Category Archives: Random thoughts

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2019: Part One

Cover imageRather like April, May’s paperback publishing schedules are chock full of potential delights, some of which I’ve read but most not. I’ll begin with one I haven’t: Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman which constantly popped up in my neck of the Twitter woods in the latter part of last year, lauded by all manner of people many of them readers whose opinions I trust. It’s about thirty-six-year-old Keiko who’s never had a boyfriend and who’s been working in the same store for half her life. Others may wonder why she doesn’t find someone to settle down with but Keiko’s happy with what she has.

Given Keiko’s apparent contentment with her single, childless lot she may not have troubled herself with the question of whether to have children or not, the subject of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Heti’s narrator struggles to make a decision while everyone else has something to say on the matter. ‘Motherhood raises radical and essential questions about womanhood, parenthood, and how – and for whom – to live’ says the publisher in a blurb that gets straight to the point and is all the better for it. I’ve seen mixed reviews of this one but I’m keen to read it.

Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage sounds most unusual. It’s based on the life of Len Howard who was forty years old when she decided to turn her back on her life in London and move to a cottage in Sussex to pursue her passion for birds. The result was two bestselling books based on her observations of the birds that lived nearby, some of which became so used to her they would perch on her shoulder as she typed, apparently. ‘This moving novel imagines the story of this remarkable woman’s decision to defy society’s expectations, and the joy she drew from her extraordinary relationship with the natural world’ say the publishers which sounds lovely.

Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Edward Carey’s Little takes its readers from eighteenth-century Switzerland to Revolutionary France before arriving at its destination in Baker Street. When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who make his living from modelling wax busts. Fleeing the bailiffs, these two take themselves off to France where they become embroiled in the French Revolution. Grudges are borne, scores settled in the worst of ways and when it’s all over Marie Cover imageis alone. Sharp and resourceful as ever, she finds her own pragmatic way. Marie is an engaging narrator whose story is made all the more enjoyable by Carey’s line drawings. One of my 2018 books of the year.

It’s the gorgeously written Moonstone that’s whetting my appetite for the multi-talented Sjón’s Codex 1962 in which a character is fashioned out of clay carried in a hatbox by his Jewish fugitive father in WW2 Germany. The woman his father meets in a smalltown guesthouse nurses him back to health and together they mould the clay into the shape of a baby. It’s not until 1962 that Joseph enters the world, growing up with a rare disease which will attract the attention of an Icelandic geneticist fifty-three years later. ‘At once playful and profoundly serious, this remarkable novel melds multiple genres into a unique whole: a mind-bending read and a biting, timely attack on nationalism’ say the publishers promisingly.

I enjoyed Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, so much so that we visited the eponymous building in Brno on out first central European railway jaunt a few years back. I’m hoping for something similar from Prague Spring which sees two English students, Elli and James, hitching across Europe and into Czechoslovakia in 1968 when the world’s eyes are on Alexander Dubcek’s ‘socialism with a human face’. A British diplomat in Prague is engaging in his own explorations of this new idealism but the Kremlin has other ideas. ‘How will the looming disaster affect those fragile lives caught up in the invasion?’ asks the publisher although I think we know the answer.

Quite some time ago, having spent several holidays in the Four Corners area of the US, I went through a phase of reading Native American fiction which is what attracts me to Tommy Orange’s There There. It revolves around the Big Oakland Powwow, following several celebrants not all of whose intentions are good. Described as ‘a propulsive, groundbreaking novel, polyphonic and multigenerational, weaving together an array of contemporary Native American voices into a singularly dynamic and original meta-narrative about violence and recovery, about family and loss, about identity and power’ it sounds both ambitious and enticing. Rebecca over at Bookish Beck counts it among the three best books she’s read this year.

Cover imageOver five years since I reviewed it on this blog, Cristina Henríquez’s brilliantly named The Book of Unknown Americans is being published in paperback. It explores the immigrant experience through one family who have left their beloved Mexico for the US in the hope of helping their young daughter Maribel, brain-damaged in an accident. Narrated by Maribel’s parents, the novel is punctuated by the testimonies of their fellow tenants in the Delaware apartment block where they live, some of whom have fled unrest and persecution while others are hoping to escape poverty, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Filled with warmth as well as sorrow, it’s a sad story humanely told.

That’s it for the first batch of May’s paperbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis or to my review for Little and The Book of Unknown Americans. If you’d like to catch up with May’s new titles they’re here and here. More soon but not until next week when I’m back from a short break in Genoa about which no doubt I will be posting.

Books to Look Out for in May 2019: Part Two

Cover imageMay’s second batch of new titles begins with Linda Grant’s A Stranger City which seems to use the discovery of a body in the Thames to explore the nature of community in London, or the lack of it, through a policeman, a nurse and a documentary-maker. ‘The wonderful Linda Grant weaves a tale around ideas of home; how London can be a place of exile or expulsion, how home can be a physical place or an idea. How all our lives intersect and how coincidence or the randomness of birth place can decide how we live and with whom’ according to the publishers which sounds promising. I’ve not always got on with Grant’s fiction but enjoyed her last two novels: Upstairs at the Party and The Dark Circle.

I’m not entirely sure about Mary Loudon’s My House is Falling Down which sees a marriage under strain when Lucy falls in love with Angus. Lucy is determined not to deceive her husband but is shocked by his reaction to her affair. ‘Infused with her trademark precision, clarity and dark humour, Mary Loudon’s searing, highly-charged novel My House is Falling Down is a fearless exploration of what infidelity means when no one is lying, and how brutal honesty may yet prove the biggest taboo in our relationships’ say the publishers which suggests an original take on the somewhat hackneyed theme of middle-aged infidelity.

Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted could also go either way which seems to be becoming a theme for this post. A physics professor is determined to get to the bottom of why she’s received a phone call from a friend when she knows he died two days ago. ‘Helen is drawn into the orbit of Charlie’s world, slotting in the missing pieces of her friend’s past. And, as she delvesCover image into the web of their shared history, Helen finds herself entangled in the forgotten threads of her own life’ according to the blurb which leaves me a little mystified but I enjoyed Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds enough to give it a try.

At first glance, Joanne Ramos’ The Farm is some way outside my usual literary territory but it comes garlanded with praise from all and sundry including Sophie Mackintosh and Gary Shteyngart. A young Filipina immigrant hopes to improve her life and her child’s, taking a job at Golden Oaks a luxury fertility clinic run by an ambitious business woman who’s spotted a gap in the market. Described by the publishers as ‘a brilliant, darkly funny novel that explores the role of luck and merit, class, ambition and sacrifice, The Farm is an unforgettable story about how we live and who truly holds power’ which reminds me a little of David Bergen’s Stranger. It’s the dark humour and class theme that attracts me to this one.

I suspect there’ll be some dark humour in Paulo Maurensig’s A Devil Comes to Town set in a Swiss village where everyone’s a writer so absorbed in their work they’ve failed to notice the inauspicious signs, all but the new parish priest that is. When the devil turns up in a flash car claiming to be a publisher, the village’s harmony is shattered as literary rivalries are let loose. ‘Maurensig gives us a refined and engaging literary parable on narcissism, vainglory, and our inextinguishable thirst for stories’ say the publishers of a novel which could well be a great deal of fun.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this second instalment of new titles with Being Various: New Irish Short Stories put together by guest editor Lucy Caldwell. It’s the sixth volume in a series from Faber, apparently – I’ve clearly got a lot of catching up to do. Following In the footsteps of Kevin Barry, Deirdre Madden and Joseph O’Connor, Caldwell has assembled a stellar list of contributors which includes Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Stuart Neville, Sally Rooney, Kit de Waal and Belinda McKeon. I’m sure there will be more than a few gems with writers of their calibre involved, and that’s a fabulous jacket.

That’s it for May. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’d like to know more, and if you want to catch up with the first part of May’s preview it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Books to Look Out for in May 2019: Part One

Cover imageApril was a wee bit light on new titles for me, making up for it with a plethora of paperbacks to keep an eye on. In contrast May sees me spoilt for choice with a very attempting array of new novels on offer beginning with Jessica Andrews’ debut, Saltwater, which follows a young woman from her Sunderland working-class home to the seductive delights of London where she’s won a university place. Lucy finds the transition from one life to another overwhelming, never quite losing her feelings of being an outsider and eventually fleeing to her late grandfather’s cottage in Ireland. ‘Lyrical and boundary-breaking, Saltwater explores the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the challenges of shifting class identity and the way that the strongest feelings of love can be the hardest to define’ according to the publishers. I do like the sound of this one which puts me in mind a little of Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking.

Rosie Price’s debut, What Red Is, seems to explore similar themes, albeit more dramatically, following the inseparable Kate and Max through their four years at university. Max’s wealthy, socially assured family are very different from Kate’s whose life is shattered by an incident in a bedroom during a party at Max’s parents’ London house just after graduation. ‘What Red Is explores the effects of trauma on mind and body, the tyrannies of memory, the sacrifices involved in staying silent, the courage of a young woman in speaking out’ say the publishers. Price’s novel has drawn comparisons with all manner of authors, from David Nicholls to Meg Wolitzer, but I’m taking my cue from a couple of people whose opinions I trust in my Twitter feed where it’s been popping up for months.

Students and their relationships, both with each other and their teachers, are the subject of Cover imageSusan 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.

Set in one of England’s new towns Andrew Cowan’s Your Fault takes us from the ‘60s into the ‘70s, following Peter from his first memory to his first love. Each chapter marks one year in Peter’s life, as his future self tells Peter’s story back to him. ‘It’s an untold story of British working-class experience, written with extraordinary precision and tenderness’ according to the publishers which sounds more unusual then it should. I do like the sound of that structure

Rather than telling the story of one life, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other tells the story of twelve very different characters’ lives, most of them black British women.Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible’ promise the publishers. That structure certainly makes it irresistible to me. Evaristo’s Mr Loverman was an absolute joy raising hopes for this one.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this first instalment of May’s new titles with a collection of short stories by Julia Armfield, salt slow, which sounds a little surreal. It focusses on women and their experiences in society, apparently, exploring themes of isolation, obsession and love. ‘Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants’ according to the publishers, bringing to mind Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover. Like Nicole Flattery, whose Show Them a Good Time I enjoyed very much, Armfield is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize. An award to keep an eye on, clearly.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any take your fancy. More soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in April 2019: Part Two

Cover imageI’ve read none of the paperbacks in this second part of April’s preview which I’m kicking off with Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You set in 1970s Weston-Super-Mare where ten-year-old Eustace finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher. Lessons of another kind are learned when Eustace enrols on a holiday course in Scotland, apparently. ‘Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero-worship and extremely messy adult love lives’ according to the blurb. I’ve long been a fan of Gale’s writing, going right back to The Aerodynamics of Pork in the ‘80s.

S. K. Perry’s Let Me Be Like Water is also set in a British seaside town, this time Brighton where Holly is hoping to escape the loss of her boyfriend. There she meets Frank, a retired magician with his own grief to bear. ‘A moving and powerful debut, Let Me Be Like Water is a book about the humdrum and extraordinariness of everyday life; of lost and new connections; of loneliness and friendship’ say the publishers which may not sound particularly original but Perry’s a poet so I’m hoping for some lyrical writing.

Death is also the theme of Laura Lindstedt’s Oneiron but from the other side of the divide. Seven women meet in an undefined, timeless white space. None of them are known to each other, none of them remember what has happened to them. Together they try to fathom who they are and what they did in their past lives. ‘Deftly playing with genres from essay to poetry, Oneiron is an astonishing work that explores the question of what follows death and delves deep into the lives and experiences of seven unforgettable women’ say the publishers. This one’s here purely out of curiosity. Could be wonderful, could be dire but definitely worth investigating.

Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives examines a past life, too, as Vita is catapulted back twenty years when she answers an email from the man who funded her university scholarship. ‘Profoundly addictive and unsettling, In the Garden of the Fugitives examines the complex power structures between men and women, between the powerful and the voiceless. Ceridwen Dovey takes us deep into the heart of a dangerous game, where there are always two sides to every story’ say the publishers promisingly although I’m much more persuaded by Kate’s review at Books Are My Favourite and Best.Cover image

My final paperback choice for April is The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Jay Rubin, known to many as one of Haruki Murakami’s translators. ‘Ranging over myth, horror, love, nature, modern life, a diabolical painting, a cow with a human face and a woman who turns into sugar, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is filled with fear, charm, beauty and comedy’ according to the blurb which promises to include stories from names unfamiliar to many of us as well as well-known Japanese writers such as Akutagawa, Murakami, Mishima and Kawabata. I’m looking forward to exploring this one.

That’s it for April. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with the first part of the month’s paperback preview it’s here, and new titles are here.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in April 2019: Part One

Cover imageI’m delighted to tell you that whereas there were just a few brand spanking new titles that took my fancy for April, it’s choc-a-bloc with tasty-looking paperbacks most of which I’ve yet to read. I’ll begin with one that I have: David Chariandy’s Brother, an eloquent story of grief and loss set against a backdrop of urban immigrant poverty. Returning to her home town, Aisha finds that Michael has become a recluse since the death of his brother Francis in a shooting ten years ago and is determined to bring him back into the world. Exploring themes of grief, racism and social deprivation while weaving Michael’s memories of Francis through Aisha’s visit, Brother packs a quietly powerful punch for such a short book.

Having been shortlisted for a multitude of literary prizes, including the Man Booker, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize for which Brother was longlisted in 2017. The eponymous eleven-year-old is chosen as a personal servant to one of the brothers who have taken over a Barbados sugar plantation, a man obsessed with the idea of flying which results in disaster for him. ‘From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life’ say the publishers.

Carys Davies’ West sounds entirely different but has also met with a great deal of acclaim. When widower Cy Bellman hears of the discovery of huge ancient bones in Kentucky he takes himself off to investigate, leaving his young daughter behind in Pennsylvania. Davies’ novel tells the story of Cy’s journey and of Bess, waiting at home for his return. ‘Written with compassionate tenderness and magical thinking, it explores the courage of conviction, the transformative power of grief, the desire for knowledge and the pull of home, from an exceptionally talented and original British writer’ say the publishers promisingly.Cover image

Thomas Bourke’s The Consolation of Maps seems to explore similar themes of loss and the desire for knowledge. Kenji Tenabe sells antique maps in a prestigious Tokyo gallery but is presented with an unexpected offer of a job in America working for a woman who has never recovered from the death of her lover. ‘Moving across countries and cultures, The Consolation of Maps charts an attempt to understand the tide of history, the geography of people and the boundless territory of loss’ say the publishers which sounds interesting if a little woolly.

Louisa Hall’s Trinity is about the pursuit of a different kind of knowledge, telling the story of Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, from the perspective of seven fictional characters and revealing the contradictory nature of this brilliant scientist. ‘Blending science with literature and fiction with biography, Trinity asks searing questions about what it means to truly know someone, and about the secrets we keep from the world and from ourselves’ according to the blurb. It sounds fascinating and Annabel’s review over at Annabookbel has whetted my appetite further. I’ve not read much fiction about the development of the bomb which shaped the second half of the twentieth century apart from TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos, Lydia Millett’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and Joseph Kanon’s Los Alamos.

Cover imageI’ll end this first instalment with Gun Love by Jennifer Clement, author of the impressive Prayers for the Stolen, published in the UK a few years ago. Fourteen-year-old Pearl lives in the front seat of a wrecked car in a Florida trailer park while her mother lives in the back. Under the driver’s seat sits a gun given to Margot by her boyfriend, a regular visitor to the back seat. ‘Gun Love is a hypnotic story of family, community and violence. Told from the perspective of a sharp-eyed teenager, it exposes America’s love affair with firearms and its painful consequences’ say the publishers. I remember circling Prayers for the Stolen for some time, expecting unremitting grimness given that it was about kidnapped girls but it surprised me, and I’m hoping for the same with this one.

That’s it for the first batch of April’s paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other five should any pique your interest. If you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles they’re here. More soon…

Books to Look Out for in April 2019

Cover imageFewer titles than usual to whet my appetite in April, enough for just one longish post kicking off with Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds. Dawson frequently uses historical figures in her fiction and this time it’s the turn of the notorious Lord Lucan. In 1974, Mandy River arrives at her new job as a nanny to find a household in the midst of a bitter domestic feud. Mandy is warned by her employer that her estranged husband has a violent streak but can she be trusted? ‘Drawing on the infamous Lord Lucan affair, this compelling novel explores the roots of a shocking murder from a fresh perspective and brings to vivid life an era when women’s voices all too often went unheard’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed several of Dawson’s novels, particularly The Crime Writer, so I have hopes for this one.

I loved Nickolas Butler’s debut, Shotgun Lovesongs; The Hearts of Men, its follow-up, not so much. I’m a wee bit cautious, then, about Little Faith which tells the story of the family of a young woman and her involvement with a fundamentalist preacher who is convinced her five-year-old son has the power to heal the sick. ‘Set over the course of one year and beautifully evoking the change of seasons, Little Faith is a powerful and deeply affecting novel about family and community, the ways in which belief is both formed and shaken, and the lengths we go to protect our own’ say the publishers, setting us up for more gorgeous descriptions of Butler’s beloved WisconsinCover image

Altogether more urban, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set in 1993 and sounds like it might be a take on Orlando. 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.

I first came across Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love on Kate’s Books Are My Favourite and Best blog. She described it as ‘easily one of the most original stories I’ve read. Ever’ so I’m delighted to find it’s to be published here in the UK. Film composer Arky has promised his dying wife not to visit her in hospital. She wants to spare him the burden of her suffering but it’s destroying him. ‘One day he finds his way to MOMA and sees Mariana Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do’ say the publishers.

The husband in Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands is also seeking succour by the sound of it, this time from a cheating wife although only in his dreams. He takes himself off to Tokyo where he decides to follow in the footsteps of Basho meeting a young student seemingly bent on suicide along the way. ‘Gilbert travels with Yosa across Basho’s disappearing Japan, one in search of his perfect ending and the other the new beginning that will give his life meaning’ Cover imageaccording to the publishers. I like the sound of travels in a ‘disappearing Japan’.

Unusually for me, I’ve got ahead of myself with Tash Aw’s We, the Survivors and have already read it. Set in rural Malaysia, it tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy. Ah Hock tells his story to a young woman who is writing about him, revealing what led up to the uncharacteristic act of violence that resulted in a man’s death and his own incarceration. It’s a quietly powerful, compelling piece of fiction, beautifully expressed. Review to follow next month.

Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian is a doorstopper, the kind I’d usually avoid, but Zadie Smith has called it ‘a sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful’ so I think I might have to give it a try. It follows a young Palestinian from the Middle East to Paris during the First World War. ‘Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War’ say the publishers. Apparently, Smith has never spoken of a student in such glowing terms in the fifteen years she’s taught.

I’m ending with Season Butler’s Cygnet which has been in the offing for six months. It sees a Cover imageyoung girl, stranded on an island seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.

That’s it for April’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Arsonist to Ghost Moth

Back from lovely Lille – more of which later in the week – and it’s time for my favourite meme. Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist which I haven’t read but which I know from Kate’s review is about an appalling conflagration which took place in Australia in 2009 and the man who set some of the fires which contributed to it.

For obvious reasons my first link is to Sue Miller’s The Arsonist about the burning down of summer houses in a small New Hampshire town.

One of the characters in Miller’s novel is called Frankie which leads me to Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie whose main protagonist flees South Africa’s apartheid regime in the ‘60s to live in the UK.

South Africa shares a border with Zimbabwe, the setting for Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory in which the eponymous narrator tells her story from death row, imprisoned for the murder of the white man she’s been living with since she was nine.

Edgeworth Bess shares a similar predicament, telling her story via Billy Archer as she awaits sentencing for the possession of stolen goods in The Fatal Tree, Jake Arnott’s rollicking tale of eighteenth-century thieves and whores.

In Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree a girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meet a 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.

Emily Woof is an actor, a profession she shares with Michèle Forbes who wrote Ghost Moth, set in Northern Ireland, which tells the story of a marriage in alternating narratives, twenty years apart.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an investigation of a devastating fire in Australia to a Northern Irish love story, and this time I’ve read all but our starting point. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

My Wish List for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

The longlist for my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Monday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2018 and March 31st 2019 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

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Transcription                              The Death of Noah Glass           White Houses

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Putney                                           All Among the Barley               Ghost Wall

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Land of the Living                        My Sister, the Serial Killer       In the Full Light of the Sun

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Improvement                              We Must Be Brave                         Old Baggage

 

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Lost Children Archive                  The Narrow Land                        Memories of the Future

Several of my favourite writers are listed here – Kate Atkinson, Amy Bloom, Siri Hustvedt, Georgina Harding – but I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention. We’ll see. Any titles that you’d love to see on the judges’ list?

That’s it from me for a few days. We’re off for what could be our last weekend as European citizens abroad. I may need tissues. Back next week to tell you all about it.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe first batch of March’s paperbacks fell neatly into a time sequence whereas this one jumps about all over the place both in terms of period and theme. I’ll begin with a one of my 2018 favourites: Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a carefully crafted, moving novella which explores love, loss and connection through the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk is a bereaved refugee, Lampy helps out at the local care home, spending much of his time in a rage, and John is fixer, bent on the corruption of good men. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does here but he pulls it off beautifully, writing in prose which has a lilting rhythmic beauty.

A description which could also be applied to many of the stories in Helen Dunmore’s Girl, Balancing, a posthumous collection put together by her son Patrick Charnley. Many of the themes running through these stories will be familiar to Dunmore fans. Family, friendship, memory, love and passion, and, of course, women and their place in the world, are all adroitly explored. As ever with Dunmore, so much is said in a few precisely chosen words. There’s not one dud in this collection which captures its author’s wonderful facility with language and acute observation.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s first collection, You Think It, I’ll say It, is another treat for short story lovers. its overarching theme is the gulf between our perception of ourselves and other people, and theirs of us. Characters’ initial impressions are often proven entirely, sometimes comically, wrong. Gender is firmly to the fore – women and childcare, expectations of female beauty, distribution of domestic chores are all deftly and effectively handled. Altogether an intelligent, satisfying collection which neatly skewers modern social mores with a sly, occasionally waspish wit.Cover image

Chloe Caldwell’s Women is so short – a mere 130 pages – that it could almost pass as a lengthy short story but for all that it took me far longer to read than I’d expected. It charts her narrator’s passionate, destructive affair with a woman much older than herself, ending just a year after it began. There’s a feverish intensity about the first-person narrative which makes it feel raw and confessional, all the more so given that Caldwell has made no secret of drawing on her own experience for this book. For me, it was a book to admire for its stripped down, meticulously crafted writing rather than enjoy.

Tortured relationships are also the subject of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. Ray and Celeste are staying in a hotel when he is hauled off in the middle of the night, falsely accused of rape just eighteen months into their marriage. Jones charts the effects of his imprisonment on their relationship from both Ray’s and Celeste’s perspectives. Racism, class and marriage are put under the microscope as are absent fathers and attitudes towards women in this tightly controlled, powerful novel.

I’ve yet to read James Wood’s Upstate in which two sisters – one a philosopher, the other a record executive – are still coping with the emotional fallout of their parents’ bitter divorce. When Vanessa suffers a crisis, Helen and her father travel to upstate New York where over six days the family struggles with life’s big questions. ‘If, as a favourite philosopher of Vanessa’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living”, how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, Upstate is a perceptive, intensely moving novel’ say the publishers of what sounds like a weighty piece of Cover imagefiction.

Finally, Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains has a particularly appealing premise: two very different Italian boys meet in the mountains every summer. Pietro is a lonely city boy who comes to the Alps for his holidays while Bruno is the son of a local stonemason. These two explore the mountains together, becoming firm friends but take widely diverging paths as they become men. Annie Proulx has described Cognetti’s novel as ‘Exquisite… A rich, achingly painful story’. It sounds right up my street.

That’s it for March’s paperbacks. A click on the first five titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other two, and if you’d like to catch up with both the first instalment and March’s new titles, they’re here, here and here.

 

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…