Category Archives: Reviews

The Wooden Hill by Jamie Guiney: Stairway to heaven?

Cover imageJamie Guiney’s collection first caught my eye at What Cathy Read Next. It was its striking jacket that snagged my attention, perfectly fitting its theme with four figures of different ages making their way up a staircase towards a halo although several of Guiney’s characters are more likely to be travelling downwards towards a rather different destination. Comprising eighteen stories – some lengthy, others just a few pages – Guiney’s brief collection offers snapshots of life’s different stages, from an early arrival to a much mourned end.

The Wooden Hill opens with a father remembering his daughter’s happily anticipated birth in ‘We Knew You Before You Were Born’. ‘Summer Stories’ captures the dogged determination of a six-year-old intent on accumulating a collection of carefully selected stones, rudely interrupted by kindly adult concern while in ‘Peas’, a young boy waits for Santa on Christmas Eve only a little disconcerted by what he’s overheard through his older brothers’ bedroom door.  ‘The Cowboy’ sees a bout of scrumping launch a boy into a lifetime of dishonesty and in ‘A Woman Named Celie’ the antics of a dog provide distraction at his master’s funeral to the relief of the congregation and the disgust of the priest. A veteran pins his medal to his new Harris Tweed suit and marches smartly through his village, the sounds of long ago battle in his head in ‘A Quarter Yellow Sun’ as the collection approaches its end.

Guiney has chosen a very appealing theme for his collection whose tone is often engagingly intimate. There’s a healthy streak of humour running through these stories, some of it a little slapstick – the pipe-smoking dog was an amusing if surreal turn – some of it dark. His characters are well drawn but it’s his writing that I found most impressive: clean and plain yet often poetic in its descriptions. Here are a few favourite quotes:

But we knew you before you were born. Felt this powerful connection from our hearts to yours, like an invisible spindle of silk

Out in the barley, you catch the flicker of a giant stork lifting off, the majesty of its spread wings pushing off against the blue

It is like winter has crawled inside me and decided to rest out the other three seasons

She’d watch his rugby matches every weekend and hug him as he came off the field no matter how wet or muddy or sometimes even bloody he was. Now he did nothing and his body had sagged like a baked apple

I stand beside Dad. As we sing the hymn, his body shakes. Trying with all its might to cry. Trying with all its might not to cry

Altogether an enjoyable collection, both eloquent and moving in its portrayal of the human condition.

Crocodile by Daniel Shand: Doing the best you can

Cover imageBoth the Betty Trask Prize and Awards once had the word romance in there somewhere which put me off a little: not my genre. That’s been long since dropped and given that winners include Strange Heart Beating, Elizabeth is Missing and We Need New Names, I’ve learned to take notice of it. Daniel Shand won the Award in 2016 for his first novel Fallow. His second, Crocodile, is about eleven-year-old Chloe, left with her grandparents for the summer holidays by her chaotic mother who is trying to get herself better.

Chloe’s heard nothing but criticism of her grandparents from Angie. They’ve not seen Chloe since she was an infant but welcome her into their home as best they can. She misses her mother, the evenings wrapped up together in a duvet in front of the TV watching something unsuitable for children, but not the string of boyfriends, the drunken sprees or foraging for food in near-empty cupboards. She’s careful with people, preparing a face for them. She finds her way into a self-proclaimed gang although Ally, Darryl and Chris get up to very little in the way of mischief. As the summer wears on, Chloe settles into her grandparents’ comfortable humdrum life loosening her grip on her determination to go back to her mother. The gang does what kids do until a game of Truth or Dare goes horribly wrong. When her mother turns up, furious to find that Chloe has met her Uncle Bob, she takes her daughter away with an old flame, a trip which ends badly laying bare the cause of Angie’s self-destructive lifestyle.

Shand tells Chloe’s story from her own perspective, wisely avoiding the tricky child narrator technique. She’s ‘the girl’, rarely Chloe, as if she’s distant even from herself. Her character is in stark contrast with the boys who become her friends, her mental state indicated by her catastrophic thinking – a small boy is envisaged flattened on the road, her mother’s boyfriend’s car overturned in a ditch. She’s always on guard, primed for disaster. All of this is deftly handled with a pleasing helping of striking descriptive language:

Men in aprons look up from ledgers and smile when they enter, door chiming, and the girl wonders what kind of storybook planet she’s washed up on

He wants them to like him. The girl shivers, seeing all her own inner workings projected up on the screen of this child

A great heavy summer storm, with the fuming clouds rolling in from the ocean and the air tasting like salt and something tangy

Carefully and intelligently, Shand uncovers the damage suffered by Angie and the effects that damage has had on Chloe despite her mother’s fierce but misguided efforts to protect her. It’s a quietly powerful novel, perceptive and compassionate, and about as far from romance as you can get.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2019: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books to Look Out for in January 2019: Part Two

Cover imagePart two of January’s preview kicks off with a debut from a former Waterstones bookseller: When All is Said by Anne Griffin. Over the course of a single evening, eighty-four-year-old Maurice Hannigan raises five toasts to five different people all of whom have changed his life in different ways, all of whom are now gone. ‘Exquisitely written and powerfully felt, When All is Said promises to be the next great Irish novel’ say the publishers and it seems that both Donal Ryan and John Boyne agree. It sounds like a very appealing way of telling a story to me, and I have a weakness for both debuts and Irish writing.

Rebecca Kaufman’s The Gunners follows six childhood friends who become like family to each other, playing together and finding their way from childhood into adult life. Then one of them stops speaking to the others and won’t say why. Years later, her suicide forces them back together for her funeral where the truth about what happened between them is finally faced. ‘This is a generous and poignant novel about the difficulty – and the joy – of being a true friend’ according to the publishers. I do like a novel that revisits childhood friendships; lots of potential for dark secrets and character development.

I read Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad on holiday in Antwerp and regretted it. It’s a book that deserves more attention than a short city break allows. I’m determined that won’t happen with Katalin Street which follows the sole surviving family of the three who grew up together on the same street in pre-war Budapest, picking their story up in the Soviet era. ‘Magda Szabo conducts a clear-eyed investigation into the ways in which we inflict suffering on those we love. Katalin Street, which won the 2007 Prix Cevennes for Best European novel, is a poignant, somber, at times harrowing book, but beautifully conceived and truly unforgettable’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for more of the quiet understatement and elegant prose that struck me in Iza’s Ballad.Cover image

Gerald Murane’s Border Districts takes us somewhere entirely different. A man moves to an isolated town intending to spend his last years casting his mind back over a lifetime of reading and considering which characters, metaphors and lines of glittering prose have caught in his memory. ‘Feeling an increasing urgency to put his mental landscape in order, the man sets to work cataloguing this treasure, little knowing where his `report’ will lead and what secrets will be brought to light’ say the publishers. This is the first book by Murane to be published in the UK, apparently, which seems surprising given he’s a literary star in his native Australia. Kim at Reading Matters is a big fan.

Lightening the tone a little after two rather sombre sounding novels, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer sounds darkly humorous. Korede’s sister has issued yet another cry for help after ridding herself of her third boyfriend. Korede jumps to, disposing of the body, but alarm bells start to ring when Ayoola begins dating the man Korede’s had her eye on for some time. Ayobami Adebayo has called it ‘Disturbing, sly and delicious’ which is what’s caught my eye with this one.

‘Delicious’ is a word which may well apply to Pascal Pujol’s Little Culinary Triumphs set in Montmartre where Sandrine is eager to set up a restaurant and willing to go to any lengths to do so. ‘A carousel of extravagant characters follows: the giant Senegalese man, Toussaint N’Diaye; the magical chef, Vairam; the extravagantly flatulent Alsatian, Schmutz and his twelve-year-old daughter Juliette—IQ 172!; the alluring psychologist and Kama Sutra specialist, Annabelle Villemin-Dubreuil’ promises the publisher but all does not go well, apparently.

Cover imageI’m ending this preview with Diane Setterfield’s nineteenth-century set Once Upon a River which sounds like a piece of good old-fashioned storytelling, entirely appropriate for January evenings. A stranger knocks on the door of a riverside inn, badly injured and holding the body of a drowned girl in his arms. Hours later, the girl revives. Who is she, and how has she survived? It’s been over twelve years since the publication of Setterfield’s debut, The Thirteenth Tale, the book for which she’s best known, and I’m sure this one will be eagerly anticipated.

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

Books of the Year 2018: Part Four

Cover imageOctober and early November were spent reading for my shadow judging stint for the Young Writer of the Year Award, a thoroughly enjoyable experience not least because it meant I met several bloggers who’ve I’ve exchanged views with over the years. The judges plumped for Adam Weymouth’s proper piece of travel writing, Kings of the Yukon but we shadow judges chose Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which, ironically, I hadn’t expected to enjoy as much as I did, not being a fan of historical fiction. It begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail and a pleasing helping of sly wit.

Having proclaimed myself not a fan of historical fiction, I’m about to recommend another tale set round about the time of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, 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 is 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. Perfect for curling up with on a winter evening.

Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, October’s last favourite, joins the many superb novellas I’ve read this year which comes as no surprise give the excellence of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter which I read way back in 2013. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Cover imageWritten in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion.

My first November book carries on the theme of war with Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living, which like her last novel, The Gun Room, explores its legacy. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence. Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Written with Harding’s characteristic quiet perceptiveness, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.

Sulaiman Addonia explores the fallout of war from the perspective of those who flee it in Silence is My Mother Tongue. Set in a Sudanese refugee camp, it tells the story of a young Eritrean woman who sacrifices everything for love. Saba is a bright young girl who wanders the camp on her first day looking for the school she’s been promised. As she grows into a beautiful, sensuous young woman, she attracts unwanted male attention but never loses sight of her ambition and her devotion to her mute brother. When a businessman arrives with his son in tow, both the midwife who delivered Saba and her mother see an opportunity. This is such an intensely immersive, moving piece of fiction throughout which so much is left unsaid, so much forbidden. The knowledge of Addonia’s history as a child refugee in a Sudanese camp in flight from Eritrea in the ‘70s makes it all the more powerful.

My last 2018 favourite is a book which I was far from convinced that I would like let alone love. Cover imageRobbie Arnott’s Flames is quite some way out of my usual literary territory, steeped as it is in fantasy and folklore, but I’m delighted that I overcame my prejudice and jumped in. Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead. The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern but her son is determined that his sister will escape the same fate. Arnott’s novel drew me in with its gorgeous writing. It’s one of the most striking pieces of fiction I’ve read this year, a very satisfying book to end on.

And if I had to choose? Usually it’s a toss-up between two or three titles but I can’t seem to narrow it down to that which is indicative of a very good reading year. I hope yours has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three 2018 books of the year posts they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Time to look forward to what’s on offer in January next…

Books of the Year 2018: Part Three

Cover imageThis instalment leapfrogs over June, much of which was spent on a lengthy railway jaunt which took me from Amsterdam to Warsaw. July saw the start of a long and lovely British summer, and two excellent debuts beginning with Jen Beagin’s smart, funny, Pretend I’m Dead, about twenty-four-year-old Mona who cleans houses for a living, falls hard for a junkie who disappears then takes herself off to Taos. Nothing much happens in Beagin’s novel: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing. Can’t wait to see what Beagin comes up with next.

Sonia Zinovieff’s Putney also explores the fallout of childhood abuse through Ralph who’s aroused by Daphne’s boyish beauty when she is nine and he is twenty-seven. It’s the ’70s and Daphne is the child of bohemian parents caught up in their own affairs, looking anywhere but at what is happening under their noses. Forty years later, Ralph is oblivious to Daphne’s chaotic, rackety life while she works on a collage commemorating her time with him in a flat a mere stone’s throw away from her childhood home. This subject could so easily have been mishandled. Salacious details, stereotypical characters, black and white judgements – it’s a minefield but Zinovieff explores her subject with consummate skill in a thoroughly accomplished novel, both thought-provoking and absorbing. I take my hat off to its author for tackling such a tricky subject with compassion and intelligence.

August got off to a much more lighthearted start with Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which 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. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie. Evans’ novel is an absolute treat. Her story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice Cover imagewith wit, humour and compassion. For those of us struggling with the current political climate, Old Baggage is a happy reminder that things can get better.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley could be said to be a counterweight to that hope. Set in the early ‘30s it’s 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. Constance’s romantic views of the countryside reveal a nostalgia for a world that never existed rather than concern for those who live there. 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.

September began with a novel that I’d have to had to find a hat to eat had I not enjoyed it. 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 underneath her readers’ feet several times during Juliet’s journey through the labyrinthine corridors of MI5. As ever, there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy but some serious points are made about idealism and national interest some of which rang loud contemporary bells for me. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were more than met for me. Bring on all the prizes.

Cover imageYou’d think I might end on that high note but there’s one more September title: Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling. Together with three students and their professor, seventeen-year-old Sylvie and her parents, Bill and Alison, spend the summer living as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the summer landscape. The climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. Another in the succession of novellas that have so impressed me.

That’s the end of summer which I found particularly hard to let go this year although autumn put on a pretty good show, both for weather and books.

All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two books of the year posts they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.

Books of the Year 2018: Part Two

Cover imageSpring, which seems so far away now, was a particularly good reading time for me hence this bumper post. March began with 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 three 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.

Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness explores similar themes through the story of three siblings. Forty-one-year-old Jules is in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. Each of their children deal with their loss differently: Liz takes to promiscuity and drugs; Marty loses himself in study and Jules becomes a dreamer, unable to settle at anything. Wells explores grief and death with empathy and compassion neatly avoiding the maudlin while facing what many of us might prefer to avoid contemplating. You might think that sounds somewhat gloomy but it’s not: the clue’s in the title. Another excellent translation by Charlotte Collins whose name I’ve learnt to look out for.

Death pops up again in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists which had my hype antennae twitching before I read it. It’s a novel with a very clever hook: what would you do with your life if you knew the date of your death? Would you choose to live it to the full, or would you keep yourself as safe as you could? In other words, would you choose to live or merely to survive? This is the conundrum for the Gold siblings whose stories unfold as they move inexorably towards the dates appointed to each of them at their childhood visit to a fortune-teller. Entertaining, moving and thought-provoking it’s a compassionate and satisfyingly immersive novel.

April brought probably the longest title of a contemporary novel I’ve ever come across:Cover image renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t. This carefully constructed piece of fiction offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by his novella’s fragmented structure. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking – beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch.

Michael Andreassen’s weird and wonderful The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is probably the oddest book to appear in my books of any year, but you never know. It’s a collection of twelve short stories, a work of surreal, off-the-wall fantasy. From the get-go you know you’re in discombobulating territory as a loving son remembers the many happy times they have shared before his father is crated up in his wheelchair and dropped into the sea. Next, a man longs for his wife after he and his unconsummated one-night-stand are abducted by aliens (yes, I know) and takes radical action to find her. 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. That should give you a flavour of this strange, often very funny collection. You’ll either hate it or love it; I loved it.

Amy Bloom took me back to more conventional literary territory in May. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, White Houses 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 presidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons.

Cover image’Elegantly spare’ is a description that could also be applied to Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, my other favourite May read. Set in the mountains above Ronda in Andalucia, Carrasco’s slim novella reads like a fable deeply rooted in the landscape of southern Spain. It tells the story of two brothers – one committed to saving the family olive farm, the other looking for a way out – against the backdrop of a searing autumnal drought. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut. Carrasco’s writing is strikingly poetic at times, stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

The next instalment covers four months of what turned out to be one of the most glorious summers we’ve known for some time here in the UK.

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

Books of the Year 2018: Part One

Looking back at 2017’s books of the year posts, I see I started with the state of the world and the need for distraction from it. If anything, things seem to have got worse out there but, as Cover imageever, books have provided both escape and enlightenment. H and I are still steering clear of politics over supper although there’s the odd furious outburst aimed not at each other but at the *expletives deleted* who seem to have been calling far too many shots. Anyway, enough of that and on to books. I’ve long since given up trying to curtail these posts so, just to warn you, there will be four of them, all with links to reviews on this blog.

January’s reading started well with Michelle de Kretser’s beautifully crafted, thoroughly engaging The Life to Come which manages to be both funny and poignant as it examines the state of Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one infuriating woman. Through the stories of Pippa’s friends and acquaintances, de Kretser deftly explores modern life with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour. Barbs are tossed at a multitude of modern obsessions, from social media to faddish food. Throughout it all, de Kretser’s penetrating observation and mordant humour is underpinned with compassion, most movingly so in the final section which explores the loneliness of old age.

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home kept me in Australia as it followed the Bobs family, who’ve  moved to Bacchus Marsh in an effort to escape Titch Bobs’ overbearing father, and their neighbour Willie Bachhuber who finds himself navigator in the Bobs’ attempt to win the inaugural 6,500-mile Redex Trial in 1953. Echoing the themes of The Life to Come, Carey’s novel tackles identity, racism, sexism and Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people, all framed within the context of a riveting piece of storytelling with a rich vein of humour running through it. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Carey but a new novel by him is always worth investigating. My absolute favourite is Oscar and Lucinda, so much so that I’ve read it three times. I can’t quite put my finger on why but there’s something about the tone of A Long Way From Home that reminded me of it despite their very different subject matters.Cover image

January’s third favourite took me to France with Delphine de Vigan’s riveting Based on a True Story. I’m not a thriller fan but metafiction fascinates me which is what attracted me to this novel whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this fiendishly smart piece of writing which has at its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

February began with Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves based loosely on the author’s family history, making her novel all the more poignant for this is not always a happy story. Struggling to keep the family farm afloat, Elsie Boston takes on a Land Girl. These two find a way to accommodate their very different habits until their lives become so entwined that they leave together when Elsie is forced off the farm. Twenty years later, Rene learns of the death of a close family friend to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. She and Elsie take in Bertha’s ageing, alcoholic husband who sets about disrupting their life. When Ernest finally dies it might almost seem a cause for celebration but then the police arrive. Malik combines quietly understated prose with cinematic, vivid episodes in this touching absorbing novel.

My other February favourite was also a novel based on true events. Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1,000 Degrees grew out of a canvassing phone call made on behalf of his partner, a candidate in Iceland’s municipal elections. The third name on his list Cover imageturned out to belong to an eighty-year-old woman living in a garage who kept him talking for nearly an hour. A few years later, Helgason chased down the identity of his late conversationalist to find that she was the granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. Renaming her Herra, both a woman’s name and Icelandic for ‘mister’, Helgason injects a good deal of black humour into a story which spends much of its time exploring the worst of human behaviour, managing to both entertain and horrify as it tells the story of Herra’s remarkable life.

That’s it for the first two months of this year’s highlights. The next instalment covers March, April and May in which one title lives up to enormous hype, another takes me entirely by surprise and a third has quite possibly the longest title I’ve come across in a contemporary novel.

Six Degrees of Separation – from A Christmas Carol to The Bird Artist

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, appropriately enough, with Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol which is about generosity of spirit. I’m all for that but I’m still a bit bah humbug about Christmas after so many years in bookselling which left me a wee bit cynical about the whole thing.

Patricia Highsmith’s Carol was first published with the title The Price of Salt and renamed for the film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It’s the semi-autobiographical story of a tragic love affair. I’ve yet to read the book but the film was superb.

Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer is an homage to Highsmith, a brilliant piece of literary fan fiction. She takes the writer’s time at Bridge Cottage in Suffolk and weaves it into a story which constantly pulls the rug from under her readers’ feet.

Dawson often tells the stories of real people in her fiction. Sean Michaels takes the same tack in Us, Conductors, his fictionalised story of the inventor of the theremin, a weird and wonderful musical instrument. If you want to hear it, pop over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by Leon Theremin the subject of Michaels’ book.

Much to my surprise I read another novel about the theremin, shortly after Us, Conductors. Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt tells the story of a fictional virtuoso theremin player and has a cameo from its inventor.

Continuing the musical instrument theme, Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes tells the story of immigration through the accordion, an instrument dear to many nations’ hearts so it seems. I like the idea of this very much but learned – and have since forgotten – far more about accordions than I ever wanted to know.

Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News is set on Newfoundland as is Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist which was published around the same time as Proulx’ bestseller in the UK. I enjoyed The Shipping News but much preferred Howard’s lyrical, poetic novel, stuffed full of eccentric characters

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a nineteenth-century tale of Christmas cheer (eventually) set in London to a tale of betrayal and revenge in Newfoundland. 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.

Browse: Love Letters to Bookshops Around the World edited by Henry Hitchings

Cover imageThis is the kind of book I’d have had stacked up at till points back in my bookselling days, aiming it squarely at the Christmas stockings of the bookish. It brought to mind Jorge Carrión’s Bookshops which I reviewed here a few years ago but Browse is much more of a book to dip into. Henry Hitchings’ introduction recalls some of his own bookshop experiences setting us up nicely for the essays to come, each very personal.

Htichings has rustled up contributors from around the world from Ali Smith to Dorthe Nors, Yiyun Li to Ala Al Aswany. There are fifteen essays in all, some entertaining some more sober, all interesting to the anoraks amongst us. I enjoyed each of them but should you need your appetite whetted here are some of my favourites beginning with Ali Smith who volunteers in her local Amnesty International bookshop where the bits and pieces of people’s lives found in the books they donate tell her as much about the locals as its eclectic stock.

Alaa Al Aswany recalls his signing at a Cairo bookshop on the eve of the 2011 Tahrir Square occupation and his realisation that his country’s plight was far worse than he’d thought.

Pankaj Mishra pays tribute to the erudite owner – infuriated both by well-heeled customers demanding discounts and ignorant sales reps – of Fact and Fiction, a small bookshop in South Delhi which he first visited in 1989, acknowledging Ajit’s formative influence on him.

Bukinist in Chernivtsi, Ukraine is one of the many second-hand bookshops in which Andrey Kurkov conducted his fruitless search for a The Ballads of Kukutis under the indulgent eye of its owner, used to an ‘eccentric urban bibliophile, always searching for something that doesn’t exist’.

Daniel Kehlmann takes us to Dussman, a bookshop I fell in love with on my last trip to Berlin, with his amusing conversation between two writers, one singing the praises of Dussman to the other as a model of the popular idea of Germany: neat, ordered and staffed by knowledgeable booksellers who restrain themselves from forcing their own taste on their customers.

Bosnian writer Saša Stanišić offers a witty piece about the anxiety of finding a dealer to feed his habit in his new home city only to be approached by one who introduces him to all manner of ‘substances’.

I’ll leave you with Ian Sansom’s memories of working at Foyles in the ’90s when Christina Foyle still ruled the roost and Danny La Rue lived above the shop. Sansom left after two years, although he jumped rather than waiting to be pushed as so many Foyles booksellers were in those days, just before their employment rights kicked in. I wonder if the new Foyles, now under Waterstones’ wing, will have strategic piles of Browse, artfully displayed next to tills.