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Tag: Novella (page 1 of 4)

A literary crime spoof from 1946

Where there’s love, there’s hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Kessica Ernst Powell

where-theres-love-theresReviews earlier this year by Jacqui and Kaggsy alerted me to this story, and I picked up a copy from the novella table at Waterstones, Piccadilly on one of my trips to London.

This little mystery was the only work that this husband and wife team wrote together; individually, both were giants of Latin American literature from Argentina and had a close association with Borges. I will admit to  having read little Latin American literature and don’t have much knowledge beyond the research I did for an article about Brazilian lit for Shiny New Books during the last World Cup finals in Rio.

The story is narrated by Professor Humberto Huberman, a doctor en route to his holiday retreat where he will work on his book. He is expounding to his companions in the dining car:

Sharing my table were a couple who were friends of mine – dabblers in literature and fortunate with livestock – and a nameless young woman. Bolstered by the consommé, I explained my intentions: in search of a delectable and fruitful solitude – that is to say, in search of myself – I was on my way to the new seaside resort that the most refined nature enthusiasts amongst us had discovered: Bosque del Mar. (p3)

Immediately, we realise that Huberman is a snob from his sneering at his companions (the authors jokingly putting themselves into the story I learned from the introduction). Later, he is having problems sleeping:

A pointless effort. I was still a night away from those pine groves. Like Betteredge with Robinson Crusoe, I resorted to my Petronius.(p4)

Luckily, I have read The Moonstone and got this reference. I could see that Huberman would, like the butler in the first detective novel, introduce us to all the main characters and play a large part in what follows, although of course reading Robinson Crusoe (sic) is beneath him.

Bosque del Mar, where Huberman has imposed himself upon relatives who own one of the local hotels, turns out to be something of a disappointment – a newish resort with a duneless and groyne-less beach; its only feature being a shipwreck (the Joseph K – another tongue-in-cheek literary reference). The place suffers from sandstorms so violent, all the hotel windows are sealed against the abrasive grains’ ingress.  Huberman’s cousin Andrea explains:

“Two years ago, our lobby was on the first floor; now it’s in the basement. The sand rises constantly. If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.”

The hotel’s other guests make up for the resort’s lack of character. There are two sisters, Mary and Emilia, Emilia’s fiancé Atuel, a couple more doctors for starters, plus the young boy, Miguel.  After dinner, Mary is urging her sister to play the piano:

“Emilia,” she said, “you should play the Forgotten Waltz, by Liszt.”

The pianist froze, staring rigidly at Mary. I thought I detected in her eyes, blue and diaphanous, the frigidity of hatred. Then, suddenly, her features calmed. (p29)

Another sandstorm keeps everyone in the hotel, providing the classic closed room for a murder to occur, and the next morning Mary is found dead, poisoned. Naturally Emilia is prime suspect – but when the police Commissioner finally arrives, Huberman, who has been getting stuck in to investigating with the other doctors, is strangely protective of her:

“Your explanation is psychologically impossible. You remind me of one of those novelists who focuses entirely on action but neglects the characters. Do not forget that, without the human element, no work of literature would ever endure. Have you thought closely about Emilia? I refuse to accept that such a healthy girl (albeit, a bit redheaded) could have committed this crime.” (p67)

I wonder which novelists that authors were referring to there?

Huberman is so self-important, you have to laugh at him. He grumbles about being distracted from his writing, but is desperate to get in on the action, interfering all the while. The murder investigation is secondary really to Huberman’s snobbish judgments and pontifications – as a narrator he is a glorious figure of fun for us readers. We are meant to dislike him of course, and I wondered whether his name alluded to Lolita’s protagonist Humbert Humbert, then I remembered Lolita was published after this story! It is ironic though, that the snobbish Huberman has one of the commonest German surnames, Huber being derived from hide – a unit of land that will support a family.

The text also has some superb non-comic one-liners, beautifully translated, such as:

Dreams are our daily practice of madness. (p70)

At times I loved this short novel, at other time I wondered whether it was too clever for its own good. Was it a little snobbish itself with all its very literary referencing about the genre it is spoofing? I found I couldn’t quite tell if the authors were Christie fans or not… It was a fascinating short read though. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy.

Where there’s love, there’s hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (1946), trans Suzanne Jill Levine and Kessica Ernst Powell, Neversink Library 2013, paperback, 112 pages.

2 from Roundfire books for a belated #NovellaNov

Poppy at Poppy Peacock Pens launched a marvelous new meme for November – celebrating novellas. I love novellas and recently received two from Roundfire Books. I read them in November, but they aren’t published until later this week, so I’m posting belatedly for Novella Nov, but just a few days ahead of publication…

Small Change by Andrez Bergen

small changeWith its title and cover artwork being a homage to my favourite singer/songwriter of all time, Tom Waits, I was immediately keen to read this one. Before I comment on the book, I have to tell you that this was the album that got me hooked on Waits, and it remains one of my favourites. Recorded in 1976, it’s mostly set in a sleazy, seedy world at night, peopled by pimps, prostitutes, exotic dancers, drunks and hoodlums. The songs are jazzy; many of them ballads – including Tom Traubert’s Blues (which was covered by Rod Stewart), The piano has been drinking and others, including the title track, are spoken growled: “Small Change got rained on with his own .38” accompanied only by a solo sax in this case.

Tom_Waits_-_Small_change_(1976)Anyone familiar with the album will thus come to this novella with high expectations. Would Scherer and Miller, ‘investigators of the Paranormal and Supermundane’ be as interesting and quirky as any of Waits’s characters?

It starts off over two years ago – Scherer and Miller faced with a zombie suffering from Lazarus syndrome – he may be reanimating… “Just for the record, are you craving brains?” asks Suzie (Miller). Suzie’s dad Art was a P.I. and young Roy Scherer was his assistant.  They’d developed a niche in dealing with paranormal cases, when Art was killed.  Suzie – still a teenager – inherits the business and insists on helping Roy. We go through several of their cases as they’re finding their feet on their own. Next comes a vampire:

Having raised the lid,  I found our man dozing on a velveteen cushion. “Stake,” I whispered in my best surgeon’s voice. My assistant handed me ‘Mr Pointy’.

The next section returns to earlier, as Art and Roy are about to embark on their new line of work having encountered their first werewolf:

“She alerted me, Roy, to the fact that supernatural fruits like her are out there – and these bastards’re causing mayhem. Therein lies our angle. Take a leaf out of the Ghostbusters text to work clean-up chores. We’ll be swimming in dosh. How say you, kid? You with me on this?”

The last section brings us up to date with Roy and Suzie’s work as they’re getting established in their new partnership.

Roy, our narrator is steeped in classic noir, and never knowingly misses a chance to act or wise-crack like his hero Philip Marlowe. Suzie, by contrast, is as perky as her father was a world-weary drunk. The text is chock-full of references to classic noir in books and on film, plus more popular modern fare – from James Bond to Ghostbusters as we’ve already seen. The cases are varied but incidental to the story, the key of which is the relationships, between Roy, Art and Suzie. Steeped in noir as it is, and styled as a casebook in extended vignette form, this novella was a welcome change to the longer length paranormal crime novels I’ve read of late – c.f. Ben Aaronovitch and the Dresden Files of Jim Butcher.

Roy Scherer has a way to go as a character to acquire Tom Waits’s grit and rasp, but he and Suzie are at the start of their careers really.  I liked all the references and the sense of humour, so would happily read another volume of Scherer and Millers’ Casebook. (8/10)

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Digby’s Hollywood Story by Thomas Fuchs

disgbyIt’s after WWII. Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that there was no need for Digby as a soldier any more. He ends up in a dead-end job pumping gas in Santa Barbara. One day he’s swimming when the riptide catches him; luckily he is able to reach safety, ending up on the private beach of a studio executive – who sets him up with a job in security at one of the Hollywood studios.

Digby is the youngest on the team of studio cops, but quickly earns a reputation for hard work and honesty, getting to know the ins and outs of life on the lot. From patrolling the sets to retrieving drunk stars from bars, he sees it all, including the damage caused by those getting into debt with George Marcus, a bookie who operated at the studios. Digby makes friends with a script-writer, Alan Swink, and Digby’s exploits as a studio cop will be useful to Swink’s plots. He also has a fling with a waitress who turns out to be an actress acting as a waitress just using him.  All the time he’s learning more about the movie business and all the different people and roles in it – he makes good progress, getting promoted too.

The second half of the novella, however, propels Digby into a starring role which he never asked for. His boss rings him one evening and asks him to go and pick up an actor who likes to cross-dress and go out and get drunk in bars.

“Meet you there,” said Digby.
“No,” said Lou. “You handle it yourself. It’s time you start flying on your own. You know what to do, don’t you?”
“Sure,” said Digby, “I’m on it.” This was his first solo assignment. He wondered if it meant a raise was in the near future.

Digby sees the actor back to his house – but ends up as the last person to see him alive, and later finds that he’s in the frame as patsy for a cover-up. Will Digby be able to extricate himself from a tricky situation? Real life can be stranger than fiction – is Digby’s Hollywood Story a film plot begging to be written?

At just 67 pages, this novella was a great little story, full of insights behind the scenes at a big studio after the war. Digby, ex-veteran that he is and used to obeying orders, learns his life lessons the hard way, but was a likeable chap and you wanted him to come out well from it. I always enjoy novels set in and around the old film studios, and this thin slice of Hollywood noir was engagingly written, I wanted more.  (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore these novellas further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Andrez Bergen, Small Change – Dec 2015, Roundfire Books, paperback original, 144 pages.

Thomas Fuchs, Digby’s Hollywood Adventure  – Dec 2015, Roundfire Books. paperback original, 80 pages.



Worth every penny?

List of the Lost by Morrissey

list of the lostRegular visitors will know that I am willing to try reading anything, and I always try to look for the best in a novel.

I read Morrissey’s ‘Autobiography‘ and reviewed it here, finding some parts, especially the childhood sections a fair read – it soon descended into being bitter and twisted and oh so boring though.

So, I couldn’t resist spending £5.59 on a copy of his novel, out yesterday – my copy arrived this morning, and I have skimmed bits of it at coffee break and lunchtime.

The first sentences reads thus:

Ezra, Nails, Harri, Justy. You’d dig hard and deep to excavate four names quite so unusual. Yet there they were and there they stood, sounding exactly like what they were.

Nothing special, except I already thought I’d rather re-read about another foursome – Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB!  The fourth sentence continues:

You would be offered a hearty shake of the javelin hand as expressions of possession of command from the four boys, each one fully developed into the blissful torment of their turnabout twentieth year – a pleasantly resolved marital union almost closed off in its camaraderie to the onlookers of the mookish great world.

Seriously, it had lost me already.

*** SPOILERS ***   *** SPOILERS ***  *** SPOILERS ***

Skimming on, the foursome get into an assortment of scrapes including an encounter with hobo who dies, finding a body long-buried in their college grounds. Oo-er! All sounds a bit Secret History suddenly…

Then, on page 99 begins an excruciating sex scene between Ezra and his girlfriend Eliza.  The Times informs me it is 72 lines long!

… Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone. …

Private Eye, you can award him the Bad Sex Award now!


It’s ranty, overblown, very abstract at times, and very annoyingly, the dialogue is in italics.

Mercifully, it is only 118 pages long, but I don’t think I can be bothered to read it in full.  Still for the price of a pint and a half, it has ‘entertained’ me.

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Source: Own copy – DNF

List of the Lost by Morrissey – published 24th Sept 2015 by Penguin. Paperback original. 118 pages.

A Sudanese modern classic …

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

tayeb salihThis was our July choice for book group, picked by a new member to our group who is Sudanese and was keen to introduce us to what is regarded as a classic of Sudanese literature and one of the most important Arabic novels of the twentieth century.

This short novel didn’t have an easy journey into print. It was published in 1966 at a time of great political and cultural change in Khartoum where Salih worked for the BBC. It was condemned by most factions there and in the introduction to this edition, Salih bemoans the fact that he has scarcely received any royalties from it –  as a banned book it was mostly distributed underground. It did, however, get attention outside Sudan, being translated into twenty languages. Notably, the English translation by Denys Johnson-Davies published in 1969 has stood the test of time.

Our narrator, a young man returns home to his village on the banks of the Nile in Sudan after seven years studying and living in London. He notices a new man in the village; Mustafa Sa’eed who married one of Mahmoud’s daughters and has been there for five years now. The narrator’s interest in Mustafa is increased when one night, when they had all been drinking together, Mustafa starts quoting war poems in perfect English. A few days later Mustafa comes to talk to the narrator and tells him his story, about how he’d gone to school in Cairo and on to London to study where he had affairs and two of the English girls committed suicide. Mustafa became obsessed with another English girl, Jean Morris, and she was to be his downfall…  After all that ensued, he escaped back to the Sudan and tries to live a normal life.

The narrator goes on to tell how Mustafa later disappears, presumed drowned in the Nile’s flooding, but he had left a will asking the narrator to take care of his wife and sons. There are some bitter scenes as Hosna’s father tries to marry her off again to an older man. Throughout there are flashbacks to Mustafa’s life in London.

This short novel has many sides, framed within an evocation of life in a Sudanese village by the Nile in the 1960s.

Women knew their place unless they were old and much-married like Bint Majzoub, who at seventy and having seen off eight husbands has the right to sit with the old men drinking and smoking. There was one really uncomfortable scene, which I’m not going to quote from, where the old men were all joking about female circumcision. It’s fair to say that the objectivisation of women made it difficult for the women in our book group to appreciate the humour – although Bint gives as good as she gets, commenting on the men’s prowess or lack thereof. She is a magnificent character.

One of the themes we discussed at length was how the author, having experience of the West himself, was trying to subvert the idea of being exotic – the Occident vs the Orient. Mustafa came to London to conquer the West. He is the Arab lover that drives women wild, until he meets his nemesis in Jean Morris. His life in London and after contrasts totally with the narrator’s. The narrator returns home a prodigal son, welcomed back to become a respected high-school teacher of pre-Islamic literature. Mustafa returns to hide from his past. This is really Mustafa’s story rather than the narrator’s; he subsumes himself in much of the novel – it is not always clear whether it is Mustafa or the narrator talking in some of the philosophical discussion that makes for a large part of the text.

While I can’t say I enjoyed this short novel, it was fascinating and certainly provided much to discuss in our book group. (6/10)

I should certainly seek out more African and Arabic literature to read – and indeed have found a newly published short novel by another Sudanese author which sounds like an African version of Miss Hargreaves! (my review of that here). Watch this space for Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir.

For another view on this novel, do visit Jonathan’s post, who coincidentally read the book at the same time we did.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
Season of Migration to the North (Penguin Modern Classics) by Tayeb Salih. Paperback, 192 pages including preface.
Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir, pub Bloomsbury, paperback 176 pages.
Miss Hargreaves (The Bloomsbury Group)

Simenon's most autobiographical roman dur…

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

three bedroomsLast month I had the opportunity to meet John Simenon, Georges’s son at an event celebrating the prolific Belgian author and his work. Apart from all the Maigret novels, Simenon was famed for his romans durs (hard novels) which are standalone, and typically quite dark and noirish in character  – I previously reviewed one of them, Dirty Snow, here. At the event, I mentioned to John that I’d read one of the romans durs in preparation for the event: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which is reputedly very autobiographical and he told me that it was basically a novelisation of how his mother and father met.

John’s mother was Denyse Ouimet. Georges met her in Manhattan in 1945 when he interviewed her for a secretarial job. She was seventeen years younger than Georges and they married in 1950, once Georges’s divorce from his first wife was finalised. Their relationship was, by all accounts, tempestuous and Denyse suffered from psychosis in later years, but Three Bedrooms was written in 1946 when the couple were still getting to know each other, and could seen as coming straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Being so autobiographical, it’s not perhaps a typical Simenon in plot terms being a romance, but it is a typical Simenon in writing style.

Francis Combe is middle-aged, a noted French actor who has escaped to Manhattan from Paris when dumped for a younger man by his wife. However, once in New York, he finds parts difficult to come by and makes ends meet voicing radio dramas and living in a small apartment in Greenwich village. The novel opens with him waking at 3am and going out to walk rather than listen through thin walls to the drunken antics of his neighbours:

What were they doing, up there in J.K.C.’s apartment? Was Winnie vomiting yet? Probably. Moaning, at first softly, then more loudly, until at last she burst into an endless fit of tears.

Forced to be an insomniac, he goes into a late night diner and meets Kay in a scene that comes straight out of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks which was painted in 1942, (and is even more amazing in real life at the Art Institute of Chicago – it was one of my main reasons for choosing to visit Chicago one vacation ages ago – another was to see Grant Wood’s American Gothic there too, but that was out on loan. Grr!)


Nightawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Art Institute of Chicago

‘You’re French?’
She asked the question in French, a French that at first he thought betrayed no accent.
‘How’d you know?’
‘I didn’t. As soon as you came in, even before you said anything, I just thought you were French.’

They eat a little, make small talk – he finds out she’s from Vienna – then, they walk through the streets of the Village and end up in the second bedroom – in a hotel.

The next day, Francis takes Kay back to his apartment, she essentially moves in straight away having been thrown out of the one she shared with a girlfriend which had been financed by Jessie’s now ex-boyfriend. At first Francis tries to resist falling in love with Kay, but Kay immediately and totally falls in love with him:

She said, ‘When we met’ – and she said it even more softly, so that what she was confiding to him now seemed to vibrate within his chest – ‘I was so alone, so hopelessly alone, I was so low, and I new that I’d never pull out of it again, so I decided to leave with the first man who showed up, no matter who he was.
‘I love you, François.’

Having been found and her feeling declared, Kay becomes resolutely upbeat, willing to put up with all of Combe’s moodiness (and boy, he is a moody one!). He is the half of this couple that needs convincing, allowing Kay to look after him, sometimes almost smothering him it seems, but over the course of a few weeks as they walk for miles, eat (slowly), drink (lots), smoke, talk, embrace, being quiet together, collecting Kay’s things from the third bedroom,  Combe will eventually succumb.  It’s touching that they find ‘their song’ on a jukebox, and this is a trigger for Combe – realising his own feelings after fits of jealousy, wondering what she is doing when they are momentarily parted.

The style may be typical Simenon but, there’s a Gallic coolness to it. If you weren’t aware of the autobiographical elements of the story, it would take you some time to warm to Combe, or Kay, but you actually do will them to work it out and find the happiness they are both searching for.  That certainly raised this short novel in my expectations, and I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

I read the NYRB edition which has an excellent introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.  The novel was translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman.  For another review of this story, read that by Jacqui – click here

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The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

galletSpace here for a short word about the second Maigret novel in the new Penguin editions, translated by Anthea Bell. This was the first Maigret to be published as a book, rather than serialised as Pietr the Latvian had been (reviewed here).

Maigret is sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Monsieur Gallet, a travelling salesman – or so his widow thinks.  He turns out to be living a double life, and his family seem to be rather unpeturbed by his death – What is going on?

In a mere 155 pages it got so complicated I struggled to keep up and Maigret had to display much dogged determination to solve the mystery too. Aside from Maigret himself,  there were no characters to really warm to either. Not one of the best for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, affiliate link, please click below:
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (New York Review Books Classics)
The Late Monsieur Gallet: Inspector Maigret #2 Penguin classics.

A contemporary take on the myth of Athena

The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård

The-Helios-DisasterTranslated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. … He looks at me. At my shining armour. … Lean against him. His arms, which embrace me. We cry together. … I want nothing but to stand like this with my father and feel his warmth, listen to the beating of this heart. I have a father. I am my father’s daughter. These words ring through me like bells in that instant.
Then he screams.
His scream tears everything apart. I will ever again be close to him Never again rest my head against his chest. We have met and must immediately part.

In Greek myth, Athena, one of the Olympian goddesses, is born of no mother. Zeus has a headache and asks Hephaestus to split his head open.  Out pops Athena – emerging fully formed in her armour.  However, this is modern-day Sweden and the ground is covered with snow. The girl who is twelve sheds her armour and leaves the house – the neighbours take charge of her.  They won’t believe that Conrad is her father. ‘Conrad is bit different, after all.’  She’s taken in by social services and given a name – Anna Bergstrom.

Then they find her a family. They already had two boys and had always wanted a girl. Sven and Birgitta live with their teenaged sons Urban and Ulf in a village of teetotallers and a Pentecostal church. ‘Most people were in both.’  Birgitta tries to involve Anna in family life, but Anna spends more time with Urban who persuades her to start speaking in tongues in church. Eventually she ends up being committed.  All the time, she dreams of her father – she’d been sending secret letters to Conrad. She’s desperate to find him again and to run away with him…

This is a strange story. Naturally it requires a suspension of belief to believe that was how Anna is born, but the intensity of the telling is such that you’re readily absorbed into it. At 125 pages, it can easily be read in one session. I immersed myself without thinking too much until after I’d finished reading it.

When I had finished, I was full of questions.  Why did the author called it The Helios Disaster. If you read the book and then Google ‘Helios Disaster’ you’ll find the answer to that question.  I wanted to know too if Athena had anything to do with Helios in the Greek pantheon of gods? Helios was the Greek sun god, one of the Titans, he drives his chariot through the sky each day. Apart from them both appearing in Homer’s Odyssey, (and some computer games inspired by Homer!) along with practically all the other Greek gods, I couldn’t find anything to connect them in the myths of antiquity, the connection alluded to above appears to be of the author’s invention.

You’ve probably wondered if Linda Boström Knausgård is anything to do with Karl Ove Knausgård, the author of the autobiographical series of novels My Struggle. Yes, she is his wife.  I did chuckle once during this novella – Birgitta takes Anna shopping in the city and Birgitta buys a book, ‘I’ll take one by our own … He’s just had a new one come out,‘ she said.  A little in-joke to acknowledge the publishing phenomenon he has become.

The Pentecostal community is an odd one too.  Glossolalia – or speaking in tongues – is an essential part of their way of worship.  In the book of Acts in the Bible, it tells about the Apostles speaking in tongues, where each person there heard their own tongue being spoken – it’s rather the opposite with Anna … less being filled with the Holy Spirit, rather something altogether more ancient and Olympian.

No-one understands Anna, neither her foster family nor her doctors. She, our narrator, tries to fit in and sometimes, just fleetingly, she feels part of the family, but always she ultimately holds back thinking of her father.

The author is also a poet, and that shows in the short sentences and rhythm of the text, preserved in Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation.  I always enjoy reading modern retellings and reimaginings of old myths; The Helios Disaster is a challenging and thought-provoking example. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate links), please click below:
The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård. Pub Feb 2015 by World Editions. Paperback original, 125 pages.
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard) by Karl Ove Knausgård


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