Lots of lip-smacking paperbacks piled up on bookshop tables to tempt you this January, all ready and waiting for those Christmas book tokens we’ve been given, or hope we’ll have been given. Top of the list is a book I took some persuading to read when it was first published but Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier turned out to be extraordinarily inventive and assured, particularly for a debut. Parker is a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and his novel is the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – told from the point of view of forty-five objects. You may share my initial scepticism about this structure but it works beautifully and continues to work through all forty-five objects which range from Tom’s boot to his mother’s handbag, his occupational service medal to the IED’s detonator. Hard to imagine quite why the publisher has abandoned the entirely suitable hardback jacket for the rather odd pink number they’ve chosen to adorn the paperback edition.
I’ve not read Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans, much talked about on Twitter when it was first published – not always a good thing – but a striking jacket and an intriguing synopsis has piqued my interest. Once a man of note with extraordinary gifts, Mr Crowe has given himself over to earthly pleasures, living in faded grandeur with his ward, Clara, and his manservant. When he commits a crime of passion he draws the attention of the head of the secret society to which he belongs, attention that’s soon diverted to Clara who, it seems, may be able to save them all. Sounds like it might be just the ticket for long dark evenings, if done well.
Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt takes us to a very different time and place. Set in post-war Egypt, Aswany’s novel views the social and political change engulfing the country through the shenanigans at Cairo’s automobile club. Its European members are attended by a squabbling band of servants ruled by the tyrannical Alku. When one of them rebels, his family finds themselves drawn into both public and private politics: ‘Egyptians both inside and outside the Automobile Club will all face a stark choice: to live safely without dignity, or to fight for their rights and risk everything’ according to the publishers. Aswany’s much-acclaimed The Yacoubian Building offered a microcosm of Egypt around the time of the first Gulf War and it sounds as if The Automobile Club of Egypt takes a similar tack with the end of Ottoman rule.
My last choice for this batch is without doubt a Marmite book: you’ll either love it or hate it. Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower® is born of her fascination with Sri Ramakrishna – an avatar, widely regarded as having played a leading role in reviving Hinduism, influencing both Gandhi and Nehru. Her novel is her extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of the avatar’s sketchy story and defies a simple synopsis. Perhaps it’s best to quote Barker herself who sees her novel as ‘a painstakingly constructed, slightly mischievous and occasionally provocative/chaotic mosaic of many other people’s thoughts, memories and experiences’. I loved it, otherwise it wouldn’t be here.
A click on the title will take you to my reviews for both Parker and Barker’s novels, and to a fuller synopsis for the other two. A second batch of paperbacks will follow after Christmas and if you’d like to catch up with the hardback previews, part one is here and part two here.
To those of you who are looking forward to Christmas, I hope you have a lovely time. If, as it is for many, it’s a more complicated time of the year for you, I hope it will pass as painlessly as possible,