Enrique Vila-Matas

First Sentence:     He belongs to an increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary publishers.

Back of the book:

Samuel Riba is about to turn 60. A successful publisher in Barcelona, he has edited many of his generation’s most important authors. But he is increasingly prone to attacks of anxiety – inspired partly by giving up alcohol, and partly by his worries about the future of the book. Looking for distraction, he concocts a spur-of-the-moment trip to Dublin, a city he has never visited but once had a vivid dream about.

Riba sets off for Dublin on the pretext that he wishes to honour James Joyce’s Ulysses, and to hold, on Bloomsday, a funeral for the age of print. But as he and his friends give their orations, a mysterious figure in a mackintosh hovers in the cemetery, looking rather like Joyce’s protégé Samuel Beckett. Is it Beckett, or is it the writer of genius that Riba has spent his whole career trying, and failing, to find? As he ponders this, and other profound questions, he marks a death but makes some illuminating discoveries about life.

Quotes from the book:

[…] this morning he seems condemned to go from Gutenberg to Google and from Google to Gutenberg, moving back and forth between two options, between the world of books and that of the web […]

‘It will be much better if, at the end of everything, sorrow disappears and silence returns.’

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Me and You

 Niccolò Ammaniti

First Sentence:      ‘Coffee?’

This is a short novel about Lorenzo Cuni, a fourteen-year-old Italian schoolboy who pretends he is going on a skiing trip, but instead hides out in the basement of his parents’ house. After reading Open City I was in desperate need of a story, and this fit the bill perfectly. This is the fourth book by Ammaniti that I’ve read, and it has a lot in common with his previous work like I’m Not Scared in that it deals with young people coming to terms with their place in society. This is a brief book that can be read on many levels, and you can take away from it as much or as little as you wish. On one hand it can be read as a straightforward story of a boy growing up, almost a fable. There are many other possible readings however, US foreign policy even gets a look in at one stage when Lorenzo is telling his ill grandma a story about an electronic pool cleaner (which is also an assassin) that electrocutes everybody in any pool it happens to be cleaning.  It ends up invading every pool in sight (instead of doing the one thing it was supposed to do, ie go to Saddam Husseins’ pool) and then goes on to enter the sea. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But Lorenzo’s grandma doesn’t really like this ending, so he comes up with another one. In fact, endings themselves are also important in the book, as are stories, so it could be read as an exploration of fiction itself. Lorenzo says of endings:

After I saw a film, it drove me crazy the way Dad and Mum always talked about the ending, like the whole story was in the ending and nothing else mattered.

Regardless of all that it could or could not be however, the  important thing is all that it is; an enjoyable, memorable novel that entertains and provokes at the same time. And if endings do matter to you, read on…

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1Q84 ( Book 3 )

Haruki Murakami

First Sentence:   “I wonder if you would mind not smoking, Mr. Ushikawa,” the shorter man said.

Book 3 of 1Q84 continues on from where book 2 left off, covering the period between October and December in 1Q84. It opens with Ushikawa talking to the dead leader’s bodyguards, discussing how he will help them track down Aomame. The first noticeably different thing about this book is the structure. Where Books 1 and 2 followed the Aomame/Tengo, Aomame/Tengo viewpoints, chapter by chapter, in Book 3 we are given a third viewpoint, that of Ushikawa, so the chapters switch from Ushikawa to Aomame to Tengo and back again throughout. The story itself pretty much continues in the same vein as the first two installments and if you enjoyed them, chance are you’ll enjoy this. We watch as Tengo and Aomame grow gradually closer to meeting each other and watch as Ushikawa tries to hunt down Aomame on behalf of Sakigake. Time, and the passing of time, along with the daily rituals and routines we all fall into is the major theme in this book:

Inside him, twenty years dissolved and mixed into one complex, swirling whole. Everything that had accumulated over the years – all he had seen, all the words he had spoken, all the values he had held – all of it coalesced into one solid, thick pillar in his heart, the core of which was spinning like a potter’s wheel.


How much time had passed? Five minutes, perhaps, or was it an hour? Or a whole day? Or maybe time had stood still. What did Tengo understand about time?

While Aomame is in hiding, waiting for Tengo to find her, she even starts reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. This book is hard to separate from books 1 and 2 and really it shouldn’t be. All three together combine for a massively enjoyable reading experience. If you can find the time…

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Heaven and Hell

Jón Kalman Stefánsson

First Sentence:  The mountains tower above life and death and these houses huddling together on the Spit.

Life and death is what it’s all about in this magnificent novel. I’d never heard of Jón Kalman Stefánsson before and just picked this up on a whim. After reading Sjón’s wonderful From the Mouth of the Whale I was in search of more Icelandic goodness and I’m happy to say this didn’t disappoint. It is set in a remote fishing village and follows Bárður and ‘the boy’ as they go out fishing  one morning. When tragedy strikes at sea, the boy is left bereft and decides to abandon the village to return a book to a blind old sea-captain who lives over the mountains. When he reaches this new village he realises he is not alone in suffering and begins to see the world as a slightly less harsh place. Make no mistake though, it is an extremely harsh existence the boy has, his mother, father, brothers and sister have all died and from beginning to end his trials are depicted through the most glorious prose-poetry by Stefánsson . The whole story puts me in mind of Halldór Laxness with its emphasis on solitude and independence and the constant struggle for survival. When I finished this book I put it down and just sat for a while. I think a passage towards the end of the book would indicate that this is a good thing:

Silence after a long narrative indicates whether it has mattered or was told for nothing, indicates whether the narrative had entered and touched something or just shortened the hours and nothing more.

This book does a lot more than just shorten the hours. (Keep reading for more quotes.)

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Down The Rabbit Hole

Juan Pablo Villalobos

First Sentence: Some people say I’m precocious.

Some people say this book is wonderful. I’d have to agree.  It comes from new publishers And Other Stories and if the rest of their list is anywhere near as good as this I think I’ll be investigating further. The narrator is Tochtli, the ten-year old son of a drug lord who lives in a palace. Tochtli’s voice is a joy to read and even more authentic than Room ‘s narrator, though I will admit to enjoying Room. Tochtli’s interests include: hats, guillotines, Japan (samurai in particular) and most importantly, Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamuses. Like Room‘s narrator, Tochtli’s entire world is his enclosed environment, only in this book it is a palace, not a tiny room. Living in this palace has shaped Tochtli completely and he can even count how many people he has actually met. And not have to count very high at that. The reason I say Tochtli’s voice is more authentic than Jack’s in Room is simply because as a reader I feel I am better able to empathise with him. I’m not sure why I find it easier to feel empathy towards the son of a drug baron but there you go. (I am not, as far as I know, the son of a criminal.) It’s just that when he speaks of gangs, and gang culture, and the importance of being a macho man and everything that goes with it, the trust, the fear of being called a faggot, your heart can’t help but break just a little bit. This child knows no other life, no other set of morals, and because of this we can’t really hold him responsible for the life he is living. He is only a child and he is filled with the same wonder any ten-year old boy is:

I think the most enigmatic and mysterious thing in the world must be a Japanese mute.

Another reason his voice is so authentic stems from the words he uses. He reuses ‘big’ words over and over again and this is one of the reasons people think he is precocious. He speaks of making corpses with orifices made from bullets, instead of just saying shooting people. At the beginning of the books he lists some of the really big words he knows; sordid, pathetic, devastating, disastrous. These four words, and the frequency with which they are used says a great deal about Tochtli and the environment he is growing up in. This is a powerful book loaded with personality and is infinitely charming. I’m glad I took a chance on it and I look forward to reading more from And Other Stories…

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