The Golden Ass – Apuleius (Penguin Classics 1998) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

Fancying a bit of a literary challenge the other day I took down my copy of “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” by Peter Boxall.  I know this gets updated fairly regularly I have a 2006 edition with “A Clockwork Orange” on the cover.  I thought it might be fun if, occasionally, I worked through some of the titles suggested.  I thought I’d start by seeing what the first five listed books were and discounting any I might have read start by choosing one of this five.  What I’d forgotten is that this book is presented chronologically rather than alphabetically which meant that I was faced with five rather daunting tomes:

Aesop’s Fables

Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Chaireas and Kallirhoe- Chariton

Aithiopika- Heliodorus

The Golden Ass – Apuleius

Not being at all experienced with classic literature I almost gave my plan up at this point but I decided to bite the bullet and downloaded the Penguin Classics edition of “The Golden Ass” which is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety and was written around 260 AD.  This version is helmed by E J Kenney who provides rather a dry introduction which didn’t really set the work in the context I was looking forward to and gets bogged down in technical details but the actual text is lively and nowhere near as difficult to read as I was expecting.

Lucius is fascinated by witchcraft and his meddling in it leads him to be turned into an ass.  Before he can get to the antidote to the spell (roses) he is abducted by a group of thieves and is passed from owner to owner facing all kinds of ill-treatment on the way but hears many stories most of which feature others whose lives have been transformed by Fate and Fortune.  So, there are a lot of stories within stories, a device familiar to anyone who has read much early literature.  It’s probably best described as a picaresque novel.  Mid-way through you get a longer tale, told by an old woman to placate a young girl who has also been abducted by the thieves and this marks the first appearance in English (or it did when it was first published in the 15th Century) of Cupid and Psyche, a tale of the Gods’ interference in the life of mortals where Cupid, on a task from Venus to disrupt the life of a beautiful girl instead becomes her lover.  Many of the other inserted tales are more knockabout, cuckolded husbands, plots of revenge, some which end well and some which do not with the tale reverting back to the plight of the unfortunate donkey.

Much has been made of the last section and the change of tone as Lucius is restored to human form and becomes a devotee of Isis, the Mother Goddess.  This has proven enigmatic to many scholars.  I do have a thing about reading the notes as I go along which did slow me down considerably here but all in all I enjoyed this far more than I was expecting.  A couple of times I even laughed out loud.  I found myself wanting to know more about the context and background of this work.  Apuleius lived in North Africa and travelled widely in Greece and Italy and used Latin to rework Greek texts. (The bulk of this novel is from an earlier work by Lucian Of Patrae).  It did make a great change from chasing recent and forthcoming publications to discover this oldest surviving novel which has certainly stood the test of time.

I read the 1998 Penguin Classics edition of “The Golden Ass”

Pen In Hand- Tim Parks (Alma Books 2019) – A Books About Books Review



Tim Parks’ latest non-fiction work is very much a companion piece to “Where I’m Reading From” which I read and reviewed last year. Subtitled “Reading, re-reading and other mysteries” it is a collection of articles written either for the New York Review Of Books or the New York Times between 2014 and 2017.

 These articles are linked by a Foreword in which Parks encourages us, in a bid to make us more active readers to always have a pen in hand whilst reading and not to be afraid to annotate and highlight the book and note down our thoughts on what we are reading whilst things are still fresh.  Needless to say, my overwhelming desire to finish a book with it looking as pristine as when I started it means that I could not do this with Parks’ work but I certainly can see where he is coming from.  I don’t think I would ever be able to borrow a book from him as he says; “These days, going back to reading the novels and poetry that have been on my shelves since university days, I see three or four layers of comments, perhaps in different coloured pens.”

What he is getting here is a rich resource on his observations upon the work and how  they might have changed over time.  For those of you like me who would find writing on a book difficult,  the E-Book, where markings can be erased and altered so easily may be the answer.  I do often highlight when reading on my Kindle but do not always go back to those highlights and never provide the running commentary on the text which Parks deems so beneficial.

 Elsewhere he covers a lot of fascinating ground on how to read and what it is to be a reader.  He admits that the same sources do tend to come up as examples and that is probably only to be expected – Primo Levi, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante are amongst those who come under scrutiny and an author I found my interest piqued by – Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has to date passed me by and who in the articles evolves from someone who Parks feels everybody seems to be reading to one who is assumed to be a best-seller by those in the business but whose sales outside his Norwegian homeland do not reflect this.  I found myself considering taking out his “Death In The Family” from the library as a result of Parks’ focus, but then decided to leave it until another time. 

Parks does have a very Euro-centric view having lived much of his adult life in Italy and working as a translator and as in “Where I’m Coming From” I found his views on translated fiction the most fascinating.  In fact, the section on translations which comprises of articles on retranslations of existing translated work, comparing the work of translators on the same text and whether translators should be paid royalties made me wish I had kept up with languages and had been a translator of the written word myself.  A French A-level 30+ years ago would probably not cut it these days- so I think I’ve missed my chance!

 Despite this work being formed from articles I found that it did read well as a whole more cohesively than his 2014 collection.  I found many of Tim Parks’ ideas stimulating and some challenging (but still withheld and temptation to scrawl my objections in the margin as he would have wanted me to do).  What I haven’t done yet, and this is with a shimmer of guilt as I mentioned this last time round is to read any of his novels to see how this feelings about the world of fiction and the needs of the reader has been incorporated into his own work. But I will.



Pen In Hand was published in hardback by Alma Books in May 2019.  I would very much like to thank the publishers for doing their homework and finding out that I had read and enjoyed Tim Parks in the past and sending me a copy of this to review.

Mama Tandoori – Ernest Van Der Kwast (Scribe 2017)


Dutch author Ernest Van Der Kwast made his breakthrough with this 2010 Netherlands and Italian best-seller translated now into English by Laura Vroomen.  Publishers Scribe have done a great job in the recent past bringing Dutch authors to wider attention- their 2006 publication of Tommy Wieringa’s “Joe Speedboat” is the current Reviewsrevues Book of The Year and here is another strong title.

“Mama Tandoori” is a study of a family with Dutch and Indian parents.  An autobiographical novel which focuses on Ernest’s mother whose outrageous behaviour verges on the monstrous.  She is a woman determined to get her own way as cheaply as possible.  I was initially quite resilient to Van Der Kwast’s fictional account of his childhood whilst reading of a trip to Lourdes with his disabled brother but the novel really began to draw me in when other adult characters were added to the mix. I found myself fascinated by Uncle Sharma who came from a dirt-poor background and was transported by a visiting outdoor cinema into dreams of becoming a movie star, which came to be realised. From here things all fall into place and I seemed to appreciate more the wider family dynamics.  Mother herself became a more rounded character in my mind when running alongside her competing son on the athletics track and proving to be too nervous to pin on his race number.

There is no doubt that this character can be mean but this meanness does become more appealing in a tragi-comic way.  Her ploy to get a fitted kitchen out of her husband’s dying grandmother is shocking but you cannot help but admire the gall of this character.  The humour is ramped up by the contrast between the narrator’s unemotionally “wooden-hipped” Dutch relatives and the fiery passion and determination of the Indian women.  His mother will both shock you and win you over in laugh-out-loud moments.

Van Der Kwast writes in a likeable, easy style which makes the book feel highly visual and enjoyable.  It has certainly made me keen to read his take on the Italians in his Dolomites-set family saga “The Ice Cream Makers” also published as a Scribe paperback.


Mama Tandoori is published on 10th August 2017  by Scribe.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.



The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Picador 2017)


A novel full of poignant moments and a sense of yearning at a time of great change.  Austrian born Seethaler’s novel is quietly impressive.  It begins in 1937 when 17 year old Franz is sent by his mother from their Austrian Lake District home to Vienna to work in a small tobacconist’s shop.

Here Franz begins to learn about life from the merchandise and the shop’s aromas, from the newspapers he reads each day and from the customers.  These include an aging Sigmund Freud with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely friendship.

But the times are a changing and anti-semitism makes a bond with the Jewish Freud increasingly difficult and the one-legged tobacconist who Franz works for seems a threat to the authorities.  Franz, initially bewildered by the mysteries of love and an obsession for a worldly Bohemian girl finds he has more difficult things to contemplate.

The very likeable Franz is the heart of this novel.  Everything is underplayed, there are few big dramatic scenes yet the drama and turmoil of the times is palpable.  It is clear that for the people in Franz’ circle things can never be the same again.

I like novels where young characters attempt to make sense of the adult world and in Franz’s Vienna there is little that makes sense.  His retreats to analysing his dreams is both as a result of his meetings with Freud and an attempt to fathom out his existence where neither the real nor dream world seem quite right.

Robert Seethaler has written five novels.  His last “The Whole Life” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.  This, translated by Charlotte Collins, with its quiet tenderness may slip under the awards radar but it is of lasting appeal.


The Tobacconist was published by Picador in 2017.

Waking Lions- Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Pushkin Press 2016)


This is Israeli author Gundar-Goshen’s second novel translated from its original Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.  Her first  “One Night, Markovitch” (2012) was also published by Pushkin Press and won awards in her homeland.  “The Waking Lions” is a philosophical work which deals with deep moral issues yet also works well as a thriller.

Main character Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon whose life transforms one night when he hits an Eritrean immigrant with his SUV and decides to leave him for dead.  His wallet is discovered at the scene by the dead man’s wife and in order to make amends and save himself from professional ruin and prison Eitan is coerced into treating illegal immigrants at night in a disused garage.  The potential plot-worthiness of this is cranked up a notch as Eitan’s wife, Liat, is a policewoman involved in investigating the hit and run case.

Eitan is dragged into a situation he cannot get out of and becomes obsessed with the dead man’s wife, Sirkit, who is very much in control of his fate.  Much is made of how one moment can change lives and how changes of behaviour stem from one decision.  Liat knows her marriage is falling apart but cannot link it to a dead road accident victim.  There’s guilt, atonement and much analysis yet the predicament Eitan finds himself in also lends itself to some gripping writing.  The moral significance of the story transcends its Israeli setting and really could work located anywhere.  Admittedly, there were times when the philosophising and navel-gazing of the main characters (the author has a Masters degree in psychology) slowed things down unduly but then a twist of the knife was never that far away to make Eitan’s problems even more complex.

I found it enjoyable and thought-provoking.  It would seem to be a good choice for reading groups who might not find themselves all warming to the characters but it would certainly provide fruitful discussion of the issues raised.


Waking Lions was published by Pushkin Press in  March 2016  .  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the review copy.

A Beautiful Young Wife – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016)


Scribe have done a great job this year in bringing the work of Dutch author Wieringa to an English speaking audience with translations of his back catalogue by Sam Garrett.  This is the British publication of his 2014 novella “Een Mooie Jonge Vrouvo”

This is the fourth of Wieringa’s novels I have read, enough evidence to strongly suggest that he is an important contemporary European writer with great depth and range in his published works.  One of his novels republished by Scribe in 2016 “Joe Speedboat” became my reviewsrevues Book Of The Year. In “A Beautiful Young Wife” he exquisitely examines a relationship between a couple with a 14 year age gap.  Edward has buried himself in his career as a microbiologist and has missed out on romance until the day he encounters Ruth cycling past the cafe he is in.  The couple meet, fall in love, get married and plan a family.  Edward finds himself having to face up to commitment, fatherhood, respecting another’s values and beliefs with varying success.

I found the whole thing compelling and beautifully written.  There is an explicitness and openness that I hadn’t really picked up on the previous novels.  This might actually upset a few readers but in the context of the relationships he depicts it is powerful and vibrant.  No Bad Sex Award for Mr Wieringa, I’d hope.

Behind this tale of getting on with another is a study of pain.  Ruth, a vegetarian, believes Edward causes pain in animals used as part of his research.  Edward moves towards her point of view as they begin to increasingly inflict pain upon one another.  This study of a relationship is raw and sparse as well as poetic and thought-provoking and is my second favourite of the four books I have read by this highly talented Dutch author.


A Beautiful Young Wife was published by Scribe in  August 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Little Caesar – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016)

Day 45 from the date I was told I would have internet access and I have it!! Hallelujah!  It’s a Christmas miracle – not even an apology from BT so far.  Anyway, I’m feeling jubilant, I’ve just been to the panto (“Cinderella” at Shanklin Theatre) and to celebrate here’s a review of a second good book by Tommy Wieringa that I have read this year……….


Scribe continue their English publications of Dutch author Wieringa’s works with this translation (by Sam Garrett) of his 2007 novel “Caesarion”.  This is the third of his books I have read to date and although it is not quite up there with “Joe Speedboat” it is a fascinating read.  Elizabeth Strout and Deborah Levy have both published highly acclaimed studies of the daughter mother relationship this year but Wieringa here focuses on mother and son.  This relationship is the most dynamic aspect of this novel.

Ludwig Unger returns to Suffolk for a funeral.  He and his mother had settled there some years ago until their cliff-top house collapsed into the sea.  His mother has recently died and all this revisiting of the past sees Ludwig recalling events.  Ludwig is an odd combination of talented pianist and rugby player and is not that sympathetic a character.  His mother lives her life without responsibility or even being able to account for her actions.  His frustration towards her is palpable throughout and totally understandable.  His father, who left when Ludwig was very young is even more morally dubious, an artist who specialises in demolishing natural environments in the name of art.

Wieringa writes beautifully and this is an unpredictable read and I was drawn into this young man’s search for support.  There is throughout a coolness and detachment which was reminiscent of the author’s “These Are The Names” yet in its strength of characterisation it feels closer to “Joe Speedboat”, but the warmth and humour of that novel is replaced with a degree of impassivity with the character’s dealings with one another.  Both this and “Joe Speedboat” can be seen as coming of age novels but the latter faces adulthood with energy and vivacity whilst Ludwig has been aged by parent/child role reversal and faces this part of his life with a wandering listlessness.  Both are valid responses, given their circumstances, but I must confess I found it more rewarding to spend time in Joe’s company.


Little Caesar is published by Scribe in the UK in January 2016.  Many thanks to Scribe for the review copy.

Umami – Laia Jufresa (Oneworld 2016)


Is “taste” one of the publishing trends of 2016?  Oneworld Publications seem to think so as hot on the heels of “Sweetbitter” by Stephanie Danler comes “Umami”.  This is the fifth of our taste sensations first recognised by the Japanese.  It is variously described within the book but consider “that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being quite able to put your finger on it”.  In Eastern cuisine it can be sometimes attributed to Monosodium Glutamate, in English it translates to a “richness” – for those of us who like it Marmite represents “Umami”.

One of the characters in Mexican author’s Jufresa’s novel, anthropologist Alfonso Semitel is very keen on “Umami”, has written a book about the subject and developed a housing complex laid out like the map of the tongue, naming his rental accommodation “Sweet”, “Sour”, “Bitter”, “Salty” and “Umami” (where he lives).  This is the tale of these residents.

The story has five narrative strands which jump around between 2000 to 2004.  I know by telling you this I have already put off some potential readers.  In 2004 we meet Ana, in a first-person narrative.  She is developing a “milpa” (a system of planting of corn, beans and squash) in her yard.  Alfonso calls her “Agatha Christie” because of her consumption of the British author’s crime novels.  Ana lives in “Salty” with her family, mourning a deceased younger sister.

In 2003 we meet Marina, an artist and resident of “Bitter”.  This is a third-person narrative.  In 2002 it’s Alf himself, adapting to live without his cardiologist wife with a first person narrative.  2001 it’s Luz, the tragic sister of Ana and in 2000 it is back to the third-person narrative for Pina, the girls’ friend who lives with her father in “Sour”.

I found these changes of narrative style and time zones initially quite difficult to come to grips with, and also a little unnecessary. Throw in the unfamiliarity with Mexican culture and I wasn’t sure I was going to last the distance, but I did, and at times this novel really did draw me in.  It is divided into four sections and then again into the five year groups which move back in time making it seem disjointed.  I just cannot see why this structure has been adopted because the story is involving enough and the writing certainly impressive enough without it.  I want to be immersed in a book not held back by a complex retrograde structure.  It’s hard not to keep leafing back through the book until the characters begin to really make an impression (for me around the third section).  As far as I am concerned this is the fault in a book which could have been up there with my favourite reads so far this year.  I got to like the characters and the plot moves in some way towards the demise of Luz but I think there needs to be a reason for structuring the book as it is and I’m still not sure what it is.


Umami is published in July 2016 by Oneworld Publications

100 Essential Books – Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016)



I was introduced to Dutch author Tommy Wieringa by newbooks magazine issue 84 and a five star review for “These Are The Names”, later short-listed for Bookhugger Book of The Year.  This was a chilling, thought-provoking novel of a  search for a modern Promised Land.  Fuelled by its success publishers Scribe have embarked upon a series of reissues of his earlier works.  “Joe Speedboat” was his debut from 2009 and is translated as was the last book by Sam Garrett.  On domestic release it became the best selling debut novel in Dutch but didn’t find that much of a worldwide audience.  I think it’s time to change this with this 2016 reprint.  It is one of the best books I have read this year and surpasses, in my opinion, “These Are The Names”.

Teenager Frankie Hermans awakes after a horrific accident to hear his parents talking about a new arrival to their village, a boy called Joe Speedboat with a predilection for making bombs.  His arrival in Lomark was equally explosive- through the wall of a house in a truck in a crash which killed his father.  Joe is adamant no-one knows his real name as he transforms the lives of those around him.  I felt that “These Are The Names” favoured themes over characterisation but here it is the marvellous characters that take central stage, especially the refreshingly energetic Joe, full of schemes to rock a sleepy village and narrator Frankie, left without speech and with limited movement who is soon incorporated into Joe’s big plans.

This book it touching, eccentric, laugh out loud funny and completely unpredictable.  I found myself hanging onto  every word.  It is a marvellous achievement.  It is a coming of age novel with a difference and has immense vitality and like the very best novels it is life-enhancing.  Other novels by Wieringa are being republished in the same format.  If they are as good as this then we have found ourselves an important European writer.


Joe Speedboat is republished by Scribe in this new edition in 2016.

These Are The Names- Tommy Wieringa (2015)

wieringaThis is the eleventh publication from this Dutch prize winning author (he has now published twelve in his homeland –three are available as English translations).  Set on and around the steppes of Eastern Europe a Police Commissioner Pontus Beg finds himself forming a bond with the only Rabbi left around.  As he embarks on his own personal odyssey a much crueller one is taking place.

In a parallel narrative a group of refugees who have paid to cross the border are dumped on the steppes and left to make their own way to who knows where .  Without the resources to survive the only options are death, madness or dehumanisation to a basic primitive level where superstition becomes linked to survival.  This is a chilling tale with Beg seeking hope in an age-old faith and and the refugees on a fruitless search to their modern Promised Land.  Not all readers respond well to the parallel narrative structure  (I don’t really have a problem with it).  This is something that Wieringa is aware of.  In an interview with Guy Pringle and Lydia Revett for New Books Magazine (NB 84) the author had this to say;

“You might have noticed that every chapter has the same length of more or less 200 words – I did that to give the book a pounding rhythm and to overcome the problem of the parallel narrative : if the reader favours this or that storyline, he doesn’t have to turn the pages impatiently; because of the steady rhythm he knows when to expect his favourite storyline.”

As a result of this the structure works very well.  The depth of the novel is within its themes rather than characterisation.  We are distanced from the diminishing group of refugees just as they are distanced from one another in an environment where support and care for their fellow humans could be deemed as weakness but this certainly does not diminish the horror of their plight.  Wieringa in this translation by Sam Garrett has produced a very readable, thought provoking novel which has already garnered the Dutch Libris and could be expected to appear on a number of “Best Of 2015” lists at the end of this year.


These Are The Names was published in 2015 in the UK by Scribe