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Paperbacks to Look Out For in September 2015

Cover imageThere are some particularly tasty paperback treats to look forward to this September. I’ll start with the ones I’ve reviewed, my favourite of which is Helen Oyeyemi’s fabulous tale of race and identity Boy, Snow, Bird. Where to start with this complex, dazzling book? There are elements of fairy tale – a wicked stepmother, a Prince Charming or two, a girl called Snow – although no apples as I recall, and it’s stuffed with stories. From its very beginning, a richly symbolic mirror motif runs through the novel reflecting, or not reflecting, different images the characters have of themselves. It’s brilliant, and I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it.

Anne Tyler’s Baileys shortlisted, now Man Booker longlisted, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a another favourite. It’s the story of the Whitshanks told through the history of their house lovingly built back in the 1930s by Red’s father for whom it was the epitome of perfection. Now in their seventies, both Red and Abby are showing signs of ageing and Abby’s ‘absences’ – short periods when her ‘brain jumps the track’ – have become a concern. What to do? I’ve heard that this may be Anne Tyler’s last novel and it wouldn’t be a bad one to go out on but I can’t help hoping for more.

Jo Bloom is at the other end of the novelist career spectrum with her first novel Ridley Road. Carnaby Street, mini-skirts, coffee bars and rock n’ roll: these are some of the things that make up the glossy vibrant Swinging Sixties we see portrayed on our TV screens in nostalgic documentaries. Flip that coin over and you’ll find something nasty – racism and fascism alive and kicking almost twenty years after the Second World War. Bloom explores a fascinating slice of British history when a group of Jewish East Enders decided enough was enough, all wrapped up in a thriller and a love story.Cover image

Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter carries on the historical theme but in an intensely personal way: it’s based upon family stories of Gale’s ancestor Harry who fled looming disgrace in England to farm a few bleak acres in Canada, knowledge that makes the novel all the more compelling. It’s a glorious piece of storytelling replete with detail anchoring it in time and place as Harry, brought up to be a gentleman rather than a farmer, struggles to establish a smallholding in the frigid Canadian landscape.

Entirely different but also bound up with history, Early Warning is the second instalment of Jane Smiley’s The Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. I read the immensely enjoyable Some Luck last year and had been looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. Early Warning opens with a funeral in 1953 and takes the family through the Cold Wars Years to 1986, ending with a revelation which adds another pleasing turn in their story. Now, of course, I’m impatient for the final instalment, although, like all absorbing reads where you feel on intimate terms with the characters, I suspect I won’t want to reach the end.

Cover imagePhilp Teir’s Helsinki-set debut tells the story of the Paul family over the course of just one winter rather than a century. Max and Katriina have been together for thirty years, apparently happy enough but in reality things are a little scratchy, wearing a bit thin. We know that divorce is on the horizon – Teir tells us that from the start – The Winter War is the story of how they get there, complete with strong characters and wry humour.

I haven’t yet read Amanda Coe’s Getting Colder but I enjoyed What They Do in the Dark very much. It’s one of those taut, domestic thrillers – very dark indeed, and she certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension. In Getting Colder Sara, who deserted her children to be with her lover – once a much-lauded playwright now whiskey-soaked and blocked – has died. Thirty-five years after she left them, her children have sought Patrick out wanting answers. A little less sinister than What They Do in the Dark, apparently, although it sounds pretty unsettling to me.

As does Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief in which a woman writes a letter night after night to what was once her dear friend about their shared past and the betrayal that blew their friendship apart fifteen years ago. As the letter progresses its tone changes, becoming both more self-revelatory and more defensive. Harvey’s previous books The Wilderness, about a man with Alzheimer’s trying to make sense of his world (that theme again), and All is Song, a novel of brotherhood and ideas, were both intelligent and beautifully expressed so my hopes are high.Cover image

My final choice is Johanna Skibsrud’s Quartet for the End of Time, a very melancholy title for a novel which re-imagines the 1932 American First World War veterans’ march to Washington during the Great Depression to demand the wartime bonus they were promised. It’s written by a Canadian, surprisingly. Skibsrud won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2010 for The Sentimentalists about a young woman trying to understand her father through his experiences in the Vietnam War.

That’s it for September paperbacks. A rather lengthy post, I know, but not quite enough to stretch over two. A click on one of the first six titles will take you to my review, the last three will take you to Waterstones for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with my hardback selections, part one is here and part two is here.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 1

It’s that time of the year again – best of this and that all over the place. When I did this last year I’d only been blogging for a few months and, foolishly, thought I’d restrict myself to a top six. It didn’t work and the so-called six spilled over into just under twenty so this year I’m spreading things out a bit starting at the beginning of my reading year which got off to a stonking start.

Paperback cover imageBy January 8th I’d already got one very fine read notched up: Michèle Forbes’ exquisitely written debut, Ghost Moth. Set in Northern Ireland, it opens in 1969 and is the story of a marriage told in alternating narratives, twenty years apart. The following week it was Fiona Macfarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest, which opens dramatically with a tiger stalking the Australian beachside house where Ruth lives. Ruth as we soon realise, is demented – a theme which seemed hard to avoid in 2014’s fiction but with its subtle incremental use of suspense McFarlane’s novel stands out for me as one of the better ways of exploring it, and clearly the Guardian First Book Award judges agreed. Unsurprisingly given its centenary year, the First World War provided the backdrop for a plethora of novels from which Helen Dunmore’s The Lie stood out for me. Dunmore, as regular readers may have noticed given that I regularly bang on about her, is one of my favourite writers, sadly underrated. Still in January, Katherine Grant’s Sedition was a treat: a bawdy, rollicking tale, set in 1794 about the subversion of male authority. It’s a hugely enjoyable novel, liberally laced with a ribald, salacious wit underpinned with sufficient sobriety to save it from caricature.

Four picks already, and I’ve only just reached February – a short month and not usually aCover image very exciting one in the publishing schedules or the UK winter, come to that. Louise Levine’s The Following Girls cheered me up with its pitch-perfect satire on adolescent schoolgirl life in the 1970s, replete with period detail and smartarse one-liners but with a nicely honed dark edge. Hélène Gestern’s beautifully constructed The People in the Photo also took me back to the ‘70s with its newspaper cutting from which two people try to trace their history. In this detective story without a detective, Gestern painstakingly leads her readers down a few blind alleys pulling at our heartstrings until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are pieced together. Finally, at least for this post, but still in February the wonderfully imaginative Helen Oyeyemi gave us Boy, Snow, Bird, a fabulous tale of race and identity with a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.

That’s my first seven picks of 2014. I’ve come up with twenty-one in all so two more posts in the offing, although it’s only early December: still time for additions.

Boy, Snow, Bird: A fabulous tale of race and identity

Cover imageWhen Helen Oyeyemi was supposed to be studying for her A-levels she was actually busy writing her first novel, published in 2005. I was the reviews editor for Waterstone’s Books Quarterly at the time and a quick skim of The Icarus Girl was enough for me to make it a lead review. I commissioned Lesley Glaister to write it, herself no slouch at scaring the pants of people with her fiction. She ended her review with ‘I was actually trembling when I put it down and had to keep the light on all night. I think it’s the most haunting and disturbing novel I’ve ever read.’ which I thought a little over the top but she was a regular reviewer who wrote well so I trusted her opinion. Shortly after I read it in its entirety and have never been so frightened by a book. Here was a young woman – 17- or 18-years-old – who had managed to terrify two grown women, both seasoned readers. It’s a good story but I’ve told it to give you an idea from the start just what an extraordinarily accomplished writer Oyeyemi is. And despite the distraction from her A-Level studies she went on to study at Cambridge, Social and Political Science as I remember.

Boy Snow Bird is a novel about race and identity – the stories we tell ourselves and the storiesCover image we tell others about ourselves. Boy is the platinum blonde daughter of Frank Novak, a rat catcher whose sadistic violence seems to have sown a seed of something similar in her. Pushed too far, Boy runs away catching a bus to the end of the line which happens to be Flax Hall where everyone seems to be engaged in making something beautiful, the antithesis of her grubby New York neighbourhood. Boy views it all with sardonic cynicism, finally settling for marriage with Arturo Whitman, widower and father of Snow, a sweet eight-year-old whose mother died when she was a few days old. Boy becomes pregnant but when she gives birth, her daughter is something of a surprise: Bird is black and with her birth the carefully maintained edifice of her well-to-do-grandparents’ identities comes tumbling down. This is the 1960s – the civil rights movement is just getting going and mixed marriages are still illegal in many states. ‘Black is beautiful’ is just over the horizon but hair damaged by too much straightener is the consequence of what passes for beautiful now.

Where to start with this complex, dazzling book? There are elements of fairy tale – a wicked stepmother, a Prince Charming or two, a girl called Snow – although no apples as I recall. It’s stuffed with stories: Mia wants to tell everyone’s story, Bird tells Snow a story to illustrate what happens if you pretend to be something you aren’t, Kazim creates comic-strip stories – the Whitmans having been telling a story for most of their lives. From its very beginning, a richly symbolic mirror motif runs through the novel reflecting, or not reflecting, different images the characters have of themselves. The writing is striking: Boy watches ‘a crowd of fur coats with people in them tottering across the sand’; the ends of Mrs Fletcher’s self-butchered hair ‘looked like a bar graph’; Boy is horrified at the thought of never telling a lie ‘like living in a house with every door and window wide open all day long’. The narrative is split between Boy and Bird, their voices clear and distinct – Boy’s sharply sardonic, her thirteen-year-old daughter’s full of open curiosity and determination. It’s a triumph, and there’s a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.