Reading Bingo 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Irish Books I’ve Read

Cover imageThe heading for this post could just as easily be 10, 15 or even 50 Irish books I’ve read. So much of the quietly elegant, understated writing I admire turns out to be by Irish authors. Their work is often tinged with more than a little melancholy, perhaps only to be expected given their country’s history. Below are five of the best Irish books I’ve read, just one with a link to a full review on this blog.

William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault begins in the troubled year of 1921. Three men appear in the grounds of Lahardane to burn the house down. Springing to the defence of his English wife and their daughter, Lahardane’s Protestant owner Everard Gault fires his shotgun meaning only to frighten the trespassers but wounding one of them. The young man’s family will have nothing of Everard’s pleas for forgiveness. For their own safety, the Gaults must leave Ireland, an idea that eight-year-old Lucy finds unbearable. She runs away, determined to make her mother and father stay. Believing Lucy to be dead, her heartbroken parents turn their backs on their beloved home. When Lucy is found alive, they can’t be traced and her life becomes one of atonement for the wrong she feels she’s done them. Infused with an aching sadness, The Story of Lucy Gault typifies Trevor’s novels: slim, elegant, often spare, each word carefully chosen.

John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun is a little cheerier, unlike much of his fiction. Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small Irish lakeside community on a farm subsidised by Joe’s writing. The small dramas and quiet satisfactions of everyday life fill their world: visits from their neighbour and dear friend the incorrigibly inquisitive Jamesie; lambing and selling their calves at the cattle mart; trips to town to pick up supplies and local news. This gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, capturing both place and time beautifully. The quiet restraint that characterises much of McGahern’s writing is a delicate counterpoint to the sometimes lyrical sentences that bejewel his work.

I was going to pick a different Colm Tóibin novel from Brooklyn which has received so Cover imagemuch exposure thanks to the excellent film adaptation but it’s my favourite of his and I kept coming back to it. Unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, Eilas Lacey emigrates having heard of the many employment opportunities on offer in New York. She gets a job in a department store, takes up evening classes and tries to keep her desperate homesickness at bay. Shortly after she becomes involved with Tony Fiorello, she’s summoned back to Ireland by news of a family tragedy, hastily agreeing to a secret marriage before she leaves. At home, egged on by her mother, she finds herself falling in love with Jim Farrell, ignoring Tony’s letters and telling no one about him. The Irish American world is a small one, however, and it’s soon clear that Eilas must make a choice. Written in Tóibin’s spare yet eloquent prose, Brooklyn is a triumph, one which I didn’t expect to be matched by the film until I saw Saoirse Ronan as Eilas. She seemed born for the part.

Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday takes place during the space of one day, as you might expect from its title, but it encapsulates decades of memories as a successful Northern Irish playwright thinks of her friend Molly whose Dublin house she has borrowed while Molly is in New York. Molly is a celebrated actress, feted for her stage performances. As our unnamed narrator struggles with writer’s block she remembers shared times with Molly, her thoughts often returning to their mutual friend Andrew. We know it’s Molly’s birthday from the book’s title but the full significance of the date slowly becomes apparent as our narrator muses on writing, friendship and identity, while wondering why Molly never celebrates her birthday. Madden’s writing is beautifully honed, as elegantly understated as all three of the previous writers.

Cover imageBelinda McKeon’s Tender begins in 1997 and ends in 2012, three years before the resounding referendum vote in favour of equal marriage in Ireland. Catherine and James instantly click when James returns from Berlin to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. He’s tactile and outgoing, loudly pontificating on everything and everybody yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long everyone is convinced they’re a couple but eventually James tells Catherine he’s gay. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told with unhappy results. Tender is a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate, and extraordinarily intense at times. Another Irish triumph.

Any books by Irish authors you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThis second instalment of January’s paperbacks is something of a mixed bag. I’ll begin with Swansong by Kerry Andrew, described by Robert Macfarlane as a writer of ‘frankly alarming talent’. Make of that what you will. Polly Vaughan heads for the Scottish Highlands, fleeing the guilt of a ‘disturbing incident’ in London. She finds escapism in the form of drink, drugs and sex in the local pub but is haunted by visions then fascinated by a man she comes upon in the forest seemingly ripping apart a bird. Andrew ‘comes from a deep understanding of the folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions of these islands. Her powerful metaphoric language gives Swansong a charged, hallucinatory quality that is unique, uncanny and deeply disquieting’ say the publishers, promisingly.

Many of the characters in Mothers, Chris Powers’ short story collection, also find themselves at a crossroads according to the publisher’s blurb. ‘From remote and wild Exmoor to ancient Swedish burial sites and hedonistic Mexican weddings, these stories lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life and love in a stunning debut collection’ apparently. This one has been popping up in my Twitter timeline intermittently for some time, not always a good thing, but I like the sound of stories which range so far and wide.Cover image

The loss of her mother triggers a crisis in Lucia’s mental health in Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here is Beautiful. Miranda drops everything and comes to her younger sister’s aid but it appears that Lucia may not want to be helped. ‘Told in alternating points of view, Everything Here Is Beautiful is the story of a young woman’s quest to find fulfilment and a life unconstrained by illness’ say the publishers. This sounds like an attractive structure to me, contrasting two very different perspectives.

Stefan Merrill Block’s Oliver Loving explores the aftermath of a high school shooting through the plight of the eponymous Oliver and his family. Ten years after he fell victim to a troubled young man at a high school dance, Oliver remains in a coma while his family try to cope and his teenage crush attempts to put it behind her. ‘Oliver Loving is a brilliant and beautifully told story of family, as heart-breaking as it is profound. It is a novel of the myths we make; the ties that bind us and the forces that keep us apart’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but I enjoyed Block’s The Storm at the Door and it’s an interesting premise.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this preview with Tyler Keevil’s No Good Brother which sounds like a nice slice of adventure. Two brothers – one honest, the other not – set off on a journey to settle a debt with a notorious gang which will take them across land and sea dogged by customs officials, freak storms and a distinct sense of luck running out. ‘Quick-witted and beautifully observed, No Good Brother is an exquisite portrait of brotherly love and loyalty, examining the loss of innocence and the ties that bind us’ say the publishers. An uncharacteristic choice for me but the blurb’s put me in mind of Patrick deWitt’s wonderful The Sisters Brothers.

That’s it for January. A click on any title that takes your fancy will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the rest of January previews they’re here, here and here.

To those of you looking forward to Christmas, I hope you have a lovely time. If, as it is for many, it’s a more complicated time of the year for you, I hope it passes as painlessly as possible. And for those of you in retail or catering who’ve been working your socks off – I hope you get some rest before you start all over again. I’ll be back at the end of the week.

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 to Look Out for in January 2019: Part One

Cover imageYou may be a little weary of 2018’s books of the year roundups (mine included) and wondering what publishers are planning to help us through the long winter evenings. If so, there are lots of potential treats to look forward to in January starting with Daphne de Vigan’s Loyalties. Thirteen-year-old Theo and Mathis’ behaviour has attracted the attention of their teacher who becomes obsessed with rescuing Theo while Mathis’ mother stumbles across something dreadful on her husband’s computer. ‘Respectable facades are peeled away as the four stories wind tighter and tighter together, pulling into a lean and darkly gripping novel of loneliness, lies and loyalties’ say the publishers. De Vigan’s Based on a True Story was one of 2018’s favourites for me.

Another pair of children faces difficulties in Paula Saunders’ debut The Distance Home, set in ‘60s America. Siblings Rene and Leon excel at dancing but while Rene is a confident over-achiever, her brother is plagued by shyness and a stutter. Each parent favours a different child leading them down widely divergent paths. ‘The Distance Home is the story of two children growing up side by side – the one given opportunities the other just misses – and the fall-out in their adult lives. It is a hugely moving story of devotion and neglect, impossible to put down’ say the publishers promisingly.

Michael and Caitlin have been conducting an affair for twenty-five years, meeting once a month in an escape from their unhappy marriages in Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby. One winter’s afternoon they’re faced with the harsh realities of serious illness on one side and a move far away on the other. ‘A quiet, intense drama of late-flowering intimacy, My Coney Island Baby condenses, within the course of a single day, the histories, landscapes, tragedies and moments of wonder that constitute the lives of two people who, although born worlds apart, have been drawn together’ says the publisher in the slightly overblown blurb.Cover image

Elanor Dymott’s Silver and Salt was a disappointment for me but that hasn’t stopped me casting an eye over her new novel,  Slack-Tide. Elisabeth meets Robert four years after her marriage had split up when she lost her child, and quickly falls in love with him. ‘Slack-tide tracks the ebbs and flows of the affair: passionate, coercive, intensely sexual. When you’ve known lasting love and lost it, what price will you pay to find it again?’ ask the publishers suggesting that all does not go well.

Laura Lee Smith’s The Ice House sees Johnny MacKinnon on the brink of losing his business thanks to the fallout from an industrial accident. Then he collapses on the factory floor with a suspected brain tumor. ‘Johnny’s been ordered to take it easy, but in some ways, he thinks, what’s left to lose? Witty and heartbreaking, The Ice House is a vibrant portrait of multifaceted, exquisitely human characters that readers will not soon forget’ according to the publishers which doesn’t entirely sound up my street but Richard Russo has praised Smith for her ‘intelligence, heart and wit’ which is what’s put it on my radar.

Set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1981, Geraldine Quigley’s debut Music Love Drugs War follows a group of friends about to leave school, not knowing what to do with the rest of their lives and avoiding the issue by doing what teenagers do. When a friend is killed, it’s time to sober up but decisions made in haste and anger have irrevocable repercussions. ‘With humour and compassion, Geraldine Quigley reveals the sometimes slippery reasons behind the decisions we make, and the unexpected and intractable ways they shape our lives’ according to the publishers. Very much like the sound of this one.

Cover imageI was surprised when Haruki Murakami’s name popped up quite so soon after Killing Commendatore was published but then I spotted that Birthday Girl is a mere 48 pages. It’s about a waitress whose plans to take her birthday night off have backfired, then she’s asked to deliver dinner to the restaurant’s reclusive owner. ‘Birthday Girl is a beguiling, exquisitely satisfying taste of master storytelling, published to celebrate Murakami’s 70th birthday’ according to the blurb. An amuse bouche, then.

That’s it for the first part of January’s preview. Second batch of potential treats follows 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.