My Life in Books (2019 Edition)

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

In high school I was: Exqusite (Sarah Stowell)

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

I will never be: You (Phil Wittaker)

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

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

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

Wish I had: The Dutch House (Ann Patchett)

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

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

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

A happy day includes: Expectation (Anna Hope)

Motto I live by: Improvement (Joan Silber)

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

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

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

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2020: Part Two

Cover imageAll the titles in this second instalment of January paperbacks are new to me starting with 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.

Jumping forward a decade but still in America, Tom Barbash’s The Dakota Winters, is 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, which sounds intriguing. This one comes garlanded with praise from all manner of writers, from Jennifer Egan to Michael Chabon.Cover image

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

Elanor Dymott’s Silver and Salt was also 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 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.

Cover imageMy last choice takes us away from the US to Berlin. Sophie Hardach’s Confessions with Blue Horses sees Ella and Tobi, now living in London, using the notebooks left to them by their mother to investigate the puzzle of their childhood in the old East Berlin, not least what happened to their little brother. ‘Devastating and beautifully written, funny and life-affirming, Confession with Blue Horses explores intimate family life and its strength in the most difficult of circumstances’ according to the publishers. I remember enjoying Of Love and Other Wars way back in the early days of this blog.

That’s it for January’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attention. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch, it’s here; new titles are here and here. See you in the New Year!

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2020: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books to Look Out For in January 2020: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books to Look Out For in January 2020: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cheffe by Marie NDiaye (transl. Jordan Stump): A culinary enigma

Cover imageSeveral things attracted me to Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe: I’ve a weakness for novels about food, given its author and subject I expected a healthy streak of feminism and there was the promise of an unreliable narrator. My liking for those may be even greater than my predilection for foodie fiction. NDiyae’s novel is the story of the eponymous, celebrated cook known only by her profession and notorious for keeping her own counsel, told by the man obsessed with her.

One of eight children, the Cheffe was born into poverty, the daughter of two farm labourers with scant regard for the education of their children. Hers was a happy childhood. She left school at sixteen finding a job for herself as a maid with the Clapeaus, a gluttonous couple who opened the culinary world to her when their cook refused to accompany them on holiday. Her talent proved prodigious. She learnt quickly and well, delighting her employers then distressing them when she left to have her daughter. Unable to stay out of the kitchen for long, the Cheffe found herself a job, then set herself up in her own bistro, plain but smartly presented – much like herself – gaining a reputation that eventually won her recognition from an esteemed restaurant guide, much to her horror. She and the young apprentice whose adoration remains unspoken, talk long into the night. She occasionally spills details of her life which he eagerly pieces together, quietly scornful and disbelieving of her professed love for her daughter living in Toronto. As her young acolyte – now an ageing hedonist – tells her story, apparently giving the interview after her death that the Cheffe would never have granted, he waits apprehensively for a guest to arrive.

I mentioned an unreliable narrator in my introduction and they don’t come more unreliable – or blindly adoring – than the unnamed young apprentice looking back on the love of his life and telling his version of her story. Our narrator retails the sparse details of the Cheffe’s life, larding it with his own interpretations – her love for her daughter merely feigned, her beloved parents neglectful, all of her own actions considered and selfless. She is, for him, perfection. He’s a triumph but Ndiaye’s slow, reiterative style is something of an acquired taste. I remember giving up Ladivine for the same reason but became quite fascinated by the self-delusion of The Cheffe’s narrator who verges on the stalker in his obsession. In telling her story, he reveals a great deal more about himself than his intensely private beloved who remains something of an enigma, intent on her culinary explorations and often oblivious to everything and everyone else.

For those wondering about the title, there’s a footnote explaining it:

“Cheffe” is a recently-minted word in French; its meaning, of course, is “female chef”. Because no good English equivalent exists, this translation will use the French word.

Perhaps women are finally being taken seriously in what, for some reason, became a male-dominated profession.

MacLehose Press: London 2019 9780857058904 288 pages Paperback

That’s it for 2019’s rviews from me. The rest of the year will be all about the shiny and new on offer in January 2020.

Books of the Year 2019: Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of the Year 2019: Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of the Year 2019: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

Cover image

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

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

Books of the Year 2019: Part One

It’s that time again. Books of the year lists are being wheeled out right, left and centre. I’d love to tell you I’d managed to trim mine to a single post of gems but I’m not the Cover imagedecisive type so I’m afraid it will be the usual four, falling roughly into quarters, all with links to reviews on this blog. For those of you who think I’ve jumped the gun, I’m still a bookseller at heart, hoping to help out anyone desperate for gift ideas for their book-loving friends.

My reading year got off to a flying start with Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer whose premise is irresistible. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, darkly funny novel, an enjoyable caper with a sharp edge and a page-turning pace. I was delighted when it turned up on both the Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Two books stood out for me in February, each very different from the other. Given my country’s preoccupation with Brexit, Robert Menasse’s The Capital was something of a bittersweet read. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club. Rather like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Entirely different, Joan Silber’s carefully constructed Improvement reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories which explore the ripple effectsCover image of a car accident through a range of sharply observed characters. Silber’s writing is subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Sadly, Improvement is her only book published here in the UK: all I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.

Leapfrogging March into April, Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans also explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK

The second of April’s treats is a bestseller which left me wondering why I hadn’t already read it. Paolo Cognetti’s beautifully expressed The Eight Mountains is about the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Cover imageRounding off April’s favourites, Ayelet Gunder-Goshen’s lusciously jacketed Liar tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Tel Aviv girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation leaving her trapped in an untruth she’s allowed to take root. A thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Politicians take note. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style.

There, I seem to have ended 2019’s first quarter with politics, something which I’ve been trying (but failing) to avoid since mid-way through the year when I though I might be about to spontaneously combust with fury. Let’s see if I can stay away from it in the second instalment which will cover May and June.