20 Books of Summer 2023

Cathy at 746 Books is hosting the annual 20 Books of Summer challenge, one I have never participated in, but I decided this year that I’m going to try and make space on the bookshelves and donate more books in September to a local vide grenier in Ansouis, Vaucluse, where there is always a large sale of English books.

Below are the 20 books I am going to be reading from this summer, from now until the end of August. I’m predominantly a mood reader, however August is Women in Translation #WITmonth, so I have included a few titles for that. Here are the books on my list:

women in translation summer reading

Other People’s Books, Their Must-Reads

The pile on the left are books that have been lent or given to me by friends, these are books that when I see them on the shelf, I think, I must hurry up and read that, because I need to let my friend know what I thought of it. They are promising, because they were loved by the person who gave it to me! So come on Claire, hurry up and read them, there are potential gems hiding in here!

  1. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty – I’m starting here today and it’s already given me a few laugh out loud moments. Nine people attend a remote health spa, somewhere north of Sydney, Australia, they’ve all responded to the off to change their lives in 10 days, but who exactly is this intriguing person who is going to turn their lives around? On verra!
  2. The Maid by Nita Prose – a friend bought this as an airport read and it was the the Goodreads Winner for Best Mystery & Thriller in 2022, it’s described as a locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, exploring what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different.
  3. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See – hugely popular author of historical fiction, often connected to China, this novel is set in a remote mountain village tea plantation, exploring the rituals and traditions of the Akha people and the effect of a stranger in their midst. It promises strong and complex female characters and insights into little known aspects of Chinese culture.
  4. All Are Welcome by Liz Parker – this romantic comedy novel was given to me by a friend and it was written by her cousin, got to support family ventures! A darkly funny novel about brides, lovers, friends and family and all the secrets and skeletons in the closet that come with them. Described by one reader as a hybrid ‘beach read’, character-driven, dysfunctional family story.
  5. Purged by Fire: Heresy of the Cathars by Diane Bonavist – a little known work of historical fiction about the struggle of the Cathars of the Languedoc region in Southern France (who rejected the teachings of the Catholic church) in the 13th century, and the papal directive to to root them out as they were deemed heretics, to confiscate property, and burn the unrepentant at the stake. Here is a story of three people trapped in the fatal complicities of that Inquisition.
  6. Dreams of Trespass by Fatema Mernisse – tales of a girlhood harem, this is a memoir of a young girl’s growing up in a French Morroccan harem in Fez, set against the backdrop of WWII.
  7. The Promise by Damon Galgut – this won the Booker Prize in 2021 and was lent to me by a friend, despite me saying I wasn’t going to read it, the premise sounds very much like the incredible South African novel Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk that I read in 2015, but I need to give this back, so…
  8. My Name is Resolute by Nancy E.Turner – this author wrote one of our all time favourite historical fiction trilogies about a pioneer woman who sought a living in the harsh, untamed lands of the Arizona Territory circa late 1800’s. They were based on the author’s great grandmother Sarah Prine; These is My WordsSarah’s QuiltA Star Garden. This one I have on good authority is fantastic. Beginning in 1729, it is a heartfelt story of a woman struggling to find herself during the tumultuous years preceding the American Revolution

Women in Translation #WITMonth

The pile on the right are all books I really want to read soon and they are a mix of works by women in translation and other books that I feel will be easy to pick up and get lost in, not overly challenging. I think I may be being rather ambitious as not only am I working throughout the summer, I have visitors coming and going throughout most of July and August. But there is a sense of freedom that summer brings and it is light so late, I’m going to create the list and then just see what happens.

  1. Fresh Dirt From the Grave by Giovanna Rivero (Bolivia) tr. Isabel Adey (Spanish) – gothic short stories from Latin America, this is part of my annual subscription to Charco Press. Six tales of a dark beauty that throb with disturbing themes: the legitimacy of revenge, incest as survival, indigenous witchcraft versus Japanese wisdom, the body as a corpse we inhabit. Rivero’s stories pierce the reader like a wound, but in the end also offer possibilities of love, justice and hope.
  2. Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) tr. Frances Riddle (Spanish) – a word of mouth sensation and International Booker Prize shortlist (2022) I’ve been wanting to read this for ages, so added it my 2023 bundle from Charco. The author has another book coming into English in July this year A Little Luck, so I may even get to that title this summer.
  3. Boulder by Eva Baltasar (Spain) tr. Julia Sanches (Catalan) – also shortlisted for the INternational Booker (2023) Eva Baltasar demonstrates her preeminence as a chronicler of queer voices navigating a hostile world―and in prose as brittle and beautiful as an ancient saga.
  4. Permafrost by Eva Baltasar (Spain) tr. Julia Sanches (Catalan) – having learned Boulder was #2 of a Triptych, I’ve added #1 to the list. Full of powerful, physical imagery, this prize-winning debut novel by acclaimed Catalan poet Eva Baltasar was a word-of-mouth hit in its own language. It is a breathtakingly forthright call for women’s freedom to embrace both pleasure and solitude, and speaks of the body, of sex, and of the self. There’s a third book Mamut not yet translated.

My Summer Reading

best summer reads
  1. My Fourth Time, We Drowned by Sally Hayden – this non-fiction, journalistic masterpiece is chronicle of the plight of refugees that find themselves in Mediterranean water’s and the implicated political decisions that have made their lives that much worse. I came across this after reading Leila Aboulela’s River Spirit, a work of historical fiction set in Sudan, Sally Hayden has written about the situation in Sudan today. Her book won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing 2022 and is described as a must read.#humanrights
  2. The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes – I should have read this in April, it was the One Dublin One Book choice for 2023. Last year we read the excellent Nora by Nuala O’Connor about the lives of Nora and James Joyce, this year it’s historical fiction set in 1816 Dublin, about a young lady sleuth operating at the dawn of forensic science.
  3. Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary – I have this in English and French and my neighbour keeps telling me to read it,I know this is going to be a gem, it is the story of the love for his mother that was his very life, their secret and private planet, their wonderland “born out of a mother’s murmur into a child’s ear, a promise whispered at dawn of future triumphs and greatness, of justice and love.”
  4. Homesick by Jennifer Croft – another title from Charco Press, not translated, but the author is a translator. This is a work of autobiographical fiction, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
  5. The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak – I’ve read 4 of her novels The Forty Rules of Love, The Bastard of Istanbul, Three Daughters of Eve and Honour and one work of nonfiction The Happiness of Blond PeopleA Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity. I’m always interested in the work of Turkish writer Elif Shafak, who writes from the perspective, and comes from, the place where East meets West.
  6. Daughter of the King by Kerry Chaput – set in La Rochelle, France 1661 – historical fiction based on the true story of the French orphans who settled Canada, a story of one young woman’s fight for true freedom.
  7. The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler – far too long sitting on my shelf, I didn’t even realise I had this novel when I first read Tyler’s Ladder of Years.
  8. End of Story by Louise Swanson – and here is the wonderful Louise Beech, whose novel How To Be Brave was such an unforgettable experience; this novel sees her using a new pen name for a different genre, a novel that is making a bit of a splash, it came about after a tweet made by a British politician (now the Prime Minister) suggested that people in the arts ought to retrain.

“This got me trying to imagine about a world without the arts. Without stories.”

Have you read any of these titles above, any recommendations, suggestions as to which to read first? Do you have summer (or winter) reading plans? Let me know in the comments below.

Dublin Literary Award Winner 2023

The wonderful Dublin Literary Award 2023 has announced their winner and I am pleased to learn it is one I have not only read, but it was one of my Top Fiction Reads of 2022

The Dublin Literary Award is unique in that it’s books are nominated by libraries from cities around the world. This year 84 libraries from 31 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia, the US, Canada, South America, Australia, and New Zealand made their nominations, the judges selected a shortlist of six novels and tonight they have awarded the prize to

Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp, translated by Jo Heinrich (read my review here) :

The 2023 Judging Panel, led by Professor Chris Morash of Trinity College Dublin, including Gabriel Gbadamosi, Marie Hermet, Sarah Moss, Arunava Sinha and Doireann Ní Ghríofa (author of my One Outstanding Read of 2020), commented:

 “Every so often, you come across a novel whose simple, direct honesty knocks you sideways.  There is an unaffected humility and generosity about Katja Oskamp’s Marzhan, Mon Amour that speaks to the value of community and to the dignity of ordinary lives. ‘The love I have inside me has turned to liquid,’ concludes the novel’s narrator, ‘and now runs into the most unlikely places’.  To read Marzhan, Mon Amour in Jo Heinrich’s translation from the German is to feel Katja Oskamp’s all-encompassing embrace of her world.”

Marzahn Mon Amour Katja OskampMarzhan Mon Amour is a memoir-ish novel, collective history and a character study of a group of people living in and around a multi-storied communist-era plattenbau prefab apartment building in the working class quarter of Marzahn, East Berlin, told through the eyes and ears of a woman facing her middle years.

“The middle years, when you’re neither young nor old, are fuzzy years. You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re heading for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming. You pause, at a loss, and turn around in circles, again and again. Fear sets in, the fear of sinking halfway, without a sound, without a cause.”

The narrator is a 45 year old woman (referred to in some articles as the author herself), whose partner is ill, requiring her to abandon her career as a writer and take up something else. She retrains as a chiropodist and joins Tiffy who offers beauty treatments and massage and Flocke who does nails, in a salon at the foot of an eighteen storey building.

If the opening paragraph quoted above, sounds melancholy, know that it represents a turning point.

Marzahn, Mon Amour is a tender reflection on life’s progression and our ability to forge connections in the unlikeliest of places under the the most unassuming circumstances.

I highly recommend you read it! A wonderful, life-affirming, inspirational read.


International Booker Prize Winner 2023

The winner of the International Booker Prize 2023 has been announced tonight in London.
Here are the six books on the shortlist, that were under consideration for the prize.

International Booker Prize shortlist 2023

The winner is the Bulgarian novel Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov translated by Angela Rodel.


Winner of the International Booker Prize 2023

A ‘clinic for the past’ offers a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers: each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time.

An unnamed narrator is tasked with collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the past, from 1960s furniture and 1940s shirt buttons to scents, and even afternoon light. But as the rooms become more convincing, an increasing number of healthy people seek out the clinic as a ‘time shelter’, hoping to escape the horrors of modern life – a development that results in an unexpected conundrum when the past begins to invade the present.

Intricately crafted, and eloquently translated by Angela Rodel, Time Shelter cements Georgi Gospodinov’s reputation as one of the indispensable writers of our times, and a major voice in international literature.

Judges’ Verdict

Here’s what the judges had to say about the winning novel:

‘Our winner, Time Shelter, is a brilliant novel, full of irony and melancholy. It is a profound work that deals with a very contemporary question: What happens to us when our memories disappear? Georgi Gospodinov succeeds marvellously in dealing with both individual and collective destinies and it is this complex balance between the intimate and the universal that convinced and touched us.

‘In scenes that are burlesque as well as heartbreaking, he questions the way in which our memory is the cement of our identity and our intimate narrative. But it is also a great novel about Europe, a continent in need of a future, where the past is reinvented, and nostalgia is a poison. It offers us a perspective on the destiny of countries like Bulgaria, which have found themselves at the heart of the ideological conflict between the West and the communist world.

‘It is a novel that invites reflection and vigilance as much as it moves us, because the language – sensitive and precise – manages to capture, in a Proustian vein, the extreme fragility of the past. And it mixes, in its very form, a great modernity with references to the major texts of European literature, notably through the character of Gaustine, an emanation from a world on the verge of extinction.

‘The translator, Angela Rodel, has succeeded brilliantly in rendering this style and language, rich in references and deeply free.

‘The past is only ever a story that is told. And not all storytellers have the talent of Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel.’

Time Shelter wasn’t on my radar, but I may have to consider it now.

I have read and really enjoyed Still Born by Mexican author Guadalupe Nettel and I am currently reading Whale by South-Korean author Cheon Myeong-kwan and I’m planning to read Boulder by Catalan author Eva Baltasar.

Have you read any from the shortlist? Any thoughts on Time Shelter?

Further Reading

Georgi Gospodinov interview: ‘I suspect my books are not at all easy to translate’

Angela Rodel interview: ‘Translators don’t play second fiddle to authors, it’s more like a duet’

Reading Guide for Time Shelter

Read an Extract from Time Shelter

New Zealand Book Awards 2023 winners #theockhams

Back in February I posted on the long longlist of 44 books in four categories for the New Zealand Book Awards 2023, also known as  “the ockhams”. The shortlist whittled that down to 16 titles and now we have a set of winners in each of those four categories and a handful of ‘Best First Book’ prizes.

Fiction Prize

No surprise that the winning novel that has captivated not just the nation (winning The People’s Choice), but also the twitterverse, narrated by Tama the magpie, @TamaMagpie, Catherine Chidgey’s The Axeman’s Carnival won the $64,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.

I’m very much looking forward to reading this, and hoping that since Europa Editions UK published her excellent novel Remote Sympathy in 2021, it won’t be long before we see this novel available in Europe and the rest of the English reading world.

Catherine Chidgey Tama the magpie

Chidgey’s masterful writing explores the diversifying of rural life, the predicament of childlessness, the ageing champ, and domestic violence. She provides a perspicacious take on the invidious nature of social media and a refreshingly complex demonstration of feminist principle.

“The unforgettable Tama – taken in and raised by Marnie on the Te Waipounamu high country farm she shares with champion axeman husband Rob – constantly entertains with his take on the foibles and dramas of his human companions. Catherine Chidgey’s writing is masterful, and the underlying sense of dread as the story unfolds is shot through with humour and humanity.

“The Axeman’s Carnival is unique: poetic, profound and a powerfully compelling read from start to finish.”

Poetry Prize

I was particularly intrigued by acclaimed Māori poet and scholar, Alice Te Punga Somerville’s poetry collection, Always Italicise, How To Write While Colonised and was pleased to see it win this category.

‘Always italicise foreign words’, a friend of the poet was cautioned. Alice Te Punga Somerville does exactly that. With humour and rage, regret and compassion, she ponders ‘how to write while colonised’ – penning poetry in English as a Māori writer; tracing connections between Aotearoa, New Zealand and the greater Pacific region, Indigenous and colonial worlds; reflecting on being the only Māori person in a workplace; and how – and why – to do the mahi anyway.

Alice Te Punga Somerville Always Italicise

“Readers are challenged but crucially invited in to accept that challenge and reach a new understanding of what it is to be a Māori woman scholar, mother and wife in 2022 encountering and navigating uncomfortable and hostile spaces.

“Always Italicise stood out amongst a very strong field for its finely crafted, poetically fluent and witty explorations of racism, colonisation, class, language and relationships. It’s a fine collection, establishing and marking a new place to stand.”

General Non-Fiction & Illustrated Non-Fiction

Broadcaster, music critic and author Nick Bollinger won the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction for Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Drawing on archival research and rich personal narratives, Nick Bollinger has written a compelling account of an epoch-making period, linking international trends to the local context in a purposeful-yet-playful way.

“A joy to read and to hold, Jumping Sundays is a fantastic example of scholarship, creativity and craft.”

Historian and lawyer Ned Fletcher won the General Non-Fiction Award for his work, The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi, shedding new light on New Zealand’s founding document’s implications, contributing fresh thinking to what remains a very live conversation for those that call Aotearoa New Zealand home. The treaty was made between the British Crown and about 540 Māori rangatira (chiefs) on February 6, 1840.

Best First Books

Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood, a collection of interlinked short stories won the Hubert Church Prize for Fiction; Khadro Mohamed’s We’re All Made of Lightning takes the reader to distant lands, Egypt and Somalia, in heightened sensory language as she grieves for her homeland, winner of the Jessie MacKay Prize for Poetry; the Judith Binney Illustrated non-fiction, first book award went to Christall Lowe’s Kai ,which offers whānau stories and recipes that provide wider insight into te ao Māori, creating a homage to food that is grounded in tradition yet modern, the new Edmonds!

Finally, the E.H. McCormick Prize for General Non-fiction and the book I am currently reading, (left with me by a friend visiting from NZ) went to Noelle McCarthy for Grand, Becoming My Mother’s Daughter. This book was running neck-a-neck with The Axeman’s Carnival for The People’s Choice, up until the last few days, when Chidgey’s book surged ahead.

An exquisite debut, it masterfully weaves together the threads of Noelle McCarthy’s life, and her relationship with her mother, in a memoir that connects with truths that unite us all. Poignant and poetic language renders scenes with honesty and colour. Intimate, but highly accessible, the fragility and turbulence of the mother-daughter relationship is at times brutally detailed. Despite this, Grand is an uplifting memoir, delicate and self-aware, and a credit to McCarthy’s generosity and literary deftness.

NZ Book Awards

A Special Mention

Non fiction NZ art assessment 50 years as an artistOne that didn’t win, but that was Number 4 in The People’s Choice and one I have heard a lot about and sighted on a recent visit to London, is Robin White: Something Is Happening Here.

Described as more than an exhibition turned art book. It features stunning reproductions, historical essays and the insights of two dozen contributors that do justice to the institution that is Robin White. As iconic screenprints flow seamlessly into large format barkcloth, White’s border-crossing practice is temporally divided with the savvy use of typographic spreads. Space, too, is given to the voices of her Kiribati, Fijian and Tongan co-collaborators.

More recently in her life, collaboration with others has become important, a way of working in the space between cultures, enriching and liberating from the confines of self.

Strikingly elegant yet comprehensive, excellence is what’s happening here.

Check out Robin White’s Artist Profile here.

River Spirit by Leila Aboulela

I have now read three novels by Leila Aboulela and enjoyed them all, her historical fiction has taken me into parts of history that I’ve known nothing about and she brings a fresh, unique perspective, thanks to her cross-cultural life experience, at the intersection of being a Muslim woman of Sudanese origin living in Scotland.

I was very much looking forward to this latest novel as she returns within it to her country of origin and tells us a story that begins in a village and moves to the city of Khartoum, Sudan, intertwining the crossover histories of two occupying Empires against a uprising local population, at the very place where two grand rivers meet.

Grandiose Empires and A False Prophet

White Nile Blue Nile Khartoum Sudan conflictRiver Spirit is a unique work of historical fiction set in 1890’s Sudan, at a turning point in the country’s history, as its population began to mount a challenge against the ruling Ottoman Empire, only the people were not united, due to the opposition leadership coming from a self-proclaimed “Mahdi” – a religious figure that many Muslims believe will appear at the end of time to spread justice and peace.

The appearance of ‘the Mahdi’ or ‘the false Mahdi’ created a division in the population and provided a gateway for the British to further a desire to expand their own Empire, under the guise of ousting this false prophet. However for a brief period, this charismatic leader would unite many who had felt repressed by their circumstances, inspiring them to oust their foreign occupiers by whatever means necessary, even if it also set them against their own brothers and kinsmen.

Orphans, A Merchant, A Promise

Against this background, Leila Aboulela tells the story of orphan siblings, Akuany and Bol, and their young merchant friend Yaseen, a friend of their father; their parents were killed in a slave raid on the village, the merchant made a promise to protect these two youngsters, forever connecting them to his life.

The story is told through multiple perspectives, mostly in the third person perspective, from Akuany (who becomes enslaved to both an Ottoman officer and a Scottish painter at various points and is renamed Zamzam) and Yaseen’s point of view, as well as one of the fighters of the Mahdi, Musa.

Leila Aboulela Sudan 1890s historical fictionThe change in perspective and the lack of a first person narrative keeps the characters at a slight distance to the reader as we follow the trials of Zamzam’s life and her dedication to being a part of Yaseen’s life. Like other readers, I wished at times that the story was told in the first person from her point of view, but the story is too important to be limited to one perspective.

So the reader is taken on a journey through the shifting viewpoints of all parties implicated and affected by the approaching conflict, those of fervent belief, the skeptical, outsiders with ulterior motives, and the innocent, the women and children trying to live ordinary family lives amid the power struggles of patriarchal dominance and colonial selfishness.

Yaseen decides to become a scholar, a decision that changes his life and opportunities; he meets the Mahdi and is unconvinced, an opinion that will become dangerous and have repercussions for him and his family.

As the revolutionary Mahdi leader grew in popularity and his followers in confidence, Sudan began to slip from the grasp of Ottoman rule and everyone was forced to choose a side, whether for personal, political or religious reasons. The (religious) confusion created by the implication of accepting this new leader ,became a strategic opportunity for British colonial interests to gain access to natural resources and secure control of the Nile ahead of other European interests was well as protecting their interests in Egypt. The real threat for both the Ottoman and British Empires, was the potential for the creation of a new independent power, one that came from within Sudan. That, clearly, they were likely to undermine.

What has changed is that this is now a massive rebellion against a major power. The fake Mahdi has coalesced the nation’s sense of injustice.

Two Rivers Entwine, the Nile

River Spirit The Nile Leila Aboulela SudanOnce Akuany and her brother leave the family village, most of the story takes place in Khartoum, a city that is at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, two major rivers that join to become the Nile proper, the longest river in the world, that continues on through Egypt to the Mediterranean.

The river is part of Akuany’s story, part of her being and a symbol of her twin selves, one free, one enslaved, of twin occupying forces, the Ottoman and British Empires, of the many aspects in the story where twin forces clash, mix and become something new. It represents her devotion to her brother and to the merchant Yaseen, to a focus that drives her forward through the changing circumstances of her life. The two rivers arrive from different sources in a city that is full of many coming from elsewhere, where agendas often clash and local people get caught on the crossfire of inevitable conflict.

She was not one of them, but she was like them. She was also one of the lowly rising, one of the poor benefiting, one of the featherweight children of this land, thrust up by this shake-up, loosened and made free to stand up and grab what was there on offer, what she had always wanted.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the story, was the focus of the story coming from characters within the population, that we witness things from within, through the eyes of both a simple, loyal but marginalised, servant girl and through a young educated man, both of whom are from Sudan. They are living in turbulent times and are witness to the effect various powerful influences have on their city and in the case of ZamZam the effect on her person, treated as an object of ownership.

Cycles of Conflict, Khartoum Today

The novel was published on March 7th, 2023, a mere month before two Generals again plunged Sudan into armed conflict with devastating consequences for civilians and civilian infrastructure, especially in Khartoum and Darfur. At least 676 people have been killed and 5,576 injured, since the fighting began. (14 May, UN source)

Over 936,000 people have been newly displaced by the conflict since 15 April, including about 736,200 people displaced internally since the conflict began, and about 200,000 people who have crossed into neighbouring countries, including at least 450,000 children who have been forced to flee their homes.

“Fanatics can never draw out the good in people. They will go to war I predict. They will raise armies, invade, and pillage because it is only aggression that will keep their cause alive. Fighting an enemy is always easier than governing human complexity.”

Further Reading

New York Times: Amid Conflict and Cruelty, a Love Story That Endures by Megha Majumdar, March 7, 2023
Brittle Paper: A Compelling Tale of Love and Anti-Colonialism in 19th Century Sudan by Ainehi Adoro, May 16, 2023

The Scotsman, Book Review by Joyce McMillan

Brittle Paper, Interview: “We Need to Hear the Stories of Africa’s Encounter with Europe from Africans Themselves” | A Conversation with Leila Aboulela

Africa in Words (AiW) Interview: Review and Q&A: Leila Abouleila’s ‘River Spirit’ – Rewriting the Footnotes of Sudanese Colonial History by Ellen Addis

Leila Aboulela, Author

River Spirit Sudanese historical fiction MahdiLeila Aboulela is a fiction writer, essayist, and playwright of Sudanese origin. Born in Cairo, she grew up in Khartoum and moved in her mid-twenties to Aberdeen, Scotland. Her work has received critical recognition and a high profile for its depiction of the interior lives of Muslim women and its distinctive exploration of identity, migration and Islamic spirituality.

She is the author of six novels: River Spirit (2023), Bird Summons (), Minaret (2005), The Translator (1999), a Muslim retelling of Jane Eyre, it was a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, The Kindness of Enemies (2015) and Lyrics Alley (2010), Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards. Leila Aboulela was the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing and her latest story collection, Elsewhere, Home (2018) won the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year Award.

Her work has been translated into fifteen languages and she was long-listed three times for the Orange Prize, (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction).

“We need to hear the stories of Africa’s encounter with Europe from Africans themselves. Mainstream colonial history has been viewed and written through the lens of Europe. This is insufficient for us in these contemporary times and as Africans we need to write our own history. ” Leila Aboulela, interview with Brittle Paper.

Pod by Laline Paull

I jumped at the chance to read Pod, after having read The Bees and been bowled over by the Mayan inspired beehive world the author created. I was excited to see what Pod might offer and delighted to see it shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner to be announced on Wed 14 June, 2023)

Laline Paull is fast becoming an afficianado of fiction set in the natural world.

An Immersive Oceanic World

Ea dolphin narrator animal Women's Prize FictionThough not an easy read, Pod is a work of inspired literary genius. A cetacean epic, it is a fictional account of dolphin tribe rivalry and a coming-of-age of story of one of the pod, created from real knowledge of environmental science and marine biology. Clearly, a lot of background research and animal behavioural understanding underpins the narrative.

Laline Paull explains in an afterword how the novel was partly inspired following an excursion swimming with wild dolphins.

I learned that this big, noisy pod first appeared in this area after an oil spill up the coast forced them to move on. On arrival in this bay, they deposed the small resident pod of spinner dolphins, who left and were not seen again.

Set in the ocean, from within pods of dolphins, we view an underwater world, peopled by different species as their environment changes, how this affects their habits and behaviours towards others species.

Whales and dolphins are citizens of their world (the ocean), and Pod gives them voice, and readers a view, from within their ecosystem that humans have compromised. Referring to them collectively as people at first seems strange and then it feels appropriate.

Animals Like Humans Like Animals

Sometimes those behaviours mimic dysfunctional aspects of human societal behaviour, such as those brought about by a system of domination, the use of fear, violence and subjugation to keep the female species in line, making examples of the weak and young, banishing the old.

At the same time, their signals become confused by the changing conditions of the ocean, the noise from large ships, pollution, mutations, a general warming and the presence of a large contaminated patch full of micro-plastics.

It grew by the day, by the motion of each tide, yet it remained an inert drifting thing, a negative sea within the ocean. It gathered its great amorphous body piece by piece of plastic, and it made peculiar sounds as it crushed and released, spreading out on the surface, and down to the depths.

Pod Laline Paull spinner dolphin

Photo by Daniel Torobekov on Pexels.com

The story follows the lives of a young female spinner dolphin Ea, of the Longi tribe; another named Google who has been bred in captivity by a military handler, now alone and lost in the ocean he knows nothing of; a pod of bottle-nose dolphins, the Tursiops tribe lead by dominant, aggressive males who have harems.

There are also a few other fish species characters that provide lighter entertainment value, including an informative, commensal Remora that sticks to the dolphins and can infiltrate their thoughts.

To spin like everyone else was the key to fitting in, and if she could only hear the music of the ocean like everyone else, she too would be able to tune in and do it.

The Longi have been forced out of their homewater by an invasion of the cruel barbaric Tursiops tribe. After a tragedy, Ea leaves her pod and is abducted by a group of exiled male Tursiops.

With Google now roaming the ocean alone, it is only a matter of time before there will be an encounter, leading to the novel’s denouement.

When the sharks saw him, with his wounds and his peculiar energy like no other dolphin they had ever encountered, they left him alone. He was not prey, and when one sub-adult tiger shark became too curious, Google remembered the game of tag, and butted back harder than the juvenile had touched him. That was all it took, one contact and and another part of Google’s instinctive mind opened up. Shark.

Belonging, Finding Home, Community

Pod Laline Paull

Photo by Daniel Torobekov on Pexels.com

It’s an ambitious concept and at times difficult to read, due to the treatment inflicted and the dire presence of man, acting in a way that yields little respect for the environment these creatures live and spawn within.

Ultimately, it explores aspects of belonging to a species, how they control from inside and treat outsiders and the rebel within.

Their homewater was no more, powerful devils were ripping the ocean apart and their screaming was killing pods of pilots, of humpbacks, of dolphins.

It is appropriate to mourn the losses, who really knows what it must be like to be a marine animal living in an environment that has been so compromised by a species that lives on land, that continually exploits, pollutes and disregards the fragile biosphere within which they dwell.

Death was everywhere, people were fleeing, the ocean was either full of refugees or terrifyingly empty.

Natural World Fiction

As a work of fiction, this was far outside what I normally read and as such it is hard to describe in those terms. The dolphin characters were interesting as they tried to understand their own inner signals and navigate their increasingly confused environment and community. Reading about dolphins as a society is quite confronting, when we learn that they are far from the playful characters we have been lead to believe.

The unfamiliarity of some of the other species made it a challenge to visualise some of the characters, it was necessary for me to look up some of these fish species, testing the limits of my imagination.  It was just not possible to substitute Dory and Nemo for Wrasse, Fugu and Remora!

Pod is quite a ride, a thought provoking, confronting read that makes no apologies for the dark, realistic world it inhabits.

Further Reading

Interview Orion Magazine: An Ocean of Agony and Ecstasy – 7 questions for Laline Paull about her new novel ‘Pod’

Laline Paull on Substack: Storytelling and the Climate Crisis Science + emotion = change. Using the power of storytelling to communicate the climate crisis.

Captain Paul Watson: Where Others Fear To Go, We Will Continue to Fight

Seaspiracy Documentary Trailer

OceanaProtecting the World’s Oceans

Mission Blue – Hope Spots

Laline Paull, Author

Laline Paull was born in England. Her parents were first-generation Indian immigrants. She studied English at Oxford University, screenwriting in Los Angeles, and theatre in London.

She has had two plays performed at the Royal National Theatre, where she is currently adapting her first novel, The Bees. Her second novel The Ice, was set in the Arctic. She is a member of BAFTA and the Writers’ Guild of America. She lives in the English countryside with her family.

“I loved finding out about different dolphin cultural expressions, which made me think: They’re just like us. They’re tribal. They like different foods, different dances; they make love or coercively mate, have political alliances, get into great big amorous raves—it was wonderful to discover these things through the strict unemotional lens of science. Then run away and make a wild story of it.” Laline Paull, interview, Orion Magazine

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2023

Today the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023 shortlist of six novels was announced; the Chair of judges Louise Minchin summed up their decision to select this group of books by saying:

 ‘This is an exquisite set of ambitious, diverse, thoughtful, hard-hitting and emotionally engaging novels. A glittering showcase of the power of women’s writing. My fellow judges and I feel it has been a huge privilege to read these novels, and we are delighted to be part of their journey, bringing them to the attention of more readers from across the world.’

The six shortlisted books are as follows:

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
Pod by Laline Paull
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver


Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris (Yugoslav/Cornish – UK) (Historical Fiction)

– a city under seige, 90’s Sarajevo, a breathtaking story of disintegration, resilience and hope of a young woman artist/teacher and her friends.

Ea dolphin narrator animalPod by Laline Paull (UK) (Nature/Oceanic Fantasy)

– an ocean world, its creatures, mysteries and mythologies , their relationships to each other – increasingly haunted and damaged by the cruelty and ignorance of the human race, told through Ea, a dolphin.

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks (Jamaican/British) (Historical Fiction) 

– set in 80’s London & Jamaica,  a mesmerizing story of love, loss, and search for home, that vibrates with the liberating power of music

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy (Northern Ireland) (Contemporary Fiction)

– set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a drama of of thwarted love and irreconcilable loyalties; a young woman caught between allegiance to community and a dangerous passion.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (UK/Ireland) (Historical Fiction)

– set in 1550 Florence, Renaissance Italy,  an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman, the duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici, whose life arc changes when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio. Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight and must navigate and survive the demands of her new position.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (US) (Fan Fiction)

– a retelling of David Copperfield in contemporary America that speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.

The Known, The Oceanic, The Talked About, The New

It is an interesting shortlist, with the familiar, experienced authors Maggie O’Farrell (who won the prize in 2020 with Hamnet) and Barbara Kingsolver (who won in 2010 with Lacuna). Both authors I have enjoyed reading and wouldn’t hesitate to pick up anything by them.

I am currently reading Pod by Laline Paull, after being completely entranced by her world creating in The Bees. Pod isn’t as compelling a reading experience for me as The Bees was, but it is equally fascinating the way the reader is drawn into her disturbing, oceanic world. Fire Rush is one I sought out, after seeing it on the longlist, I’ll likely be reading that next.

Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses I read and reviewed during Reading Ireland Month and enjoyed it. This novel has been on The Times bestseller list the last few weeks, a word of mouth sensation that has built up immense popularity in the past few months.

The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will be awarded on Wednesday 14th June 2023.

Have you read any books from the shortlist that you recommend? Are you going to pick up any others? Let me know in the comments below.

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2023

While I have been busy elsewhere, the Dublin Literary Award Shortlist of six novels has also been announced.

Chosen from a diverse longlist of nominations from libraries around the world, this award gives us an insight into what books readers from around the world are being engaged by thanks to books being lent by public libraries.

You can see the entire longlist of 78 novels in my earlier post here.

Of the six shortlisted titles below, four are in translation. The novels chosen explore a range of issues including the power of books, racially-inspired hate crimes, relationships, ageing, toxic masculinity, the impact of war, and span many locations and eras.

Shortlisted titles:

Cloud Cuckoo Land (Science Fiction/Fantasy) by Anthony Doerr (US)

The Trees (Dark Murder Mystery/Social Satire) by Percival Everett (US)

Paradais (Dark Underbelly of Humanity Literary Fiction) by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico), translated by Sophie Hughes

Marzahn, Mon Amour (Uplifting Working Class fiction) by Katja Oskamp (Germany), translated by Jo Heinrich

Love Novel (Intense Domestic Fiction) by Ivana Sajko (Croatia), translated by Mima Simić

Em (War Effect & Displacement fiction) by Kim Thúy (Canada/Vietnam), translated by Sheila Fischman

I’m intrigued to read Percival Everett, a writer I’ve been aware of for some time but not read.

I highly recommend Marzhan, mon amour, I absolutely loved it.

I’ve read Kim Thúy before, so I’m eyeing her novel too, despite how traumatic much of the story seems, based on realife stories of happenings in Vietnam, but uniquely, being told from a woman’s perspective and covering many of the subjects rarely written or spoken if elsewhere.

The winning novel will be announced on the 25th of May.

Let me know if you’ve read and enjoyed any of these titles, or are tempted by anything here.

International Booker Prize Shortlist 2023

The shortlist of six books for the International Booker Prize has been announced.

Six shortlisted titles

The titles are:

Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches
Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated by Chi-Young Kim
The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox
Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne
Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey

The books on this year’s shortlist originated from Bulgaria, Côte d’Ivoire, France, Mexico, South Korea and Spain.

Collectively this group of novels acts as a reflection of the societies they each inhabit, in particular the place and role of women, the effect and deconstruction of colonial legacies and the absurdities if nationalism.

Motherhood as a theme is explored, outside the nuclear family, within modern lives, changing attitudes and age-old challenges. Still Born and Boulder explore women coming to terms with biology and the body, while tending with the severe emotional consequence of their decisions.

You can read book blurbs of the six titles shortlisted in my earlier post here.

I’m planning to read Still Born and being a fan of Maryse Condé, who has said this will be her last novel, I’ll eventually read her novel too. Incredibly, having lost her sight, she has narrated this novel orally through her husband and translator Richard Philcox. It seems somehow apt, given her own research into the life of her grandmother, whom she never knew, also told to her orally and written about in her novel Victoire, My Mother’s Mother.

Are you planning to read any of these titles? Any predictions to win?

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is Belfast author Wendy Erskine’s second volume of short stories and the first one I have read. Her debut Sweet Home was reviewed to critical acclaim, so I was looking forward to reading this collection published in 2022 and appropriately I chose to read it in-flight, on my way to Belfast for a weekend visit.

I also was reading it for Reading Ireland Month 2023, but did not have time to review it before that ended.

In-flight versus On-Train Entertainment

Dance Move Wendy ErskineIt was the perfect choice for in-flight reading, as the stories were thoroughly entertaining and kept me gripped in between flight delays, air traffic control strikes, and would have kept me company on the Elizabeth Line had I not been engrossed in eavesdropping on a conversation between two captivating young men where they discussed how they create fashion insta stories, the merits of studying in Portugal versus London; a recent concert one of them performed in Cuba last week (as you do) and gossiping about their friend who found love after challenging himself to go on 100 tinder dates – not the kind of conversation one might overhear where I live, thus book aside and ears wide open!

And so to some of the stories that have stayed with me:


In the first story, the opening line reads:

“The drawer beside Roberta’s bed contained remnants of other people’s fun”

It is a wonderful encapsulation of all that is to come, referring to a collection of things that have been left behind in the various short-let rentals our protagonist has cleaned. She works in a hotel that has a policy of holding lost property for 2 months before the staff can claim them, but her other boss goes by the saying ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’. Unless it is a weapon, then it should be given to him.

“Mr Dalzell had said that anything she found was hers, automatically.”

She gets driven around from place to place by another employee with a van, cleaning up after all kinds of people, who we never see or know who they are – but clearly they are not so much the short holiday crowd, more like overnight partying groups. One day she finds something left behind that creates a significant dilemma. Perhaps it was only a matter of time, but from this moment on the story captivates and builds tension as we wonder what choices she will make. Brilliant.

Mrs Dallesandro

Mrs Dallesandro Dance Move Wendy E

Photo on Pexels.com

Mrs Dallesandro opens as she leaves the hairdresser, giving a wave and observing her reflection as she leaves. She has been married twenty-three years, knows what to expect from her predictable life, is well maintained and under no illusion regarding her husband’s various dalliances with much younger women.

Mrs Dallesandro wouldn’t call them affairs or relationships, since that would elevate them to a status they didn’t warrant. She has never once felt threatened by them.

She is on a mission to go to a sunbed clinic, an activity that she perceives as a minor transgression, that ultimately will give her something she does not get elsewhere. She recalls an episode in her youth with a shopkeeper’s son and we wonder if that had an impact on the way she is now, the choices she subsequently made.

It is an evocative story of the shallowness of a life half lived, of the things a person might occupy themselves with when life has hollowed them out, the strange lengths one might go, to find a substitute for human connection. It reminded me a little of Forbidden Notebook by Alba des Céspedes, another woman living a half-life, who discovers an interior version of herself at odds with how she acts, when she begins to keep an intimate journal.


In this story jealousy and resentments between sisters surface alongside familial expectations and judgments. A birthday party creates the scene for family dysfunction to play itself out, imbued with the symbolism and pointedness of the gift, with the observations of what people wear, how trivial objects trigger emotions, how the laid-back and the intense personalities function side by side in the great mix of extended family. How human connection blossoms in surprising ways despite the circumstances.

His Daughter

A story of family loss, of grief, of obsession and activity. Just as the family are sitting down to dinner, Curtis pops outside for a minute. He does not come back. Ever. Posters go up all over town, they keep the mother busy. Time passes and signs appear of life changing, reforming, resisting, resenting, of repeat patterns that overtake the old reality. A provocative profound observation of life and death.

Dance Move

In the titular story, a mother takes a pole dancing lesson and at home tries to push her daughter to enrol in ballet. She watches her daughter and friends have fun dirty dancing with a critical eye and is quick to apportion blame.

We learn of an event from her past relating to her brother, an accident, her parents. The reader takes in the present and the past and will make their own connections between them, forced to use their own imagination to ponder any cause and effect on relationships.

Family Dynamics, Human Connection, Cause and Effect in How Lives are Lived

Short stories Dance Move Wendy Erskine

Coastal pathway, County Down, Northern Ireland

It’s not easy to make any overall assumptions or impressions about the collection, as each story took me to a different place through their characters and circumstance, that pulled me in quickly and left me pondering one thing or other.

Perhaps as I describe above, it is that setting up of a dynamic, a situation and the observation of how people react or respond, the reader being given a little or no insight into a person’s past that makes us wonder why people decide to act the way they do.

Further Reading

Leo Robson in The guardian, describes the collection as ‘pleasurable stories of magical thinking and unlived lives go straight to the emotional core’, you can read more of their observations here.