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Hygiene and the Assassin

Vitriolic Misanthrope bested by Female Journalist

Although first published in 1992, this English translation was only published 18 years later. It was worth the wait. Such a wonderfully translated piece, it zings and bounces with satisfying accuracy, which alone makes this book a ‘must read’. It centres primarily around an interview of the cantankerous and pernicious Nobel Laureate, Prétextat Tach, by the female journalist, Nina. After a slew of failed (male) attempts, Nina manages to match this obese and postulating intellectual in a war of thought and a battle of rhetoric. I found the philosophising duel of wits wonderfully unique, immensely clever, and absurdly humorous. Although I was a tad lukewarm about the ending, the first half is worth reading twice over and I would urge it on anyone looking for a light, funny, intelligent read.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb is published by Europa Editions and translated by Alison Anderson, 167 pages.

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The Vegetarian

Weird and wonderful

‘Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.’ Thus starts the most unusual book I’ve read in a while, and stranger it gets. The Vegetarian by South Korean author Han Kang, is the tragic story of Yeong-hye, told by her husband, the cold Mr Cheong, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful, manipulative artist and her selfless sister, In-hye.

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To celebrate International Women’s Day 2016: Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman by Stefan Zweig

Passion guised as compassion

A treat for you on Women’s Day!  Austrian author Stefan Zweig  (The Post Office Girl, Beware of Pity and many novellas) was once the world’s most translated author. No wonder. This steaming hot novella about a woman and her whirlwind 24 hour affair with a much younger man is absolutely spellbinding, even more so when you know it was written by a man and almost 90 years ago!

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Mend the Living (The Heart)

A question of life and death

I was left speechless by this astounding novel, the story of a young man’s death and the dilemmas around organ donation. It reads like a thriller and had me pinned to the chair. Maylis de Kerangal fast-paced prose is intense and unusual, and, admittedly, took a few pages getting used to, but once you find the rhythm of her writing you’ll be unable to stop. An absolute must-read!

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The Prophets of Eternal Fjord

Compulsively readable novel about arctic hell hole

If you’re at all disgusted by bodily fluids, don’t even think about reading this book. If you’re not, prepare yourself for a firework of a novel by a master storyteller set in a part of the world which I’m willing to bet you’ve never read anything about before. Kim Leine’s novel The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, set in Greenland during Danish colonial rule, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2013 and is finally out in English.

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The Door

Housekeeper from hell?

Over Christmas I’ve been enjoying this very unusual and utterly absorbing (thinly veiled, true) story about a Hungarian writer (the narrator and Magda Szabó herself) and her housekeeper Emerence. It’s a novel about a precarious relationship, mutual respect (and some disrespect), balance of power and the secrets of a remarkable life, all under the magnifying glass.

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A Whole Life

A gentle lesson in living

An absolutely perfect little story about Austrian ‘mountain goat’ Andreas Egger, a salt-of-the-earth type of character whose quiet, lonely alpine village life turns out surprisingly satisfactory. His contentedness is of the old-fashioned kind, derived from a closeness to nature, work and acceptance of one’s destiny. A lesson in living and a heart-warming (but far from syrupy!) read which fans of John Williams’ Stoner will love.

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The Living and the Dead in Winsford

Thriller of the month

It is appropriate that, of any and all awards, The Living and the Dead in Winsford has won the Rosenkrantz award for best thriller of the year (2014). While this award might actually be in the name of Danish crime writer Palle Rosenkrantz, it is in fact reminiscent of that other Rosenkrantz: the compere of Guildenstern. The mystery, the crime and the repercussions are in tone more in keeping with the ambiguity of those other Danes, Hamlet’s betrayers.

We begin with a lone Swedish woman, and her dog, in England and isolated from everyone who knows her. What is she doing? What is she running from? Who is she? To say more would ruin the story and the gossamer threads that make up the web of her history. It requires your full participation and creativity as Nesser’s slow and anxious descriptions of her days on the moor make it the unique psychological thriller that it is. There are plenty of questions here and, despite the clear physical resolution, more questions linger after you have put the book back on its shelf. Nesser’s skill in delving into the psyche of our female narrator and his insidious suggestions of betrayal and disloyalty make it a worthy award winner, even if it were to be doubly awarded in another Rosenkrantz’ name.

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The End of Days

Too sad for words

This beautifully written, prize-winning novel should come with a warning: NOT SUITABLE IF FEELING LOW

It’s the story of a girl born in Austria-Hungary at the start of the 20th century and her five possible alternative lives. It’s structure is reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but, I think, more elegantly executed. The wars, famines and conflicts that dominated Central European history in the early part of the last century shape her different destinies and, as you’ve probably guessed, they are rarely happy ones. Suicides, famine, war – you name it. It’s a seriously depressing book that I found hard to enjoy (I can usually stomach sad books). That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s exquisitely written with an interesting premise – how coincidences shape our lives. It won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year, a prize I rate highly. Still tempted… just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Graphic novels - do they work?

I’ve long been intrigued by graphic novels (basically novels told in a comic strip format – although not necessarily funny…). Do they work or are they just for lazy readers? Persepolis is the autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi growing up in Iran during the revolution. There’s definitely nothing funny about Satrapi’s claustrophobic, repressed and violent childhood – neighbours telling on each other, the secret police monitoring every move and Iraqi bombs dropping over Teheran.

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