Tag Archives: Alex Preston

Books to Look Out for in October 2019: Part Two

Cover imageOctober’s first batch of new titles began with several novels bound up with art. This second instalment kicks off with a couple of cinematic connections starting with The Crossed-Out Notebook by Nicolás Giacobone who co-wrote the screenplay for Birdman. An Argentinean screenwriter is imprisoned in a basement by a director determined that his captive will produce a world-changing screenplay. Every evening, the writer crosses out his writing from the previous night. ‘The clash between the two men and their different approaches leads to a movie being made, a gun going off, an unlikely escape, and a final confrontation. In the end, The Crossed-Out Notebook is a darkly funny novel full of intrigue and surprise about the essence of the creative process; a short, crazy ode to any artist whose brilliance shines through strangeness and adversity’ say the publishers which sounds promising to me.

I’m sure Werner Herzog has never indulged in a spot of kidnapping or coerced his screenwriting son, Rudolf, whose short story collection Ghosts of Berlin is my next choice. Herzog’s stories are all set in Kreuzberg, the city’s gentrified hipster district, which formed the border between the old East and West. They offer what the publishers are calling a ‘macabre and madcap vision of Berlin… … conjuring tech bros, acid-tripping artists, and forsaken migrants, each encountering the ghosts of the city’s complicated past’. Intriguing.

We’re staying in Berlin with Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes from a German Building Site which tells the story of Paul, a young Irish engineer who has followed Evelyn to the city and begins work on Cover imagerenovating a building in Alexanderplatz. ‘Set against the structural evolution of a sprawling city, this meditation on language, memory and yearning is underpinned by the site’s physical reality’ according to the publisher. I rather like the sound of that, and Berlin is an irresistible setting for me since visiting the city.

Mahir Guven’s Older Brother takes us over the border to France with its story of a Franco-Syrian family trying to find a way to integrate. The taxi-driving father and his eldest son are pitted against each other when the son takes up work with an app-based car service. Meanwhile the youngest son joins a Muslim humanitarian organization, helping wounded civilians in Syria and returning a changed man.Guven alternates between an ironic take on contemporary society and the gravity of terrorist threats. He explores with equal poignancy the lives of “Uberized” workers and actors in the global jihad’ say the publishers of a book much acclaimed in France, apparently.

We’re moving on to London and back to the ‘80s with Emma Forrest’s Royals. Unsure of his sexuality, eighteen-year-old Steven ends up in hospital after being beaten up by his father. There he meets the glamourous, anarchic Jasmine, an heiress from a very different background to his own. Their mutual love of fashion leads to friendship, opening up a hedonistic life of glittering parties for Steven. ‘Devastating, dazzling, queer and radical, Royals is a love story between unlikely friends from completely different worlds. It’s about the power of art to transform lives and the power of families to destroy them. It’s about working out who you are and what you want’ according to the publishers which sounds like a good read to me.

Cover imageI’m rounding off October with Pursuit, a collection of short stories compiled by Alex Preston with contributions from the likes of Max Porter, Kamila Shamsie Daisy Johnson, Michael Donker and David Szalay to name but a few. These are stories that ‘tell of determination, endeavour and perseverance against the odds. They range across wildly different contexts and cultures, from the epic to the intimate, in fiction and non-fiction, illustrating and illuminating the outer limits of human character and achievement’ say the publishers which sounds enticing enough even without that roll call of literary names.

That’s it for October’s new fiction. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Six Degrees of Separation – from Picnic at Hanging Rock to A Vindication of the Rights of Women #6Degrees

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

This month’s starting point is Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock chosen by Brona. I’m pretty sure I’ve read the book but what really sticks in my mind is Peter Weir’s mesmeric film adaptation which I must have seen at least four times. Those inappropriately clad young ladies, all white muslin dresses and black boots, climbing Hanging Rock in blistering heat then disappearing without trace made a striking image on the big screen. It’s rare for me to think that a film adaptation either matches or eclipses the book but very occasionally it does happen which leads me to my second book.

I’m not a huge fan of Virginia Woolf but I have read and enjoyed Orlando, although not as many times as I’ve seen Sally Potter’s sumptuous film adaptation which *whisper it* I prefer. In the book the eponymous protagonist begins as a young nobleman in Elizabethan England and ends as a young woman in 1928, the year women were enfranchised; the movie takes her up to the 1990s. Archly comic, the film is full of gorgeous tableaux with Tilda Swinton as a fabulous Orlando, charmingly gauche and suitably androgynous, seamlessly changing gender after a century or so.

One of Woolf’s best known novels follows a day in the life of an upper-class woman in post-First World War England which leads me to John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips who puts on his suit, packs his briefcase and leaves his South London house one warm July Monday morning. He’s worked as an accountant for over thirty years and has been made redundant but can’t quite bring himself to tell Mrs Phillips. So begins a day on which Mr Phillips will chat with a pornographer, visit the Tate Gallery and become caught up in one of the biggest dramas of his life. Strewn with coincidences, this take on Mrs Dalloway gets under the skin of middle-aged suburbia in a funny yet poignant portrayal of a man a little lost in the world.

John Lanchester wrote a post-financial crash novel called Capital, dramatized for TV last year, as did Alex Preston. This Bleeding City is about a hedge fund trader, freshly graduated, who becomes distracted by a beautiful woman and a non-stop, drug-fuelled culture of excess. I have to confess that although I’ve read this I had to sneak a quick look at Goodreads to remind myself of it. What did stay with me was the knowledge that Preston’s previous career was as a City trader. Presumably he’s a changed man as  he’s recently collaborated with Neil Gower on what looks like a gorgeously illustrated book about nature, due to be published soon, called As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Which takes me to Kathleen Jamie one of my favourite nature writers. In Findings she tracks the elusive corncrake on the island of Coll, contemplates salmon jumping on a Highland river and experiences the joy of a rare and strange sighting of a crane flying in the Scottish sky. Her writing is both beautiful and down to earth. Hard to resist a writer who starts her chapter: ‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with my penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started’. It was already dead, by the way.

Jamie is an acclaimed poet as was the late Helen Dunmore one of my favourite authors and much mourned. Her last novel, Birdcage Walk, is the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. Much of the action in Birdcage Walk takes place in 1792, the French Revolution a worrying spectre across the channel, which takes me to my next book.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Dunmore set her novel in the year that Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal work A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published. The book is a powerful critique both of women’s education and the assumptions surrounding marriage and family life, and was very much a product of Wollstonecraft’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution, tempered by her disappointment at the failure to take up the cause of women’s rights. It’s at once optimistic, passionate and angry.

So ends my second Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from the mysterious disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls to a passionate argument for women’s rights. I think I’m hooked on this now. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or perhaps even join in.