The lure of the library – adding to the TBR

The library is a tempting place for a bookaholic. This is the current state of my library TBR.

Why did I go to the library in the first place? Ah yes, I remember; it was to collect the book club’s June choice Corpus Delicti by Juli Zeh (in English, it’s called The Method). It’s not often I can borrow any of our book club picks, either in English or Dutch, not even when I pay for interlibrary loan. So when I can, I jump at the chance. While I was there, I picked up Anne Tyler’s Azijnmeisje (Vinegar Girl) for Liz Dexter’s Anne Tyler project, even though it’s one of her most recent books, so Liz won’t get to Vinegar Girl until later in the year. Perhaps it’s not the best choice as it’s based on The Taming of the Shrew and that’s one Shakespeare play I didn’t study at school. Annoyingly, I couldn’t borrow a single one of Tyler’s books in English, even via interlibrary loan. And once I had been lured into the library, I couldn’t resist borrowing a few other books, of course.

I had been looking forward to reading something by the Turkish author Elif Shafak. I suggested one of her books to the book club a few months ago, but they picked the disappointing essay How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, probably because it’s short. So Shafak is still on my list of ‘authors to read’ and I was delighted to find several of her novels in Dutch at the library. I picked Het luizenpaleis (The Flea Palace) because it is about ten families, many animals and a plague of fleas, all living together in a dilapidated old house in Istanbul. Sounds right up my street.

The Polish author Olga Tokarczuk has been on my radar ever since I heard about her Flights (winner of the Man Booker International in 2018) and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (nominated for the International Booker in 2019); there’s no version with the British spelling of Plough, which bothers me more than it should. In any case, these weren’t on offer at the local library, but Oer en andere tijden (English title Primeval and Other Times) was. While I was at it, I nabbed a tiny novella set in Chile, De filmvertelster by Hernán Rivera Letelier (translated from the Spanish to Dutch by M. Vanderzee; there is no English translation). It tells the story of a young girl who develops a talent for retelling the stories of the films she is sent to watch on behalf of her poverty-stricken family. I couldn’t resist the temptation to read such a slim volume to count towards my Reading the World challenge. I also happened to spot Melmoth by Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent (on my wishlist). Then just before I reached the library checkout, I noticed they had a display of nature-related books and one of them was Sepp Holzer’s Permacultuur. I’ve been longing to read some of theory of what I try to put into practice in my garden, so that had to come home with me too. I need some advice!

As I didn’t want to take library books on holiday with me, they are all still To Be Read. What’s more, when I had to take Corpus Delicti back because it had been requested by somebody else, I couldn’t resist looking at the usually woefully inadequate English section. To my utter delight, they had Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which had mere hours earlier won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

What’s more, another of my wishlist was there on the shelf, in English: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong which has been nominated for virtually every prize it was eligible for. I have just realised that the narrator is known as Little Dog, a young man writing a letter to his illiterate Vietnamese mother. So I will try to read it this month and fit it into my pet theme as well as ticking the Vietnam box. I love it when something like that happens unexpectedly.

Dutch literature blitz

Not content with this ridiculous number of books, I have been feeling the need to read one of Dutch literature’s most famous books, Max Havelaar (1860) by Edward Douwes Dekker, pen name Multatuli. As a result of this novel, reforms were made to reduce the exploitation in the Dutch coffee trade with Java, then a Dutch colony. I have had a copy of the book on my BookCrossing shelf since 2008, but though I’ve tried to read it, I always abandon it due to the outdated Dutch. I am capable of reading it, but it’s hard work. When I happened to mention this on the BookCrossing forum, somebody told me that there was a slightly abridged version available in modern Dutch by Gijsbert van Es, who is listed as the ‘translator’; he is in fact an extreme editor or co-author. Much to my surprise, my local library had a copy but – month after month – it was already on loan. Admittedly, some of this time was in lockdown, when we were only allowed to reserve books that were actually physically in the library, but it was very frustrating. Once the lockdown embargo on reservations was lifted, I decided it was time to wrest it back from whoever was keeping it hostage.

While I was on the library’s site, I also checked on another book that always eludes me at the library. Again, it had been out on loan for months, not necessarily to the same person, but I felt it was time I read it: last year’s Dutch winner of the International Booker, The Discomfort of Evening (De avond is ongemak) by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Now the pressure’s on to read that one, too. In fact, I’ve already started it and it’s – so far – more enjoyable than I had expected.

Another Dutch classic I recently discovered was available in library was De kleine Johannes (1885) by Frederik van Eeden. I had always assumed it was a children’s story or fairy tale, but it is supposedly philosophical and allegorical. To my immense surprise, this is on the 1001 books list. I decided to pick it up from the library before I forgot about it again and, for some not particularly logical reason, I immediately started reading it as a little light bedtime reading. So in this case it will be last in first out which was not the plan at all; I’m supposed to be reading some of my ‘oldest’ books on the TBR, not all these library books, most of which I hadn’t heard of a couple of years ago. Well, as H.E. Bates would have said, A Little of What You Fancy…

September library books (from De filmvertelster down). I’ve added a few since I took this photo.

#Library checkout

Just after I had started to write this post, I was reading through Bookish Beck’s recent posts and realised she runs a monthly meme called Library Checkout, posting on the last Monday of the month, so I delayed this post to fit in. I have twin bad habits of running up library fines by missing the due date and taking a pile of books and not reading them for months. Bookish Beck makes me feel less guilty about doing this. It’s also worth bearing in mind that, under PLR – Public Lending Rights – authors, translators, etc. usually get paid a tiny amount every time somebody borrows their books (or are paid per copy bought by a library), so you’re paying back the creators every time you borrow. What a great excuse to go to the library!


  • Corpus delicti: een proces (The Method) (2009) – Julie Zeh, Hilde Keteleer (trans.). Read in Dutch. Original German: Corpus Delicti. Ein Prozess. Dystopian. ★★★☆☆
  • De filmvertelster (2009) – Hernán Rivera Letelier, M. Vanderzee (trans.). Original Spanish: La contadora de películas. ★★★★☆
  • De kleine Johannes (The Quest) (1885) – Frederik van Eeden. Read in the original Dutch. 1001 book. Dutch magical realism? Talking animals, elves, death, coming of age. ★★★★☆


  • De avond is ongemak (The Discomfort of Evening) (2018) – Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Reading in Dutch. Winner of the International Booker Prize 2020.


  • Het luizenpaleis (The Flea Palace) (2002) – Elif Shafak; Margreet Dorleijn, Hanneke van der Heijden (trans.)
  • Azijnmeisje (Vinegar Girl) (2016) – Ann Tyler; Marijke Versluys (trans.)
  • Melmoth (2018) – Sarah Perry
  • Oer en andere tijden (Primeval and Other Times) (1996)- Olga Tokarczuk
  • Holzer’s permacultuur – Sepp Holzer
  • Max Havelaar (1860) – Multatuli (Edward Douwes Dekker); Gijsbert van Es (translated into modern Dutch)
  • Piranesi (2020) – Susanna Clarke
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) – Ocean Vuong

September selections and ongoing reading challenges

Now that my reading for 20 Books of Summer is officially over, I can start thinking about new reading plans. Of course, I do still have three of my summer books to finish, but that doesn’t stop me lining up more books to read and getting back to ongoing challenges. Not to mention the books I couldn’t leave at the library and the ones I liberated from the secondhand bookshop last week, but I’ll tell you about those in another blogpost.

Ongoing challenges: pet theme, countries, A-Z, 1001 books

Every year I take part in several challenges on the BookCrossing forum, one of which is called The Ultimate Challenge and involves reading books with a (loosely interpreted) theme every month. This September it’s ‘pets and farm animals’, so I have collected together everything that fits the bill, as you can see in the photo below. Upcoming themes are ‘numbers and maths’ (October), ‘school’ (November) and ‘crime’ (December).

The books I’m most likely to read this month are:

  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) by Muriel Barbery because that will fit the 1001 challenge. The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov would too, but I very much doubt I’ll have time for both. On the other hand, Bulgakov was Russian, so I can count that for Asia…
  • The Man Who Spoke Snakish (2007) by Andrus Kivirähk comes from Estonia, not a country whose books I often come across, so it would be ideal for my country challenge. If only I hadn’t already read more than six books for Europe this year! Mind you, I am proposing reading a book set in France, so I’m not entirely sure about my rationale, here.
  • Het lied van de duizend stieren [The Legend of the Thousand Bulls] (1971) by Yasar Kemal is a strong candidate as it is set in the south-east of Turkey, close to the Syrian border, with Turkmen nomads coming into conflict with the settled world. I suspect I won’t get to it, but I have a cunning plan: it will fit perfectly for the November Ultimate Challenge theme, numbers and maths! Het verschil [The difference] (2000) by Monika van Paemel will also be postponed until then.

Challenges galore

Other year-long challenges on the forum include a confusing array of A-Z challenges (titles, authors, 1001 books), my ongoing Reading the World challenge (6 books from 6 countries from each of the 6 continents – the devilishly difficult 666 challenge) and an attempt to read 12 books this year from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.

It’s the taking part that counts

I attempt most of these challenges every year and regularly fail, especially the country challenge. The A-Z challenges are new this year and in January it seemed easy. Now I’m not so sure. At least I don’t have any specific blogging challenges in September, but it’s already halfway through September and my reading progress on pet-themed books is abysmal, so I keep going round in circles. What to prioritise: pets, countries, A-Z? Maybe I should just read some books. Any books! Starting with the half-finished ones from 20 Books of Summer, perhaps. Not to mention other partially-read books that I hope to fit in somewhere before the end of the year. So many books, so little time. And I haven’t even thought about challenges like Novellas in November and the 1976 Club.

One thing’s for sure: I will change my mind many times before the end of the year. Do you have as much difficulty deciding what to read as I do?

Cheats, excuses and promises: #20BooksOfSummer21

20 books of summer? Challenge accepted! Themes: nature, Nigeria, dystopia and the sea. 3 books are still only half-read. Only one book has been fully blogged. Challenge accomplished, with deviations.

Victorious in the face of defeat

Dear Reader, I started to write this summary of my summery reading, facing the jaws of defeat, but I’m going to count it as a victory, anyway, because I have really enjoyed having this challenge to spur me on. I have read some wonderful books and learnt something along the way. Now some of those books I had put off reading for far too long have turned into half-finished books and I have discovered that they are wonderful and I can’t wait to get back to them. I’d call that a win. Skip to my brief reviews below.

16 of my 20 books: Corpus Delicti has gone back to the library. Freshwater was an e-book, The Mermaid of Black Conch was an audio adaptation and Lucifer’s Hammer has… mysteriously disappeared!

Reading time swallowed by real world

Obviously, I was far too ambitious because I haven’t finished all the books I started, though I’ve finished most and made a good start on the rest. I was expecting plenty of reading and gardening time due to COVID travel restrictions. Then my husband discovered that Switzerland’s borders were open and there was no stopping him. We even left early so we didn’t get caught out by the threat of the Netherlands being labelled a ‘red’ country (bearing in mind we’re both working from home and have no social lives, so the chances of us being infected were negligible). If we’re in the mountains, we walk and then I was too exhausted to read. We both had work commitments, so I spent a day and an evening translating ‘on holiday’, then more work turned up when we got back home. By which time, the garden had gone bonkers and was also demanding major TLC. As for blogging, not a lot came of that. I’ve only posted one full review so far, but will attempt to add the rest in the course of September. Promises, promises…

Themed reading, cheats and substitutions

Reading-wise, I started off well, with 5 books from my garden theme, one of which (Perfick! Perfick!), I was going to count as a single book, but it was originally published as five separate books, so as I ran out of time, 5 books it is! I read both books for my tool theme, both of which had been on my shelves for years, so I’m glad to be able to pass those on soon. Predictably, I didn’t read any of the Books I Never Get To, nor either of my Hot/Cold themed books. The only Promised to Read was my book club book, Corpus Delicti. While we were on holiday, I indulged myself and started The Enchanted April, but lack of reading time and exhaustion meant I’m halfway through. As for Reading the World, I made progress but got a little stuck on a particular country…

New theme: Nigeria

At the beginning of August, I had started The Mosquito Coast, but discovered I needed to buy and read Freshwater by the Nigerian-Tamil non-binary author Akwaeke Emezi by my book club meeting on 15 August. When I found out what it was about (spirit children), it sounded like it linked in well with Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, so I switched to that. Then I found spirit children were also mentioned in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the grandfather of Nigerian literature. That is mercifully short and on the 1001 list, so that barged in first, before Freshwater. This leaves me with both The Mosquito Coast and The Famished Road half-read, but I’m enjoying both, so Their Time Will Come. As will Americanah (which is a long-standing half-read book) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who had a falling apart of her own with Akwaeke Emezi, who was mentored by her but then criticised her on Twitter; Adichie was not amused. N.B. I spent far too much time reading online about Nigerian spirits, Emezi’s life and work. Time which might have been better spent reading books, but was good preparation for both my book club and my blogpost, whenever I get to it.

Panic sets in: short novels and the sea/islands

That left me with five days and three books to go to make up my almost-but-not-quite 20 Books of Summer, so I was on the lookout for quick reads. I decided to try to span the Hot/Cold and Reading the World themes (and not just Nigeria) by choosing Birk (I Have You to Love) by Dutch author Jaap Robben, who was nominated for the Booker International this year for his second adult novel, Zomervacht (Summer Brother). As they seemed to have a similar island/sea theme, I also picked the Dutch translation Hemel en Hel (Himmaríki og helvíti/Heaven and Hell) by the Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson. As it looks as if my last day may be swallowed up by work again, I may also have to count an abridged BBC Book at Bedtime book I’ve been listening to on the BBC Sounds app, The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey: more Hot/Cold, Reading the World and sea/islands themes there. Ideally, I would read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, but I think my time will really run out before then as Heaven and Hell is not flowing well for me yet.

P.S. I was right!

Quick stats

  • Setting: 4 in the USA, 6 in England, 3 in Nigeria, 1 each for the Caribbean, Honduras, Iceland, an unnamed northern island, France, Germany, Italy. I would have preferred several different African countries rather than repeats, but never mind.
  • Author country: 6 Americans (two joint authors), 3 English, 3 Nigerians, 1 Dutch, 1 Icelandic, 1 German, 1 Caribbean-British
  • Non-fiction: 4 (Lab Girl, Orchid Thief, Olive Farm; Freshwater is auto-fiction)
  • Dystopian: 2 (Corpus Delicti/The Method, Lucifer’s Hammer)
  • Fantastical, mythical creatures, spirits: 4 (3 Nigerian novels, Mermaid of Black Conch)

20 Books of Summer, brief reviews

  1. Lab Girl (2016) by Hope Jahren (TBR since 2017)

This was a mix of fascinating facts about scientist Hope Jahren’s research into plants, especially trees, and soil, alternating with chapters about her life as a scientist, her personal life and issues and her deep friendship with her lab partner Bill. The plant facts were great, though I knew some of it through own observation and other reading. The personal part was also interesting, up to a certain point. However, I felt she was overdoing the ‘it’s so hard to be a woman in science and academia’ part; perhaps she expected too much before she had proved herself.

  1. De orchideëndief (The Orchid Thief) (1998) by Susan Orlean (TBR for years)

Translated to Dutch by Ineke Lenting. City journalist Susan Orlean headed into the wilds of Florida to investigate a story about a man who had been caught stealing incredibly rare ghost orchids from a nature reserve, assuming she would be able to write about a ruthless, evil man who did something despicable. The more she talked to him, the more people he introduced her to and the more she investigated the weird and wonderful world of plant hunters, breeders and collectors, the more fascinating facts she uncovered. She realised that there are always two sides to a story. This is a book written by someone who fell down the rabbit hole, before internet was what it is today, so she was on the ground, talking to people and getting personal stories. This book is wonderful! In another twist, it was also adapted into a film, not based directly on the book, but on people trying to adapt it into a film, hence called Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze and starring – I kid you not – Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage, not to mention Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton and Maggie Gyllenhaal in supporting roles! This I have to see!

  1. Corpus delicti: een proces (The Method) (2009) by Juli Zeh (library book)

Translated from German to Dutch by Hilde Keteleer, recommended to our book club by a German member. Big Data meets Big Brother meets a psychopathic Big Influencer, with a big dose of Big Pharma. This is what might happen in a totalitarian society ruled by an obsessive health nut.

  1. The Olive Season Farm (2001) by Carol Drinkwater

This was a substitution because I hadn’t read the first book in the series in June, as planned. An enjoyable non-fiction tale of how actress Carol moved to a farm with her French husband. The fact he is French makes this less of a “poor me having to deal with French bureaucracy and annoying builders” than most expat memoirs, including Toujours Provence. Lovely summery reading.

  1. De verdronken tuin (The Drowning Tree) by Carol Goodman (2004)

This had me hooked from the start. Secrets from the past, current danger, suspense, all revolving round a close-knit group of friends who originally met while the women studied at exclusive Penrose College. Who knew so many Greek goddesses turned into trees, plants or birds? Lots of mythological references and information about stained glass. To be honest, I was confused at the end, but that doesn’t matter because I couldn’t put it down.

  1. The Darling Buds of May (1958) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)
  2. A Breath of French Air (1959) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)
  3. When the Green Woods Laugh (1960) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)
  4. Oh! To Be in England (1963) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)
  5. A Little of What You Fancy (1970) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)

This was a collection of five short novels, all about the Larkin family, a rural soap opera about a large and dysfunctional but loving family. This was adapted as the much-loved The Darling Buds of May, starring David Jason and Catherine Zeta Jones in her debut, another British TV hype I totally missed. It was all rather too slapstick and full of sexual innuendo for my taste and there was too much repetition of the same old shorthand phrases about bluebells and primroses. He definitely ran out of steam. A Little of What You Fancy has an extremely heartfelt description of a heart attack and its aftermath which can only have come from Bates’ own experience. I finished the whole omnibus eventually, in bursts over the whole summer, but with determination rather than great enjoyment.

  1. Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

A gripping page-turner about the devastating effects of a comet hitting the earth. I found this a really absorbing story with a huge cast of characters who will eventually meet up, if they survive long enough. It raises all those survivor questions like how far you would go to save yourself, whether it is possible to be altruistic and cooperative, or if an authoritarian, centrally-organised armed militia is the only way. There are some negative aspects such as token blacks and stereotypes, strong women who suddenly become submissive and/or use sex to gain favour with the men in power. Nevertheless, it was as good as an old-fashioned disaster movie. Good stuff!

  1. The Dearest and the Best (1984) by Leslie Thomas

Set on the south coast of England during the first couple of years of WWII, this was fascinating because it tells the story of what it was like during the Phoney War as people adjust to their new reality. Some people keep calm and carry on, others are already involved as they are in the armed forces, some still based in England. One of the main parts of the book is about the evacuation from Dunkirk, but the whole story is suffused with small details that really brought it to life. Not great literature, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  1. The Enchanted April (1922) by Elizabeth von Arnim

What a delightful summer read! Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to finish it while we were on holiday, but I can’t wait to read the rest and find out what happens to the four women – strangers – who rent a house for a month in 1920s Italy. Lotty Wilkins, with her head in the clouds, persuades the staider Rose Arbuthnot that they should go, finding another two women to take the other two rooms: the socialite Lady Caroline Dester and the authoritarian Mrs Fisher. I left it as they had all just arrived at the house and taken possession of their rooms. Lovely.

  1. The Mosquito Coast (1981) by Paul Theroux

Obsessive American inventor Allie Fox becomes paranoid, rejecting mainstream society, junk food and home schooling his children. One day he decides he will take his family somewhere where his talents will be appreciated and uproots them all to head for Honduras, where he expects to be hailed as a saviour with the ice-making machine he has invented. They had just arrived there when I needed to temporarily abandon the book to start my Nigerian reading spree. I will return soon as I was really enjoying the adventure.

  1. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe (1001 book)

For such a short novel, this managed to pack in a lot of information about traditional Nigerian society. The central character, Okonkwo, is a well-off family man with more than one wife and several children. Life is governed by rituals and the wisdom of the village elders, some of which is extremely harsh. Eventually this strict disciplinarian is banished for several years. By the time he returns, he has lost his influence, but worse than that, the white man has arrived with his Christianity and new behavioural guidelines that leave no room for a man like Okonkwo. I had expected this to be hard going, but apart from confusing characters at times, it was a surprisingly fluid read.

  1. Freshwater (2018) by Akwaeke Emezi

This was chosen by my book club, a contemporary novel set in Nigeria and New York, but based on the idea that some children (ogbanje) are inhabited by spirits whose spirit companions constantly tempt them to return to the spirit world so that they die young and are reborn repeatedly to the same mother. All their life, Ada has felt different and troubled, resorting to controlling behaviours such as self-harm and food restriction. There are many conventionally disturbing aspects to this novel, especially when you discover that Emezi claims it is strongly based on their own life as a non-binary person caught between identities with mixed Nigerian-Tamil background, studying in America. What makes it extraordinary is that most of the story is narrated by one of the multiple spirits inhabiting Ada’s body, a vindictive sexual being who pushes The Ada, as she calls them, to extreme behaviour. Meanwhile, there is a quieter male spirit, Vincent, trying to express himself through Ada’s body. Often confusing, this is a powerful novel that made me wonder if I would have read it if it had been a straight memoir of what the west would probably label mental illness, at best gender dysphoria, the result of internal conflict and identity issues. More traditional societies might describe as the result of spirits, djinns or possession.

  1. The Famished Road (1991) by Ben Okri

After several failed attempts over the years, this book finally clicked with me this time, probably because of the challenge’s added time pressure. Having said which, I still haven’t finished it, but I’m nearly there, halfway through September. Some of the writing is beautiful, some of it written more matter-of-factly in the voice of the narrator, Azaro, a small boy who sees monstrous spirits all around him. The premise is that he was born an abiku (the Yoruba version of the Igbo’s ogbanje), possessed by a spirit who made a promise to his spirit friends to return to the spirit world, i.e. die. Because his parents wanted him so much, Azaro stays with them in the world of the living, but frequently wanders off into the forest or sees spirits in Madame Koto’s bar. The narrative moves at will between hallucination and reality. Azaro’s descriptions of the spirits he sees are colourful, often visceral, dreamlike and also extremely confusing. He also describes the struggle for life in the ghetto and political unrest leading up to an election. Azaro’s mother works hard as a street hawker, mostly unsuccessfully, and puts up with the father’s drunkenness, flights of fancy and boxing exploits, which then result in his inability to work, though most of the time he is simply exhausted from backbreaking work as a load carrier. Madame Koto, a bar owner and witch, frequently features strongly in Azaro’s life, as does a photographer who turns up to record fights and festivities. Read in one go, this book is probably too long and repetitive, but reading it spread out has turned out to be the perfect pacing for me. At one point I was convinced that there was some symbolism behind the colours Azaro uses to describe the spirit world that I could unravel if only I knew more about Nigerian history, but then I decided that wasn’t the case. This is a book to let wash over you without looking for allegories or insights, even into Nigerian traditions, though they are described without further explanation as observations of a small boy.

  1. Birk (You Have Me to Love) (2014) by Jaap Robben

When I saw that Dutch author Jaap Robben’s Summer Brother (Zomervacht) had been nominated for the International Booker Prize this year, I decided to read his earlier Birk, which was already on my shelf. When 9-year-old Mikael returns from the beach one day alone, he doesn’t immediately tell his mother Dora that father Birk has drowned. Stuck on a tiny northern island with only one other inhabitant, Mikael is left to deal with his guilt alone, while his mother is unable to accept the reality and descends into mental illness and unhealthy obsession, isolating her son from the outside world still further. A powerful and oppressive short novel with some interesting imagery and an ominous feel. As I read it in Dutch, I am not sure if the phrase ‘you have me to love’ used as the title in English is something repeated in the book; it’s certainly a more striking title than the original one.

  1. Hemel en hel (Heaven and Hell, orig. Hímnariki og helvíti) (2007) by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Carrying on the theme of living in close communion with the sea, I picked this short novel, first of a trilogy, by Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson, translated to Dutch by Marcel Otten. This is a book of two halves, linked by a single character. The first half is a wonderfully detailed description of the people and preparations for cod fishing in a 6-man rowing boat, when no fisherman could swim, starting as the men wake up in the dark in their communal living quarters. We focus on an unnamed 12-year-old and his slightly older friend Bárdur, bookish boys who are there due to the harsh realities of life after their fathers died, but would rather study and live in town. The fishing trip ends in tragedy due to the distraction of a good book. There are strong themes of friendship, grief and loss that continue into the second half of the book, where one of the boys escapes to the town and is taken in by strangers, where books become an important part of his life. The second half of the book is completely different, with an introduction to many of the townspeople by a meandering drunk captain encountering them as he walks through the small town, recalling anecdotes about their lives. I assume these people will return in the rest of the trilogy, which I am now longing to read.

  1. The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020) by Monique Roffey

This is definitely a cheat! I listened to an abridged version of this on the BBC Sounds app, read in beautiful Caribbean accents by Burt Caesar (from St Kitts) and Marilyn Nnadebe (British-Nigerian), abridged by Sara Davies. Told in diary entries by David, a fisherman, looking back regretfully on the time when he had befriended the mermaid near the island of Black Conch (based on the island of Tobago). This is alternated with the mermaid Aycayia’s own recollections of the time when David saved her from Americans who caught her and wanted to cash in. David hid her and eventually became her lover. This is a wonderful intimate novel, with the tiny community of people who befriend Aycayia, teaching her how to speak and read. One of them is the lonely white woman Miss Rain, descended from slave owners and living in the big house, but who now considers herself a native. Her deaf son Reggie is the first to make a real connection to Aycayia after her capture. But her presence does not remain unnoticed and once again it is a spiteful woman who will lead to Aycayia’s downfall. I’m sure I missed out on a lot of the details that the actual book would have given me about the political situation around independence that forms the background to the novel, but this adaptation uses the author’s own words and style, making it a deliciously atmospheric way to experience it. I will be delighted if I come across a copy of the book itself.

In conclusion

And so ends my 20 Books of Summer 21 (bar any full reviews and blogposts I may eventually manage to post). Hurrah! I now hope to finally take some time to visit some of the other participants’ blogs. Time to finish off the books I had to abandon, too. I’ve really enjoyed the challenge and the flexible rules so I could change my mind without feeling too guilty. Thank you to Cathy at 746 Books for setting the challenge and I look forward to trying again next year.