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The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (Trust Peirene Press to Deliver!)


For anyone who has never lived in the steppe, it is hard to understand how it is possible to exist surrounded by this wilderness on all sides. But those who have lived here since time out of mind know how rich and variable the steppe is. How multicoloured the sky above. How fluid the air all around. How varied the plants. How innumerable the animals in it and above it. A dust storm can spring up out of nowhere. A yellow whirlwind can suddenly start twirling round the air in the distance in the same way that women spin camel wool into twine. The entire, imponderable weight of that immense, heavy sky can suddenly whistle across the becalmed, submissive land…

As he grew, Yerzhan noticed all the subtle shades and gradations of the road they followed to Petko’s music lessons. And that road seemed like music to him: it was just as fluent, the sounds were just as varied. The notes of the wind swayed on the little tamarisk and saltwort shrubs. Shrews and ground squirrels sang the second and third voices.

At home, Grandad’s severe, wrinkled face seemed to the boy like the Bach violin concerto that he was learning to play. Shaken’s tedious cheerfulness was like Kreisler’s Miniature Viennese March, which they had decided not to bother learning at all. Kepek’s dumb behaviour was like Gavinies’s endless etudes. And his Aisulu’s pink-cheeked little face was Vivaldi’s Winter, which the Bulgarian Petko played with ecstatic gusto during the late Kazakh summer.

And only the women, including the city bride Baichichek, did Yerzhan still associate with the monotonous sounds of the old-fashioned dombra.

How I loved this novel. It promised to be a “two-hour book devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film”. But, it took me more than two hours to read The Dead Lake because I wanted to carefully absorb every word.

This novel is the story of a twenty-five year old man who looks like he is twelve. He is a masterful violinist, something which seems quite incongruous due to growing up at a way station on the steppe. How can such an isolated spot allow for such a skill? This man-child, Yerzhan, tells us his story on the train travelling across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan.

It is a story involving his whole world: two families, two shacks, two grandmothers, a grandfather, an uncle, his mother. Their lives are simple and secluded, yet interwoven in ways that cannot be separated. It must be a miracle, that three-year old Yerzhan picks up his grandfathers dombra and plays with such skill that he soon begins lessons with a Bulgarian violinist. He is a wunderkind.

But, being such a talented child does not prevent him from being defiantly brave and in so doing change the entire course of his life. For he lives near the Zone, a fenced in area where atomic weapons are tested, which is where he is introduced to the Dead Lake.

Towards evening Uncle Shaken took the children to the Dead Lake. ‘Don’t drink the water and do not touch it,’ he told them. It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecing the rare stray cloud. No movement, no waves, no ripples no trembling–a bottle-green, glassy surface with only cautious reflections of the boys’ and girls’ faces as they peeped at its bottom by the shore. Could there possible be some fairy-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water?

The Dead LakeThe Dead Lake brings into sharp focus how the decisions we make when young affect us all of our lives. It is a terribly piercing and poignant book, from Peirene Press’ coming of age series. Just like The Mussel Feast which I read last year, it tells far more than simply a story.

Hamid IsmailovAuthor: Born in 1954 in Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov moved to Uzbekistan as a young man. he writes in both Russian and Uzbek, and his novels and poetry have been translated into many European languages, including German, French and Spanish. In 1994 he was forced to fell to the UK because of his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’. He now works for the BBC World Service. His first novel to be published in English. The Railway, appeared in 2006, followed by A Poet and Bin-Laden in 2012. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan today.

Translator: Andrew Bromfield’s career of more than twenty years as a translator of Russian literature had its beginnings in Moscow during the perestroika period. In 1991 he was a founding editor of the journal Glas: New Russian Writing. He has translated works by Boris Akunin, Vladimir Voinovich and Irina Denezhkina, among other writers.

While The Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier


No detail is too small for Erwin Mortier. It is as though he has taken up the pen of Marcel Proust with which to tell us about World War I, and initially I became frustrated at the lack of movement. But, I pushed on and found a tender beauty in every description, and passages which I had to mark with pieces of paper torn off from the letter beside me.

We begin with an elderly woman named Helena, who is lovingly cared for by a gentle woman named Rachida. We listen to this elderly woman, speaking in the first person, tell us how she is carefully set against pillows after she has been carefully washed and combed for the day. She is set up with a writing desk, notebook, and pen. It seems evident that she is recording her memories, the details of her life with her family and then her husband. Going back in time, and sometimes staying in the present, we learn what it was like to be a girl in France when the Archduke was murdered. And then when the presence of the war was felt.

It is not easy for me to read about war. I’m sure part of that is because my son is a United States Marine, and when is the United States ever at peace? Before I was born, my grandfather was in WWI, my father was in the Korean War, my babysitter’s brothers were killed in Vietnam. My husband barely escaped Desert Storm, and my son has not yet been called to the Middle East. I pray he never is. For this passage about informing mothers of their son’s death pierces me to the core:

It is the women who take the blows, he was wont to say. Imagine the look on the face of a mother with two or three sons at the front, not exactly a rarity in large farming families in the countryside. The uncertainty behind the certainty that you are knocking at her door to report the death of one of her children . She has seen you coming across the yard. above the hedge of the front garden with the country flowers, which have been so immaculately hoed and raked, since weeding helps take her mind off the fate of her boys, she has recognized your hat. She has heard the gate creak. She would like her house to bean unassailable fortress, a thick shell. she sees you coming across the yard or up the garden path. She realizes that this time there is no blood on the lintel and side posts of her door, that the angel with the sword has not spared her house this time–all she does not yet know is which of her sons has fallen.

The reference to the Old Testament in this passage is beautiful. There is no Passover for the woman whose son is lost at war. She cannot strike branches of hyssop, dipped in lamb’s blood, against her door frame in the belief that the Angel of Death will pass over her home. How does one bear the ravages of war when there is so much agony?

While The Gods Were Sleeping is an important book, as almost all the books nominated for the IFFP are. One doesn’t “like” such a book; one is moved by it, and lives in it, and is grateful upon closing the last page that one’s life is peaceful.

At least for today.

Erwin MortierErwin Mortier (1965) made his mark in 1999 with his debut novel Marcel, which was awarded several prizes in Belgium and the Netherlands, and received acclaim throughout Europe. In the following years he quickly built up a reputation as one of the leading authors of his generation. his novel While the Gods Were Sleeping received the AKO literature Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the Netherlands, and has been translated into five languages.

Paul Vincent taught Dutch at the University of London for over twenty years before becoming a full-time translator. In 2012 he was awarded the Vondel Translation Prize.

Find more reviews at roughghosts, and David’s Book World.

Anticipating April…


It begins with the Steiff duckling of my youth looking in shocked amazement, mimicking my own joyous face I’m sure, at the bag of Chanel treats given me by my mother. New Rouge Coco lipsticks vie for the attention of Coco Noir and Mademoiselle fragrance samples, and it is an Easter basket beyond compare for this girl.

I have before me seven whole days of freedom. Days in which to indulge myself reading as many of the books for the IFFP as I can. Waiting for me still to complete, and I’m trying not to become compulsive, are: By Night The Mountain Burns, The Ravens, The Dead Lake, Look Who’s Back, and the rest of While The Gods Were Sleeping. If I am able to read those five, I may have time to squeeze in one or two more before the official short list is announced on April 9.

Readathon_Pocketwatch_BellezzaAnd with the advent of April comes not only the short list, but the next Dewey’s Read-a-thon on April 25. Reader sign up’s are here if you wish to participate.

It promises to be a beautiful Spring in so many ways. Hope to see you as I continue to review books for the IFFP, and put together what I want to read for the read-a-thon.

Little BigAt one point last summer, Tom and I were discussing reading Little, Big by John Crowley, which won the World Fantasy Award in 1982, and celebrated its 25th anniversary this February. What do you say, Tom, are you still interested? Is anyone else interested in a read-along of this book? If so, I’ll put together an official announcement. Optimally, the end of April, or early May, would be a good time to begin…

(Just realized that with the start of Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge 9, this is the perfect opportunity to read Little, Big. In case you needed any extra incentive.)

In The Beginning Was The Sea by Tomas Gonzalez


There is an ominous, and delicious, aura of fear right from the start of this novel. You can instantly sense that things are going to go wrong, you just don’t know when, much like the feeling you get when watching an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Rather than being annoying, the obvious foreshadowing exacerbates the tension. Sentences like this, “Even later, after they had replaced the water tank and the pipe and there was running water in the bathroom, J. went on bathing in the crystalline stream until the end,” begin early on and continue throughout the novel.

J. and his girlfriend Elena have come to a remote finca (country estate) where they plan to live in the remote and beautiful environment of Colombia.  It takes four and a half hours by boat to arrive at their destination from the nearest town. Once they arrive, problem after problem slowly emerges.

Their house is filthy, and apart from the kitchen, basically unusable until Elena clears out the rubbish and scrubs its entirety. Their money, entrusted to J.’s unreliable relative, is gone when he declares bankruptcy. The wares for the store they set up arrive considerably short of what they’d ordered. And over all this potential disaster is the unremitting presence of alcohol, aguardiente, a distilled liquor made in South America from sugar cane.

Forced to consider cutting down the trees on his land for timber to sell, J. writes in his journal, “I’ll be forced to practice the Ancient Art of Axmanship, as the local poets call it. Make way for civilization, you puny fucking kapoks!” This defiance, even though he knows they are far from puny trees.

In the beginning was…it would only make sense, biblically, that the next thing to follow would be “be fruitful and multiply.” But this is the very thing that J. is unable to do. His cattle die, his timber falls, his relationship with Elena fails.  He has the opposite of the Midas touch for nothing turns to gold. Nothing prospers.

How ironic that the novel ends with a scene we encountered early on in the novel. It is the scene of a cemetery, perhaps the most peaceful place in all the book, the place that seemed the least sinister to J.

Based on the true story about the author’s brother, In the Beginning Was the Sea is the third book I have read for the IFFP this year. The writing is spare and elegant, bringing both time and place into bas relief. It is a novel I enjoyed very much and will think about for a long time.

Find another review at A Little Blog Of Books, Never Stop Reading and 1stReading’s Blog.

F: a novel by Daniel Kehlmann


F is for finesse. F is for fake. F is for father who’s absent. F is for frantically running from the life you’ve made and F is for fraudulent. For nobody in this book is who he pretends to be.

Arthur is the father, who wants to be a writer, and suddenly leaves his three young sons after taking them to a hypnotist one evening. He claims hypnotism has no effect on him, but it seems to be one of the many lies the characters wrap themselves up within.

Martin, the eldest, becomes a fat priest who doesn’t believe God exists. He spends his time perfecting his skills with a Rubiks Cube as if the championship ahead is the most worthy goal of his life.

Ivan becomes an art forger with his lover, Heinrich.

And Eric, Ivan’s twin, becomes a financial consultant who completely mismanages the enormous funds of extremely wealthy clients. He lies to his clients, he lies to his wife, he lies to his daughter, his girlfriend and most significantly to himself. He cannot face what is his fault.

Their lives are a parody of what it means to be successful, which is something they each search for but cannot attain.

“Truth,” he (Ivan) said, “that’s all well and good. But sometimes none of it gets you anywhere. Always ask what people are expecting of you. Say what people say, do what people do. Ask yourself who exactly you’d like to be. Then ask yourself what that person you’d like to be would do. Then do it.”

This is wisdom for “getting somewhere”? It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Finally, F is for fate. F is for the future. And perhaps for some of us, F is for faith.


Daniel KehlmannDaniel Kehlmann was born in Munich in 1975 and lives in Berlin and New York. His works have won the Candide prize, the Doderer prize, the Kleist Prize, the Welt Literature Prize, and the Thomas Mann Prize. Measuring the World was translated into more than forty languages and is one of the greatest successes in postwar German literature.



F a novel, is the second book I’ve read for the IFFP long list. Find other reviews from the Shadow Jury at 1stReading’s Blog, David’s Book World, Messengers Booker, and roughghosts.

Mailbox Monday

Into my mailbox this month have come untold riches. And while I am consumed with reading as much of the long list for the IFFP as I can before April 9, I have these books to look forward to and share with you:

First, from SoHo Press comes Innocence by Heda Margolius Kovaly. It is translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker and will be published this June.

1950s Prague is a city of numerous small terrors, of political tyranny, corruption and surveillance. There is no way of knowing whether one’s neighbor is spying for the government or what one’s supposed friends will say under pressure to a state security agent. A loyal Party member might be imprisoned or executed as quickly as a traitor; innocence means nothing for a person caught in a trap.

But there are larger terrors, too. When a little boy is murdered at the cinema where his aunt works, the ensuing investigation sheds a little too much light on the personal lives of the cinema’s female ushers, each of whom is hiding a dark or haunting secret of her own.

Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls, says of Small Merices by Eddie Joyce:

Eddie Joyce’s terrific first novel is so American that the story might as well have taken place at the base of the Statue of Liberty. His Amendola family and their beloved Staten Island may be flawed, but they represent what’s best and most necessary in the American character, what our tired and poor still year for.

Paula McLain, bestselling author of The Paris Wife, says that The Tutor is “A sumptuous, page-turning account…I was completely captivated.”

Finally, the piece de resistance, a newly released translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

…Les Miserables has been a popular phenomenon since it was first published in 1862–most recently, award-winning screen and stage adaptations have held captive audiences world-wide. This year, Penguin Classics presents a deluxe edition of Christine Donougher’s compelling, contemporary new translation of the novel (the first new Penguin Classics translation in forty years), which highlights not only its emotional resonance and social observation, but also its quick wit and rich historical texture.

Have you received some books you’re anxious to read? Do any of these especially appeal to you? Looking forward to hearing about your mailboxes!

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (A Spectacular Way to Begin the IFFP Long List)


Several years ago, I was only able to read one book for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It was The Detourby Gerbrand Bakker, and I was not surprised to find that it was named the winner in May, 2013. That is how I feel about The End of Days, a book which is written with such tender and insightful prose it nearly takes your breath.

This novel is many things. The fly-leaf says, “A novel of incredible breadth and amazing concision, and the winner of the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize, The End of Days offers a unique overview of the twentieth century by “one of the finest, most exciting authors alive” (Michel Faber). And while it certainly is a portrayal of Germany’s history from 1900 through the next hundred years, it is so much more.

None of the characters are named. They are simply the baby, the oldest daughter, the mother, the grandmother. Yet we are able to understand who is who as the characters are woven together through five books, in between which comes an Intermezzo.

Each of the five books supposes a different scenario with the female protagonist. (Done far more brilliantly than Kate Atkinson’s work in Life After Life.) First, there is the baby who dies an infant.  In Book II, the author imagines that the baby had lived and is now seventeen years old living in Vienna. In Book III, the girl is a woman in her thirties who has entered the Soviet Union and lives in Moscow. In Book IV, the woman is in her 60’s and living in Berlin. The novel ends with Book V, when the woman is 90 and visited by her son in the nursing home where she is cared for. Through each of these scenarios, we see the impact that history has made particularly on the Jewish people, the Germans, and the Russians. But the scope is much larger than that. We see the impact of life on humankind.

I could not stop highlighting certain passages:

  • The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more.
  • For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.
  • The end of a day on which a life has ended is still far from being the end of days.
  • Does it make a difference to someone who doesn’t know the truth whether the person is dead or just very far away?
  • On Wednesday, for the first time in her life, she met people who didn’t just grumble about how awful everything was, but instead clearheadedly investigated  why this machine known as progress kept undermining the well-being of mankind.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. She is the author of several works of fiction, including The Book of Words (2007) and Visitation (2010), both translated by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions. The End of Days won the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize in 2014. Also an opera director, she currently lives in Berlin.

The End of Days is a book which I strongly suspect may win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It is a book which, in my opinon, must be read.


Find reviews from roughghosts here, 1st Reading’s Blog here, and Tony’s Reading List here.

The Boy Who Loved Rain


I didn’t realize I had accepted the review of a book written by a pastor, poet and missionary who lives in Normandy, France. But opening  the book to find an epigraph written by Paul Tournier, and finding passages of text pertaining to faith, made me glad I had.

Fiona and David’s fourteen year old son is at the heart of this story about family. He vacillates between temper and apathy; he stays up late into the night and sleeps until noon the next day. He has trouble at school getting along with others, and his parents are often called in to speak to the administration. He wakes in the night with horrific nightmares about trying to save a sister he doesn’t have, a scenario in which he can find no sense. He has hidden a suicide pledge, sealed with a bloody thumbprint, behind a painting in his room. Something is terribly wrong.

His mother, in utter desperation, flees London to a little coastal town in Brittany named Portivy, on the peninsula of Quiberon. Her friend Miriam lives there, and with her wisdom Colom’s story is slowly revealed. It is the first time he is fully aware of his past, for his childhood was a darkly shadowed one; a childhood his parents thought best to leave undisclosed.

But when have secrets ever been helpful? When truth lies hidden, pain has the time it needs to grow until a near Herculean effort is required to vanquish it. This effort is what is required from both of Colom’s parents as they face their past and what they have left untold to their beloved son.

I was moved to discover that author Gerard Kelly uses the story of Jairus in the New Testament to address Colom’s situation in his novel. When he sees Jairus’ utter despair at the apparent death of his daughter, Jesus comes to bring her to life again. Miriam reminds Fiona that Jesus sends all of the adults out of the room and focuses on the daughter alone.

“An adolescent in crisis is always a family in crisis,” Miriam continued, “but adolescence is about identity; about becoming an individual. My thesis suggested that healing can’t begin until we acknowledge the child as the subject of their own story: the actor in their own journey. The adults who have held the child as the object in their story must let go. It’s the whisper of identity they’re waiting for. Life, spoken into them again.” (p. 223)

Can anything be harder than being a parent? In the best of situations, it requires endless patience, forgiveness, and hope. It requires taking the focus off of one’s self and letting the “child” stand on his own. My son is 24, and I’m still practicing this every day.

Other important things that Kelly includes in his novel are:

  • John Tavener’s  Ikon of Light, a beautiful piece of sacred music
  • a reference to a 300 year old text written by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (quite possibly from The Sacrament of The Present Moment: “The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds. The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which only the heart fathoms insofar as it overflows with faith, trust and love.”)
  • a painting by Kandinsky named Farbstudie Quadrate
  • a quote pertaining to rain which precedes each chapter, from sources that include Garth Stein’s Racing in The Rain, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and Elie Wiesel’s Dawn.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book, to reflect on parenting, and childhood, and the necessity of truth under any circumstance. Thank you to Gerard Kelly for reminding us that uncovered secrets and forgiveness are the tools we need for healing. He blogs at and is the founder of the twitter prayer stream @twitturgies.

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear


Although Maisie Dobbs has been around for many years, I have not been introduced to her until this book which is twelfth in the series. I can’t say that I regret not meeting her until now.

Like Miss Marple, she is a perfectly lovely woman. Polite, adventurous, good at drinking tea and solving crimes. But my goodness, the plot took forever to get going, and in my opinion never did get quite off the ground in the way that I had hoped.

While coming home to Southampton from India, after suffering both the loss of her husband and her baby, Maisie decides to stay awhile in Gibralter. There, she just happens to stumble across the body of Sebastian Babayoff lying on the ground with his Leica camera under a nearby bush.

From there we are introduced, quite painstakingly, to practically every character in the town: Mrs. Bishop who runs the boarding house in which Maisie stays; Mr. Solomon who runs the haberdashery shop; Mr. Salazar who serves her coffee and a pastry each morning at his coffee shop; Arturo Kenyon  who trails her unconvincingly; and just coincidentally, all the other people who could possibly be involved in the murder of Sebastian, the photographer.

Whom I never cared enough about to wonder who would murder him, let alone why.

The whole story seemed conveniently put together for the author’s purpose, the mourning of Maisie became tedious after the first third of the book, and the characters lay stubbornly dormant rather than waking to impress me.

If you are one of the readers who likes Maisie Dobbs, I’m sure this latest novel in her explorations will amuse you. If you haven’t read her yet, I don’t recommend starting now.

An Introduction to The Poser by Jacob Rubin (And Give-away)


Accented with vaudevillian flair, The Poser is set in an imaginary country that resembles America of the 1950s and 1960s. A small eastern seaside town is where we meet Giovanni Bernini–a man who possesses the uncanny gift to instantly mimic anyone he meets. As he describes it, “No one disguise is perfect. There is in every person, no matter how graceful, a scam, a thread curling out of them…When pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire.” Honed by his theatrical mother at a young age, his talent eventually takes him from his hometown to the nightclubs of the City and eventually the sound stages of Fantasma Falls, the glamorous, west coast city similar to Hollywood. As Giovanni’s fame grows, he encounters a cast of provocative characters–including an exuberant manager, a mysterious chanteuse, an enigmatic psychoanalyst, and a deaf obsessive compulsive–and becomes increasingly trapped inside many personas. When his bizarre talent comes to define him Giovanni is forced to assume the one identity he has never been able to master: his own. ~Viking Press

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