Category Archives: Random thoughts

Books to Look Out for in December 2018

Cover imageDecember’s not the shiniest of months for new titles but there are some potential treats to be found if you look hard enough. One such is Tom Barbash’s The Dakota Winters, set in 1979 New York where twenty-three-year-old Anton Winter returns home after a stint in the Peace Corps to be greeted by his father Buddy. ‘Before long Anton is swept up in an effort to reignite Buddy’s stalled career, a mission that takes him from the gritty streets of New York, to the slopes of the Lake Placid Olympics, to the Hollywood Hills, to the blue waters of the Bermuda Triangle, and brings him into close quarters with the likes of Johnny Carson, Ted and Joan Kennedy, and a seagoing John Lennon’ say the publishers, promisingly. This one comes garlanded with praise from all manner of writers, from Jennifer Egan to Michael Chabon.

I wasn’t overly impressed by David Szalay’s All That Man Is which never seemed to coalesce as a novel but that hasn’t stopped me from casting an eye over Turbulence, described by his publishers as a short story sequence, which follows twelve characters en route across the globe. ‘Szalay deftly depicts the ripple effect that, knowingly or otherwise, a person’s actions have on those around them, and invites us to consider our own place in the vast and delicately balanced network of human relationships that is the world we live in today’ according to the blurb. It’s the idea of the journey that attracts me to this one.

Just one paperback for December but it’s one of 2018’s unexpected favourites for me. Lissa Cover imageEvans’ Old Baggage tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten, picking it up in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised, and it’s an absolute treat. Evans’ story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. I loved it. For those of us struggling with the current political climate, Old Baggage is a happy reminder that things can get better.

That’s it for December. Click on either of the first two titles if you’d like a more detailed synopsis; the third will take you to my review. It’ll soon be time to cast an eye back over my books of 2018 before looking ahead to the goodies the publishing world has planned for us in 2019.

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick 2018 Shortlist

The shortlist for the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick was announced yesterday and I’m relieved to tell you that I’m looking forward to reading all four books. I hope my fellow shadow judges are equally pleased.

The titles are:

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

Weymoth’s book sounds like a proper piece of travel writing, charting the author’s voyage by canoe down the Yukon River, a distance of 2,000 miles from Canada to the Bering Sea.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Already longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Man Booker, Elmet is described by the publishers as ‘a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family’s precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go’.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Described by the publishers as ‘a spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession’, Gowar’s novel sees a Deptford merchant take possession of a wizened little figure, said to be a mermaid, in 1785. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. These two meet at a society party and embark on a dangerous new course together.

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Freeman’s memoir is essentially about the power of books to cure what ails you. Diagnosed with anorexia aged fourteen, Freeman slowly found her way back to good mental health through a passion for reading.

What a great list! We shadow judges will be posting our reviews over the next few weeks. My first should go up on Friday. We’ll be revealing our winner on November 28th while the real thing will be announced at a prize-giving ceremony on December 6th.

If you’d like to know more about the award you can find out here. My fellow panelists will be posting their reviews at Bookish Chat, These Little Words, The Literary Edit and Half Man, Half Book. If you want to keep tabs on what we’re up via Twitter you can use #YoungWriterAwardShadow or follow @youngwriteryear.

What do you think of the shortlist? Have you read any of the books on it, and if so what’s your verdict?

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick 2018: Shadow Panel

SUnday Times Young Writer of the Year shadow judge I don’t think I’ve posted twice in one day before but today’s the day the Young Writer of the Year shadow judging panel is announced and I’m on it. Past winners of the award have included Sally Rooney’s  Conversations with Friends and Grief is a Thing with Feathers while both Sara Taylor’s The Lauras and The Shore have appeared on shortlists, all right up my literary street, As you can imagine, I’m delighted to be asked to take part and looking forward to meeting my fellow panelists who are:

Amanda – Bookish Chat

Lucy –  The Literary Edit

Lizzi – These Little Words

Paul – Half Man, Half Book

The judges this year are Andrew Holgate (Sunday Times Literary Editor), Kamila Shamsie and Susan Hill. We’ll be reading and thinking about the four books on their shortlist then getting together to thrash things out, amicably I’m sure. There’s an event at the Groucho Club on November 17th to look forward to where bloggers will be able to meet the shortlisted authors. If you’re a blogger and haven’t yet been invited but would like to attend it’s not too late to register, just click here. I’m hoping  that  some of the bloggers I’ve had so many bookish exchanges with over the years will be there.

The shortlist will be announced on November 4th. We shadow judges will be revealing our winner on November 28th while the real thing will be announced at a prize-giving ceremony on December 6th.

If you’d like to know more about the award you can find out here. We’ll all be posting our reviews of the shortlisted titles on our blogs over the next few weeks. You can find out what we’re up to by following us on Twitter using #YoungWriterAwardShadow

Wish me luck.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in November 2018

Cover imageJust a handful of paperbacks for November, none of which I’ve read although I did toy with Laurie Canciani’s The Insomnia Museum before taking off on holiday earlier in the year then somehow never got around to reading it. It’s about seventeen-year-old Anna who has spent the last twelve years building the titular museum with her father using his hoard of junk. One day when her insomniac father finally falls asleep she steps outside their flat into a world stranger than the one they’ve constructed inside it. ‘In this dazzlingly original debut novel, Laurie Canciani has created a world that is terrible, magical, and richly imagined’ say the publishers making me think I should look at it again

Sarah Françoise’s Stories We Tell Ourselves sounds much more straightforward. It’s about a marriage in trouble, or perhaps a whole series of them. Joan and Frank have spent three decades in an unfinished house in the French Alps. Frank is involved in an epistolary affair with his German ex-girlfriend, and Joan is losing patience but it’s Christmas. They’re about to be visited by their three children, all wrestling with their own relationship difficulties. ‘Written with a rare precision and insight, the author explores the thorniness of familial love and its capacity to endure with warmth, wit and disarming honesty’ say the publishers, a promise which if it’s fulfilled could result in an entertaining read

Jonathan Dee’s The Locals features a character fleeing New York for a small town in New England just after 9/11. Hedge fund manager Phillip Hadi employs Mark Firth, recently swindled by his financial advisor, to make his new home secure. These two men are from very different worlds: one rural middle class, the other urban and wealthy. Hadi’s election to mayor has a transforming effect on Firth’s home town, one that will have implications for Firth and his extended family. ‘The Locals is that rare work of fiction capable of capturing a fraught American moment in real time. It is also a novel that is timeless in its depiction of American small town life’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing to me.

After beginning this short preview with a debut it feels fitting to end it with a collection from anCover image author whose first novel was published in 1964 when she was twenty and who’s still going strong. Shena Mackay’s short story collection Dancing on the Outskirts draws on five decades of writing. Known for her darkly comic, sometimes surreal observations of suburbia, Mackay is one of those writers who has quietly garnered a loyal following and a good deal of a critical acclaim. I’m expecting a treat.

That’s it for November. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis and if you’d like to catch up with new titles they’re here and here. With publishing eyes firmly fixed on a bright shiny Christmas, I suspect there won’t be much to snag my attention for December but you never know…

Books to Look Out for in November 2018: Part Two

Cover imageI began my first selection of November’s new titles with what will undoubtedly be a big hitter: Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. This one kicks off with a book that its publishers are clearly hoping will also be jumping off the shelves into customers’ open arms – William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer, dubbed by the New Yorker ‘the lost giant of American literature’ which has been appearing in my Twitter feed for months. Set in the smalltown South, it opens in 1957 when a young black man destroys his farm and livestock before leaving the state, swiftly followed by the entire African-American population. First published in 1962, ‘A Different Drummer is an exploration of what it is like to live in a white-dominated society. It’s a transparent, brutally honest portrayal of the impact and repercussions of systematized oppression; with a culmination as unflinching and unrivalled as its author’s insights’ say the publishers, hoping for a Stoner-like bestseller, I’m sure

Lucia Berlin’s superb collection A Manual for Cleaning Women was also heralded as a lost classic, comprising stories stretching back into the ‘60s. Those of us who thought that might be the last of Berlin, who died in 2004, have an unexpected treat to look forward to with Evening in Paradise which takes us from Texas to Chile, from New Mexico to New York. ‘Evening in Paradise is a careful selection from Lucia Berlin’s remaining stories – a jewel box follow-up for her hungry fans’ say the publishers whetting our appetites nicely.

Louisa Hall’s Trinity is about Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, told from the perspective of seven fictional characters and revealing the contradictory character 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. I’ve not read much fiction about the development of the bomb which shaped the second half of the twentieth century apart from The Wives of Los Alamos, Lydia Millett’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and Joseph Kanon’s Los Alamos. Cover image

It seems fitting to end with what’s being billed as a pacifist novel after that. Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth 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, landing us back where we started in rediscovered classic territory.

That’s it for November. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your interest and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

 

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Outsiders to Wise Children #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme 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.

This month we’re starting with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders which I’ve not read but I know this story of teenage rebellion is considered to be a classic of young adult fiction.

Albert Camus’ The Outsider is also thought of as a classic. It’s about Meursault who refuses to conform to society’s expectations showing no emotion when his mother dies or remorse at an act of violence he commits.

The Outsider is also translated as The Stranger which takes me to Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger set in a crumbling, haunted mansion lived in by the same family for two centuries. Not my favourite Waters. I much prefer Fingersmith for its brilliant twist.

Which leads me to Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist about a man fascinated by magic and illusion who is convinced he’s responsible for Houdini’s death. It’s such a clever book, a magnificent illusion in itself, whose final twist is kept under wraps until the very end.

Steven Galloway also wrote The Cellist of Sarajevo leading me to Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You which I’ve yet to read but I know it’s about a young boy who finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher.

Patrick Gale’s father was governor of HM Prison Camp Hill on the Isle of Wight. Patrick McGrath grew up close to another secure institution: Broadmoor Hospital where his father was the medical superintendent. His novels often explores madness, of which The Wardrobe Mistress set against the backdrop of the London theatre, is one of my favourites.

Angela Carter’s Wise Children shares a theatrical backdrop with The Wardrobe Mistress. It’s a tale of unacknowledged paternity, mistaken identities, twins at every turn, Shakespeare, Hollywood, music hall, discarded wives, glorious love and rollicking good times. A wonderful novel packed with Shakespearean references, a plot worthy of one of the Comedies and written in language which is earthy, vivid and memorable

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a teen classic to a tale of theatrical dynasty. 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.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in October 2018

Cover imageBack from the blustery North Norfolk coast – more of which in a few days – with a look ahead at a few October paperbacks that have caught my eye, two of which I’ve yet to read beginning with Ali Smith’s Winter. I still haven’t got around to Autumn although it’s on my horizon, sitting patiently on a shelf waiting to be read. The second in Smith’s quartet casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter. It’s the season that teaches us survival’ according to the publishers. I’m sure we could all do with something ‘merry’ to help us along in the so-called ‘post-truth’ era.

The second unread title in this batch is a new edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s final collection of short stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, which has its feet firmly planted in the fantastical. ‘Warner explores the morals, domestic practices, politics and passions of the Kingdoms of Elfin by following their affairs with mortals, and their daring flights across the North Sea’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed Warner’s novels in the distant past but I’m not entirely sure this is for me.

That said, those were my initial thoughts about Michael Andreasen’s collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, comprising twelve surreal stories beginning with a loving son remembering the many happy times they have shared before his father is crated up in his wheelchair and dropped into the sea. In the eponymous story a crew look on helplessly, quarrelling amongst themselves, fretting about their cannibalistic admiral and being propositioned by mermaids as a many tentacled sea monster tightens her grip on what she hopes is her new lover. What makes these somewhat bonkers stories work is Andreasen’s often darkly bizarre humour and his arresting writing. You’ll either hate it or love it – I loved it.

No such doubts about Joseph Cassara’s debut. Set in the ‘80s and ‘90s, The House of Impossible Beauties focusses on four characters: Angel, Venus, Juanito and Daniel. Angel and Venus are transsexual while Juanito and Daniel are not. All of them are runaways, looking for a home. Together these four make up the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latino house on the drag ball circuit and a place of sanctuary from a harsh world with Angel at its centre. AIDs is the grim backdrop to this novel, loss and sadness always in the background together with the straight world’s prejudice and ignorance, but there’s a bright thread of humour running through it, lightening its tone.Cover image

Loss and grief also run through Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness which opens with forty-one-year-old Jules in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident. When their parents were killed in a car crash in 1984, he and his siblings dealt with their grief in very different ways. Wells tells their story in Jules’ voice through his memories and dreams, from the years before his parents died to his recovery from his own accident. Written with empathy and compassion, the novel is expertly translated by Charlotte Collins whose name I’ve learned to look out for.

That’s it for October’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for the first two and to my review for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with October’s new titles, they’re here.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Where Am I Now? True stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame to An Unquiet Mind #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme 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.

Cover images

This month we’re starting with Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame which I’ve not read but I gather is about Wilson’s experiences of being a child star in movies such as Mrs Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street and Matilda. She grew up to become a writer but continued her acting work as part of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast team whose fabulous show I’ve seen on stage. I know – it’s a podcast – but trust me it works.

Emma Tennant’s Girlitude is about a protracted girlhood, covering the early years of Tennant’s life from 1955 when she became a debutante and entered the ‘marriage market’. Tennant departed from the straight and narrow with a turbulent love affair, briefly getting back on track with her marriage to Henry Green’s son before taking up a semi-nomadic life, frequently attracted to unsuitable men.

Later in life Tennant penned a series of successful ‘tributes’ to Jane Austen’s novels, although not to Mansfield Park in which Fanny Price is taken in by her wealthy cousins eager to remind her of the poverty of her origins. With the arrival of the frivolous Crawfords it soon becomes clear that Fanny’s morals are infinitely superior to her cousins’.

I read Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories many years ago, long before I’d learned to savour a collection of short stories rather than inhaling the entire book in one go. As a result, I remember very little about them apart from an impression of fine writing

Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander as is C. K. Stead whose The Necessary Angel I read and very much enjoyed earlier in the year. Set in Paris in 2014, it’s about a professor at the Sorbonne and the three women who play significant parts in his life during the year the novel spans. Polished, witty and intelligent, it manages to be both cerebral and thoroughly entertaining.

Janet Frame’s autobiographical trilogy, An Angel at My Table, is more sobering than entertaining although it does have a happy ending. Frame was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman and confined to an asylum from which she was liberated after winning a national literary prize.

Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind is also an account of mental illness. Jameson’s bipolarity afflicted her as a young medical student and continued to do so for most of her adult life. After years of struggling with vivid but destructive manic episodes followed by paralysing depressions, Jamison sought help and went on to become one of the foremost American practitioners in its treatment.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a child actor’s memoir to a striking account of mental illness. 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.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2018

Cover imageJust one batch of paperbacks to look out for in September, five of which I’ve already reviewed beginning with Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes. Readers who’ve been following this blog over the past year will know that I’m passionate about Reservoir 13, not to mention mystified as to why it’s not won all the prizes. The Reservoir Tapes is a prequel to McGregor’s novel and, unusually, started life as a podcast. Comprising fourteen stories, the collection explores the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Becky Shaw. McGregor’s acutely observed characters all have their own stories – often interconnected – offering a nuanced portrait of a small community with its secrets and history, and the writing is all that fans like me would want it to be.

Given my admiration for Jane Harris’ previous novels – The Observations features in my Blasts from the Past series – hopes were high for Sugar Money. Based loosely on true events, it tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique, restoring them from British to French hands. Harris has a particular skill in telling her stories through the voice of engaging narrators and the bumptious, sardonic, young smart alec, Lucien, is no exception. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

Robin Sloan’s Sourdough offers a bit of light relief after that. A techie wage slave at General Dexterity, Lois lives off stress and Slurry, the nutrient gel championed by her boss. A flyer leads her to two brothers delivering delicious bread who look to Lois to save their sourdough starter when they’re forced to leave the country, sparking an obsession in her. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment which, like Sloan’s previous novel Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, has something to say about the way we live – and eat – now.

David Bergen’s Stranger takes a more serious turn, exploring themes of entitlement and deprivation through a young Guatemalan woman left pregnant by her American lover who returns to the States after a devastating accident. When her daughter is abducted shortly after she’s born,  İso sets out to find her. Written in clear, direct language, heightening the tension and constant danger of İso’s journey, Stranger is an easy, absorbing read – I finished it in an afternoon – but it has some serious points to make and makes them well.

I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to include this one but the paperback edition of Alicia Drake’s Cover imagedebut, I Love You Too Much, sports such an atmospheric jacket that I’ve come down in its favour. Largely ignored by the adults around him, thirteen-year-old Paul watches from the fringes of his mother, her lover and his father’s lives. Before long he’s seen something he shouldn’t but finds unlikely consolation in Scarlett, a rebellious classmate. ‘I Love You Too Much is a novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, a devastating coming-of-age story told from the sidelines of Parisian perfection’ say the publishers. Let’s hope they’re right.

That’s it for September’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first five and a more detailed synopsis for I Love You Too Much. If you’d like to catch up with the new titles, they’re here and here.

Books to Look Out for in September 2018: Part Two

Cover imageMy first selection of September treats ended with the promise of more goodies to come, the most highly anticipated of which for me is Patrick deWitt’s French Exit. Cast out from New York society thanks to the scandalous death of her husband, Frances Price, her son Malcolm and their cat, who Frances believes houses the spirit of said husband, take themselves off to France. ‘Their beloved Paris becomes the backdrop for a giddy drive to self-destruction, helped along by a cast of singularly curious characters: a bashful private investigator, an aimless psychic and Mme. Reynard, friendly American expat and aggressive houseguest’ promise the publishers. Fans of The Sisters Brothers and UnderMajorDomo Minor will understand why I’m quite so excited about this one.

William Boyd has also chosen Paris as one of the backdrops for his new novel which will be very different from deWitt’s, I’m sure. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind follows Brodie Mancour from Edinburgh to Paris where he conceives an obsessive passion for a Russian soprano with dangerous consequences. ‘At once an intimate portrait of one man’s life and an expansive exploration of the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind is a masterly new novel from one of Britain’s best-loved storytellers’ say the publishers. Boyd’s last novel, Sweet Caress, marked a return to form after a string of thrillers which failed to hit the mark for me.

Christopher Priest’s An American Story brings us back into the twenty-first century with a novel which seems to examine the emotional fallout of one of its defining moments – the 9/11 attacks. Ben Matson lost his fiancée that day but with no body recovered he still has doubts about what happened to her, even nearly twenty years later. When the wreckage of an unidentified plane is recovered Ben is led to question everything he thought he knew about what happened that day. All of that may make this novel seem like an uncharacteristic choice for me but I’ve enjoyed several of Priest’s previous books.

Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn is the story of a long, enduring marriage, putting me in mind of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack. Scholarship boy Harry meets independent, sharply intelligent Evelyn at Battersea Library. ‘This is a love story, albeit an unconventional one, about two people who shape each other as they, their marriage and their country change… … Dear Evelyn is a novel of contrasts, whose portrait of a seventy-year marriage unfolds in tender, spare, and excruciating episodes’ say the publishers which sounds much further up my usual street then An American Story.Cover image

I’m ending this second selection, like the first, with a set of short stories from a writer whose novels I’ve enjoyed. Samantha Hunt’s debut collection The Dark Dark comes with a well-nigh impenetrable blurb so I’m just going to quote a little of it: ‘Each of these ten haunting, inventive tales brings us to the brink of creation, mortality and immortality, infidelity and transformation, technological innovation and historical revision, loneliness and communion, and every kind of love’. Just about covers everything then.

That’s it for September’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, it’s here. Paperbacks soon…