Tag Archives: Birdcage Walk

Books of the Year 2017: Part Two

Cover imageJanuary and February boasted six reading treats for me but things were spread a little more thinly over the following three months. March began with what I knew would be a favourite author’s last book. Helen Dunmore’s, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s 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. Dunmore quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she was gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

April’s favourite is by another writer whose work seems underrated to me. Although longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was omitted from the shortlist much to my – and many other readers’ – amazement, then it missed the Goldsmiths Prize. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fingers firmly crossed that the Costa judges see sense.Cover image

Three books stood out for me in May, the first of which was all about storytelling. Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Disoriented and lonely, Marc begins to let slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction.

I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Duncan Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos when it was first published here in 2016. Three timelines run through this tightly plotted, inventive novel: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting from the de Groot family in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000 when its curator is faced with a youthful indiscretion which could destroy her reputation. Smith juggles his narrative stands with admirable deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted and there’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel. It’s that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure about Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which looked distinctly dystopian, not the kind of distraction I was looking for in a year spent trying to escape the real world, but she’s a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

The next three months kick off with another bumper selection in June, including one often described as a Brexit novel. Can’t seem to get away from it…

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2017: Part One

Cover image As so often seems to be the case, part one of this preview is mostly made up of novels originating in the States but top of the list has to be one set very close to where I live in the UK, and coincidentally it’s the only one I’ve read. Helen Dunmore’s 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 but with the spectre of the French Revolution looming across the channel, Diner’s plans look set to fail. Politics, both national and domestic, run through this novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Sadly, as I’m sure readers will know, this is Dunmore’s last novel. She’ll be much missed.

Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is also set in a turbulent time: 2007, the year before the global financial crash. Recently arrived from Cameroon, Jende Jonga and his family have high hopes for their new life, all the more so when Jende becomes a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior partner at Lehman Brothers. The fates of the two men’s families become closely interlinked and the Jongas begin to believe that the American Dream might be within their grasp until it becomes clear that both the Edwards family and the world of finance have distinctly rocky foundations. ‘Faced with the loss of all they have worked for, each couple must decide how far they will go in pursuit of their dreams – and what they are prepared to sacrifice along the way’ say the publishers. The financial crash offers fertile ground for fiction just as 9/11 did, and this sounds like an interesting take on it.

Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History is about another immigrant to America, this time from Yemen. As Jacob waits at a psychiatric clinic he casts his mind back over his life – from his childhoodCover image in an Egyptian whorehouse to his life as a gay man in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic – interrupted by taunts from Satan and scoldings from Death. ‘Alameddine gives us a charged philosophical portrait of a brilliant mind in crisis. This is a profound, philosophical and hilariously winning story of the war between memory and oblivion we wrestle with every day of our lives’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing.

Tim Muphy’s Christodora also has the AIDS epidemic as its backdrop. The Christodora is the apartment building in Manhattan’s East Village whose inhabitants Murphy’s novel follows from the 1980s to the 2020s: ‘Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself’ as the publishers put it which sounds right up my New York city loving alley. Of course it could be a sprawling mess but I’ll certainly be trying it out. Great jacket, too.

Hide, Matthew Griffin’s debut, takes us out of the city to the American South where Wendell and Frank meet after the Second World War in a depressed textile town. They decide to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, well aware of the dangers their relationship poses. Decades later, when Wendell finds Frank collapsed outside it seems that the carefully constructed face they present to the world may fracture. Wendell attempts to maintain the façade as Frank continues to deteriorate but ‘faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion: the different lives they might have lived – and the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had’ say the publishers. This sounds like a heart-wrenching novel, a story that’s to be hoped will play out less and less in real life.

My final choice is also set in a down-at heel-town and may well backfire horribly. In Everybody’s Fool Richard Russo revisits North Bath a decade after the events of Nobody’s Fool, picking up the story of ‘Sully’ Sullivan, now beset by health problems. It sounds as if there’s a good deal to entertain in Russo’s novel, including an escaped cobra, but returning to the scene of a much-loved book is always a dicey game for a writer. The publishers promise ‘a novel which is a pure pleasure to read – genuinely funny, enormously heartfelt and imbued with the warmth and wisdom that are Richard Russo’s stock in trade’. Let’s hope they’re right.

That’s it for August’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles, they’re here. Part two shortly…

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.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore: The rights of women

Cover imageHere’s one I’ve been looking forward to ever since I spotted it in the publisher’s catalogue. Helen Dunmore’s new novel, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, who is intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge.

Lizzie’s mother has brought her up to be an independent woman, reflecting her own radical, egalitarian beliefs. Julia is often to be found scratching out pamphlets, sometimes dictated to her by Lizzie’s hopelessly impractical stepfather. Neither of them is fond of Diner whose speculative building plans run counter to their principles but Lizzie conceived a passion for him and was determined to have him. His first wife died in her native France: apart from those barest of bones, he refuses to talk of her but Lucie haunts this marriage.  When Julia dies in childbirth, Lizzie resists Diner’s annoyance, taking her half-brother into the show house that has become their home. Passion is cooling and Lizzie is unsettled by Diner’s jealous need to know her whereabouts. As the news from France finds its way across the Channel, Diner’s plans are undermined – no one wants to sink their capital in a house, no matter how splendid, with the possibility of war on the horizon. Mired in debt, he decides they must make their escape and a revelation is made.

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. It can be no coincidence that much of the action takes place in 1792, the year in which Mary Wollstonecraft published her seminal work, A Vindication of the Right of Women. As ever Dunmore’s writing is striking – ‘Do you really think that the storm in France will not blow my hat off?’ asks Diner; ‘Memory. What was that to set against the worms?’ reflects Lizzie in her grief – and her characters beautifully observed. She expertly pulls taut the tension that runs through this marriage between a woman used to freedom and a man who assumes it’s his right to control her. Not Dunmore at her absolute best – the sensuous prose of Talking to the Dead and the sharpness of Exposure remain my favourites – but an engrossing novel, made all the more vivid for me by its setting, a mere ten-minute train ride from where I live. I’ve often walked along the Royal York Crescent on which Diner’s vision is based. It’ll be hard to do that now without thinking of Lizzie, her half-brother wrapped tightly in her shawl, as she makes her way up onto the Downs.

It’s such a sadness to know that this will be Dunmore’s last novel. She has quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she is gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

I tend not to get caught up in literary prize fever these days but there is one for which I make an exception – The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist is due to be announced next Wednesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2016 and March 31st 2017 qualify for the award. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably to predict who the judges will select but truth be told I much prefer to indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might favour. This year there will be fewer titles on the judges’ list – they’re restricted to twelve – but given that this is my indulgence I’ve allowed myself three more. I’ve followed the same format as 2016 and 2015, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog apart from one yet to be posted. In no particular order then, here’s my list of wishes rather than predictions for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017:

Idaho                                              The Cauliflower                          Sweetbitter

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The Gun Room                               The Crime Writer                       The Lauras

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Conrad and Eleanor                        Commonwealth                     Harmless Like You

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Our Magic Hour                                Swimming Lessons                 Another Brooklyn

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First Love                                          A Line Made for Walking           Birdcage Walk

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Who knows which of these, if any, will appear on next week’s list but for what it’s worth they’ve they’ve earned their place on mine. A click on a title will take you to my review for all but Birdcage Walk which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. Next year, of course, the prize will be called something else as it’s in search of a new sponsor: let’s hope they find one soon.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, predictions or wishes welcome.

Books to Look Out for in March 2017: Part One

Cover imageThere’s a timeline flowing neatly through this first batch of March titles, beginning with Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk set in 1792 in her home town of Bristol with the French Revolution still playing out across the Channel. Recently married, Lizzie comes from a Radical background but her husband is a property developer whose future prosperity relies on stability rather than the prospect of war and social unrest. John believes not only that Lizzie is too independent and questioning but that she belongs to him by law and must live according to his wishes. A new Dunmore is always a joy and the scene seems set nicely here for an exploration of political and domestic tensions.

Over half a century later, the beginning of the American Civil War is the setting for George Saunders’ first novel Lincoln in the Bardo. The basis of Saunders’ story is the death of Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son and its effects on his father, rumoured to have frequently visited his son’s grave despite the war ravaging his country. ‘From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying’ according to the publisher. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that but it’s the novel’s central question – ‘how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?’ – together with Saunders’ reputation that makes this one attractive.

Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots moves us on to the 1930s where Florence is desperate to escape her Brooklyn family. A new job and relationship take her to Moscow but she later finds she has no way back. Florence’s actions have repercussions that reverberate down through the generations as her son will find when his own work forces him to investigate his mother’s past. ‘Epic in sweep and intimate in detail, The Patriots is both a compelling portrait of the entangled relationship between America and Russia, and a beautifully crafted story of three generations of one family caught between the forces of history and the consequences of past choices’ says the publisher which sounds much more interesting than your average family saga.Cover image

Ayòbámi Adébáyò‘s Stay with Me takes us to Nigeria in the turbulent 1980s where Yejide is desperate for a child. She’s tried everything she knows, from medical consultations to pilgrimage, with no success until finally her in-laws insist on a new wife for their son. ‘Stay with Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. Ayòbámi Adébáyò weaves a devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood’ says the publisher which sounds almost too heartrending to bear. I spotted Naomi over at The Writes of Women raving about this on Twitter last December and so my hopes are high.

That’s it for the first tranche of March goodies. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Part two follows shortly…