Tag Archives: Ali Smith

Six Degrees of Separation – from How to Be Both to Mãn

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.

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This month’s chain begins with Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, something of a Marmite book. It’s a difficult novel to describe, a dual narrative that features a young girl whose mother has recently died and an Italian Renaissance fresco painter. I’m afraid I gave it up.

I much preferred Smith’s more straightforward The Accidental in which an unknown woman bearing gifts turns up, discombobulating the Smart family who are ensconced in their holiday home.

Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood turns Smith’s idea on its head when a man whose car has broken down knocks on the door of the nearest house only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected.

Perry’s novel is set on the Norfolk Coast, vividly evoked in Jeremy Page’s Salt which sees Pip trying to make sense of his complicated family history which beginning with a man found buried up to his neck in mud

Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces starts with the discovery of a mud-covered boy, found during an archaeological excavation in Poland. Seven-year-old Jakob has fled the Nazis and is taken home to Greece by the archaeologist who discovers him. Michaels’ lyrical novel was a bestseller back in the ‘90s.

Michaels is an award-winning poet as was Helen Dunmore whose Talking to the Dead is a favourite of mine. It tells the story of two sisters, one recovering from a difficult birth which has brought back long-buried memories. It’s a gorgeously poetic book as well as a page-turning thriller.

Some of the most striking descriptions in Dunmore’s novel are of food, as they are in Kim Thúy’s Mãn about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know. Mãn cooks for the émigrés who frequent her husband’s café longing for a taste of home. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella which is also a celebration of language.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a dual-narrative novel, split between the twentieth and fifteenth centuries to a Montreal café serving Vietnamese food to the homesick. 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.

Books to Look Out for in March 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe first instalment of March’s new titles was all about the USA. The second part begins with a novel about children knocking on its doors trying to get in. Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli’s first novel written in English, sees a family head off from New York on a road trip to the south west which once belonged to Mexico. Meanwhile thousands of children are making their way north from Central America and Mexico, hoping to cross the border against all odds. ‘In a breath-taking feat of literary virtuosity, Lost Children Archive intertwines these two journeys to create a masterful novel full of echoes and reflections – a moving, powerful, urgent story about what it is to be human in an inhuman world’ say the publishers. Hopes are high for this one.

As they are for Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, Gingerbread, which sounds refreshingly original. Perdita Lee and her mother, Harriet, live in a gold-painted seventh-floor flat where they make gingerbread whose biggest fan is Harriet’s best friend Gretel. Years later, Perdita tries to track down Gretel. ‘As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value’ say the publishers, promisingly. Apparently Oyeyemi’s novel was influenced by references to gingerbread in children’s classics.

I’m not so sure about Sadie Jones’ The Snakes having failed to see what so many others did in her much-praised debut, The Outcast. Bea and Dan have rented out their flat for a few months and driven to France where they plan to visit Bea’s brother at his hotel. When they arrive, they find Alex alone and the dilapidated hotel empty. The arrival of Bea and Alex’s rich parents makes Dan wonder why he’s never met them before. All of which may not sound very exciting but ‘tragedy strikes suddenly, brutally, and in its aftermath the family is stripped back to its rotten core, and even Bea with all her strength and goodness can’t escape’ say the publishers intriguingly. We’ll see.

I feel back in safer territory with Nicole Flattery’s collection, Show Them a Good Time described by Jon McGregor as ‘very funny and very sad, usually at the same time’. Flattery explores the lives of young men and women from a woman navigating a string of meaningless relationships to a couple of students working on a play knowing that unemployment looms, apparently. ‘Exuberant and irreverent, accomplished and unexpected, it marks the arrival of an extraordinary new IrishCover image voice in fiction’ say the publishers but it’s McGregor’s opinion that’s swung it for me. He was spot on with El Hacho, one of my books of 2018.

I’m ending March’s preview with the third in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, Spring, which comes with the usual opaque blurb: ‘Spring will come. The leaves on its trees will open after blossom. Before it arrives, a hundred years of empire-making. The dawn breaks cold and still but, deep in the earth, things are growing’. I’m sure it will be great.

A click on any of the titles that have snagged your attention will take you to a more detailed synopsis, although not so much with Spring, and if you’ve missed the first part of the preview, it’s here.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books to Look Out for in November 2017

Cover imageEdging ever closer to the end of the year with this preview which may well be the last set of new titles from me unless December has more to offer than novelty books and humour. Let’s hope it does. November kicks off with a novel I’m in two minds about, Richard Flanagan’s First Person – I avoided the Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road from the Deep South but very much enjoyed Gould’s Book of Fish. Based on a true story, First Person is about Kif Kehlmann, a ghost-writer who takes on the task of writing the memoir of Siegfred Heidl, about to go to trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million. ‘Everything that was certain grows uncertain as he begins to wonder: who is Siegfried Heidl – and who is Kif Kehlmann? As time runs out, one question looms above all others: what is the truth? By turns compelling, comic, and chilling, this is a haunting journey into the heart of our age’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing.

The lure of Heather, the Totality is the writer rather than the novel’s premise which sounds as if it might wander off into thriller territory. You may already know Matthew Weiner’s name from the addictive Mad Men series. Set in Manhattan – inevitably another lure for me – Weiner’s debut is about the wealthy Breakstone family whose sweet-natured, beautiful daughter Heather takes a wrong turn as a teenager. ‘An extraordinary first novel of incredible pull and menace. Heather, The Totality demonstrates perfectly [Weiner’s] forensic eye for the human qualities that hold modern society together, and pull it apart’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some smart, stylish writing.

Set in 1950, Eliza Robertson’s debut, Demi-Gods, is also about a girl who finds herself led astray.Cover image Willa’s mother has a new boyfriend whose sons come as part of the package. When her sister pairs off with the elder son, nine-year-old Willa finds herself caught up in his younger brother’s wicked games which become sexual as they grow up. Willa’s efforts to change the nature of their relationship result in a devastating turn of events, apparently. ‘Demi-Gods explores a girl’s attempt to forge a path of her own choosing in a world where female independence is suspect. Sensitive, playful and entirely original, Eliza Robertson is one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary literature’ say the publishers which sounds up my street.

Jussi Valtonen won his country’s Finlandia Prize with They Know Not What They Do, bought by one in two Finns, apparently. Hard to imagine those kind of sales figures for a novel here in the UK. It’s about a celebrated neuroscientist living with his family in the States whose lab is targeted by animal rights activists. Shortly after the attack he’s called by the wife he abandoned in Finland over twenty years ago together with their young son who may now be after revenge. ‘As Joe struggles to protect his new family from the increasing threat of violence – and to save his eldest daughter from the clutches of an unscrupulous tech company – he is forced to reconsider his priorities and take drastic action to save those he loves’ say the publishers which doesn’t entirely sound my cup of tea but how can one in two Finns be wrong? And it’s published by Oneworld whose sharp editorial eye I trust.

I have to admit that I haven’t yet got around to Ali Smith’s Autumn, which kicked off her Seasonal Quartet last year. It’s November so it’s time for Winter whichcasts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter. It’s the season that teaches us survival’ say the publishers. I could do with something ‘merry’ to help me along in the so-called ‘post-truth’ era.

There was a time when my heart would have sunk when I discovered that a new title from a favourite novelist was a collection of short stories but I’m a reformed character. The subjects of the stories in William Boyd’s The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth range from an art dealer who tries to give up his philandering habits to a couple who tell the story of their relationship backwards while the eponymous Bethany’s tale is about a year of tentative self-discovery, apparently. I won’t say my heart sang as loudly as it would at the announcement of a new Boyd novel, but I am looking forward to reading this collection.

 That’s it for November’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested. Shortish paperback post to follow soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second instalment of September paperbacks starts with a book that I wanted to love but couldn’t quite manage to. If you’re a fan of Jay McInerney’s series of novels which began with Brightness Falls you won’t need to be told who the Calloways are nor will you need to have explained to you why I was thrilled at the prospect of a new one despite my disappointment with The Good Life which picked up their story around the time of 9/11. Bright Precious Days begins in 2006 with the global financial crisis not yet on the horizon. Russell runs a small independent publishing house while Corrine works for a charity, feeding the city’s poor. It’s a much better book than The Good Life but It doesn’t match the brilliance of Brightness Falls for me.

Art thrillers seem to be a bit of a thing at the moment. I read the wonderful The Last Painting of Sara de Vos earlier this year and if anyone’s looking out for a late summer read I’d recommend it. Coincidentally Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs also has an Australian connection. A ‘lost’ painting is donated to a Sydney gallery much to the amazement of the art world and the three men who’ve loved the women it portrays. Each of them comes to her isolated cottage to face their tangled past. ‘The Woman on the Stairs is an intricately crafted, poignant and beguiling novel about creativity and love, about the effects of time passing and the regrets that haunt us all’ say the publishers. It sounds appealing and I’ve enjoyed Schlink’s work in the past very much.

There’s a fair amount of regret in Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother which comes with a hearty endorsement from the excellent Ron Rash. Set in Newfoundland, it’s the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation. When the local bully’s corpse is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed, almost everybody falls under suspicion including the brother of a family still suffering a terrible burden of grief. Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. I guessed Cover imagethe perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.

Fiona Melrose’s much praised Midwinter explores similar emotional territory by the sound of it. It’s about a Suffolk farming family who have worked their land for generations. Cecelia died when her youngest was just a child leaving two sons and their father who have stoically buried their grief and got on with their work but something about the dreadful winter which comes upon them makes them snap. ‘Tender and lyrical, alive to language and nature, Midwinter is a novel about guilt, blame, lost opportunities and, ultimately, it is a story about love and the lengths we will go to find our way home’, apparently. Having recently reviewed the very fine Johannesburg which made it on to my Man Booker wishlist, I can’t imagine why I haven’t read this one already.

Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others sounds like an entirely different kettle of fish. Film-makers Meadow and Carrie grew up together in Los Angeles. When Meadow becomes involved with a woman whose seductive powers of listening are the subject of one of her documentaries, she sets in train her own downfall. ‘Heart-breaking and insightful, Innocents and Others is an astonishing novel about friendship, identity, loneliness and art’ say the publishers. It sounds intriguing.

Cover imageI’m ending September’s paperbacks with what’s been called a Brexit novel which I’m even more eager to read after reviewing Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut, Peirene Now!’s response to the referendum whose result shocked and dismayed many of us to the core. It’s Ali Smith’s Autumn, set in 2016 when Daniel is a century old and Elisabeth is thirty-two. ‘Smith’s new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. This first in a seasonal quartet casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of?’ say the publishers. It sounds unmissable.

That’s it for September’s paperbacks. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here, and September’s new titles are here.

Books to Look Out for in October 2016

Cover imageBack from my travels in central Europe – more of that later in the week – with a look at what’s on offer in October’s publishing schedules. Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was one of my books of last year: elegant, beautifully expressed and deftly translated, this slim novella encapsulated the life of an ordinary man, revealing it to be far richer than you might expect. October sees the publication of The Tobacconist, a second novel by Seethaler in translation. Set in 1937 with Austria about to be annexed by Germany, it’s about seventeen-year-old Franz, apprenticed to a Viennese tobacconist, who forms a bond with a certain Mr Freud.

Like Seethaler, Per Petterson writes in beautifully clipped yet often lyrical prose. His new novel, Echoland, is about twelve-year-old Arvid on holiday with his family at his grandparents’ in Denmark. About to make the leap from childhood to adolescence, Arvid takes himself off exploring on his bike, escaping the household’s intergenerational tensions and glorying in his new-found freedom. ‘Echoland is an extraordinarily subtle and truthful snapshot of growing up, with an emotional depth that lingers long after its final pages’ say the publishers which sounds very much in Petterson territory to me.

In contrast, Sebastian Barry’s Days without End seems to step quite a way out of his usual territory heading off to Tennessee in the 1850s where Thomas McNulty has signed up for the US Army. Fleeing terrible hardship, he and his comrade John Cole fight first in the Indian Wars then the Civil War. ‘Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten’ promise the publishers. Hoping for more of that lyrical writing I’ve enjoyed in Barry’s previous novels. nicotine

I wish I could say I’d also enjoyed Nell Zink’s novels but I’ve yet to read one so it may seem a little odd to include Nicotine in this preview. It’s ‘the clash between Baby-Boomer idealism and Millennial pragmatism, between the have-nots and want-mores’ in the book’s blurb that’s caught my eye. Penny Baker’s rebellion has taken the form of conventionality, the only option left open to her after an upbringing by Norm who runs a psychedelic ‘healing centre’. When Norm dies, Penny finds that the house he’s left her is occupied by a bunch of squatters united ‘in the defence of smokers’ rights’. Before too long she’s caught up in their cause, battling against her much older half-brothers to protect the fervent campaigners. It sounds great but I really must get around to the other two Zinks sitting on my shelf.

Surrounded by a good deal of brouhaha, not least because President Obama took it on holiday with him, is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Cora is a slave in Georgia, an outcast amongst her fellow slaves since childhood. When Caesar arrives from Virginia he tells her about the Underground Railroad offering a means of escape from her misery which Cora chooses to take. The novel follows her arduous journey through the South, a slave catcher snapping at her heels. ‘As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day’ say the publishers. A tough read, I’m sure, but not to be missed.

Cover imageEnding on a high note, at least I hope so, with Ali Smith’s Autumn which sounds a little experimental. I was defeated by the blurb for Smith’s last novel, How to Be Both, and it looks like I may well be again with this one. It is, apparently, ‘a stripped-branches take on popular culture, and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means’. It’s the first instalment in a quartet named Seasonal – ‘four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative. From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves’. There we are then.

That’s it for October. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2015: Part 1

Cover imageAs you can tell from the title there are so many tasty paperbacks on offer in April that I’m gong to have to spread them across two posts. Such a shame! I’ll kick off with the novel that will no doubt be top of many readers’ lists, Ali Smith’s Baileys Prize longlisted How to Be Both which alternates between the stories of a Renaissance artist and a contemporary teenager. It was described by the Goldsmith Prize judges as a book that ‘pushes the novel into thrilling new shapes’ and Jacqui’s excellent review at JacquiWine’s Journal has whetted my appetite for it even more.

Less well known but still one to look forward to, Lisa Moore’s Giller Prize shortlisted Caught follows prison escapee David Slaney who embarks on a road trip in 1978 hoping to find a new life, encountering friends, foes, undercover cops not to mention all the weather that Canada can throw at him along the way. I very much enjoyed February, Moore’s sensitive novel about the consequences of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig in 1982, so I’m looking forward to this one.

My third choice, and another Canadian one, is MiriamToews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Although I was a little underwhelmed by her much-lauded debut, A Complicated Kindness, I very much enjoyed Irma Voth so have hopes for this one which explores the painful dilemma faced by Yoli whose beloved, apparently happy and successful sister has attempted suicide. Is it time to let Elf go? Reviewers described Toews’ writing as exquisite and heart-wrenching.

Earlier this year I read Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts into Air which felt quite timely set, as it is, in Ukraine. Ten years in the writing, it’s about the catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant which resulted in radioactive contamination on a horrific scale made all the more disastrous by the authorities’ attempted cover up. McKeon’s elegantly expressed novel explores the tragedy through the experiences of a doctor, his ex-wife and her child prodigy nephew. Colm Tóibín described it as ‘daring, ambitious, epic, moving’ and I won’t argue with that.

Last, but by no means least for me, is Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook. Laurain’s The Cover imagePresident’s Hat was one of my favourite books of 2013. The Red Notebook follows bookseller Laurent Letellier who finds an abandoned handbag containing little but the eponymous notebook. As Laurent leafs through it he becomes increasingly determined to find the woman whose jottings reveal someone he very much wants to meet but with no contact details what are his chances? If this is even half as good as The President’s Hat – and Janet’s review at From First Page to Last suggests it is – I’ll be a happy woman.

That’s the first half of April’s affordable treats. A click on the titles not linked to a review will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis, and if you want to check out my April hardback choices here they are. My second post on April paperbacks to look out for will be up in a week or so.