Tag Archives: Books of the Year 2015

Books of the Year 2015: Part 4

Cover imageMy fourth and final selection begins with an award-winning novel. After differing with both the Baileys and the Man Booker judges I’ve finally found a set I can agree with: the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Of course, they’d made their minds up in June and I only got around to reading Jo Mazelis’ utterly engrossing Significance in October. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel – it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other. Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. By showing events from so many points of view, she draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize.

October’s other treat was Zimbawean author Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that Memory, our narrator, was sold to a strange man by her parents. She’s now on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe, all served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit.

We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me and two sets of literary judges agreed: it’s on the Costa First Novel shortlist and it won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature. It’s the story of fifty-seven-year-old Ray who on one of his weekly shopping trips spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. Ray claims One Eye from the dog pound and soon the two are inseparable. Over the course of a year Ray tell his sad story to the only friend he’s ever had. As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality.Cover image

My final choice is entirely different. Way back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. Twenty years later and they’re back. Beginning in 2003, Number 11 follows ten-year-old friends Rachel and Alison over a decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws. Number 11 bears several familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Honourable mentions to Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last,  Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road, Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

And if I had to choose one? Impossible as ever – last year it was a three-way between Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist. This year looks like a four-way between Weathering, A God in Ruins, Spill, Simmer, Falter Wither and The Mountain Can Wait.

That’s it for my reading year highlights. What about you? What are your 2015 favourites?

Books of the Year 2015: Part 3

Our Souls at NightMy third batch of 2015 favourites starts off on a note of sadness. I’ve long been a champion of Kent Haruf’s beautifully pared back, elegant novels set in Holt, Colorado and so was very sorry to hear that Our Souls at Night was to be his last. Haruf died in 2014, a sad loss at only sixty-nine. This final novel is also set in Holt – how could it not be? – and feels like a fitting end to the series: a beautiful, tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow. Haruf’s insightful writing is clean and simple, stripped of ornament and all the more powerful for it.

My second June choice is also notable for its gorgeous writing. Beginning in 1997, Tender portrays the pain of being gay in a country that had only decriminalised homosexuality five years before. Catherine and James meet in Dublin when James returns from his Berlin stint as a photographer’s assistant to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. Entirely different from each other, they almost instantly click. Eventually, James tells Catherine he’s gay and soon she‘s basking in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those he’s not yet told. Eventually things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. It’s a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one, particularly as I read it at the time of the June referendum on gay marriage in Ireland which answered the question with a resounding ‘yes’. Good enough for me to include on my Man Booker wish list but, once again, the judges thought otherwise.

Entirely different, Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook took me on a romp through Cover imagetwentieth century history. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ a credo that’s got her through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband. Rose is a fabulous character and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters.

Andreas Egger, the protagonist of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, is the antithesis of Rose, leaving his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia where he remained for nine years as a prisoner-of-war. It’s barely one hundred and sixty pages, but Seethaler’s novel reveals a life far richer than you might expect. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he’s a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. A lovely novel whose setting reminded me of holidays past.

It’s always a joy when a favourite author returns to form after a string of disappointments. William Boyd’s new novel has its feet firmly planted in Any Human Heart territory after several dalliances with thrillers. I’d all but given up on him but the synopsis for Sweet Caress was hard to resist. It follows the life of Amory Clay whose photography takes her from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. Boyd at his best is hard to beat. He’s a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail, seamlessly threading historical bits and pieces through his narrative. Critical reception was a little mixed, apparently, but I thought this was a fine novel, both entertaining and enlightening.

Cover imageThis summer selection ends with Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family which appeared on the Man Booker longlist – at last we agreed. The night before her daughter’s wedding June’s house burns to the ground with her daughter and her fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend inside. In a state of shock and grief, unable to bear the endless stream of condolence, she flees the small Connecticut town where she’s been living for three years in the holiday home she once rarely visited. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s carefully assembled novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.

That’s it for summer favourites. A click on a title will take you to my review. Just one more short post for the rest of the year before it’s time to look forward to 2016, and the delights on offer in January. If you missed the first two posts they’re here and here.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 2

Cover imageThis second batch of 2015 goodies covers April and May, and is made up entirely of women writers. No plan there – just the way this particular cookie crumbled. I’ll begin with The Shore, Sara Taylor’s beautifully packaged debut which appeared on both the Baileys longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/ Peters Fraser Dunlop award shortlist. Taylor’s novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and the novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. Taylor’s writing is striking, her characters believable and her storytelling entrancing. Can’t say better than that.

My second April book is Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.

Christine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure she has the readership she deserves. Written in precise, quiet and unshowy prose The Lives of Women, follows Elaine, back from the States on her first visit home in many years, as she remembers the summer back in the ‘70s which has shaped her adult life. The story’s an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’veCover image not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. I rate her enough to have included her on my Man Booker wish list but, as with the Baileys, the judges failed to agree with me.

A God in Ruins has recently made its way on to the Costa shortlist, although for the life of me I fail to understand why it wasn’t on the Man Booker longlist at the very least. It was the one title I’d have bet my shirt on. Beginning in 1925, it’s the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative and stitching it all together beautifully. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here – or perhaps proving my incompetence as a literary prize judge, not that I’m likely to become one – but here’s yet another novel that appeared on my Man Booker wish list but not on theirs. The Mountain Can Wait is sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Sarah Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I’ve read this year.

Cover imageRounding off this second selection is Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, the second instalment of her The Last Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. The first part, Some Luck, made it on to last year’s books of the year posts for me – and many others – so I was looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. It opens in 1953 with a funeral neatly passing the baton on to the next generation and finishes in 1986 with a revelation which offers another pleasing twist in the lives of the family. Published here in the UK in October, Golden Age completed the trilogy, and suffice to say it’s the equal of the other two.

That’s it for the second selection. A click on a title will take you to my review and if you’d like to catch up with the first post, it’s here. More to follow shortly when yet another Man Booker unfulfilled wish will be aired.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 1

Last year I was off the blocks at the very beginning of December with my books of the year posts, barely waiting for the starter’s pistol. This year I’ve managed to restrain myself but I’m still incapable of cutting the number of favourites back to a sensible figure. Consequently I’ll be spreading my choices over four posts, picking them out month by month. Just as it did in 2014, my reading year got off to a very satisfying start, although a little more evenly spread this time. Last year’s first books of the year post saw seven titles crammed into two months; this one has six spread over three.

Cover imageIt begins with Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a smart little piece of meta-fiction which found its way on to the Folio Prize short list the month after I read it. Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was much talked about on publication – 10:04 is his second and it’s narrated by a writer whose first novel was much talked about on publication. He’s having trouble writing his second for which he’s got a stonking six-figure advance. Half-way through we learn that the narrator’s name is Ben. Your literary pretentiousness alarm may well be ringing loudly but Lerner’s novel is well worth your time: absorbing, amusing and very clever.

Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree is a much more straightforward kettle of fish: Girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. This kind of structure’s catnip for me – lots of lovely space for character development. Funny and a little eccentric, Woof’s book reminded me of the early Kate Atkinson novels while that structure has a touch of David Nicholls with a hefty dash of sassy wit and political savvy. I’d not got on with Woof’s debut, The Whole Wide Beauty, but this one hit the spot – so much so that I included it in my Baileys Prize wishlist although the judges disagreed.

They didn’t agree with me about my first February choice either even though Lucy Wood’sCover image Weathering is a striking novel right from the get-go. Its synopsis sounds prosaic enough – single mother returns to the village she left years ago, determined to renovate the dilapidated home she’s inherited from her mother, sell up and leave – but what makes Weathering an unalloyed treat is Wood’s gorgeous word pictures and sharp characterisation all wrapped up in an engrossing story.

February also saw the publication of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Most weeks, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays, Fuller posts a hundred words inspired by a photograph. Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, they’re always inventive. She has a knack of making you look at the world in a slightly different way. No surprise, then, that her debut was on my reading list. It’s the story of Peggy whose survivalist father takes his eight-year-old daughter to the Bavarian forest in 1976 where they stay for the next nine years. True to form, it begins with a photograph as the seventeen-year-old Peggy looks back at that summer. Yet another of my Baileys wishes which failed to come true but Fuller’s wonderfully inventive debut did catch the eye of the Desmond Elliot Prize judges and went on to win it.

Two very different novels for March beginning with my first in translation for this year, Signs Preceding the End of the World. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Yuri Herrera tells the story of Makina’s journey from one world to another, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground. The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid. Herrera – and Lisa Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving his readers pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.Cover image

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed my tendency to bang on about jackets and their importance in snagging readers’ attention. This particular jacket fits its book like a glove. Molly Mc Grann’s The Ladies of the House begins with a middle-aged woman, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. She’s never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through this entertaining piece of storytelling and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.

That’s it for the first quarter of 2015. A click on a title will take you to my review. More very shortly, when it’s the turn of the Man Booker judges to let me down not once but three times…