Tag Archives: Before Everything

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2018: Part One

Cover imageLots of paperbacks to anticipate eagerly this April which is when, I hope, we can expect spring to take off here in the UK  unless there’s another little winter reprise. For no reason other than my own convenience, I’ve divided this month’s preview geographically into America then Europe which is where all the titles are either set or originate.

I’m starting with one which attracted a good deal of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods when it was first published. Julie Buntin’s Marlena follows naïve fifteen-year-old Cat who finds herself becoming best friends with her neighbour when she moves to a new town in rural Michigan. Cat and Marlena make the town their own, partying like there’s no tomorrow until Marlena is found drowned in nearby woods. Decades later Cat is still trying to come to terms with her past. ‘Alive with an urgent, unshakeable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull ourselves back from the brink’ say the publishers a little dramatically.

Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy is set in New York where twenty-three-year-old Alice settles after leaving London. There she becomes obsessed with a Japanese writer she meets online whose life seems to echo her own. ‘As Alice closes in on Mizuko, her ‘internet twin’, realities multiply and fact and fiction begin to blur. The relationship between the two women exposes a tangle of lies and sexual encounters’ according to the publishers putting me in mind of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story.

Cherise Wolas’ The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is also about a writer and comes garlanded with praise from A. M. Homes. A rising literary star, Joan becomes distracted when she falls in love. Neither she nor her lover wants children but Martin’s surprised delight when she becomes Cover imagepregnant results in her keeping the child. ‘Decades later, when she is finally poised to reclaim the spotlight, a betrayal of Shakespearean proportions forces Joan to question every choice she has made’ say the publishers enticingly. Very much like the sound of that.

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss Laird Hunt’s fiction before now – he’s written six novels besides The Evening Road. Set in 1920s Indiana, Hunt’s odyssey follows two women through a searing summer’s night on which a lynching is to take place: one white, making her way to what she sees as a show; one black, travelling in the opposite direction. Hunt very effectively shows us both sides of this sorry story, each told by women who have more in common than they might imagine. It’s quite riveting: shocking at times, very funny at others, and vividly memorable.

In Tell Me How This Ends Well, David Samuel Levinson takes us to an anti-Semitic America in 2022 as the Jacobson family gathers for Passover in Los Angeles. Each of the three adult children is in the midst of a crisis, blaming their father for his mistreatment of them. Believing that he has their mother’s death in his sights, they begin to plot against him hampered by their own resentments and petty squabbling. ‘Tell Me How This Ends Well presents a blistering vision of near-future America, turning the exploits of one very funny, very troubled family into a rare and compelling exploration of the state of America itself’ say the publishers.

I’m ending this first paperback selection with a book from my 2017 books of the year list: Victoria Redel’s Before Everything. Five women, friends since school, come together when one of Cover imagethem is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

That’s it for April in America. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to learn more, or to my reviews for The Evening Road and Before Everything. If you’d like to catch up with April’s new titles they’re here. Europe next week which will defiantly kick off with a British title because we’re still European

My wish list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

The longlist for the only UK award that really excites me these days, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Thursday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2017 and March 31st 2018 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in my suggestions but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what the judges think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The judges are restricted to twelve on their longlist but given that this is my indulgence I’ve decided to ignore that and include two extra that I couldn’t bear to drop. I’ve followed the same format as 2017, 2016 and 2015, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

The End We Start From                   The Lie of the Land               Conversations with Friends

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Johannesburg                                        Home Fire                                   Sugar Money

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The Ninth Hour                                    The Life to Come                                 Sisters

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The Break                                                Asymmetry                  Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

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All Day at the Movies                           Before Everything

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I’ll be happy if even one of these takes the judges’ fancy. A click on a title will take you to my review should you want to know more..

How about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the longlist?

Books of the Year 2017: Part Three

Cover imageSummer’s favourites wander around the world a little taking in novels from Scandinavia, South Africa and the USA, beginning in June with Monte Carlo, a book by a Belgian author. Ending on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, Peter Terrin’s novella tells the tale of a God-fearing mechanic who becomes obsessed with the actress whose life he saves when she’s caught in a conflagration. He’s badly burnt, but she’s unscathed. Jack arrives home a hero but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, no acknowledgment of his sacrifice, his obsession with her deepens. From its vividly dramatic opening, this beautiful dreamlike novella had me in its grip. I’m hoping that more of Terrin’s fiction will be translated soon.

Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a piece of autofiction that also deals with trauma, this time the death of his partner a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom finds himself caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare in which he must prove himself to be Livia’s father. The novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter. I’m not entirely taken with the idea of autofiction but this is an intensely immersive, heart-wrenching book which I hope proved cathartic for its author.

June ended with Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Lottie – furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him – finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment of her loosely linked state-of-the-nation novels.Cover image

Just one book from July but it’s a particularly lovely one. In Victoria Redel’s Before Everything five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

Death and friendship are also themes in the first of August’s two favourites: Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy. Ellinor stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Georg and Ellinor were married for decades but she has always felt she was leading Anna’s life. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at its edge. Now that Georg has died there is no one that she wishes to talk to except Anna. Ellinor’s grief is such a private, painful thing, not a rending of garments or tearing of hair but a constant ache of absence as much for Anna as it is for Georg. This loving, forgiving friendship is at the heart of Grøndahl’s quietly powerful novella.

Cover imageSummer’s last book is Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Just as Woolf’s novel reflected the preoccupations of her time, so Johannesburg offers us a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. Melrose deftly knits the many threads of her narrative together, shifting smoothly between her characters and offering a microcosm of this complex country where white privilege often shuts itself away behind razor wire and navigates the constant stream of black hawkers from comfortable, air-conditioned cars. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

That’s it for summer, a season I cling on to for as long as I can. Autumn gets off to a darker start although not as Gothic as I was expecting…

All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two instalments of my 2017 books of the year they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.

My 2017 Man Booker wish list

Despite swearing off Man Booker predictions a few years back I can’t seem to keep away although I must emphasize that my track record is pretty dismal so don’t go laying any bets on my suggestions. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and 30th September 2017 and have been written in English. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September but I’m sticking to novels I’ve already read. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Thursday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order:

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The Fatal Tree                                             Birdcage Walk                             Reservoir 13

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The End We Start From                      The Answers                      Conversations with Friends

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A Line Made by Walking               Before Everything                            The Nix

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The Hearts of Men                     Johannesburg                              Forest Dark

Usually several titles jostle for position as my top choice but this year there’s no contest – Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. No reflection on the merits of the other books: McGregor’s writing is sublime and this is quite possibly his best work yet. I’ll be searching for a hat to eat if it doesn’t make it on to the longlist at the very least. If you’d like to read my review, a click on a title will take you to it. A reviews of Forest Dark to follow soon, as will a what I got up to on my holidays post later in the week for those who might be interested.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Before Everything by Victoria Redel: A gorgeous paean of praise to friendship

Cover imageEvery now and then a book comes along about which it’s hard not to gush. Victoria’s Redel’s lovely Before Everything fits that bill for me. I was very much attracted by its premise – five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying – but I hadn’t expected the bonus of such graceful, elegant writing.

Anna’s cancer has recurred. She’s been in remission several times but is done with invasive surgery, debilitating chemotherapy and the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. She’s the lodestar of the Old Friends, the name the five adopted when they were eleven. Beautiful, clever and vivid, Anna can also be selfish, manipulative and bossy. They all know that but they love her, regardless, as do the many others that Anna has drawn into her orbit over the two decades she’s lived in her neighbourhood. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the never-ending conversation the five of them share, taking her out on an ill-advised outing, stepping a little carelessly on the toes of the women they think of as her new friends and struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Each of them has their own lives, troubled and otherwise, but Anna has always been at the centre. Meanwhile, Anna’s husband continues with the hard graft of caring for his dying wife despite their estrangement.

Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – smoothly switching perspective between Anna, her friends and her husband. These are women who have seen each other through joy and misery, difficulty and triumphs, for decades. None of them can envisage a world in which they won’t rush to tell Anna of their news, fashioning the latest mishap into a story, confiding a fear or a hope. Redel neatly avoids the saccharine, portraying the women with all their flaws and capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a beautifully crafted novel. There are a multitude of quotes I could pull out but here’s a smattering to give you a flavour: ‘They have done so much laughing, these five, they’d managed to laugh their way through even the unlaughable’; ‘Fear was always there, a gauze between her and the vivid rest of her life’; ’She imagined her dresses flouncing through town, a flutter of hems waiting at a crosswalk, an A-line flare pressing a code at an ATM’ and perhaps my favourite ‘We are here. And then we’re not. For a little while, we are a story’. A gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin, Before Everything is the first of Redel’s books to be published in the UK. I hope that Sceptre have plans for her other four.

It came as no surprise to find that Redel is a poet which often turns out to be the case when I’ve particularly enjoyed a novelist’s writing, the most obvious example being Helen Dunmore. It may be a little presumptuous but I like to think that she would have loved this novel as much as I do.

Books to Look Out for in July 2017

Cover imageJuly sees publishing well into its summer reading season with far fewer books than usual to tempt me although Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men more than makes up for that. His debut, Shotgun Lovesongs, was a wonderful, heart-tugging piece of writing. As ever, there’s that nagging worry about second novel syndrome but this new one sounds set in similar thematic territory. Nelson and Jonathan are very different – one diffident the other popular – but they become friends in 1962, the same summer Nelson’s family is rocked by his father’s betrayal. Butler’s novel follows these two into adulthood with all its many challenges and setbacks. ‘The Hearts of Men is a lyrical, wise and deeply affecting novel about the slippery definitions of right and wrong, family and fidelity, and the redemptive power of friendship’ say the publishers. Fingers firmly crossed for this one.

Continuing the friendship theme Victoria Redel’s Before Everything is about five girls who dub themselves the Old Friends, aged eleven. They see each other through the multitude of ups and downs that adult life throws at them until one of them is diagnosed with a recurring cancer and decides enough is enough. Each of the five reacts differently to their friend’s decision. It sounds like quintessential summer reading but I can never resist that old evolving friendship theme.

It’s also the theme of Elizabeth Day’s The Party although perhaps this time with more of a bite to it. Scholarship boy Martin Gilmour meets Ben Fitzmaurice at Burtonbury School, becoming firm friends with him despite their wildly differing backgrounds. Over the next twenty-five years, these two are bound together both by friendship and by a secret about Ben that Martin is determined to keep. However, as the blurb hints, things may be about to change when ‘at Ben’s 40th birthday party, the great and the good of British society are gathering to celebrate in a haze of champagne, drugs and glamour’. Sebastian Faulks is quoted as finding it ‘witty, dark and compelling’.Cover image

I’m not entirely sure about Maile Meloy’s Do Not Be Alarmed  which doesn’t sound up my usual alley. Two families are enjoying a cruise together. Both adults and children go ashore in Central America where things go horribly awry: ‘What follows is a heart-racing story told from the perspectives of the adults and the children, as the distraught parents – now turning on one another and blaming themselves – try to recover their children and their shattered lives’ say the publishers. This sounds so different from the three previous novels I’ve read by Meloy that I had to check it was the same author but I enjoyed them so much that I’ll be giving this one a try.

I’m also a somewhat doubtful about Yuki Means Happiness but Alison Jean Lester’s Lillian on Life was a treat. A young woman leaves America for Japan, keen for adventure. She takes a job as a nanny to a two-year-old, immersing herself in the routine of the household and becoming increasingly attached to her charge until she becomes aware that the Yoshimura family isn’t quite what it seems. ‘Yuki Means Happiness is a rich and powerfully illuminating portrait of the intense relationship between a young woman and her small charge, as well as one woman’s journey to discover her true self’ according to the publishers which sounds very different from the worldly Lillian’s tale.

Cover imageI’m ending with Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, which from the title alone, seems certain to be a Marmite book. The publisher’s blurb is a little opaque although I suspect they’re not to blame for that given Barker’s idiosyncratic approach to fiction. Best to quote it at length, I think: ‘H(A)PPY is a post-post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, a story which tells itself and then consumes itself. It’s a place where language glows, where words buzz and sparkle and finally implode. It’s a novel which twists and writhes with all the terrifying precision of a tiny fish in an Escher lithograph – a book where the mere telling of a story is the end of certainty’. I loved The Cauliflower with all its wackiness although there’s no guarantee I’ll feel the same about this one.

That’s it for July’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks to follow…