Last year I was lucky enough to be asked to shadow judge the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award along with Amanda, Lizzi, Paul and Lucy. It was such an enjoyable experience, both reading the shortlisted titles – all very different, all more than worthy of the award – and meeting other bloggers plus, of course, the authors. This year another five bloggers will be taking a turn and I hope their experience is as rewarding as ours. Announced yesterday, this year’s shortlist looks just as enticing, made up of two novels, one short story collection and one book of poetry. Here they are:
It’ll be a tough choice for both the sets of judges, I suspect. If you’d like to keep up with what the shadow judges are up to you can follow their posts via the links below or on Twitter using #YoungWriterAwardShadow.
The shadow judges will annouce their winner on 28th November followed by the judges a week later. The prize will be awarded at the London Library on Thursday, December 6th. Good luck to all and have fun!
It’s time for a new issue of Shiny New Books, packed with features, competitions, book news and reviews. With lots of contributions from a wide variety of bloggers and authors, it’s well worth a look and if you haven’t come across it yet I suggest you get yourself on over there. My own contribution to this issue is a review of Marc Bojanowski’s Journeyman, a state of the nation novel which manages to pack a clear-eyed view of America in 2007 – teetering on the brink of the financial crash – into just over one hundred and seventy pages. Here’s a little taster:
There’s something very attractive about a state of the nation novel. It offers the chance to examine a snapshot of a country, taking in the many forces at play that make up its society at a particular point in its history. Recent events have provoked a rash of them – John Lanchester’s Capital, Jonathan Coe’s Number 11, Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, Blake Morrison’s South of the River – to name but a few. Nothing new, of course: George Eliot’s Middlemarch is perhaps one of the finest ‘state of the nation’ novels in British fiction. Marc Bojanaowski’s Journeyman follows in that long literary tradition offering us a portrait of the USA through the eyes of Nolan Jackson, an itinerant carpenter and self-styled modern cowboy…
If you’d like to read more you’ll find the full review here.
Last year I was off the blocks at the very beginning of December with my books of the year posts, barely waiting for the starter’s pistol. This year I’ve managed to restrain myself but I’m still incapable of cutting the number of favourites back to a sensible figure. Consequently I’ll be spreading my choices over four posts, picking them out month by month. Just as it did in 2014, my reading year got off to a very satisfying start, although a little more evenly spread this time. Last year’s first books of the year post saw seven titles crammed into two months; this one has six spread over three.
It begins with Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a smart little piece of meta-fiction which found its way on to the Folio Prize short list the month after I read it. Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was much talked about on publication – 10:04 is his second and it’s narrated by a writer whose first novel was much talked about on publication. He’s having trouble writing his second for which he’s got a stonking six-figure advance. Half-way through we learn that the narrator’s name is Ben. Your literary pretentiousness alarm may well be ringing loudly but Lerner’s novel is well worth your time: absorbing, amusing and very clever.
Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree is a much more straightforward kettle of fish: Girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. This kind of structure’s catnip for me – lots of lovely space for character development. Funny and a little eccentric, Woof’s book reminded me of the early Kate Atkinson novels while that structure has a touch of David Nicholls with a hefty dash of sassy wit and political savvy. I’d not got on with Woof’s debut, The Whole Wide Beauty, but this one hit the spot – so much so that I included it in my Baileys Prize wishlist although the judges disagreed.
They didn’t agree with me about my first February choice either even though Lucy Wood’sWeatheringis a striking novel right from the get-go. Its synopsis sounds prosaic enough – single mother returns to the village she left years ago, determined to renovate the dilapidated home she’s inherited from her mother, sell up and leave – but what makes Weathering an unalloyed treat is Wood’s gorgeous word pictures and sharp characterisation all wrapped up in an engrossing story.
February also saw the publication of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Most weeks, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays, Fuller posts a hundred words inspired by a photograph. Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, they’re always inventive. She has a knack of making you look at the world in a slightly different way. No surprise, then, that her debut was on my reading list. It’s the story of Peggy whose survivalist father takes his eight-year-old daughter to the Bavarian forest in 1976 where they stay for the next nine years. True to form, it begins with a photograph as the seventeen-year-old Peggy looks back at that summer. Yet another of my Baileys wishes which failed to come true but Fuller’s wonderfully inventive debut did catch the eye of the Desmond Elliot Prize judges and went on to win it.
Two very different novels for March beginning with my first in translation for this year, Signs Preceding the End of the World. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Yuri Herrera tells the story of Makina’s journey from one world to another, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground. The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid. Herrera – and Lisa Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving his readers pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.
Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed my tendency to bang on about jackets and their importance in snagging readers’ attention. This particular jacket fits its book like a glove. Molly Mc Grann’s The Ladies of the Housebegins with a middle-aged woman, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. She’s never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through this entertaining piece of storytelling and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.
That’s it for the first quarter of 2015. A click on a title will take you to my review. More very shortly, when it’s the turn of the Man Booker judges to let me down not once but three times…
Last month, in response to the brouhaha about E L James’ sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey, Sophie Rochester, Director of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, came up with a neat riposte: the Twitter hashtag #BritishwritingisnotallGrey. I’d missed it but Naomi at The Writes of Women wrote a post celebrating it with an excellent list of writers she wanted to share with other readers. It seemed such a good idea that I’ve jumped on the bandwagon albeit a little tardily. What follows is, of course, an entirely subjective list. I’ve limited it to just twenty-five British writers – many of whom you’ll already know – and have kept it to those novelists whose books I’ve read. A click on a name will take you to any that I’ve reviewed.
I tend to read what’s often described as literary rather than commercial fiction – I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the difference is although I know it when I see it – but, for me, David Nicolls is king of the commercial fiction castle which is why Us is top of my May paperback list. I’m sure Nicholls must have felt under pressure after the phenomenally successful One Day but he seems to have risen to the challenge with a novel which explores how a long marriage survives. Douglas is a little discombobulated when Connie announces she’s leaving him, insisting that they take his long-planned European Grand Tour in the hope that it will keep them together. I do hope that Hollywood will keep its mitts of this one.
The title of Michel Guenassia’s The Incorrigible Optimists Club is enough to make me want to read it but I like the sound of the structure, too. Set in Paris in 1959, it follows twelve-year-old Michel as he eavesdrops on a group of Eastern European men who play chess and tell their stories of life before they came to France. I’ve been warned that it’s a bit of a door-stopper but it sounds right up my alley.
Robin Black’s Life Drawing is one of the two books in this round-up I’ve reviewed. There’s a nice little edge of suspense running through this story about an artist and her writer husband, not least because we know right from the start that he has died and that his death wasn’t a natural one. Taut and claustrophobic, it reminded me a little of Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me.
The other is Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes which I rated enough to include in both my books of last year and my wish list for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. Based on a true story – the sinking of the Nella Dan – it’s about the deep bond that forms between a young Tasmanian girl and the Danish sailor who lodges with them in between supply trips to the Antarctic aboard the Nella Dan. It’s an absorbing story but what struck me about the book was the beauty of Parett’s writing. Gorgeous descriptive prose.
Finally, Philippe Claudel’s debut Grey Souls is being reissued and if you missed it the first time around please do keep your eyes peeled for it. Three mysterious deaths in an isolated French village during the First World War still haunt the local policeman twenty years later: the new schoolmistress killed herself; a ten-year-old girl was found strangled; and the policeman’s wife died alone in labour while her husband was hunting the girl’s murderer. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in. He’s a very fine film maker, too.
That’s it for May paperbacks a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis of anything I haven’t reviewed and if you’d like to catch up with my hardback choices they’re here.
It’s time for another issue of the wonderful Shiny New Books, stuffed full of interviews, articles and reviews by some of my favourite bloggers and this ones a celebratory issue: it’s their first birthday. Such a lot of hard work, energy and talent have been poured into this project. It’s been a delight to be associated with it.
My own contribution to the fifth issue is a review of Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter, the latest novel in a long writing career made illustrious by Richard and Judy whose choice of Notes from an Exhibition for their book club thrust Gale into the spotlight in 2007. Those of us who’d been enjoying his well turned out, humane and absorbing novels for some time could only be surprised that it hadn’t happened before. This one is intensely personal: it’s based upon family stories of Gale’s ancestor Harry who fled looming disgrace in England to farm a few bleak acres in Canada. If you’d like to know more why not pop over to Shiny New books where you can read the full review and explore all manner of other delights.
Now here’s a book you can knock off in a few hours and have a great deal of fun while doing so. H spotted it before I did which must be a first given that it’s a novel. He was chortling so much at a review that I felt I had to read the book. Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members is made up of letters from the office of Jason T. Fitger, long-suffering Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University, and he’s had enough.
Fitger is currently under siege, writing from his office in the crumbling English department while the Economics bods are having their offices renovated upstairs. Noxious liquids leak through from the toilet above, he has to enter the building through a basement, his window won’t close allowing toxic fumes into his office and that’s just the start of it. He spends an inordinate amount of time writing letters of recommendation – he’s written around thirteen hundred in all – some to other academic institutions, others to a supermarket, a nut emporium and a paintball establishment to name but a few. Interspersed are a multitude of pleas for funding for his advisee Darren Browles, often addressed to his two exes who also work at Payne. Browles is close to the end of his retelling of Melville’s Bartleby in which the titular hero is employed as an accountant in a brothel and Fitger’s convinced it’s a work of genius. Threads of Fitger’s past run through the letters: professional repercussions from old affairs; his sojourn at the notorious Seminar writing workshop; his early flash of literary success and his incontinent use of his personal life as material for his novels.
Schumacher’s book is very funny indeed, all the more so for academics, I’m sure, but anyone who’s brushed up against obdurate bureaucracy (haven’t we all) will find themselves sniggering. Even as a bystander on the sidelines of academic life, I winced in recognition at some of it: ‘those already serving in the killing fields of administration’ rang a particularly loud bell. Fitger’s early letters often start in emollient tones but exasperated barbs are soon aimed at students who barely know him but want a reference; at the philistines bent on cutting English departmental funding even further and at the recipients of funding largesse, usually the economists. Beneath all this waspishness beats a kind heart: Fitger tirelessly promotes Darren Browles; entreats his exes to look kindly on deserving students looking for work or funding; hopes in some small way to help his talented friend, hit by tragedy. There are some nice little digs at IT along the way, both at Fitger’s ineptitude – an unfortunate use of the ‘reply all’ function – and help desks who seem hell-bent on doing the opposite. Unsurprisingly, Schumacher turns out to be an academic. I wonder if she was getting a few things off her chest.
Around this time last year I mentioned the Reading Agency’s Reading Well initiative in a post on Vintage’s Shelf Help promotion. They’d just launched their second list of books aimed at people suffering from depression. Since then I’ve been keeping an eye open hoping for the chance to vote for titles on a third list, eager to get my old favourite The President’s Hat in with a chance. Instead I spotted a new scheme: Books on Prescription for Dementia, launched a week or so ago. The list associated with this particular initiative includes twenty-five titles ranging from books offering information and advice on living with dementia, support for carers and personal stories about the disease. All are endorsed by health professionals and all should be available from your local library if you live in England. A quick trip to the Reading Well website will explain the way the scheme works better than I can.
Those lovely people at Shiny New Books have been busy again, putting together another issue for your delectation packed with features, interviews and reviews by some of my favourite bloggers. My own contribution is a review of Peter Walker’s Some Here Among Us which mixes the personal with the political on a grand scale, taking its characters from their youthful student days in 1967 to their more sober late middle age in 2010 by way of New Zealand, Washington and Beirut. Why not pop over and take a gander.
This is going to be a short post, not that there aren’t lots of paperbacks published in October but few of them take my fancy, I’m afraid, which is probably best for my credit card. I’ve already read and reviewed three at length here so I’ll start with those.
The first is John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which has a much more eye-catching jacket than the hardback. Humans look for patterns in everything: we seek the reassurance of predictability in a world which is chaotic and random. It helps to keep us sane rather than face a future in which a chance accident may rob us of all that is dear to us. At least that’s what I think. You, of course, may feel that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan. That’s the debate at the heart of this novel which I enjoyed very much.
My second choice is Equilateralby Ken Kalfus, a tale of madness, folly and Martians. Set at the end of the nineteenth century, Equilateral opens in the Egyptian desert where nine hundred thousand Arab fellahin labour to create a vast equilateral triangle which will be seen from Mars, so Sanford Thayer, celebrated astronomer and instigator of the project, has calculated. Inspired by Giovanni Schiaparelli’s maps based on his observations of the Red Planet which depict canali on its surface together with his own theories derived from evolution, Thayer has come to the conclusion that Martians are a superior race, busy trying to conserve their dwindling water supplies, with whom earthlings should try to communicate. Sounds bonkers, I know, but Kalfus has a great deal of fun with the idea taking a few well-aimed kicks at colonial arrogance along the way.
My third already-reviewed choice is an entirely different kettle of fish. Hubert Mingarelli’s spare novella, A Meal in Winter, in which three hungry German soldiers striding through a frigid Polish forest flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they will be sent out to hunt again tomorrow rather than man the firing squad. One soldier reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a hunter and his dog. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face the moral dilemma of what to do with their captive. A beautiful piece of writing.
My last choice for this month is James Scott’s The Kept, set in nineteenth century upstate New York where Elspeth Howell has returned to find that her family has been murdered – all apart from her twelve-year-old son. Together they set out to find the culprits. It sounds a bit like Gil Adamson’s The Outlander which I very much enjoyed and Ali’s review at Heavenali has piqued my interest further.