Category Archives: Random thoughts

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2019: Part One

Cover ImageThere’s an embarrassment of paperback riches in March, several of which were among my books of 2018. This first batch begins in the ‘30s with Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley about a young woman who turns up in the village of Elmbourne and inveigles herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie’s flattered by Constance’s attentions but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism gathering throughout Europe. As with all of Harrison’s novels, there’s a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy.

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from beneath her readers’ feet several times during Juliet’s journey through the Secret Service’s labyrinthine corridors. As ever, there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy but some serious points are made about idealism and national interest. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were met for me. And there’s another Atkinson in the offing this year: Big Sky, a Jackson Brodie novel. Hurrah!

Amy Bloom’s White Houses is also set in the ‘40s. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House and with whom Eleanor had a long and passionate affair. Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s Cover imagepresidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons. Such a cool jacket for the paperback edition, too.

Set just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, Louise Levene’s Happy Little Bluebirds keeps us in the ‘40s. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off. Like all the best satire, serious points are made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are all slipped into the narrative. That said, Levene’s novel is a thoroughly enjoyable romp and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood.

Set in the early ’90s, Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart is about a Filipino community in California, and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp, finding a second home with Rosalyn who knows nothing but the city of Milpitas where she lives. Castillo’s novel wasn’t without flaws for me – I could have done with a glossary – but it’s both entertaining and enlightening.

Cover imageI’m ending this first batch of paperbacks with Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion, set in the near future, which I’ve yet to read but which will no doubt depress me. Set in a small English town, post-Brexit, it depicts a country in the grips of fear and loathing thanks to a few opinions aired too stridently, political extremism on the rise and the revelation of secrets threatened. ‘Smart, satirical and honed to frightening acuity, Sam Byers’s writing offers up a black mirror to Britain post-Brexit in this frighteningly believable and knowingly off-kilter state-of-the nation novel’ say the publishers. I do love a state-of-the-nation novel but given the state of my particular nation I may just put my head in the sand although humour is promised, presumably of the dark variety.

That’s it for the first selection of March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first five and to a more detailed synopsis for the last one. If you’d like to catch up with March’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second paperback  instalment soon…

Books to Look Out for in March 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe first instalment of March’s new titles was all about the USA. The second part begins with a novel about children knocking on its doors trying to get in. Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli’s first novel written in English, sees a family head off from New York on a road trip to the south west which once belonged to Mexico. Meanwhile thousands of children are making their way north from Central America and Mexico, hoping to cross the border against all odds. ‘In a breath-taking feat of literary virtuosity, Lost Children Archive intertwines these two journeys to create a masterful novel full of echoes and reflections – a moving, powerful, urgent story about what it is to be human in an inhuman world’ say the publishers. Hopes are high for this one.

As they are for Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, Gingerbread, which sounds refreshingly original. Perdita Lee and her mother, Harriet, live in a gold-painted seventh-floor flat where they make gingerbread whose biggest fan is Harriet’s best friend Gretel. Years later, Perdita tries to track down Gretel. ‘As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value’ say the publishers, promisingly. Apparently Oyeyemi’s novel was influenced by references to gingerbread in children’s classics.

I’m not so sure about Sadie Jones’ The Snakes having failed to see what so many others did in her much-praised debut, The Outcast. Bea and Dan have rented out their flat for a few months and driven to France where they plan to visit Bea’s brother at his hotel. When they arrive, they find Alex alone and the dilapidated hotel empty. The arrival of Bea and Alex’s rich parents makes Dan wonder why he’s never met them before. All of which may not sound very exciting but ‘tragedy strikes suddenly, brutally, and in its aftermath the family is stripped back to its rotten core, and even Bea with all her strength and goodness can’t escape’ say the publishers intriguingly. We’ll see.

I feel back in safer territory with Nicole Flattery’s collection, Show Them a Good Time described by Jon McGregor as ‘very funny and very sad, usually at the same time’. Flattery explores the lives of young men and women from a woman navigating a string of meaningless relationships to a couple of students working on a play knowing that unemployment looms, apparently. ‘Exuberant and irreverent, accomplished and unexpected, it marks the arrival of an extraordinary new IrishCover image voice in fiction’ say the publishers but it’s McGregor’s opinion that’s swung it for me. He was spot on with El Hacho, one of my books of 2018.

I’m ending March’s preview with the third in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, Spring, which comes with the usual opaque blurb: ‘Spring will come. The leaves on its trees will open after blossom. Before it arrives, a hundred years of empire-making. The dawn breaks cold and still but, deep in the earth, things are growing’. I’m sure it will be great.

A click on any of the titles that have snagged your attention will take you to a more detailed synopsis, although not so much with Spring, and if you’ve missed the first part of the preview, it’s here.

Books to Look Out for in March 2019: Part One

Cover imageThis first March instalment has its feet firmly planted in the US beginning with a title I’m both eagerly anticipating and slightly apprehensive about. Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved is one of my favourite pieces of contemporary fiction. Her last novel, The Blazing World, was bursting with ideas and erudition. Expectations are sky high, then, for Memories of the Future which looks as if it may be a slice of metafiction as twenty-three-year-old S. H. arrives in New York eager to grasp any opportunities that come her way. Forty years later, she reads her younger self’s notebook with both amusement and anger. ‘A provocative, wildly funny, intellectually rigorous and engrossing novel, punctuated by Siri Hustvedt’s own illustrations – a tour de force by one of America’s most acclaimed and beloved writers’ according to the publishers. I do hope so.

Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans is set in a small desert town where an immigrant is killed by a speeding car. Lalami tells the stories of a disparate set of characters, all connected in some way with the Driss’ death, from his jazz composer daughter to the witness who fears deportation if he comes forward. ‘As the characters – deeply divided by race, religion and class – tell their stories in The Other Americans, Driss’s family is forced to confront its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies and love, in all its messy and unpredictable forms, is born’ say the publishers promisingly.

I suspect Americans deemed ‘other’ make an appearance in Jonathan Carr’s debut, Build Me a City, about the founding of Chicago. Opening in 1800, the novel spans the city’s first century and encompasses a wide range of characters, all with stories to tell. ‘Chicago, its inhabitants and its history are brought to dazzling, colourful life in this epic tale that speaks of not just one city but America as a whole, and of how people come to find their place in the world’ according to the publishers which sounds pleasingly ambitious.

Which might also be said of Andrew Ridker’s The Altruists, another debut which explores the idea of America, this time through the lens of a professor in a Midwestern college who seems to have a good deal on his plate, from money problems to children who refuse to speak to him. When he invites them home for a reconciliation a whole can of worms opens up. ‘The Altruists is a darkly funny (and ultimately tender) family saga in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith. It’s a novel about money, privilege, politics, campus culture, dating, talk therapy, rural sanitation, infidelity, kink, the American beer industry, and what it means to be a ‘good person’’ say the publishers. I’ll take the Zadie Smith bits but leave the Franzen, thanks.

I’m ending as I began with a novel from a favourite author: Elizabeth McCraken’s Bowlaway. Cover imageBertha Truitt begins life in her small New England town, found unconscious in a cemetery with a bowling ball, a candlepin and fifteen pounds of gold at the beginning of the twentieth century. From this intriguing start, she goes on to scandalize the town, eventually opening a bowling alley and changing it forever. ‘Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unravelling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket.

That’s it for March’s first batch of new novels from which you may deduce that American authors are in the business of tackling big themes about the nature of their country. I wonder why. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that takes your fancy. Second instalment soon…

Five Novels I’ve Read About Friendship

Cover imageThere’s a multitude of books focussing on love of the romantic variety and just as many on love of the familial kind but platonic love not so much. We talk about relationship breakups but not the breakup of a friendship although they can be almost as heart breaking, and for many, friends constitute family. Below are five novels I’ve read which sing the praises of friendship, all with links to full reviews. Perhaps because I’m a woman all my choices revolve around female friendship, or maybe there are fewer books written about the male variety.

Emily Gould’s Friendship seems the obvious place to start. Bev and Amy met when they were both working in publishing. They console each other, messaging constantly through the day keeping each other up to date on the minutiae of their lives and meet frequently. Everything changes when Bev becomes pregnant after a half-hearted one-night stand with a particularly obnoxious colleague. Bev and Amy are immensely appealing and believable characters, struggling to deal with the enormous change which threatens to engulf the bond that has been the only sure thing they’ve had to cling to as they navigated their way through their uncertain twenties. A smart, funny book with something serious to say about growing up and the value of friendship, and it has a lovely ending.

The two eponymous pals in Rachel B. Glaser’s savagely funny yet heart-warmingly poignant Paulina & Fran are a little more mismatched than Bev and Amy. Paulina rampages around the campus of her New England art school in a fury of contempt towards her fellow students while the more conventional Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life. Surprisingly, these two hit it off, curling their lips at the world, becoming bosom buddies overnight and bonding over their hair problems. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over aCover image line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other. Glaser’s depiction of this tortured friendship resists any saccharine sentimentalisation, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory.

Sally Rooney’s award-winning Conversations with Friends takes friendship a few steps further with Frances and Bobbi – once lovers – who are drawn into an older couple’s orbit, meeting their friends, attending dinner parties, bumping into them at Dublin’s arts events then invited to join them in France for a holiday. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, then Frances takes an initiative which leads to an affair with Nick. Rooney smartly captures the awkwardness of young adulthood. She has a knack of making the most mundane observations both interesting and amusing. This isn’t a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably.

Katherine and Mahasa, the two friends in Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life, are faced with far greater challenges than Frances and Bobbi. These two very different women meet through their mutual love of music which binds them together in an enduring friendship. This is an intensely romantic novel at times – there are four love stories running through it but the most powerful is the platonic fifth. Echlin paints a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women, able to withstand all that’s thrown at them from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour. A memorable, beautifully written hymn to friendship.

Cover imageThe same can be said of Victoria Redel’s Before Everything in which five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

Any books about friendship you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in February 2019: Part Two

Cover imageAll the books in this second paperback instalment are new to me although, thanks to its Man Booker Prize shortlisting, I’ve heard a lot about Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. Gretel hasn’t seen her mother for sixteen years when they lived on the canals together speaking the secret language they’d invented. A phone call reunites them bringing back memories of the strange boy who shared their boat for a winter and the fabled underwater creature swimming ever closer. ‘In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but to wade deeper into their past, where family secrets and aged prophesies will all come tragically alive again’ according to the blurb.

Christine Mangan’s Tangerine sounds entirely different. Alice is in Tangier with her new husband when she runs into Lucy, once her best friend and roommate, to whom she hasn’t spoken since a dreadful accident. Lucy helps Alice explore this new country in which she feels at sea but soon it seems Lucy has taken her over, and then Alice’s husband goes missing. ‘Tangerine is an extraordinary debut, so tightly wound, so evocative of 1950s Tangier, and so cleverly plotted that it will leave you absolutely breathless’ say the publishers setting the bar a tad high. That 1950s Moroccan setting is the lure for me.Cover image

Janice Pariat’s The Nine-Chambered-Heart sounds like a collection of linked short stories but is billed as a novel. Nine characters tell the story of one woman’s life from their own points of view, ranging from her art teacher to the female student who comes to love her. That’s a catnip structure for me but what seals the deal is the blurb’s description of ‘gem-like chapters’ in ‘deeply intimate, luminous and fine-boned novel that explores the nature of intimacy and how each connection you make forms who you are’.

Property is billed as Lionel Shriver’s first short story collection linked, as you might expect from its title, by the theme of what we own, be it real estate or mere stuff. ‘A woman creates a deeply personal wedding present for her best friend; a thirty-something son refuses to leave home; a middle-aged man subjugated by service to his elderly father discovers that the last place you should finally assert yourself is airport security’ say the publishers giving us a flavor of what to expect. I’ve gone off the boil somewhat with Shriver’s novels which seem to become ever more lengthy, but her short stories may well be worth a try.

Cover imageLucy Wood’s lovely first novel, Weathering, was a 2015 favourite for me and last year I finally got around to her short story collection Diving Belles and Other Stories which has me eagerly anticipating her new one, The Sing of the Shore. ‘These astonishing, beguiling stories of ghosts and shifting sands, of static caravans and shipwrecked cargo, explore notions of landscape and belonging, permanence and impermanence, and the way places can take hold and never quite let go’ according to the publishers. Weathering was striking for its gorgeous, lyrical writing as was Diving Belles and Other Stories raising expectations for more of the same.

That’s it for February. A click on any title that snags your interest will take you to a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment of February paperbacks they’re here, new titles are here and here.

 

Paperbacks to Look Out for in February 2019: Part One

The looming dank dullness that is February here in the UK has been brightened by the prospect of some paperback goodies, beginning with Jen Beagin’s smart, funny debut, Pretend I’m Dead, one of my books of 2018. Twenty-four-year-old Mona cleans houses for a living and falls hard for a junkie, taking herself off to Taos, New Mexico when he disappears. Nothing much happens in Beagin’s novel: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing.

Whisper it, I’ve yet to read anything by John Boyne but so many people whose opinion I trust seem to rate him highly that it’s time I did and A Ladder to the Sky seems as good a place to start as any. An aspiring novelist’s chance encounter with a celebrated author in a Berlin hotel leads to an opportunity. The story that Erich tells him catapults Maurice to his own literary fame, but once there he needs another idea and he has no scruples about where it comes from or how he gets it. One critic described Maurice as ‘a bookish version of Patricia Highsmith’s psychopathic antihero Tom Ripley’ which sounds very promising to me

In Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil a bright young man, raised in Washington DC by his conservative Nigerian parents, keeps his sexuality secret from all but his dearest friend. When Niru’s father discovers the truth, Meredith is too caught up in her own troubles to support him. ‘As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding towards a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine’ say the publishers which sounds harrowing but the premise is an interesting one.

I’m hoping that Katy Mahood’s Entanglement will offer a little light relief after that. One day in Cover image2007, Charlie locks eyes with Stella across a Paddington platform, and thinks he may know her. Mahood’s novel turns back the clock to the ‘70s tracing the thread that links the lives of four characters, seemingly unknown to each other. ‘In rhythmic and captivating prose, Katy Mahood effortlessly interweaves the stories of these two families who increasingly come to define one another in the most vital and astounding ways. With this soaring debut, she explores the choices and encounters that make up a lifetime, reminding us just how closely we are all connected’ say the publishers putting me in mind of David Nicholl’s One Day and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

That’s it for February’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other three should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new titles, they’re here and here. More soon…

Books to Look Out for in February 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe second part of February’s preview wanders around all over the place rather as I’d like to be doing at this dank, drear time of the year here in the UK. I’m beginning the tour in Paris in 1929 with Whitney Scharer’s gorgeously jacketed The Age of Light which tells the story of renowned photographer Lee Miller and her stormy relationship with the Surrealist, Man Ray. ‘The Age of Light is a powerfully sensuous tale of ambition, love, and the personal price of making art. In this immersive debut novel, Whitney Scharer has brought a brilliant and pioneering artist out of the shadow of a man’s story and into the light’ according to the publishers.

We’re moving on to Thailand with Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which tells the story of a disparate set of the city’s inhabitants through the history of one building, A nineteenth century missionary longs for New England; a 1970s jazz pianist attempts to subdue the building’s ghosts and a young woman gives swimming lessons in a near-future submerged Bangkok, apparently. I’ve always had a soft spot for this kind of structure but I’m slightly deterred by the dystopian thread.

Off to Sydney’s working-class suburbs for Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats which tells the story of an Italian immigrant family whose misfortune coincides with the Tampa Affair which saw over four hundred refugees stranded off the Australian coast. Antonio is forced into early retirement after an accident at work, his dreams of a better future for his family shattered. ‘Manipulated by the media and made vulnerable by his feeling of irrelevance, Antonio commits an act that makes him a lightning rod for the factions that are bitterly at odds over the Tampa Affair and the “immigrant question”’ according to the publishers. The Tampa Affair took place in 2001 but this novel sounds sadly relevant today.

Former US Army medic Nico Walker’s Cherry is set in Cleveland Ohio where two students meet and fall in love in 2003. When Emily is called home, her lover joins the army leaving for Iraq after they hurriedly marry. He returns stricken with PTSD and a drug habit which turns into heroin addiction. When Emily becomes addicted, too, the couple’s attempts at a normal life collapse and he turns to bank robbery. ‘Hammered out on a prison typewriter, Cherry marks the arrival of a raw, bleakly hilarious, and surprisingly poignant voice straight from the dark heart of America’ say the publishers.

I’m ending February’s preview with a novel that I suspect will be bittersweet for me, on the eve of the dreaded Brexit. Robert Menasse’s The Capital is a satire on the European Commission as Cover imageit nears its fiftieth anniversary. The plan is to put Auschwitz at the celebration’s centre but while some members welcome the idea others most emphatically do not. Meanwhile, a murder investigation has been suppressed at the highest level in Brussels. ‘The Capital is a sharp satire, a philosophical essay, a crime story, a comedy of manners, a wild pig chase, but at its heart it has the most powerful pro-European message: no-one should forget the circumstances that gave rise to the European project in the first place’ according to the publishers. I couldn’t agree more with that last sentiment. Still hoping for a miracle…

That’s it for February’s preview of new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye, and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Books to Look Out for in February 2019: Part One

Cover imageFebruary’s surely the dullest month of the year in my part of the world although, thankfully, not in the publishing schedules, as I hope you’ll agree. Lots of promising titles to look forward to beginning with Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day which is about two couples who meet in their twenties. Thirty years later Alex and Christine’s evening is interrupted by a phone call: Zach has died and Lydia is distraught. Instead of uniting them in grief, Zach’s loss opens up a well of anger and bitterness between the remaining three, apparently. Hadley’s narrative moves back and forth between past and present, always an attractive structure for me.

In Steve Sem-Sanberg’s The Tempest, the past is also revisited thanks to a bereavement. Andreas returns to the house in which he grew up on an island just off the Norwegian coast. Memories surface and secrets are uncovered as he sorts through his late foster father’s belongings. ‘Rich in shimmering echoes from Shakespeare’s play, Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Tempest is a hypnotic portrayal of the inherited guilt that seeps through generations, haunting an island overgrown with myths’ say the publishers which sounds ambitious but intriguing.

I’ve managed to get ahead of myself and have already read Frances Liardet’s We Must Be Brave which carries on the pleasing theme of flitting between past and present revealing secrets. It opens in 1940 with the discovery of a child fast asleep at the back of a coach full of Cover imagefrightened women fleeing the bombing of Southampton. Ellen, the childless wife of a first world war veteran, takes Pamela home, surprised at the love awakened by this five-year-old girl whose loss reminds her of her own past. It would have been easy to descend into schmaltziness with this kind of story but Liardet steers well clear of that while still conveying its poignancy. I’ll be posting my review next month.

As you can guess from its title, Yara Rodrigues-Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist also has one foot in the past. A young woman whose mother has left her homeland struggles to find a way to feel comfortable with herself by exploring her family history. ‘Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity’ says the publisher, promisingly. I’m often drawn to the theme of immigration, inventively explored here by the sound of it.

There’s a promise of twists in Joan Silber’s Improvement which sees Kiki, settled in New York after travelling the world, worried about her niece’s relationship with her partner. When Reyna decides to put her four-year-old first, the repercussions are more profound that she might have expected.’ A novel that examines conviction, connection and the possibility of generosity in the face of loss, Improvement is as intricately woven together as Kiki’s beloved Turkish rugs and as colourful as the tattoos decorating Reyna’s body, with narrative twists and turns as surprising Cover imageand unexpected as the lives all around us’ say the publishers.

I’m winding up this preview with a book that was first published in 2015: Janice Galloway’s short story collection, Jellyfish, comprising sixteen stories which explore sex, parenthood, death, ambition and loss. Stuff of life, then. After reading Galloway’s memoirs and her novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, I’m eager to get my hands on this one.

That’s it for the first part of February’s preview. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Part two soon…

Reading Bingo 2018

I’m finishing this year’s posts with a round of reading bingo, yet another chance to mention some of my 2018 favourites plus work in a few more that didn’t appear in my books of the year for one reason or another.  So, after a good deal of flicking back through this year’s reading, here’s my 2018 bingo card with links to the books I’ve reviewed.

Cover imageA Book with More Than 500 Pages – Seth Garland’s twenty-first century Bonfire of the Vanities, only better, The Hazards of Good Fortune, which weighs in at a hefty 624 pages

A Forgotten Classic – William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer, first published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement, which explores race relations in the US. All too relevant today.

A Book That Became a Movie – I’m going to do what I did last year and stretch the rules a little here. It’s been announced that there’s a TV series in the works based on Thomas Mullen’s Darktown, set in Atlanta when the first black American police force was set up.

A Book Published This Year – That would be most of them  given my predilection for the shiny and new but I’m going for Anne Youngson’s touching Costa Book Award shortlisted novel, Meet Me at the Museum, about a recently bereaved woman and a Danish museum curator, also coming to terms with loss.

A Book with a Number in the Title – Allan Jenkins’ Plot 29 which recounts his investigation of his chequered birth family history and his coming to terms with it through allotmenteering. A brave and cheering memoir.Cover image

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty – Fiona Mozley’s distinctly Gothic, Elmet, about a family living on the fringes of society, which I read for the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel

A Book with Non-Human Characters – Michael Andreassenwacky, darkly comic short story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover which features several saints and a leviathan.

A Funny Book – Jen Beagin’s acerbic, whip smart debut Pretend I’m Dead about a young woman who loves to clean while hiding the reason why from herself.

A Book by a Female Author – There are so many but I’m plumping for Louise Levene’s enjoyable romp, Happy Little Bluebirds, about Evelyn, sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent in persuading the Americans to join the Second World War.

A Book with a Mystery – Emily Maguire’s Stella Prize shortlisted An Isolated Incident begins with the discovery of a body but it’s about very much more than that.

A Book with a One-word title – Ruth Figgest’s Magnetism is about a mother and daughter seemingly locked into a dysfunctional relationship. A very clever, satisfying piece of storytelling.

A Book of Short Stories – Helen Dunmore’s posthumous collection, Girl, Balancing, an unexpected treat put together by her son, Patrick Charnley

Free Square – This one goes to Imogen Hermes Gowar’s wonderful The Mermaid and Mrs Cover imageHancock, our shadow jury winner for the Young Writer of the Year award.

A Book Set on a Different Continent – Fiona Kidman’s engrossing All Day at the Movies follows four siblings in New Zealand down disparate roads over six decades.

A Non-fiction Book – Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure, a memoir about how reading set its author on the path to recovery from anorexia which I read for my Young Writer of the Year shadow judging stint.

The First Book by a Favourite Author – I’m going to have to pass on this one

A Book You Heard About Online – Katherena Vermitte’s riveting, multi-layered portrait of an indigenous family faced with an appalling sexual assault on one of their daughters, The Break, which I first spotted on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink blog.

A Bestselling Book – Kate Atkinson’s Transcription follows Juliet who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940. Superb, as ever.

A Book Based on a True Story – Edward Carey’s highly inventive, engaging Little is based on the life of Madame Tussaud

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile – Emma Flint’s page-turning Little Deaths about a child murder in ‘60s New York

A Book your Friend Loves – I passed C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel on to a friend who liked it so much she’s busy seeking out his backlist

A Book that Scares You – Sarah Perry’s Gothic novel Melmoth. Now avoiding all jackdaws…

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old – Reissued by the brilliant Pushkin Press, Lisa Zeidner’sCover image Layover explores mental illness and grief through a middle-aged woman who’s lost her son and, briefly, her bearings

The Second Book in a Series – I’m boxing clever here (or bending the rules again) and going for Lissa Evans’ hugely enjoyable celebration of women’s suffrage, Old Baggage, the prequel to Crooked Heart but published after it.

A Book with a Blue Cover – Adam Weymouth’s Kings of the Yukon, a travelogue which follows the longest salmon run in the world. The fourth book I read for the Young Writer of the Year Award and the official winner.

There, just one box empty although it has to be admitted I’ve taken a liberty or two with the rules. If you want to see what a full card looks like you might like to pop over to FictionFan’s Book Reviews. Happy New Year to you all!

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2019: Part One

Cover imageI’ve read three of the paperbacks that have caught my eye for January, one of which is Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew, a slice of American small town life seen through the eyes of an unnamed bartender. I’d enjoyed Powell’s second novel, Trading Futures, a few years back, admiring its narrator’s waspishly funny inner monologue. This one’s infused with a gentler humour, the themes it tackles much weightier. Our narrator and his wife lie in bed mulling over events in the bar they run together. One day Arlene walks in, all glamour and sophistication, asking if they’ve heard of a man named Jack. Powell’s story unfolds through the bartender’s memories of the nine months Arlene occupied her bar stool, slipping in details of his apparently prosaic marriage, less transparent than he might have thought. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling.

Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is set largely in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities, and translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with interesting fiction. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t, in this carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction which offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one. One of my books of 2018.Cover imge

Winding back another thirty years in German history, Lutz Seiler’s award-winning Kruso is set on Hiddensee – a Baltic island legendary as a destination for idealists and rebels against the East German state – where in 1989 a young student has fled a dreadful tragedy. Once there, he gets a job washing dishes at the island’s most popular restaurant and becomes friends with the eponymous Kruso to whom the seasonal workers seem to be in thrall. ‘As the wave of history washes over the German Democratic Republic, the friends’ grip on reality loosens and life on the island will never be the same’ say the publishers.

Rupert Thomson takes us over the border with Never Anyone But You based on the true story of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore who meet and fall in love in early twentieth-century small town France. Moving to Paris, they immerse themselves in the world of Hemingway and Dali, producing a series of avant-garde photographs. On the eve of war, they flee to Jersey where their anti-Nazi propaganda puts their lives in danger. ‘Never Anyone but You explores the gripping true story of two extraordinary women who challenged gender boundaries, redefining what it means to be a woman, and ultimately risked their lives in the fight against oppression. Theirs is a story that has been hidden in the margins of history’ according to the publishers which sounds fascinating.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this first batch with Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which we shadow judges picked as our winner for the Young Writer of the Year Award. It begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail and a pleasing helping of sly wit.

That’s it for the first part of January’s paperback preview. A click on a title will take you to my review for the three I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the other two. If you’d like to catch up with January’s new titles they’re here and here. More paperbacks soon…