One month down, only eleven more to go. And it’s the hardest one done, as well, I think. January is rough, tough, and now it’s February and spring is in sight. Despite the madness of the new year, I’ve managed to get some reading done – more than I had expected to do, yay! – and here are some reviews of what I’ve read. If you didn’t already know, I also post mini-reviews of each book I read over on my Instagram (@emnicbooks) as I go along, whereas here, even if they’re a bit longer, they get all lumped together at the end of the month. Hope you find something to enjoy, happy reading, Em xx
The Translator by Leila Aboulela
First book review of the year, and it’s not of L’été des quatre rois – I’ll finish it soon – but of Aboulela’s The Translator, which I read through my library on BorrowBox. The Translator tells the story of Sammar, a Sudanese widow working as a translator at a university in Aberdeen, and her relationship with her past and her present. Not much happens in this book, as the narrative opens well after the tragedy that haunts the story. The discussions around religion and the importance of it to the different characters interested me, especially as someone irreligious, and from a non-religious background. The writing is beautiful, and almost poetic I hadn’t ever read anything by Aboulela before, and hadn’t heard of her until seeing this book listed on BorrowBox. I’m definitely planning on reading some of her other works.
L’été des quatre rois by Camille Pascal
Well, I finished it: the longest book I’ve ever read in French. It was fascinating, if absolutely mad, as was the turbulent nature of the period (although I hadn’t realised just quite how much.) It’s a history book, to a certain extent, but is also very obviously a novel – it reads like a political saga – which it is, so is never dry or dull. L’été des quatre rois is the story of July and August 1830, with the quick succession on the French throne of Charles X, Louis XIX, Henri V and Louis-Philippe, and the rapid transformations of the July Revolution.
The City of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
I’d have read this whatever it was, what with Carlos Ruiz Zafón being one of my favourite authors of all time. I’ve now read all of his work and, while reading this collection of short stories, there were moments when I didn’t want the book to end because I knew that, once I reached the end, it was the definitive finish. There’d be no more, ever, because he sadly died in 2020. I got, from this book, everything I could have wanted: a return to a world – that of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, over the top gothic-style writing… I loved this book but, perhaps if you don’t love the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series like I do, it might not be the one for you.
En attendant Godot by Samuel Beckett
English title: Waiting for Godot. I finished reading this play a few days ago and I still haven’t quite processed it yet. It’s an odd one, I knew that before I starting reading, and I think I loved it. Nothing happens, I don’t think that’s a spoiler (maybe it is? Sorry!) but that’s the magic of it. Nothing happens to the two protagonists, the passive characters, while they ‘wait for Godot’, and interact with the active characters, who appear in some parts of the play and not in others. Beckett’s perspective on the absurdity of human nature fascinated me throughout, and now I need to read lots of explanations, because this is the kind of philosophy that interests me. Anything absurd.
So Many Rooms by Laura Scott
“Maybe they’re like fish, swimming inside you, waiting for someone, to tap the glass.” Until the end of last year, I wasn’t a big poetry reader, and now I love it. Short but sweet, Scott’s poetry is wonderful, and the collection is beautifully woven together with repeating themes including art and Tolstoy (which I very much appreciated as a Tolstoy fan!). Getting in to reading poetry has been one of the best things about reading more from my library as their selection on the BorrowBox app is amazing. Absolutely recommend (both this book, and reading from your library).
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra, translated by Natasha Wimmer
This book is short, at less than 150 pages, but it packs a hell of a punch. Probably one of the most intense books I’ve read in a long time, although also an example of the limits of autofiction. The sections of the book about Ybarra’s grandfather fascinating, but other parts were more meandering, and I lost interest slightly. I wanted to love this book, unfortunately I didn’t. Ybarra’s novel/non-fiction work is heartfelt and is very focused on personal loss and grief, rather than any wider events. The book focuses on two deaths: the kidnapping and murder of her grandfather by ETA and her mother’s death from cancer. Both events are examined from a close, personal perspective, of course, and that was one of the book’s highlights. If you’re looking for a meditation on grief or a book about loss and death, perhaps this might be the one for you. If you’re looking for something more political or something considering wider issues, I’d say you’re likely to be underwhelmed (I was, because that’s what I was expecting, which the book turned out not to be).
Mon maître et mon vainqueur by François-Henri Désérable
I loved this book. It’s title comes from the Verlaine poem ‘Es-tu brune ou blonde?’ Perhaps it’s not the most original story in the world (it’s really not) but it’s told in an usual way, with a heavy, and very effective, use of flashbacks so that, even though you know exactly what’s going on, you’re never quite sure if you’re right. It manages to be a balance of dramatic romance (not usually my thing, but I liked this one) and thriller/investigation. It’s also packed with literary, poetry references and sections of verse, which I thought was wonderful. Highly recommend, short but sweet (not that sweet actually).
The Things We’ve Seen by Agustín Fernández Mallo, translated by Thomas Bunstead
I didn’t love this book and that’s probably my own fault given that some of it went over my head. This work is three shorter works, linked together, all of which exploring the after effects and echo of war. It’s a brilliant work, if not one for everyone, with its recurring imagery and long monologues. It’s fragmented, yes, but it’s the aftershocks of war, so that’s, I’d think, to be expected. In terms of each of the sections, first interested me, the second went on a bit too long but the third, I adored the third. During the second part, I was considering DNFing, given that it seemed, unfortunately, to be becoming more dull, and then it picked up. Dramatically. The only overall statement I can make about this book is that, if you’re looking for a clear conclusion, a neat link between each of the sections that ties the whole thing together in a nice, satisfying way, you’ll be disappointed. If you like questions, open endings, if you like to be left to wonder, this one (three?) is (are?) incredible.
Une promesse by Sorj Chalandon
Discussing life, death and friendship, Chaladon’s novel manages to not be overly sentimental but still pack an emotional punch. It isn’t fast-paced, it isn’t particularly dramatic, but it slowly unfolds, with brilliant characters and beautiful prose. I loved this, and now need to read everything else Chalandon has written.
Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga
“Those from Obaba” is a wonderful novel. I call it a novel, because that’s what it’s described as, but it could just as easily be described as a collection of short stories. There are many recurring themes and people, who drift between stories, the most obvious of which being the location: a Basque village called Obaba. The fictional village of Obaba is brought to life by Atxaga, as are numerous other locations – Hamburg, the Amazon – as the characters venture into the ‘big, wide world’. Parts could be magical realism, with a fairy-tale-esque style, but they could just as easily be the imaginings of a rural community. The melancholy feel of the novel (as it does all tie together beautifully in the end) is what made me love it most. It’s genre-bending, it’s tragic and adventurous and quirky and funny and poetic and I could be here all day listing things I loved about this book. I’d wanted to read this since I found it mentioned in an article I was using for EPQ research early last year and I’m so glad I did. I highly recommend, if you’re looking for something unlike what you’ve read before. It won’t be for everyone but that’s part of its charm.
Three O’clock In The Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio, translated by Howard Curtis
It’s a book that’s as good as it’s cover. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but this one is beautiful, and so is the story it contains. It’s pretty simple, deeply honest and deceptively wise, without being overly profound or pretentious. It’s a father and son getting to know each other, a series of conversations between the two as they explore Marseille. And, as someone who went to Marseille a couple of years ago, i thought the setting was great too. Primarily set over forty-eight hours, more happens than you’d expect, without the story seeming cluttered or confusing. Recommend this one: it was great.
La septième fonction du langage by Laurent Binet
I adored this, in its completely bonkers madness; it’s a murder mystery, at its heart, but it’s so much more than that. When linguist Roland Barthes is hit by a van, police officer Jacques Bayard, helped by linguistics researcher Simon Herzog, has to find out what happened. What follows is a mad investigation, filled with politicians, academics, writers… It’s weird, pretentious but very aware of it and packed with self depreciation, high-brow intelligentsia and it’s such fun. This was a rubbish review, but I highly recommend this book. It’s available in English, under the title The Seventh Function of Language.