Category Archives: Random thoughts

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2020: Part One

Cover imageFebruary’s packed with enough paperbacks to stave off the miseries of a Northern hemisphere winter, several of which I’ve already read and can heartily recommend. I’ll begin with Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, a slice of metafiction in which a writer comes across the notebook she kept in 1978, the year she arrived in Manhattan fresh from Minnesota, planning to write her first novel. As S. H. reads her journal, she contemplates the version remembered by her sixty-two-year-old self and how often it differs from the twenty-three-year-old’s account. As ever with Hustvedt, her book is stuffed full of literary allusions, ideas and erudition but it’s also playful in its early stages before taking a darker turn.

Memories play a large part in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise which sees Sarah and David fall obsessively in love in their first term at a performing arts school where teachers and students become dangerously close. Twenty years later, the students’ lives remain marked by what happened in the secret, enclosed world of their school. ‘Captivating and brilliant, Trust Exercise is a novel about the treacherous terrain of adolescence, how we define consent, and what we lose, gain, and never get over as we navigate our way into adulthood’s mysterious structures of sex and power’ say the publishers promisingly. I enjoyed Choi’s My Education very much and like the sound of this one.

Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set in 1993 when the eponymous Paul is a bartender in a university town gay bar, studying queer theory by day, but he has a secret. ‘Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Women’s Studies major to trade, Paul transforms his body at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco – a journey through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure’ promise the publishers which sounds wildly ambitious but well worth investigating.

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.

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Lost Children Archive has something to say about America’s dark heart. The first book written in English by Valeria Luiselli, it’s a response to the journeys made through the most dangerous terrain by those hoping to find their way across the Mexican border, many of them unaccompanied children. On their way from New York to Arizona, a family stops in motels where the parents fight quietly, convincing themselves their children can’t hear. The closer they come to the border, the more they hear about the migrant children, many about to be deported. Compassionate and often beautiful, Lost Children Archive is an impressive achievement although less immediate than Jeanine Cummins stunning American Dirt which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Sunday Times Young Writer Award shortlisted Stubborn Archivist also tackles the theme of immigration. 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 whetting my appetite.

Back to love which never runs smoothly, at least not the more interesting literary variety. In Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby two lovers are engaged in a long affair, meeting for an afternoon once a month, a welcome interval in their humdrum marriages. Now each is faced with a crisis that threatens this relationship which has become so precious to them both. O’Callaghan’s novel takes place during a single afternoon, switching perspective from Michael to Caitlin. It’s a novel that quietly draws you in, engaging sympathy for these two lovers who face the end of the only relationship in which they’ve truly felt themselves.

Cover imageI loved Jen Beagin’s sharp, funny Pretend I’m Dead but was a little surprised to find she’d written a sequel. Two years after the love of her life disappeared, Mona’s becoming more intimate with her clients and not necessarily in a good way. Vacuum in the Dark follows Mona from client to client, all of whom have their own darkness to shoulder. It’s considerably bleaker than Beagin’s first novel: the humour still sardonic and off the wall but less slapstick. I did wonder if Beagin was pushing her luck with a sequel but she manages to carry it off. Best quit while you’re ahead, though.

That’s it for the first instalment of February’s paperback delights. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. And if you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels, they’re here and here.

Books to Look Out For in February 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of February’s new titles begins with one I’m eagerly anticipating although a novel set against the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War wouldn’t usually appeal. Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll is based on the German legend of the eponymous trickster, born in an ordinary village but destined to expose the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools, apparently. ‘With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time’ say the publishers. I’m not at all sure about that but I’ve yet to read anything by Kehlmann I’ve not both enjoyed and admired.

If the historical setting of Tyll is a little outside my literary territory, thrillers are practically on a different continent but I enjoyed A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple, a favourite holiday read in Palma, a few years back. With Independence Square, Miller returns to Ukraine where his bestselling first novel, Snowdrops, was set, a country whose turbulent recent history he covered as a journalist. Once a senior diplomat in Kiev, Simon Davey spots a woman on the Tube he’s convinced is the person who unwittingly brought about his downfall and decides to follow her. ‘Independence Square is a story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. It is a story about corruption and personal and political betrayals. It is a story about where, in the twenty-first century, power really lies’ say the publishers. William Boyd is a fan, apparently.Cover image

Not entirely sure this one is up my street either but the stories that make up Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro were apparently inspired by her stint at the lovely Mr B’s Emporium here in Bath. Her pieces are speculative ranging from a musician who befriends a flock of birds to two newlyweds inhibited by a large, watchful stuffed bear in their lives. I wonder if it’s the Orvis bear which disappeared mysteriously from outside our local branch. ‘Stories that start like delicate webs and finish like unbreakable wire traps’ according to Neil Gaiman.

I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every book by Colum McCann I’ve read but I’m an admirer of his writing. His new novel, Apeirogon, sounds extremely ambitious. It follows the friendship of two men – one an Israeli, the other a Palestinian – both of whom have lost their daughters – one killed in a suicide bomb attack, the other shot by a border guard. ‘Colum McCann crosses centuries and continents, stitching time, art, history, nature and politics into a tapestry of friendship, love, loss and belonging. Musical, muscular, delicate and soaring, it is a book for our times from a writer at the height of his powers’ promise the publishers. Finger crossed for this one.

Cover imagePetina Gappah’s Out of the Darkness, Shining Light sounds just as ambitious as Apeirogon, following a procession of sixty-nine Africans carrying the remains of a white man 1,500 miles to the sea so that he can be buried in his own country. The body is David Livingstone’s but Gappah concentrates on the funeral procession, apparently, giving voice to his cook and three of his most devoted servants. ‘Their tale of how his corpse was borne out of nineteenth-century Africa – carrying the maps that sowed the seeds of the continent’s brutal colonisation – has the power of myth’ say the publishers of what sounds like a novel that deserves the rather over-used description ‘epic’. I still haven’t got around to Gappah’s short stories despite being so impressed by The Book of Memory back in 2015.

Painted on a much smaller, twentieth-first century canvas, Luke Brown’s Theft sees a journalist granted an interview with a cult author who welcomes him into her London home. There he meets Sophie, celebrated for her controversial political views. Meanwhile, his sister has disappeared after their falling out over their dead mother’s house. Paul‘s life becomes increasingly fraught as he travels back and forth between his rundown northern home town and the Nardinis’ rather grand London house in what the publishers are describing as ‘an exhilarating howl of a novel’. Couldn’t resist that line.Cover image

My final choice is Ben Halls’ The Quarry which offers a small twist on state-of-the-nation fiction in the form of a collection of interlinked short stories rather than a straightforward novel. Set on the eponymous West London estate, Halls’ stories explore contemporary masculinity and changing gender roles through a diverse set of working-class men, apparently. That state-of-the-nation theme is catnip for me and this take on it sounds intriguing.

That’s it for February’s new fiction. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attention, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Books to Look Out For in February 2020: Part One

Cover imageFebruary may be the shortest month but it’s jam-packed with potential literary goodies. This first instalment is pretty well all about women beginning with Jenny Offil’s Weather which sounds very much like a novel for our times. Librarian Lizzie Benson is asked by her old mentor to take on the job of answering the mail from her podcast’s listeners. Hell and High Water attracts both Left and Right, each with something to say and say it vociferously. ‘As she dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls’ says the blurb. It’s a long time since Dept. of Speculation which I enjoyed very much.

Which can also be said of Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One although I read that so long ago that I can remember little about it other than that I liked it. Her new novel sees a woman in her early forties whose comfortable, if unconventional, world is shattered when she witnesses an act of violence. ‘Right After the Weather explores what happens when two worlds collide. Written with astonishing insight into the nuances of human nature, this is a beautifully observed and compassionate novel about love, trauma and the reverberations of our actions’ say the publishers promisingly.

Curtis Rye’s debut Kingdomtide sees another woman undergo a trauma. Seventy-two-year-old Chloris Waldrip is the sole survivor of an air crash in 1986, lost in the Montana wilderness with little or no hope of seeing her Texan home again. Debra Lewis is the park ranger, still bruised from her messy divorce, who assembles the raggle-taggle search party to find her. Suspenseful, wry and gorgeously written Kingdomtide is the inspiring account of two unforgettable characters, whose heroism reminds us that survival is only the beginning’ say the publishers temptingly but it’s the praise from Ron Rash, one of my favourite writers, that seals the deal for me.

Not so much heroism as everyday events seem to be the subject of Miranda Popkey’s debut,Cover image Topics of Conversation, which follows one woman over two decades through the conversations she has with other women, from confidantes to strangers, chronicling her own life through their stories. ‘Full of the uncertainty of the present and the instability of the past, sizzling with enigmatic desire, it is a seductive exploration of life as a woman in the modern world, of the stories we tell ourselves and of the things we reveal only to strangers’ according to the publishers. It’s a daring structure for a debut but a very attractive one for me.

Elisa Shua Dusapain’s Winter in Sokcho takes us to a tourist town on the border between South and North Korea where a young French Korean woman is working in a guesthouse. A French cartoonist, intent on discovering the real Korea, asks her to act as his guide revealing a beautiful country very different from the tawdry Sokcho. ‘An exquisitely-crafted debut, which won the Prix Robert Walser, Winter in Sokcho is a novel about shared identities and divided selves, vision and blindness, intimacy and alienation. Elisa Shua Duspain’s voice is distinctive and unmistakable’ according to the publishers, and it does sound very promising.

We’re staying in South Korea for Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 around which there’s already a great deal of brouhaha, if my Twitter timeline is anything to go by. A bright young woman, hard-working and exemplary, Kim has been forced into second place all her life by a patriarchal society which borders on institutionalised misogyny. Hard to make out much more from the blurb but it comes highly recommended by the likes of Sayaka Murata, author of Convenience Store Woman, who described it as ’a book about the life of a woman living in Korea; the despair of an ordinary woman which she takes for granted. The fact that it’s not about ‘someone special’ is extremely shocking, while also being incredibly relatable.’ It went down a storm in South Korea, apparently.

Cover imageYou could say I was saving the most anticipated until last, although Jenny Offil’s Weather offers some stiff competition even for a new Anne Enright novel. Told to us by her daughter, Actress is the story of Katherine O’Dell whose fame became notoriety when she committed a bizarre crime, apparently. ‘Brilliantly capturing the glamour of post-war America and the shabbiness of 1970s Dublin, Actress is an intensely moving, disturbing novel about mothers and daughters and the men in their lives. A scintillating examination of the corrosive nature of celebrity, it is also a sad and triumphant tale of freedom from bad love, and from the avid gaze of the crowd’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.

That’s it for the first part of February’s preview. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’d like to learn more. Second batch soon which will roam far and wide, and may even include a few men.

My Life in Books (2019 Edition)

Surely time to concentrate on 2020, you might think, but I spotted this meme on Laura Tisdall’s blog a little while ago and it reminded me of how much fun I’d had with it back in 2017, then Annabel joined in. Somehow I managed to forget all about it until Karen’s post yesterday. Please bear with me, then, while I look over my shoulder to 2019 one last time.

In high school I was: Exqusite (Sarah Stowell)

People might be surprised (by): Love Notes From a German Building Site (Adrian Duncan)

I will never be: You (Phil Wittaker)

My fantasy job is: Dancing on the Outskirts (Shena Mackay)

At the end of a long day I need:  Sweet Home (Wendy Erskine)

I hate it (when): Witches Sail in Eggshells (Chloe Turner)

Wish I had: The Dutch House (Ann Patchett)

My family reunions are: Stories We Tell Ourselves (Sarah Françoise)

At a party you’d find me with: The Cheffe (Marie NDiaye – transl. Jordan Stump)

I’ve never been to:  Wolf Country (Tünde Farrand)

A happy day includes: Expectation (Anna Hope)

Motto I live by: Improvement (Joan Silber)

On my bucket list is: Dinner with Edward (Isabel Vincent)

In my next life, I want to have: A Life of Adventure and Delight (Akhil Sharma)

A very happy 2020 to you all! May your reading be plentiful and satisfying.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2020: Part One

Cover image There’s a satisfying array of January paperback goodies on offer for those lucky enough to get a bookish gift card or two for Christmas, all but one of which I’ve read already.  I’m kicking off with one of my books of 2019, Kate Atkinson’s latest addition to her Jackson Brodie series, Big Sky, which is an absolute treat. After a hiatus of nine years, Jackson’s living in a cottage in his native Yorkshire looking after his teenage son while Julia, Nathan’s mother, finishes off the latest in the TV police procedural series in which she stars. It’s not long before Jackson becomes embroiled in a case that encompasses historical sex abuse, modern day slavery and people trafficking. If you haven’t yet read the first four in the series, Atkinson neatly fills in Jackson’s backstory, but why not just snap up all five and settle down for the rest of the month.

I had hoped that Delphine de Vigan’s Loyalties would also be one of my books of the year after the wonderful Based on a True Story but, sadly, it missed the mark for me. It tells the story of a young boy, caught up in the fallout from a bitter divorce, and explores the ties of silence that bind society together in a sometimes mistaken loyalty. Perhaps it’s unfair to make the comparison given how very different in style and subject the two novels are but, although the writing is as pinpoint sharp as in her previous novel, this one failed to hold my attention in the same way.Cover image

My expectations for Livia Franchini’s debut, Shelf Life, were also overturned but in a good way. It tells Ruth’s story through the shopping list she made the week her fiancé dropped his bombshell and left her after ten years. Quite a daring structure for a debut novel but Franchini handles it well as Ruth attempts to hide her misery, taken in hand by her friend and antithesis, the extrovert party-girl, Alanna. Somehow, I’d expected a slightly fluffy read but with its poignant depiction of social awkwardness and isolation, Franchini’s novel is far from that.

I’d heard good things about Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions but had not yet got around to reading it when Liar turned up. Set towards the end of a Tel Aviv summer, it tells the story of a young girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation leaving seventeen-year-old Nofar trapped in an untruth she’s allowed to take root. A thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style.

The only title I’ve not yet read in this first batch is Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth which sounds like another lesson in morality. It begins in the remote Carpathian mountains where Piotr’s limited ambitions are fixed on a job with the railway, a cottage and a bride with a dowry until he finds himself drafted into the army to fight in the First World War. ‘In a new translation, authorised by the author’s daughter, The Salt of the Earth is a strongly pacifist novel inspired by the Odyssey, about the consequences of war on ordinary men’ say the publishers.

That’s it for the first selection of January paperbacks. A click on any of the first four titles will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the fifth should any have taken your fancy. If you’d like to catch up with January’s new title they’re here and here. Second instalment soon…

Books to Look Out For in January 2020: Part Two

The second part of January’s preview begins with a novel whose jacket seduced me when it appeared on Twitter, way back when. Francine Toon’s Pine is set in a remote Highlands village in the middle of a forest where Lauren lives with her father. When a woman stumbles in front of their pickup at Halloween, Niall takes her back to their house but by morning she’s gone. She’s not the first woman to have disappeared in this place where people keep their secrets to themselves, nor is she the last, apparently. ‘Francine Toon captures the wildness of rural childhood and the intensity of small-town claustrophobia. In a place that can feel like the edge of the word, she unites the chill of the modern gothic with the pulse of a thriller’ according to the publishers. I do like a nice bit of gothic at this time of year.

I reviewed Timur Vermes very funny satire, Look Who’s Back, five years ago having loved its take on Hitler’s return as a media star. The Hungry and the Fat takes a swipe at Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis by the sound of it. After Europe closes her borders, a young refugee spots an opportunity to grab the media spotlight when a German reality TV star visits their camp, organizing a televised march which grips viewers in their comfy living rooms as the refugees head their way. ‘A devastating, close-to-the-knuckle satire about the haves and have-nots in our divided world by one of Europe’s finest and most perceptive writers, in which an outlandish conceit follows a kind of impeccable logic to a devastating conclusion’ say the publishers. I’m expecting it to be squirmingly good.

Rodaan Al Galididi approaches a similar theme from a different perspective in Two Blankets Three Sheets, following Samir Karim who requests asylum after flying into Amsterdam from Vietnam in 1998. He’s been wandering around Asia for seven years, evading conscription into Saddam Hussein’s army, then spends the next nine years entangled in Dutch bureaucracy. ‘Told with compassion and a unique sense of humor, this is an inspiring tale of survival, a close-up view into the hidden world of refugees and human smugglers, and a sobering reflection of our times’ according to the publishers. I suspect this one has a touch of autofiction about it.

I’m finishing this preview with a collection of short stories by Billy O’Callaghan whose My Coney Island Baby I enjoyed so much earlier this year. The Boatman and Other Stories comprises twelve Cover imagepieces which span a century and two continents, apparently. ‘Ranging from the elegiac to the brutally confrontational, these densely layered tales reveal the quiet heroism and gentle dignity of ordinary life. O’Callaghan is a master celebrant of the smallness of the human flame against the dark: its strength, and its steady brightness’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for more of the beautifully restrained writing which characterised his novel.

That’s it for January’s new novels. A click on any title that’s snagged your attention will take you to a more detailed synopsis and If you’d like to catch up with the first part of January’s preview it’s here.

To those of you 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 passes as painlessly as possible. And for those of you who’ve been working your socks off in retail, catering or any other Christmas-driven occupation – I hope you get some rest before you start all over again. I’ll be back at the end of the week, hoping to tempt you with some January paperbacks.

Books to Look Out For in January 2020: Part One

Cover imageTime to look forward to another year of literary exploration with lots goodies in the offing for January by the look of it. I’m beginning with a title that’s been popping up in my Twitter feed for so long it feels as if it was published last summer and which I’ve already read. Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt is about the experience of immigrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border, a theme explored in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, although Cummins’ novel is much more raw and immediate. ‘Vivid, visceral, utterly compelling, AMERICAN DIRT is both a page turner and a literary achievement: a novel that will leave you utterly changed’ say the publishers. Suffice to say it made me cry. Review to follow next month.

Tim Murphy’s Correspondents continues the immigrant theme, spanning the twentieth-century and on into the twenty-first, through the story of Rita Khoury, an Irish-Lebanese woman whose parents immigrated to the US. Rita studies Arabic, becoming a journalist, and is posted to Iraq to cover the 2003 American invasion. It’s described by the publishers as ‘a powerful story about the legacy of immigration, the present-day world of refugeehood, the violence that America causes both abroad and at home, and the power of the individual and the family to bring good into a world that is often brutal’ which sounds excellent. I loved Christodora, Murphy’s previous novel.

Two families living in Los Angeles are linked by an event in their collective past in Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, apparently. Grace Park is the child of Korean immigrant parents, struggling with her elder sister’s increasing estrangement, while Shawn Mathews is helping his cousin Cover imageadjust to life outside prison. Both are from different backgrounds and generations but their paths are set to cross as violence threatens to engulf the city. ‘Beautifully written and marked by its aching humanity as much as its growing sense of dread, Your House Will Pay is a powerful and urgent novel for today’ say the publishers.

Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book is about a very different kind of family, old money sure of its own entitlement rather than immigrants making their way in a new country. The Miltons are the epitome of privilege in 1935 but even they’re not immune from tragedy, consoling themselves by buying a small island off the coast of Maine. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the island is up for sale causing their granddaughter to uncover some disturbing evidence about the source of the family wealth. Dark secret territory, then, and spread across New York and Maine, too. Irresistible for me.

Thomas Martin seems to be a decent version of privilege in Ani Katz’ A Good Man. Comfortably off, happily married with a loving daughter and his feet some way up the advertising career ladder, he appears set for a happy and successful future but things go horribly wrong when tragedy hits his family, the people he knows it’s his duty to protect. ‘A Good Man is a dark and gripping novel of psychological suspense about a family man, in the wake of a horrifying act, trying to work out where he went wrong. It is the debut of a bold and brilliant new talent’ say the publishers, and it does sound promising.

Cover imageI really should have read Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals by now but I’m jumping in with Adults, her new novel, whose blurb puts me a little in mind of Fleabag. Thirty-five-year-old Jenny’s real life is pretty much the opposite of what she portrays on social media. Unloved and unemployable, even her friends are sick of her. Then her mum turns up unexpectedly. ‘A misadventure of maturity, a satire on our age of self-promotion, a tender look at the impossibility of womanhood, a love story, a riot.’ say the publishers ending this preview on an entirely different note from how it started.

That’s it for the first instalment of January’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that takes your fancy. More soon…

Books of the Year 2019: Part Four

We’re on the home stretch, now, heading towards the end of 2019, and already anticipating the shiny and new in 2020. September, which I like to call late summer stretching that in to October weather permitting, began with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already a collection of twenty punchy, inventive short stories, some no longer than a page or two. A few of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich, who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning, are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. Richly deserved, if Fly Already is anything to go by.

October saw two novels that exemplified beautifully crafted, immersive storytelling, the first of which was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. It’s the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well turned out, absorbing and satisfying. I would love to have seen it on the Booker longlist, at the very least.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded theCover image high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

November’s favourites were heralded by a book for which I had even higher expectations, and once again they were fulfilled. This year saw the return of the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge, familiar to fans of Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form, comprising thirteen closely-knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.

Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas tells the story of a woman in a very different set of circumstances. Now middle-aged, Adelaida grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. When an opportunity presents itself, Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem. Borgo’s novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now

Rather fittingly, given that I’ve read so many of them over the past few years, I’m bringing 2019’s favourites to a close with a novella. Written in clean bright prose Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tells the Cover imagestory of a mother and her son on the eve of his ninth birthday, a milestone she’s forgotten and he’s convinced she’s secretly planning to celebrate. Over the course of a frigid Norwegian night – each of them outdoors, unbeknownst to the other – their paths will almost cross several times, both returning home to a day which will be far from what either of them might have anticipated. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.

And if I had to choose? That would be a challenge I’d rather not take, but if push comes to shove I’d have to plump for The Dutch House, The Jewel and Olive, Again, although don’t ask me to rank them. As ever, the trimming down to just twenty-four was a painful process, particularly dropping Faces on the Tip of my Tongue, Lot and Echoes of the City, all of which are superb. I hope your year has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

Just one more review to come before devoting the rest of my posting year to looking forward, previewing some of the delights publishers have in store for us in January 2020. In the meantime, all the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first three instalments of 2019’s favourites they’re here, here and here.

Books of the Year 2019: Part Three

Cover image This third instalment covers two months of what was a passably good summer here in the UK beginning with an unexpected treat in July. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll have gathered that Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite writers. In September 2018 we were treated to Transcription then less than a year later Big Sky saw the return of Jackson Brodie after a hiatus of nine years. Jackson’s living in a cottage in his native Yorkshire looking after his teenage son while Julia, Nathan’s mother, finishes off the latest in the TV police procedural series in which she stars. It’s not long before Jackson becomes embroiled in a case that encompasses historical sex abuse, modern day slavery and people trafficking. As with the previous four Brodie novels, Big Sky tackles social issues with a sharp wit and dry humour. Fingers crossed that the BBC have Jason Isaacs lined up for an adaptation.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like You, was one of my books of 2016. I loved it for its poignancy leavened with wry humour, and for the striking images shining brightly from its pages. That same deft writing is evident in Starling Days which follows Mina and Oscar from New York to London where Oscar is hoping Mina will find some distraction from what ails her. Buchanan’s compassionate, empathetic novel explores the effects of mental illness from both sides of a relationship, switching perspectives between Mina and Oscar. It lays bare both the sheer exhaustion of living with the constant worry of what a beloved partner might do to themselves and the relentless debilitation of a disordered mind. Achingly sad at times, it’s an affecting, clearly heartfelt piece of fiction. Fingers crossed it will win the Costa Novel Award for which its been shortlisted.

Four August favourites, the first of which is set against the backdrop of the Bauhaus, the German art school whose designs I’ve long admired and whose centenary year this was. Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game begins in 1922 with the admission of six students whose lives will become inextricably bound, telling theirCover image story through Paul whose memories are brought vividly into focus by the death of Walter, both friend and enemy. Written in the form of a confessional, it’s a story fraught with betrayal, jealousy and a tortured form of love, a tragedy in which the appalling events of Nazi Germany are personalised. It’s a smart, accomplished piece of fiction, through which Wood lightly weaves her meticulous research.

The next three novels are all published by small publishers although Paul Lynch’s Beyond the Sea is from Oneworld who’ve  bagged not one but two Booker Prizes in the last few years. Written in that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, this intense novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis through the story of two fishermen cast adrift after a dreadful storm. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness.

My second small publisher, Charco Press, is a comparatively new kid on the block, set up to champion Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. Argentinian writer Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste is the tale of an encounter between a charismatic evangelist and the mechanic who spends much of a long hot day mending his car. Pearson and Gringo are each other’s antithesis: one a passionate believer in God and himself as God’s instrument; the other an atheist, dismissive of religion. As the day wears on, Pearson spots an opportunity resulting in a confrontation which reaches its climax as the skies crack open and the storm breaks. Almada unfolds her story in short chapters written in plain yet evocative often poetic prose, anchoring it in the parched Argentinean outback. The result is a striking, thought-provoking piece of fiction

High summer finished with a collection of short stories whose lovely jacket caught my eye on Cover imageTwitter. Comprising seventeen pieces, Chloe Turner’s Witches Sail in Eggshells is about relationships – with partners, exs and partners of exs, rivals and even old schoolmates – some with disturbing undercurrents, all delivered in nicely polished, insightful prose. There’s not one dud amongst them but you don’t have to take my word for it: the tiny Reflex Press have cleverly put one of Turner’s stories, ‘The Hagstone’, on their website for all to read.

Sadly, the end of my literary summer’s on the horizon and with it the advent of winter although autumn offered some gorgeous colours to distract me from the inevitable. The last quarter of 2019 turned up some of the best titles of the year for me including the story of a family told through the history of their house, the welcome return of Olive Kitteridge and an art heist which is very much more than that. All the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first two quarters they’re here and here.

Books of the Year 2019: Part Two

Cover imageEarly summer, which seems so very long ago now, was packed with literary goodies for me, particularly May which began with A Stranger City, Linda Grant’s portrayal of a post-referendum London through a set of disparate characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body has been pulled from the Thames. Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry – some of it ragged and frayed – of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Her book reveals a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it – a Brexit novel if ever there was one. I ended Part One by saying I’d try to avoid politics in the next instalment but as you can see, I’ve already failed.

Flotsam, May’s second favourite, is by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, this strange, unsettling book is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings through the story of a young girl and her mother. Told in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Far from an easy read but certainly a rewarding one, Ziervogel’s book leaves much for readers to deduce and is all the better for it.

Vesna Main’s Good Day? sported the second jacket I fell in love with this year, fitting its book as perfectly as the gloriously pink cover of Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar, which popped up in Part One. Always a joy when publishers use an image which is both strikingly original and appropriate. Main’s Good Day? recounts a daily conversation between a Writer and her Reader, who is also her husband, describing the progress of her novel about a couple whose marriage is strained to breaking point. It’s such a clever piece of writing and a daring one, too. To write a novel almost entirely in dialogue and carry it off as well as Main does requires quite a degree of chutzpah. Thoroughly deserving of its place on this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

May’s last choice is much more straightforward, a piece of fictionalised biography which introduced me to a someone I’d never come across but who turned out to be an internationally popular figure. Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage is based on the life of Len Howard who, aged forty, threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds, determined to devote herself to researching their habits. Using simple, clean prose, Meijer lets her subject tell own story, weaving through it observations of Star, one of Howard’s favourites. A delightful book, the story of a true English eccentric.

June began with another piece of fictionalised biography by Jill Dawson who often chooses that form for her work. When I read that The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair my heart sank but far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with the usual speculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s book reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective. Her careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours Sandra Rivett’s memory, tipping the balance away from a media which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best, and that’s saying something after The Crime Writer, a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction starring Patricia Highsmith.

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The first half of 2019’s books of the year ends with Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers, an inventive and imaginative piece of storytelling which takes its readers from 1902 to 1974 with a tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before. Not just one story but several nested within each other, this is a novel haunted by madness and grief with more than a touch of the gothic brightened with moments of humour. Absolutely gripping – I loved it.

All of the above are linked to my reviews here if you’d like to know more. Part Three takes us into high summer with the return of Jackson Brodie after a nine-year hiatus, a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal in the Bauhaus and another beautiful jacket, perfect for its book’s contents. If you missed the first quarter on 2019’s favourites and would like to catch up, it’s here.