21 December 2018

65 – Iceland – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir – Hotel Silence (Score 6.15)

Jonas is arranging to get a tattoo of a flower round his nipple. His mother is in a care home. His neighbour is Svanur. Jonas is no spring chicken.

Jonas seems to be intent on killing himself and borrows a shotgun, but forgets(?) about cartridges. He searches the internet for countries at war to find a suitably dangerous one where he could be killed.

Our “hero” flies to a city which has been all but destroyed in a war, but has developers who have come to reconstruct it. Although he can’t understand the taxi driver (and vice versa) they both speak English. They arrive at Hotel Silence which seems to have survived the war fairly well.

The section of the book set in Iceland is boring, but it becomes a bit more interesting when he arrives in the war zone and begins to interact with other people. Unfortunately this does not last.

He finds himself doing odd-jobs for assorted people, the jobs becoming more and more complicated. Unfortunately all this did not make the rest of the book much more interesting than the boring bit at the beginning. At least he gets his tattoo.

I gave the book a score of four.

06 November 2018

64 – Norway – Tarjei Vesaas – The Ice Palace – October 2018 (Score 5.90)

Spoiler Alert 1 – Don’t read the back cover until you have finished the book.

It’s a dark autumn evening in Norway. Siss, an 11 year old schoolgirl, is going to meet Unn, a new girl at the school that autumn. After Siss has visited Unn I have the feeling that Siss’s father may have been related to Unn’s unknown father (or possibly the same person).

The girls make tentative moves towards friendship. Umm asks Siss to visit her at home – not entirely successful.

Unn plays truant and goes exploring in the wintry frozen forest. I enjoyed the description of Unn’s journey to the Ice Palace, the ice built up from the frozen water in the waterfall from the lake above, and her looking for and finding an opening in the ice wall. She is frightened by the echo from her calls of “Hey!”

Unn is eventually completely lost in the twists and turns of the passages inside the ice. Finally she could move no more. Everyone in the village soon realises that something is wrong with Unn, but nobody thinks to visit her home.

Unn is clearly missing and a search starts, at the same time as the snow starts. Siss is unbelievably unhelpful. Would a child really behave like that when her new friend goes missing?

The search eventually reaches the Ice Palace but leads to nothing. The snow keeps coming as the snow peters out.

Spoiler Alert 2

I feel the story is rather obvious, especially if you have read Spoiler 1. That destroys the tension which should have been there for most of the rest of the book I could only give it a score of 5.

05 October 2018

63 – Pakistan – Nadeem Aslam – Maps for Lost Lovers – September 2018 (Score 8.7)

This story is of the people, from Pakistan, who are living in a large area in London away from the centre of the city. All the street names are in Urdu. The author doesn’t say whether the name plates are in Urdu script or in the Latin alphabet.

The name, Dasht-e-Tanhai, which the immigrants apply to London, translates as “The Waste Land of Loneliness” or, as in the transliteration given below from the song as sung by Meesha Shah (among others). A book of the same title was written by Fakhira Batool. I can’t trace whether the poem comes from the book or vice versa. I found a version on the internet. The sound is beautiful, even if I don’ speak the language.

“The Desert of my solitude

In the desert of my solitude, my love, quiver the shadows of your voice, the mirage of your lips.
In the desert of my solitude, from beneath the dust and ashes of the distance between us, bloom the jasmines and the roses of your presence.
From somewhere close by rises the warmth of your breath it smolders in its own perfume – gently, languorously.
Far away, on the horizon, glistens drop by drop, the dew of your beguiling glance.
With such tenderness, my love, your meMeesha Shahmory has placed its hand on the cheek of my heart
That although this is the dawn of our farewell, it feels as if the sun has set on our day of separation and the night of our union is already at hand.”

Towards the beginning of the book there is some history of the antagonism between Pakistanis and Hindus in the sub-continent with the wars between East and West Pakistan and India. This antagonism seems to have been carried over to London by immigrants from those countries.

The primary protagonists are the extended family of Shamas who is a well- educated, and self-taught man, trying to keep his family together. Although a Moslem, Shamas learns that he was born a Hindu. His wife is Kaurab, uneducated and speaks very little English even after many years in London. Their family are all well-educated and speak both languages

The book is packed full of tension, of things which have happened, have not happened or may yet happen, people seeing what they should not have seen and have, anyway, misconstrued. All this reflects on other people and their lives, usually badly.

Bearing in mind the events in the story I had a frisson of shock when Shamas found a heart on the footpath, cut in two. It was two orchid flowers which had fallen from a funeral wreath.

The book is beautifully written, with many references to nature, impossible to list. Read the book to find them. I enjoyed it very much, even allowing for the bad things which happen at intervals. One thing in particular brought the period back to me – Jack Frost patterns on the windows in the winter. We had never heard of central heating and double glazing, let alone insulation. I would guess that they probably didn’t even exist at the time. I scored this book at ten.

62 Japan – Tanizaki Junichiro – Some Prefer Nettles (Score 6.25)

I found the introduction to this book very useful in highlighting the differences between the Japanese way of thought and language and the more brusque Western way. We also learn a lot about Japanese life and how so many things differ from how we in the UK do them. The story is set in the 1920s.

The main characters, to make it easier for the reader to follow the story, are –

Kaname – the husband,

Misako – the wife,

Hiroshi - their young son,

Misako’s father,

O-hisa – her father’s mistress,

Aso – a possible love interest for Misako.

Takamatsu – Misako’s cousin.

Kawame and Misako travelled by train to Osaka to meet her father to go to th Puppet Theatre. Instead of buying tickets for the specific journey tore tickets from their books of tickets at the end of the journey. The play they are to see is the famous Bunraku performance “Love Suicide”. The Bunraku puppets for this performance are Jihei, the man, and Koharu, the geisha. They are both large, better to be seen from a distance. Bunraku performances last for several hours.

I really enjoyed the interplay of the characters, especially between Misako and Takamatsu. On page 77 Kaname set a dreadful precedent when he dog-eared a page in his book.

After you read the book you may be interested in searching on line for some relevant references –

Awaji Theatre,

Awaji Genojo,

Bunraku puppets,



16 August 2018

61   Ireland – Mary Costello  – Academy Street (Score 7.0)

This is the story of Tess Lohan, pre-school when we first meet her, and aged when we leave her on the last page. She is one of a large and growing family which has its troubles.

Her mother’s funeral is early in the story. When her coffin is being put into the hearse the word “shove” is used rather than “push” or “put”. This suggest to me that the people from the funeral parlour are rather uncaring.

Later, Tess mentions her sister, Maeve, rubbing Zam-Buk on her feet for chilblains. About 65 years ago, so this book resonates. Tess herself later loses her voice for an extended period after seeing the death of a traveller girl who, and she, put out their tongues to each other. She eventually got her voice back when she battered her head off a workbench.

On page 69 someone uses the word “citóg” which is Irish Gaelic for a left-handed person. In Scots it is a combination of Gaelic and Scots, ie corrie-fisted.

Tess emigrates to the United States and, several years later, falls pregnant to David, a military-man who, the next day goes off to fight in Vietnam. He ignores all her letters about the baby. On page 117 Tess hums along with Etta James singing “I would rather go blind”. I remembered the song but it took me a search on Google to find the singer.

Many years later Tess finds that David had returned unharmed and had a successful career, and married. He had, presumably, never given a second thought to Tess.

I didn’t think much of this book. Although it, being based on an Irish girl had no real relevance to my childhood or youth, brought back memories. I thought the story was rather predictable and deserved only a score of 6.0

25 July 2018

60 India – Bapsi Sidwa  – The Crow Eaters - Score 7.17

Crow Eaters are people who talk a lot. They eat the normal things which all Parsee eat.

The protagonist of the story is Faredoon Junglewalla, a Parsee who has led his small family from a village in Central India to Lahore, now in Pakistan, but not when the story starts. The Parsee people migrated from Persia to India, fleeing from the conquering Arab hordes who entered Persia. At the time of the story there are about 120,000 Parsees in the world.

At the end of Chapter Ten Faredoon seems to have attempted arson and the murder of his mother-in-law. The arson worked, but not the murder.

I will leave you hanging for the rest of this episodic story. All I will say is it is one of the funniest stories I have read in a considerable time, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. I gave it a score of eight.

12 June 2018

59  Japan - Akira Yoshimura - Shipwrecks - Score 7.60

Isaku’s village is a small, poor place on the sea. On a bare rocky area where not much grows except in the distant hills. They rely on catching a variety of fish as each moves in season along the coast. We learn a great deal about their lives and lifestyle, ceremonies, selling themselves into bondage for a set number of years to provide for their families and to avoid being a burden on them.

They live in hope of an “o fune sama” event, although it is many years since this happened. O-fune-sama occurs when a merchant ship comes aground on the rocks of their section of coast, but dread a ship belonging to one of the clans of the daimyo coming aground since they must make every effort to save the vessels, their cargos and their crews, all at great hardship to themselves by the disruption of their fishing. If they are found to doing otherwise they are likely to be killed and their village destroyed since the daimyo have the power of life and death over to ordinary people.

A merchant ship crashes ashore after following a light set up by the villagers. Is it moral for the peasants to lure a ship and crew into danger in bad weather, even if it is to help feed their own families?

There is a detailed description of the emptying and stripping down of the vessel. It has enough cargo to feed the village for about three years, as well as other goods to be used in the village. Two sailors had been seen praying for salvation on the ship when it was first seen on the morning of the beaching. At the end of the work there was the disposal of their bodies, two more discovered hiding, and those of the drowned crew in the fast flowing and deep water at the two headlands out from the beach. There was now no danger of the villagers being found out.

At a later date another ship drifted in, full of dead men dressed in gorgeous red clothing. The head man ordered that they should be brought ashore and their clothing distributed among the women and children, the ship then being towed out to sea and set drifting away. I had my suspicions about what this all meant. Read the book and find out for yourself.

There was little evidence of when these events were set, except that it had to be earlier than the middle 1800s as the daimyo had lost their power by then after the arrival of the United States and other Western ships. For that reason I was surprised to read that one of the senior villagers could write script.

I gave this book a score of 8.0.

08 May 2018

58  North  Vietnam –Bao Ninh  –  The Sorrows of War (Score 5.75)

After the end of the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese army sent parties into the jungle to find the bodies of the soldiers missing in action from the particular group with which they served. This seems to be a very humane thing to do, to give their families closure.

Kien is one of the finders, travelling as a passenger in a large Russian lorry towards the sector in which he and his comrades served. He is reminiscing about the war. From his description of the fire power, and superior weaponry available to the American troops, he and his friends seem to have been in the position of the Native Americans towards the end when fighting with bows or single shot muskets against repeating rifles and pistols, and sometimes even Gatling guns.

The story chops and changes, moving around with seemingly neither rhyme nor reason. It is stated to be a first novel, and it shows. It certainly doesn’t deserve the eight or nine glowing references at the beginning. At one stage one of Kien’s colleagues is hit in the face by machine-gun fire, apparently losing an eye but with no further damage. Did the bullet simply disappear?

Apart from maybe the first half dozen pages I found the book dreadfully boring. I speed-read the rest of the book and didn’t find anything at all to entice me to slow down. I scored the book at two.