Category: Reviews

End of the Year Review 2020

You don’t need me to tell you that this has been a grim year, with Covid and Trump, Brexit and Putin and the world generally seeming to be going to the dogs. I have certainly found reading a relief, partially from the lockdown – we have essentially had three in the UK – but also from the grim news.

One other person who seems to have been reading well during the pandemic is Michiko Kakutani, the former New York Times critic, feared by authors and publishers. In an interview she mentions some of her reading.

The interview was because of the publication of her book of essays on her reading, called Ex Libris, which I have read. While I do not particularly share her taste in reading (she’s a big fan of Muhammad Ali and Dr Seuss, for example, but not a very big fan of translated literature – I only counted five works of translated fiction all stunningly obvious and including The Odyssey), she makes an interesting point in the book, namely that she is writing less as a critic than as an enthusiast. In other words, when writing for the New York Times, she presumably had to review whatever she was given, good, bad or ugly, while, in this book, she can read and review what she wants.

That, of course, is the huge advantage of being a blogger. I read the books that I want to read and ignore those that I do not want to read, which means a certain amount of books which get a lot of publicity or which others enjoy, I do not read.

Equally, it means that I can abandon books that I find that I am not enjoying. This is actually quite rare but, most unusually, it happened three times this year. I shall not name them as others may enjoy them and I do not want to put people off, just because I did not finish them. There was only one novel I finished this year that I did not enjoy and I read it only because it appeared in in a list of the 100 best novels in Spanish of the 21st century.

One advantage of the lockdown was that not only did I read more books than in previous years but I also read a few longer ones – several over five hundred pages and two over a thousand pages (the latter two not, of course, available in English, though one of them should appear in 2021 in English).

I did try to avoid books about pandemics, plagues, etc. No Station Eleven, La Peste (The Plague), Defoe’s Plague Year and the like. Both Olga Tokarczuk‘s Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob) and Agustina Bazterrica‘s Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh) mentioned plagues but only in passing. If you are interested in apocalyptic books, with plagues, zombies and the like, here is a list for you.

One slightly disturbing theme I did find was cannibalism. I read three books where cannibalism featured: Agustina Bazterrica‘s Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh), Shalom Auslander‘s Mother for Dinner and Yan Ge‘s 异兽志 (Strange Beasts of China). With food shortages caused by climate change, maybe it is a coming thing. The Russians don’t seem to like it.

I do not do a best of for two simple reasons: there are loads of excellent books that came out this year that I did not get around to reading and because a lot of the books I read this year (as every year) were older books and it seems to silly to compare some random older books with the new books. However, I will mention a few books I particularly enjoyed. This does not mean that the other books I read were in any way of less worth – nearly every one I read was worthwhile except, as mentioned, the three I abandoned and the one I did not abandon.

My annual one-country marathon this year was Brazil and of the twenty Brazilian books I read, the one I think I enjoyed most was not, in fact, a novel but a history written as a novel – Euclides da Cunha‘s Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands; later: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign), a wonderful 500+ page epic. I also really enjoyed Bernardo Carvalho‘s Mongólia [Mongolia], sadly not available in English.

I have already mentioned Shalom Auslander‘s Mother for Dinner, one of the cannibal novels, but it was undoubtedly the funniest novel I read this year. Cannibalism funny? You have to read it to see why. The other very amusing and decidedly quirky novel I must mention is Anne Serre‘s Voyage avec Vila-Matas [Journey with Vila-Matas], about a writer going to a literary festival where she meets Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas. Or does she? This book has not been translated but her quirky Les Gouvernantes (The Governesses) has been translated into English.

Probably the best book published this year that I read is not, sadly available in English – Martín CaparrósSinfin [Endless], an ambitious dystopian novel from Argentina. Another interesting and somewhat disturbing novel not published (yet) in English (the last one not published in English, I promise) I enjoyed was Hervé Le Tellier‘s L’Anomalie (The Anomaly) with several stories converging and all involving an Air France flight from Paris to New York which goes wrong.

Of books that have been translated into English I would mention Agustina Bazterrica‘s disturbing Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh), Joseph Roth‘s Die Geschichte der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls; The Tale of the 1002nd Night), Miljenko Jergović‘s epic Bosnian novel Dvori od oraha (Walnut Mansion), Volter Kilpi‘s unfinished but finished by translator Doug Robinson updating of Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia) and Miklós Szentkuthy‘s exuberant Fejezet a szerelemről (Chapter on Love). I had previously enjoyed Sayaka Murata‘s ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman). This year I really enjoyed her 地球星人 (Earthlings), about three young people trying to live a sensible alternative way.

Of the new publishers that appeared this year I read a book from two. V&Q Books is run by superb German translator Katy Derbyshire. I read Francis Nenik‘s interestingly titled Reise durch ein tragikomisches Jahrhundert (Journey Through a Tragicomic Century), another non-fiction work written as a novel, about Hasso Grabner, a colourful German writer who seemed to be involved in various often dubious activities in Germany in the last century.

Fum d’Estampa specialises in Catalan books translated into English. As I have read and reviewed quite a few Catalan books (twenty-eight to be precise), too many of which have not been translated into English, I really welcomed this press. I read Narcís Oller‘s La bogeria (The Madness), a fascinating 1899 novel about insanity.

I must mention several other small presses as I read a lot of their books: five from Glagoslav, four from And Other Stories, four from Archipelago, four from Deep Vellum, four from Maclehose, three from Lavender Ink / Diálogos (a publisher I only discovered this year), as well as two each from several others. Please support all of these small publishers. They need your support and they are producing first-class works for your reading entertainment and edification.

Before getting into the numbers, I would mention one piece of good news. The Untranslated blog sadly went into hiatus in 2019. He was still very active on Twitter so we did not lose out entirely. However, the good news is that he is back with a Patreon blog to which I would strongly urge you to subscribe. You will learn a lot.

In 2018 and 2019 I read 138 books in each year. Yes, it was a coincidence. This year, thanks (?) to covid I am up to 154 and, if I counted the pages, which I do not and have no intention of doing, the gap would probably be higher. I have said elsewhere that I consider the most interesting fiction writing to be coming from Latin America and Eastern Europe. This year I read twenty-six books from Eastern Europe and forty-two from Latin America. The Latin American figure was inflated by the twenty Brazilian books I read as part of my annual one-country marathon.

A book from Chukotka

Of individual countries, Brazil, of course, came out top with 20, followed by France (13), Argentina (10), Hungary (10), Austria (6), Poland (6), Spain (6), England (4), Germany (4) and Italy (4). There were four new countries: Chukotka, Liechtensein, North Korea and Taiwan. Less well-represented countries include Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia, Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, Guinea-Bissau, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Latvia, Occitania, El Salvador, Slovenia, Syria, Ukraine and Wales. The sex ratio is, as usual, dismal. Forty-three of the books I read were by women, marginally better than last year (thirty-six).

Last year I read twenty-six books that had not (yet) been translated into English, this year thirty-two. Some of them will make it into English; sadly some of them will not.

I do not know what next year will bring. There have been various indications of next year’s offerings, such as this list from Beyond the Epilogue and this list of lists from the Complete Review. Solenoid was to have appeared but now seems to have been pushed back to 2022.
Olga Tokarczuk‘s The Books of Jacob should appear in 2021.

J. G. Farrell‘s The Singapore Grip was the most read page on my site presumably because of the TV version of the book, which I also saw and enjoyed. Surprisingly, number two was Kyusaku Yumeno‘s ドグラマグラ (Dogra Magra), a relatively obscure Japanese novel. Another relatively obscure Japanese novel also got a high rating – Kaori Ekuni‘s きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle). In third place was Paul Auster‘s City of Glass. The only other novel not originally written in English in the top ten was Rita Indiana‘s La mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle).

Will 2021 be better than 2020? Maybe, maybe not. However, of the books I read this year, there were twelve authors I had not heard of a year ago so this year I am looking forward once more to discovering authors I have not heard of to distract me from the problems of the world. I hope that you will do the same and I hope you will find some of them on this site.

Have a covid-free 2021!

End of year review 2019

As the world seems to get worse and worse, reading books seems increasingly to be the best escape. It has been helped (for me) this year by the fact that I have read more longer, often very long books. I do enjoy a really long, good book not least because you can really get immersed in another world (or worlds). This year, I have really enjoyed (in no particular order) Lucy Ellmann‘s Ducks, Newburyport, Oğuz Atay ‘s Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected), Nino Haratischwili‘s Das achte Leben (The Eighth Life), several novels by Mircea Cărtărescu, Christophe Bernard‘s La Bête Creuse [The Hollow Beast], Miloš Crnjanski‘s Roman o Londonu (Novel of London), Vasily Grossman‘s За правое дело (Stalingrad) and Valeria Luiselli‘s El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive). Only two were originally written in English (the Ellmann and the Luiselli) and several are not available in English, though the Crnjanski should be out in 2020.

Of course, it has not all been long books. I have continued ploughing through the ever-growing work of César Aira, most of which are short but still enjoyable. It is my view that he should get the Nobel Prize but he did not.

Which leads me on to the prizes this year. I was a bit surprised that the Nobel Prize for Literature this year went to two Central European writers. What happened to the African and Asian writers? What happened to César Aira and Haruki Murakami? Maybe next year…

I thought Olga Tokarczuk was an excellent choice. I am slowly wending my way through her books. There are a few not available in English but available in other Western European languages. I thought Peter Handke was an excellent choice from the literary point of view. I have read eleven of his novels and now plan to read some more. Not all of his works, of course, have been translated into English. However, the concern about him was his views on Serbian nationalism and his support for Milosevic. PEN International issued a a strongly worded criticism of the award. I have been following the issue in the German and Austrian press and, while it has been divided, there has been a lot of criticism of Handke and the Nobel Prize Committee. His publisher, Suhrkamp, even issued a long defence of Handke (in English).

I have mixed views on this. I deplore Handke’s views on Serbian nationalism, though having read a couple of books this year by the Serbian author Miloš Crnjanski, I am much more aware that the Serbs have not had a particularly happy history.

If we are to decide not to read books by people whose views we do not like we will be reducing our reading a lot. Many authors, for example, supported the Nazis, including, famously, Céline, Henry Williamson, Knut Hamsun, Ezra Pound, Francis Stuart, Unity and Diana Mitford and doubtless many authors I cannot recall. Writers, of course, also supported Stalin, Mao and other unsavoury characters and, of course, there have been writers who have justified colonialism, been sexist, racist, homophobic, beaten up their wives, and so on. It is even possible that some writers voted for Donald Trump or Brexit. Do we stop reading them? The answer, of course, is that each person must make the decision for themselves but I shall certainly continue to read Handke.

While we are on the Nobel Prize, I do hope that they broaden their scope next year and I have three candidates for them. I have already mentioned César Aira and would add Ismail Kadare, a man who was also somewhat politically compromised but a brilliant writer, and a somewhat unexpected choice, the Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov. I have read two of his books this year and thought they were brilliant. I had the opportunity to see him a couple of months ago when he was a participant at a discussion on immigration. He was asked whether he would be likely to get the Nobel Prize and he responded, as we might expect, with a story. When he was at school, he was expecting to win a medal but it went to someone else more politically connected. He added that that has been the story of his life and probably would be with the Nobel Prize. I hope he is wrong because he deserves it and it would be interesting for a Central Asian to win it. I would point out that no Argentinian, no Albanian and no Uzbek has yet won it.

The controversy over the Booker Prize seems minor in comparison. Contrary to their rules, they decided on a joint winner. I have not read Girl, Woman, Other but I did enjoy The Testaments. However, I would have given the award to Ducks, Newburyport, which I thought was a brilliant book.

Earlier this year, there were a couple of articles about book blogs. The first was Top 25 Book Blogs 2019. To my surprise. I had heard of very few of them and, to be quite honest, when I looked at them, I could see why. The article was from a Danish site whose articles, apart from this one, seem to be mainly in Danish. How you can have a list of the 25 best book blogs and not include The Literary Saloon, , The Untranslated , Lizok’s Bookshelf, ArabLit, Tony’s Reading List, The Neglected Books Page, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and many others (apologies to those omitted) is beyond me.

The other article was The Millions Will Live on, But the Indie Book Blog Is Dead. The article seems to think the only worthwhile book blog is The Millions. While I do look at it now and then, I have never been overly impressed. The only other book blogs it mentions are both defunct – The Elegant Variation and Bookslut. Both were worthwhile blogs but, as I said, both are defunct, so how can the article claim that indie book blog is dead, without actually looking at other blogs? To use a technical English term – Bollocks. The article comes from a site calling itself Vulture with such original articles as The 100 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now and Daisy Ridley Pledges Loyalty to Baby Yoda, Confirms Porgs Are Trash whatever that may mean.

Talking of defunct blogs, the sad news this year is that the wonderful blog The Untranslated has been discontinued. I learned a huge amount from it and if you do not know it, the old posts are still online and well worth reading. I hope that Andrei, author of the blog, will re-emerge with another venture.

It seems that I have not been able to really keep away from politics and, indeed, I must confess to reading two Brexit novels: Ali Smith‘s Spring and Ian McEwan‘s The Cockroach. I have not read a Trump book but he does briefly pop up in Ducks, Newburyport. However, it is not just Brexit and Trump. I read twenty-one Turkish novels this year and most of them had political overtones or undertones. From racism in Sweden in Johannes Anyuru‘s De kommer att drunkna i sina mödrars tårar (They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears) to Trump’s immigration policies (though he is not mentioned by name) in Valeria Luiselli‘s superb El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive), from US interference in Guatemala in Mario Vargas Llosa‘s Tiempos recios [Hard Times] to John Lanchester‘s Trumpian British Wall in The Wall, I seem to have read a lot of political books this year.

And now to the figures. I have read 138 books this year (surprisingly, exactly the same as last year). As my country of the year, Turkey was clear top, with twenty-one books. There were forty-three different nationalities, with twelve books from Argentinian writers, nine French, eight Russian, six Spanish and five English and five Italian as well as five books by the Romanian writerMircea Cărtărescu. Nothing else above four. Less well represented countries read this year include Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ecuador, Georgia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Mongolia, Montenegro, Niger, Palestine, Serbia, Sweden, Uruguay and Uzbekistan.

I read only thirty-six books by women (26%), down from last year’s forty-three. However, I must say there were some really first-class books by women writers this year. I have already mentioned above three long books by women I really enjoyed: Lucy Ellmann‘s Ducks, Newburyport, Nino Haratischwili‘s Das achte Leben (The Eighth Life) and
Valeria Luiselli‘s El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive). I have also enjoyed other books by women writers. Esther Kinsky‘s Am Fluss (River) was a gem. This year I read another gem by her: Hain (Grove). I read it in German but it will be out in English in 2020 from Fitzcarraldo

One of the several Argentinian writers I read this year was Pola Oloixarac. Her Las constelaciones oscuras (Dark Constellations) was one of the most intelligent novels I have read with a scientific theme. Ibtisam Azem‘s وسفر الاختفاء (The Book of Disappearance) was a very original novel on the Palestinian situation, which is well worth reading, whatever your views on the conflict. Finally, I must mention Olga Tokarczuk. I read the four of her books available in English and, as mentioned above, I hope to get round next year to those of her works translated in French but not English. As also mentioned above, she is a superb writer and fully deserving of her prize.

While I enjoyed everything I read this year, I do not think the men were of quite the same level. Apart from Tokarczuk, there were four other writers of whose work I read four or more books: Patrick Modiano, Eduardo Mendoza, César Aira and Mircea Cărtărescu. Modiano and Mendoza are excellent writers but not, in my view, great writers. Aira is sui generis, unique and brilliant. I have read twenty-nine of his works and will continue to plough through his oeuvre, though some are difficult to obtain. None of the five Cărtărescu works I read this year has been translated into English, which is a great pity, as he is a brilliant writer and he should be better known.

I note that I have read twenty-six books that have not (yet) been translated into English, which must be a high. The sad reason for this is simply that far too many worthwhile books are not being translated into English. The most recent book I read and reviewed was Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Travesti [Travesty], which has been translated into ten different languages (at least) but not English. My apologies for this, if you do not read these languages but some of them will come out in English anyway and I have a vain hope that, just occasionally, some enterprising publisher will decide to publish them in English – eventually. Another book I read and reviewed recently – Magda Szabó‘s Abigél (Abigail) – will be published in January 2020, fifty years after it was first published in Hungarian. A French version appeared in 2017, a German one 1978, an Italian one in 2007, a Latvian one in 1996, a Polish one in 1977 and a Romanian one in 2003. At least we got there eventually.

Last year I mentioned several books that were to appear this year. Elfriede Jelinek‘s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead) (in English translation), Eleanor CattonBirnam Wood and Zadie Smith‘s Fraud were all due to appear this year. All three have disappeared, though I have contacted the Yale University Press re the Jelinek, and they tell me it should be out in a couple of years. Vikram Seth‘s A Suitable Girl has not disappeared but nor has it appeared. Given my forecasts clearly put a curse on forthcoming books, I shall not predict any forthcoming books, except for three – César Aira’s Artforum, which will be out in English and I shall be reviewing it, as I already have a copy, I have already mentioned Esther Kinsky‘s Hain (Grove) and, finally, there is a distinct possibility that Hilary Mantel‘s The Mirror and the Light, the third in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, will appear, but I would not bet on it.

I am normally extraordinarily lazy at looking who is looking where on my website but I have done it for this year and, to me, it is somewhat surprising. The most viewed page after the homepage was the page on Ifeoma Okoye‘s Behind the Clouds. The next two were also both African, with, less surprisingly, Sérotonine (Serotonin) in fourth place. Middle England was the only British novel in the top fifty, which had no novels from the US and Spain, only Sérotonine (Serotonin) from France and only one from Italy. Perhaps I should stop reading Western European and North American novels.

As next year brings Brexit and the US presidential elections, it would seem to be a time to escape more and more into books, so I wish you all good reading in 2020.

End of year review 2018

In a recent interview, Pat Barker said Contemporary fiction is going through a “so what” moment, with very few novels generating a real sense of passion in readers and fiction, or the reading of fiction, was not in good health. I very much disagree with her and imagine she has spent too much time reading the likes of Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgård and other popular novelists and is unaware of or has been ignoring the many first-class works published by the ever-increasing number of small presses, who have continued to publish some excellent works this year.

She is not the only one. At the beginning of the year Tim Lott complained about modern literary fiction but failed to mention any author writing in a language other than English, where the most exciting literary fiction is being written.

In March I had a go at will Self (whom, surely, Tim Lott would not have liked) for saying the novel is doomed. As I pointed out, the novel is not doomed and certainly not the literary novel, particularly the literary novel originally written in languages other than English.

A difficult novel?

I wonder what Barker’s views were on Anna Burns’ Milkman, which won the Man Booker Prize this year. Some commentators claimed it was too difficult, a comment refuted by Sam Leith. I have read all the books in his list at the end of his article, except for the Cusk novel. I wonder how many Barker has read and what she thought of them. I think she needs to look around more and she will find some wonderful books out there. I certainly did.

As happens every year, I only read books from one country for a period during the early part of the year. This year the country was Catalonia. I read twenty books from twenty different Catalan authors, partially in sympathy with the Catalan independence movement, and enjoyed them all. Sadly, quite a few were not available in English.

Jaume Cabré‘s Jo confesso (Confessions), which is available in English and lots of other languages (I saw a Greek version at the London Book Fair) and Lluís-Anton BaulenasAlfons XIV : un crim d’estat [Alfonso XIV: A Crime of State] (not available in English) were particular favourites but there were no disappointments. If you have not read any Catalan novels, I would strongly encourage you to do so. There are twenty-three Catalan authors on my website and quite a few have been translated into English.

I read 138 novels this year (last year 132).  43 were by women (35 last year, so a slight improvement).  Apart from Catalonia, less well-represented countries include Basque, Bosnia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Greece, Greenland, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Latvia, Norway, Panama, Philippines, Poland, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Syria, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

One of César Aira novel I read

Of the countries that I read most, Catalonia was, of course, in first place followed by Argentina (nine, of which six were by César Aira), England (eight), Scotland (seven, six by Ali Smith), France (seven), Japan (six), Norway (six), China (six, four by Mo Yan), Croatia (four, three by Dubravka Ugrešić), Hungary (four, all by Miklós Szentkuthy), Italy (four) and Mexico (four).

Much of my reading, as in the past, was of books published by independent presses and, once again, they have produced a wonderful assortment of books for our enjoyment. Here are the ones whose books I read this year. If you are short of reading matter, you could no worse than browse their offerings: And Other Stories, Arcadia, Archipelago, Bellevue Literary Press, Cadmus, Canongate, Catapult, Contra Mundum, Dalkey Archive Press, Editions de Minuit, Fitzcarraldo, Granta, Grove Atlantic, Hoopoe, Inside the Castle, Istros, José Corti, Lilliput, Maclehose Press, New Directions, New Vessel Press, Nordisk, Oneworld Publications, Open Letter, Other Press, Parthian, Phébus, Peirene, Pushkin Press, Restless, Riverhead Press, Scribe Publications, Seren, Serpent’s Tail, Skyhorse, Tilted Axis, Two Dollar Radio, Urbanomic, Verba Mundi and Virago. A big thanks to all of them. My reading this year would have been much less interesting without them and also so would yours. I would also add thanks to the independent presses not mentioned here, all too often because I did not have time to get round to their books but would have done so if I had seriously curtailed my other activities.

I do make an effort to read only books that I am going to enjoy, so it is difficult to do a best-of list. There are plenty of those around, though, sadly, translated literature is generally not very well represented. As usual, Large-Hearted Boy has a comprehensive list. The TLS, for example, had a very comprehensive list of best books, particularly in non-fiction. However, there only six translated novels, three proposed by the admirable Lydia Davis and only two published this year and one published next year. Not surprisingly, we have to turn to World Literature Today for a comprehensive list of 2018’s translated highlights. Other lists of interest: Translating Women and The Best Reviewed Books of 2018: Literature in Translation. Best slightly quirky list: Best Books to Pretend to Have Read in 2018.

There were several firsts. I read and reviewed my first graphic novel: Hariton Pushwagner‘s Soft City, prompted by Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina being longlisted for the Man Booker. While I certainly enjoyed it, I think I much prefer words rather than pictures in my novels.

I read three collaborative novels this year definitely a new experience. These were Shatila Stories, a novel written by a group of refugees in the Shatila refugee camp, and two novels by Wu Ming, the Italian collective. All three were certainly interesting reads, though I am not entirely sure that this is the future of the novel.

I also read and reviewed, for the first time, on my site, a novel in which a character has a medical procedure to change sex: Rita Indiana‘s La mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle). It is not the first transgender novel on my site: this one is. I suspect that we shall see more novels by and about transgender people.

Here is a rundown on the highlights of my reading this year. Apart from the Catalan works mentioned above, I particularly enjoyed the following:

I continue to make my way through the oeuvre of César Aira. I find his work to be particularly original and it must only be a matter of time till he wins the Nobel Prize, if it is ever awarded again. Quite a few have been published in English, mainly by New Directions.

The English cover of Patria (Homeland)

Sticking to the Spanish-speaking world, Fernando Aramburu‘s Patria (Homeland) is a book you are likely to hear about next year. It concerns the ETA, the Basque terrorists/freedom fighters (depending on your point of view) and Spain’s attempt to come to terms with the issue. It has been hugely successful in Spain and has been translated into several languages. An eight-part TV series based on the book will be shown in Spain in 2020. It is coming out in English in March 2019.

Sticking with the Spanish-speaking world, I recently read Yolanda Oreamuno‘s La ruta de su evasión [The Route of Her Escape], a Costa Rican feminist novel from 1948 which I found excellent and I am surprised that it has not been translated into any other language.

The most controversial novel on my site this year was also, perhaps, from Latin America. Javier Pedro Zabala‘s The Mad Patagonian. I say perhaps because we do not know who Zabala is and where is from. We do know he is not Javier Pedro Zabala, as there is no such person.

The novel had a detailed biography of the author, which I was able to show was, at least, in part fake. The publishers replied in detail to my claims but admitted that the name, at least, was a pseudonym. While I enjoyed the book and said it was not a bad book, it was not as great as they claimed.

Moving to Asia I particularly enjoyed a couple of newly translated books from South-East Asia. Sayaka Murata‘s ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman) is a Japanese novel about a young woman who takes a temporary job working in a convenience store and, eighteen years later, is still there. Despite an unpromising subject, it works very well, partially, perhaps, because it is based on the author’s own experiences. It is also one of quite a few novels I read this year with a fairly common theme – the person who does not fit in with societal norms. If I were a psychologist, I would say these people were often on the autistic spectrum but, as I am not a psychologist, I won’t.

The other one is from China: Yan Lianke‘s 日熄 (The Day the Sun Died). Quite a few of Yan Lianke’s novels have been translated into English and I hope to get round to the others some time. This one is about burials (which are not allowed in China – the issue also appears in Mo Yan‘s novels) and about a village (Yan Lianke’s own village – he is a character in the novel) whose inhabitants nearly all start sleepwalking.

The Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov currently lives in London, which may explain why four of his novels have been translated into English. His Jinlar Bazmi (The Devil’s Dance) appeared in English this year and a very fine novel it is. It is about the Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy, who wrote the first full-length novel in Uzbek but who was executed in Stalin’s time. He mixes in Qodiriy’s story with the story of nineteenth century Uzbekistan and, in particular, the Great Game.

Sticking to the East but moving a bit West, specifically to Russia, Vladimir Sharov sadly died this year. I read two of his novels: Репетиции (Rehearsals) and До и во время (Before and During). Both books have something of a religious theme but don’t let this put you off. Both also jump between the present time and a historical period in Russia and make for fascinating reading.

Staying in Eastern Europe and, specifically, Hungary, I have now read all the books of Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary series published in French and superb books they are, both anarchic and highly original. Sadly, Phébus, the French publisher, have stopped publishing them. Contra Mundum are planning to publish the entire series in English, which will be most welcome, but they seem to have been a bit quiet recently.

Moving further West. I have read more Norwegian books than I usually do. I read two books by Jon Fosse and two by Dag Solstad. While I was well aware of both, they are two of the many authors I should have read and have just not got round to. As regards Fosse, Lars Hertervig, the protagonist of his two Melancholia books and a very real person, is one of those mentioned above, someone who does not fit into into his society. Fosse’s portrait of insanity is masterful.

Two new Solstad novels came out in English this year, which means I still have to read a couple of his novels that appeared before. This year’s two – Armand V. (Armand V.) and T. Singer (T. Singer) – are both different, one quite political (Norway-US relations are key) as seen through the eyes of a Norwegian diplomat, with the novel essentially the footnotes to a novel and the other about an ordinary man who is, like most ordinary people, less ordinary. Both are very original and well worth reading. Nevertheless, they do not seem to have garnered the publicity they deserve.

Esther Kinsky clearly spent some time in Hackney, North London. Her Am Fluss (River) is a brilliantly evocative novel about the narrator’s time in Hackney, about the local river, the River Lea, and about other rivers. It is one of those novels that, on the face of it, might seem boring, but is so well written that it is a wonderful work that I cannot recommend too highly.

Paolo Cognetti‘s Le otto montagne (The Eight Mountains) has been translated into quite a few languages, including English but seems to have been more successful elsewhere than in the UK and US. It is a superb novel about the joys of mountaineering.

Closer to home, I enjoyed Jonathan Coe‘s Middle England, an anti-Brexit novel and a return to form for Coe.

This year I have been reading Ali Smith. It has been suggested that she is the only likely British candidate for the Nobel Prize and I could not disagree. She certainly one of the best if not the best current British novelist.

The German cover for Children of the Dead

I have not really caught up with what is coming out next year – I like to be surprised – but will mention a few. Elfriede Jelinek‘s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead) is, in theory, coming out from Yale University Press. At least that is what they told me a couple of years ago. However, there is no reference to it on their website. Wikipedia confirms this but cites me as the main source. So maybe it has been delayed again. I read it a while back and it is a brilliant book and a devastating attack on Austria.

Michel Houellebecq‘s new book Sérotonine is coming out in French on 4 January. Here is a link from the publisher’s website about it (in French). Ce roman sur les ravages d’un monde sans bonté, sans solidarité, aux mutations devenues incontrôlables, est aussi un roman sur le remords et le regret. [This novel of the ravages of a world without goodness, without solidarity, with changes which have become unchecked, is also a novel about remorse and regret.]. If I were paranoid, knowing of his dislike for the British, I would think he was having a go at Brexit.

As mentioned above Fernando Aramburu‘s Patria (Homeland) will be appearing in March.

The Comoros are not the first place you would look for to find a great novel but I really enjoyed Ali Zamir‘s Anguille sous Roche (it means Eel under Rock). Jacaranda will be publishing an English translation in 2019, entitled A Girl Called Eel. I can recommend it.

Vasily Grossman‘s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) is one of the great World War II novels. He had previously published За правое дело [For a Just Cause] which had far more success in the Soviet Union which, unlike its successor, more or less toes the Soviet line. This book has been translated into French but not into English. Its original title was Stalingrad as it is about Grossman’s experiences in Stalingrad during the siege of that city. To make matters more complicated, he did publish a book called Stalingrad but it is a book of his reporting, i.e. non-fiction. To make matters even more complicated, the New York Review of Books will be publishing За правое дело in English under the title Stalingrad in 2019.

Various English-speaking women writers will be publishing new books in 2019. Margaret Atwood will be publishing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale called The Testaments. Eleanor Catton will be publishing a book called Birnam Wood, set in a remote area of New Zealand where scores of ultra-rich foreigners are building fortress-like homes and stockpiling weapons in preparation for a coming global catastrophe. However, this was announced a couple of years ago and seems to have fallen off the radar like the Jelinek.

In Europe, Jeanette Winterson‘s Frankissstein will breathe new life into Mary Shelley’s horror story, grappling with issues of identity, technology and sexuality. Zadie Smith‘s new novel will be called Fraud and is inspired by real events from the 1830s to the 1870s England, a time when the streets of North West London still bordered fields and Kilburn’s ‘Shoot-Up Hill’ was named for a highwayman. Sticking to England but changing sex, I enjoyed Max Porter‘s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and shall look forward to his Lanny, coming out in 2019

Enrique Vila-MatasMac y su contratiempo will be published in English by New Directions as Mac’s Problem and László Krasznahorkai‘s Baron Wenckeim’s Homecoming will be coming out in May.

Clarice Lispector is one of Brazil’s foremost writers. New Directions will be publishing her The Besieged City in 2019, which I am looking forward to.

Finally, will Vikram Seth‘s A Suitable Girl, a follow-up to his A Suitable Boy, appear in 2019? The answer is definitely maybe.

If you want to know more, The Literary Saloon has A list of lists of forthcoming books.

It just remains me for me to thank all of my fellow bloggers, from whom I learned much this year as every year. You will find a list of many of them on the right, further up.

I wish you happy reading in 2019.

End of year review

She didn’t win the Nobel Prize and could not remember the words but she was there

If, twelve months ago, you had said that Donald Trump would be elected as US President, the UK would vote to leave the EU, Theresa May would become prime minister of the UK, Bob Dylan would win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Leicester City would win the English Premiership and the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series, you would have been quite rightly locked up. But, fortunately, you did not predict any of those things and nor did I. In a year that has also seen Aleppo, ISIS leaving Mosul and Palmyra and retaking Palmyra, the European refugee crisis, Putin playing games in Ukraine, Hollande becoming the first post-war president of France not to stand for a second term, the Zika virus, the Turkish failed coup d’état and the vicious repercussions, the athletics doping (no, it wasn’t just the Russians. Ask Lance Armstrong) and leadership turmoil in Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea and, doubtless, other countries, I can only start with a negative approach.

Things I did not do this year

  • Vote for Trump or Brexit
  • Play Pokémon Go
  • Go to a Wellness Clinic/Seminar or, indeed, do anything involving wellness
  • Read Knausgaard or Ferrante. Nor I did read Matar’s The Return, The Underground Railway, My Name Is Lucy Barton or any of the Man Booker shortlist. I may do so at some time in the future. But not Knausgaard or Ferrante. This list claims to be the list of lists of best books (English-language version) of 2016. I have read two of them. I may read a few more.
  • Use the following words: gift (as a verb. The verbal form of gift is give); curate; literally when I meant figuratively (my daughter gave me a mug which had on it the phrase I am figuratively dying for a cup of tea; she thinks that I am pedantic. She is right); post-truth (Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2016 but first coined in 2004 in Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie and first used in a UK book in Peter Oborne’s The Rise of Political Lying in 2005); alt-right; mindfulness; sharing economy
  • Watched The Hunger Game of Thrones or whatever it is called.
  • What you should be looking at on Instagram – bookporn

  • Take a photo of my dinner for Instagram or post a naked selfie on Instagram. Indeed, I did not do anything on Instagram, not least because I do not have an Instagram account. And nor did I take a selfie, naked or clothed.
  • Read Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream. Yes I know that Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review and that others braver than I have done so but I suspect I am neither intellectually or physically able to cope with it. My bad. Sorry, Michael.
  • Compile a list of must-read or your favourite books. There is no such thing as a must-read book and I do not know what your favourite books are and I would not presume to guess.
  • Read any book with the word girl in the title. See my last year’s review for more on this.
  • Ride an Uber taxi or stay in an AirBnB room
  • Use WhatsApp
  • Tweet
  • Buy anything that was advertised as The Perfect Gift. Perfect for whom? The seller, of course, because he wants to get rid of it.

Things I did do this year

The longest title of the year

I read 148 books from forty-five different nationalities. Forty-four were by women which is not a good ratio but better than previous years. Quite a few were from relatively small nations, including: Basque, Bolivia, Burundi, Catalonia, Comoros, Cyprus, Estonia, Greenland, Inuit, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Oman, Palestine and Puerto Rico. The most read nationality was Japan, because I focussed only on Japan early in the year, with USA second and Russia third. The longest title was Hendrik Groen‘s Pogingen om iets van het leven te maken. Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 jaar (Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old) and the shortest Claire-Louise Bennett‘s Pond and Thea Astley‘s Coda.

Ferrante 100 hundred years before Ferrante, one of my favourites

As mentioned above, I seemed to avoid the Booker Prize shortlist books, not because I thought they were no good – far from it – but nothing really attracted me enough to read it, instead of what I had planned to read. I can certainly see myself reading one or two of them at some time but then I might not and the same applied, more or less to the other prizes, except the French prizes

I also note, though this was not planned, that I have managed to read at least one book from every decade of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, I am well aware that there are many very fine novels out there from days of yore that I have not read. The earliest novel I read this year was Sibilla Aleramo‘s Una donna (A Woman at Bay; later: A Woman) (first published in 1906) who was writing Ferrante-type novels a hundred years before Ferrante, and doing, in my opinion, a better job.

Talking of women writers, too much neglected on this site, I would mention some others I enjoyed. I read three of Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer‘s novels and very much enjoyed them all and may well read some more. My Korean reading has been somewhat neglected but I did enjoy Han Kang‘s two novels, both of which were fairly gruesome but very well written. I read seven novels by the Australian writer Thea Astley and am convinced that, outside Australia, she has been sorely neglected. Zofia Nałkowska‘s Granica (Boundary) was first published in 1935 but has only just appeared in English and is well worth reading. Finally, I will mention a novel that did get good publicity at least in its native United States but did seem to do so well in the UK or elsewhere: C. E. Morgan‘s The Sport of Kings, though the Daily Telegraph did say it might be a candidate for the Great American Novel. If horse racing is not your thing, do not let that put you off. It is not my thing either but I really enjoyed this book.

The Great Basque novel?

Of the men, I was glad to have finally read Max Aub‘s El laberinto mágico [The Magic Labyrinth] six volume Spanish Civil War series. Yes, it is thoroughly partial (anti-Franco) but it does tell the story of the ordinary people opposing Franco in great detail. I do really enjoy a good long novel and this year read two excellent ones from smaller countries: Ramon Saizarbitoria‘s Martutene (Martutene) and Bakhtiyar Ali‘s Ghazalnūs wa bāghakānı̄ khayāl (I Stared at the Night of the City), the first one Basque and the second Kurdish. I really enjoyed Michal Ajvaz‘s Zlatý věk (The Golden Age), a thoroughly original novel. I must just mention three novels which deserve to be better known: Rober Racine‘s Le Mal de Vienne [The Vienna Sickness], a wonderful post-modernist romp, which has not been translated into any other language; Yoshikichi Furui‘s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) and Kyusaku Yumeno‘s ドグラマグラ [Dogra Magra], also sadly not available in English.

A well-known writer I enjoyed

Of the well-known names, most were not terribly exciting. I enjoyed Zadie Smith‘s Swing Time and Don DeLillo‘s Zero K but new works from Ian McEwan, Vargas Llosa and Eimar McBride disappointed. I still have something of a backlog in this area.

Will we enjoy the new Murakami?

I have looked at what is coming out next year and have not been terribly impressed so far but then the most interesting novels to come out in 2016 were not known to me this time last year. In 2017 we have the new Murakami (Men Without Women) (sounds like Hemingway, doesn’t it?), the first novel by renowned short story writer George Saunders (Lincoln in Bardo) and a new work from the eighty-four year old Robert Coover (Huck Out West), all of which may or may not be interesting. In Spain, there is a new Javier Cercas (another Spanish Civil War novel), a new Vila-Matas and a new Luis Goytisolo.

So onto 2017. If you thought 2016 was bad, remember 2017 will see President-elect Trumpelstiltskin become President Trumpelstiltskin. Theresa Maybot and her Three Stooges will continue to dither around on Brexit, breakfast, brisket, Brontosaurus, bric-à-brac and brain fade. We have three elections in Europe – France, Germany and the Netherlands – where a right-wing nut and/or a right-wing nut party will do well and may even win. Italy and Greece will face financial collapse. Italy may face a major volcanic eruption. And Putin, well, he will do something unpleasant. Last year I wished you a Trump-free 2016. That didn’t work out well so this year I can only wish you a joyful, interesting and exciting selection of books to read. I shall make only one prediction. A singer/songwriter will not win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But only because David Bowie and Leonard Cohen died this year. Though, of course, Patti Smith is a singer/songwriter, did turn up at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm this year (to represent Dylan) and is a published poet. And it is about time a woman won the Nobel Prize for Literature…

End of year review

I have never really understand why others have their annual reviews early in December. Don’t they read any books between then and the end of the year? I certainly do. Like others, I have been browsing the end of year reviews – you can catch up with them at Large-Hearted Boy. I was surprised to read many reviewers saying what a good year it has been – at least in the English speaking world as other cultures seem not to do this sort of thing so much. Frankly, I have not been too impressed.

Ellis Sharp - an author I enjoyed

Ellis Sharp – an author I enjoyed

On this side of the pond, we have had Kazuo Ishiguro‘s disappointing The Buried Giant, Jonathan Coe‘s OK but not much more than that Number 11, Rupert Thomson‘s OK but not much more than that Katherine Carlyle and Jeanette Winterson‘s interesting but certainly not brilliant reimagining of Shakespeare – The Gap of Time. I shall probably get round to Pat Barker‘s Noonday, Tom McCarthy‘s Satin Island, David Mitchell‘s Slade House and Kate Atkinson‘s A God in Ruins but none is high on my list. I did, however read three books by Ellis Sharp, all published this year and enjoyed all three. I am well aware that they are not everyone’s cup of tea but they are certainly more original than most works coming out of this country. All power to the two small publishers, Zoilus and Jetstone, that published them.

Across the Irish Sea, I enjoyed Anne Enright‘s The Green Road. I will probably get round to Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone and Paul Murray‘s The Mark and the Void.

Another book I enjoyed

Another book I enjoyed

Over the pond I read Jonathan Franzen‘s Purity and quite enjoyed it. I did not enjoy Mark Danielewski‘s The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May but I don’t think many people did. I did, however, enjoy Alexandra Kleeman‘s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. Not much else from over there has seemed particularly exciting this year. I might get round to Man Booker favourite Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life but I probably won’t. I might also get round to the winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, from Jamaica but I might not. I have read three on the longlist but none on the shortlist. Nothing really inspired me.

A book that was called Woman when I read it

A book that was called Woman when I read it

I have managed to avoid any book with the word girl in the title. No Girl Gone , Girl on the Train, Luckiest Girl Alive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Girl Online, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, The Good Girl, The Boston Girl, The Girl from Krakow, Not That Kind of Girl and A Danish Girl, though last year I read Ismail Kadare‘s E penguara: E penguara: Requiem për Linda B. (A Girl in Exile) in French and translated the title as A Banished Woman (woman, not girl) but now see that Vintage will be publishing it in May 2016 as A Girl in Exile. What happened to women?

As for books in other languages, things have been a bit more impressive.

Another worthwhile book from Enrique Vila-Matas

Another worthwhile book from Enrique Vila-Matas

I did not see much praise in the end of the year lists for Enrique Vila-MatasKassel no invita a la lógica (The Illogic of Kassel) which appeared in Spanish in 2014 but in English this year. Not his best but another fine work. Some people enjoyed his Because She Never Asked but that is only one of the stories in his Exploradores del abismo [Explorers of the Abyss], which I did read this year and particularly enjoyed Because She Never Asked. I read Kamel Daoud‘s Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation) last year in French but it came out in English this year and was certainly worthwhile.

I tried – I really did try – to enjoy Elsa Ferrante. Not bad but what was all the fuss about? I managed to read the first two but gave up at that point. Am I missing something? It would appear so but there seem to be so many better books. Knausgaard I have long since given up. I think he produced another book in English this year. If so, I did not read it and almost certainly never will. I don’t get him, either.

One of the books from a small publisher I really enjoyed

One of the books from a small publisher I really enjoyed

Inevitably, it is the small publishers that most impressed me. I read and enjoyed Alisa Ganieva‘s Праздничная гора (The Mountain and the Wall), Leila S Chudori‘s Pulang (Home) and Fiston Mwanza Mujila‘s Tram 83 (Tram 83), all from the very wonderful Deep Vellum. Cuban Books gave us a few Cuban translations and I read and enjoyed Mirta Yáñez‘s Sangra por la herida (Bleeding Wound). Twisted Spoon published Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic‘s Gotická duše (Gothic Soul) this year. Hardly a new book – it first appeared in Czech in 1900 – but worth the wait.

A first-class Georgian novel

A first-class Georgian novel

I would like to mention five books that particularly impressed me this year. The first is a book that I had been wanting to read for some time and it finally appeared in English this year: Mikheil Javakhishvili‘s Kvachi. It was a real treat to read and we can only heartily thank Dalkey Archive Press for bringing out so many Georgian works, which do not seem to be getting the publicity they deserve.

Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Лавр (Laurus), was a wonderful tale of medieval Russia, superbly translated by Lisa Hayden (of Lizok’s Bookshelf , the essential blog on Russian literature) and published by another publisher worthy of attention: OneWorld, who also published Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation) and the Man Booker prizewinner, Marlon James’A Brief History of Seven Killings.

I read Héctor Aguilar Camín‘s Morir en el golfo (Death in Veracruz) in Spanish a while ago and I thought it an excellent novel. Thirty-five years after it was first published in Spanish, it has now appeared in English from Schaffner Press, a small Tucson-based publisher. I know very little about their other authors but I am glad to see that they have published the Camín. Sadly, it has been barely noticed.

I was very glad that another small press, the Dorothy Project, published the first novel by Austrian writer Marianne Fritz to have been published in English, Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse (The Weight of Things). Inevitably, it only got a few reviews and barely a mention in end of year lists.

And finally, Máirtín Ó Cadhain‘s Irish-language classic Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust) made it into English. Read the book! See the film!

An excellent Russian novel yet to be published in English

An excellent Russian novel yet to be published in English

In late winter/early spring, I did my annual one-nationality-readathon which, this year, was Russia. It confirmed to me that there is a lot of interesting work coming out of Russia. I particularly enjoyed Vasily Golovanov‘s Остров или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий [Island or A Justification for Meaningless Travel], which has yet to appear in English. I hope an English-language publisher does pick it up.

One book I read this year that has not been translated into English but almost certainly will be is Mathias Enard‘s Boussole [Compass]. It was not the same as Zone (Zone) by any means but you can see the similarities.

Not too much excites me of the announced books for next year. You can see some examples here, here, here and here. Two books that I have read in the original are coming out in English next year and I can recommend both. Clemens Meyer‘s Im Stein (Hearts Like Diamonds) has been translated by Katy Derbyshire of the blog LoveGerman Books and one of my favourite books of last year, Rafael ChirbesEn la orilla (On the Edge) is coming out in January.

For me, the biggest effort of the year has been converting my website to WordPress which has been an interesting experience. WordPress has lots of advantages but some strange quirks which I am slowly learning and/or adapting to. One advantage has been a link checker plug-in. I am well aware that you can get a link checker for any site but a built-in one makes it much easier. To my surprise/horror, I have 22219 links on my site. This is not as much as it may seem, as many of them are internal. For example, every page has a set of links at the top of the page to show you where you are and how you can move up to a higher level. Even so I have a lot and, to my greater surprise, quite a lot (several thousand) were either broken (i.e. led nowhere) or were redirects. Redirects mean that the link was automatically redirected. This might be a simple redirect to the same page but with a different URL, e.g. because the site has moved from http to https or they have changed their main page (guardian.co.uk to theguardian.com) or generally redesigned their site but had a redirect to the new page. However, it could also be a redirect to an error page (as you will get on my site if you enter an invalid URL), to a different page, often but not always the front page or a page which it tries to guess may be the right one, which sometimes it is and sometimes it is not (thank you, salon.com).

Several things surprised me. First of all, I was surprised at the number of sites which, like me, have not only redesigned their site but changed their URLs. Secondly, I was surprised at the number of sites that have died, from the interesting Finnish literary site www.kirjasto.sci.fi to, the past week, essortment.com, an encyclopedia-type site. Thirdly, I was surprised at the number of sites that have simply removed very interesting page from their websites. Fourthly, I remain surprised that every day, yes, every day, some site disappears, some site removes some pages, some site changes its URLs and/or some site has temporary difficulties (e.g. bandwidth exceeded, we are aware of the problem and are working on it). It is often ten-twelve sites a day. We have all known that the Internet is fluid and that sites come and go. Hosts like Geocities disappear or, like Yahoo, remove massive amounts of personal sites. Bloggers get bored, move on, die. However, seeing this every day brings home to me how impermanent the Internet is. Most books, I imagine, get saved somewhere, unless produced by a very small press, a vanity press or a self-publishing press, though this is presumably less so in this day and age of e-books. But websites, unless picked up by archive.org (which has a very English-language and, indeed, very North American bias) or something similar just disappear. Lots of good stuff is going.

Can Donald read?

Can Donald read?

I hope that you have enjoyed my main site and my blog and found some interesting books to read and that you have discovered lots of worthy gems here and elsewhere. I maintain that it is something of a golden age for quality novels, particularly if you are lucky enough to be able to read books in other languages. This end of the year review would not be complete without a big thank you to all the excellent bloggers out there, who provide me with much of the interesting information about and knowledge of books and authors, far more than I obtain from more mainstream sites. And, of course, a thanks to the authors for writing them and publishers for publishing them and, where appropriate, translators for translating them. May I wish you a Trump-free, posturing-Putin-free, World War III-free 2016 and, above all, lots of good reading of books from all over the world.

Adam Mars-Jones

A Mars Bar


Marianne Faithfull

Private Eye wittingly refers to him as Adam Mars Bar. Whether this is just a feeble pun on his name or some reference to the alleged Mars Bar scandal, I don’t know and I don’t really care. In any case, this week Adam Mars-Jones won the Hatchet Job prize for most scathing review, a review of Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall. I have not read By Nightfall and probably won’t. The only book of Cunningham’s that I have read – A Home at the End of the World – I was not terribly impressed with, though I have not read The Hours, his Virginia Woolf novel which got a lot of praise and was made into a successful film. Mars-Jones’ beef with Cunningham is that the novel is, to use his words, armour-plated with literary references . He claims that this makes Cunningham’s book look lost. He also does not like Cunningham’s Thoughts About Art. I am not sure that this is a valid criticism but, as I have not read the book, I cannot say now annoying it is or how much it detracts from the book. Frankly, I preferred Geoff Dyer’s review of Julian Barnes‘s A Sense of Ending which, of course, won the Man Booker Prize. I am likewise not a great fan of Barnes. I thought he peaked with Flaubert’s Parrot and, while his novels are certainly, on the whole, good, they are not great. I have not read A Sense of Ending and am not sure if I will, though it does have the advantage of being short. However, Dyer’s comments on the book – It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness! sort of sum up Barnes’ work.

Here are the actual reviews that were short-listed:

  • Geoff Dyer on Julian Barnes’ A Sense of Ending
  • Adam Mars-Jones on Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall
  • Mary Beard on Rome by Robert Hughes (Reader, be warned. Skip the first 200 pages and start this book at chapter six; The “ancient” parts of this book are littered with howlers)
  • Camilla Long on With the Kisses of His Mouth by Monique Roffey (What she has actually produced is 480 pages of sub-Marie Claire overshare, a pointlessly explicit, infuriatingly naive and, at times, plain offputting slither through a series of — wilfully? Maliciously? — unedited sexual slurpings.)
  • Lachlan Mackinnon on Clavics by Geoffrey Hill (Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.)
  • Leo Robson on Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford (Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will. It is neither exciting nor penetrating. It is neither coherent nor convincing. It is characterised by surreal laziness (testimonies are pasted straight on to the page) and surreal bossiness. It is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing.)
  • Jenni Russell on Honey Money by Catherine Hakim (Honey Money, however, is an acute disappointment. It looks like a book. It has hard covers, 372 pages, chapter headings, dozens of sources and footnotes, a fat price ticket and a press release from its publishers. But looks are deceptive. There is no structured argument being worked through in its pages. Instead, bewildered readers find themselves presented with repetitious, rambling, contradictory, ill-argued assertions, without the faintest sense from the author that she has written these sentences before.)
  • David Sexton on The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy (With Carol Ann Duffy, there’s too much verbal prancing, too little that’s original being said, particularly when the poems are not personal. You end the book thinking that if this is poetry, it’s a trivial art.)

As I have read none of the books under review, I am not competent to judge whether the reviews are fair or accurate. Of course, the reviews are subjective. Somebody thought A Sense of Ending was good enough to win the Man Booker Prize, though now is not the time to get into the politics of that. However, I do welcome the manifesto of the Hatchet Job of the year, not least as there are far too many reviews giving fulsome praise to sub-standard works. There are lots of reasons for this but probably the most common is logrolling – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. People who review books are probably a very small set of people and they all know one another so do not want to offend and also want good reviews for their works. To a certain extent, bloggers get away from this and can be more brutal. Some are and some aren’t. I try to avoid books I don’t think that I will like but there are a few reviews on my site which, while not hatchet jobs are highly critical. Writers I consider overrated, such as D H Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and John Updike are included because of their (in my view undeserved) reputations. I have written critical reviews of authors I admire. And I slammed the Philip Roth for the Nobel Prize bandwagon. But I have been reluctant to do more because I would rather spend my time reading books I like than those I don’t like and, unlike the Hatchet Job reviewers, I can choose.

Which brings us back to Adam Mars-Jones. Way back when, Granta produced a list of best young British novelists. They produced another such list ten years later. (They also produced a third list but it is not relevant to my point here.) If you study the first two lists carefully, you will notice that they have one thing in common – Adam Mars-Jones. Yes, Mars-Jones was twice nominated as one of the best young British novelists. As well as being on both lists, Mars-Jones also had one other feature unique to him. In neither case was he a novelist! His first novel was published in 1993, just after the second list has been published. Why was he on both lists without having published a single novel? Potential maybe? I have no idea. His second novel was published in 2008, fifteen years after the second Granta list. It was called Pilcrow. By coincidence, I tried to read it this week. I say that I tried to read it but, unusually though not unknown for me, I had to abandon it.

A pilcrow


A cedilla


A Mars-Jones (the one on the left)

Let’s start with title. Do you know what a pilcrow is? No, nor did I. This is a pilcrow – ¶. It’s that paragraph mark thing that you see in the Bible and sometimes in older legal documents which, as he points out, is difficult to find on a computer keyboard (as it is not there). I would have called it a paragraph mark. The Shady Characters blog has three aricles on it, if you want to know more – one, two and three. The book is the first of a trilogy, with the second being called cedilla. I do know what a cedilla is (it is the squiggly thing on the c here – ç) as it is used in French and Portuguese, which I read, as well as in other languages. So Mars-Jones criticises Michael Cunningham for being too arty and using too many literary references, yet names his books after obscure punctuation marks which the average reader certainly will not have heard of. Mmmmm. But my main complaint about the book, at least the first hundred pages, is that it is boring. John Cromer has rheumatic fever. He stays in bed. He plays games with his mother. Nothing much happens. As James Woods points out in his review it is about the banalities of life, it has dull patches and it boldly refuses the everyday consolations of plot and dramatic structure. Well, I generally like plot and dramatic structure and found Pilcrow just too boring to be worth continuing. Yes, I know we are going to get into the gay man coming of age stuff which more or less worked in The Stranger’s Child but I really have not the patience to pursue it in this book. So I will read Mars-Jones’ scathing reviews but probably leave his novels alone.

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