Aarhus, the second largest town in Denmark. Six months ago the lucky residents of this town got a completely new library on the waterfront.

Let’s meet Marit

My name is Marit Haugaard, and I am 65 years old. I retired in 2012 after having been a librarian for almost 40 year; the last 20 years in the fiction department of Aarhus Central Library the last 10 years involved in building up the public libraries’ online-magazine, www.litteratursiden.dk, being part of the editorial team.

I started my private blog on books and literature in February 2011, intending it to consist mainly of reviews of books I had read.  However, in the summer of 2014, I started making a monthly list of what will be published in the following month, and the number of visitors immediately soared.  I see my blogging activities as an extension of my former job; I always enjoyed being in the library with the readers. Working on Litteratursiden taught me that it is possible to communicate the love of literature online.

My literary taste is pretty wide, I read everything from children’s books to crime fiction to prize-winning authors, my only demand is that the books are well written/translated. I don’t often read poetry or drama, but I go a lot to the theatre. I’m not too keen on experimental or weird books, I prefer a good story.

Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Denmark?

I have just returned from the annual Copenhagen Book Fair. Unlike other years it wasn’t dominated by huge moneymaking writers with egos to match, so it was a rather relaxed affair. The big name was Carsten Jensen, who published his latest novel just before the fair, ‘Den første sten’ [The First Stone]. The author has a long standing in Danish literature, but he is now also a controversial debater being very critical towards Danish foreign politics, specially our engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. His latest novel is about Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, but he insists that there is a sharp division between his roles as a fiction writer and debater.

Other authors worth mentioning this fall is Ida Jessen, who contrary to her earlier fiction takes us back 100 years to a small provincial town. Her latest novel is a small masterpiece, ‘En ny tid’ [A new Era].  Anna Grue is mostly known as a crime novelist, featuring “the bald detective” Dan Sommerdahl. She, like most Scandinavian crime writers, is extremely popular in Germany, but not translated into English – yet. However, her latest novel ‘Italiensvej’ [Italy Road] is a love story and a wonderful description of life in the late 1950s.

‘Afgrunden’ [The Abyss] by Kim Leine will probably be translated soon, as you already have the first part of his Greenlandic trilogy in English, ‘The Prophets of Eternal Fjord’. ‘Afgrunden’ is, however, a digression as it is about the lives of two Danish twins from their participation in the Finnish civil war (1918) to the Second World War.

On November 2nd, Morten Pape, published his first novel, Planen [The Estate], a week later he received the annual prize for the best first work of fiction of the year. A fast mover, who will be interesting to read.

If I take a general view of the Danish literary scene today, I should say that the women hold a very strong position. There are three generations:

  1. The young and upcoming: Ina Munch Christensen, Olga Ravn, Amalie Smith, Stine Pilgaard, Pernille Abd-El Dayem, Emma Elisabeth Nielsen – just to mention a few
  2. The established writers: Ida Jessen*, Pia Juul*, Helle Helle*, Katrine Marie Guldager*, Henriette Rostrup – and many more
  3. The “oldies”, but still going strong: Kirsten Thorup*, Jette Drewsen, Dorrit Willumsen* – and probably a few more

Crime fiction is a major genre in Danish literature, popular names are Jesper Stein, Elsebeth Egholm*, Sara Blædel*, Anna Grue, Michael Katz Krefeld, Jussi Adler-Olsen* – and more…. Biography is extremely popular, as is narrative non-fiction with top writers Tom Buk-Swienty* and Peter Øvig Knudsen*

Q. Out of the Danish classics what would you say is “required reading”?

There are six titles that spring to my mind, when I think of classics, books that are generally referred to, and people are expected to know.

Herman Bang (1857-1912): Tine, 1889 (Tina, 1984)

Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950): Kongens fald, 1901 (The Fall of the King, 1933)

Martin Nexø Andersen (1869-1954): Pelle Erobreren, 1906-10 (Pelle the Conqueror, 1913-16)

Tom Kristensen (1893-1974): Hærværk, 1930 (Havoc, 1968)

Martin A. Hansen (1909-1955): Løgneren, 1950 (The Liar, 1954)

Inger Christensen (1935-2009): Alfabet (Alphabet, 2000)

Other authors:

Apart from Hans Christian Andersen* (1805-1875), who in Denmark is known as H.C. Andersen, you are expected to know Adam Oehlenschläger* (1779-1850), Steen Steensen Blicher (1782-1848), J.P. Jacobsen* (1847-1885), Amalie Skram* (1846-1905), Henrik Pontoppidan*(1857-1943) – and many more.

Photo courtesy of Marit

Photo courtesy of Marit

Q. Why is Nordic literature so popular now?

I suppose that the boom of Nordic or Scandinavian literature is partly owed to Nordic Noir, as it is called abroad, and made internationally known through tv-series like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen. It followed in the wake of the Scandinavian crime fiction-wave, where Sweden is in front with Henning Mankell’s protagonist, Kurt Wallander, as the prototype. A policeman with personal problems and a social conscience. He and other Scandinavian crime writers, including very modern and European Arne Dahl, are heirs to Novel of a Crime, vol 1-10 by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, social realistic novels written as police novels. They were published 1965-75 in Swedish and widely translated.

Scandinavian literature is probably as varied as our seasons (summer nights with no sunset, autumnal melancholy, winter gloom and hopeful spring) and our very different cities and landscapes.

Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?

It is close to a national trauma, that the poet Inger Christensen did not get the Nobel Prize for literature. She had the potential and was far better than many, who received it as a political statement. And now it is too late.

Q. Differences between literature in Denmark, Norway and Sweden?

Whereas Denmark, as I stated, at the moment is very strong in the field of women authors, it is my impression that Norwegian male authors hold the fort north of the Skagerak. Everybody knows Karl Ove Knausgaard, but names like Tomas Espedal, Erlend Loe, Lars Saabye Christensen and Jan Kjærstad spring to my mind, not to forget unforgettable Jon Fosse, who won The Nordic Council Literature Prize 2015.

In Sweden I see two tendencies, one is that they seem to be stronger on immigrant literature, the other a hybrid literary genre that seems weird, but works well: a combination of traditional Swedish social realism combined with the vampire novel, the main author here is John Ajvide Lindqvist, who I believe has been translated into English.

Norwegian and Swedish bloggers may totally disagree, but that is the view from where I stand.

Q. Why don’t we see more Danish fiction available in translation? 

The Scandinavian countries are small language areas, so we depend on translations to be able to read literature from other countries. It is therefore of paramount importance that we have good literary translators. Denmark has a number of good ones, but unfortunately also some bad ones, who believe that a dictionary and a six months’ stay as an au-pair abroad is enough to qualify.

To be a literary translator in Denmark, you have to be very enthusiastic, as very few can earn a living wage by translating.

End Notes

Authors translated into English are marked with an asterisk*, titles with a square brackets [ ] have not been translated, the title in brackets is Marit’s translation of the Danish title.

If this has given you an enthusiasm to discover more about  Danish literature, Marit recommends you take a look at Danish Literary Magazine.

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