Tag Archives: Commonwealth

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2017: Part One

Cover imageAll but one of this first selection of May paperbacks is about marriage, family or both, and the one that isn’t appears to touch on it in some way. Top of my list has to be Ann Patchett’s superb Commonwealth, one of my books of 2016 and a hoped for Baileys Prize contender. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed narrative and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, this is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

Jane Rogers’ Conrad and Eleanor also made an appearance on both my books of 2016 list and my Baileys wishlist. Sadly, neither Commonwealth nor Rogers’ novel was successful. Authors may well start putting in requests to be omitted from my prize wishlists soon, given their lamentable performance. Conrad and Eleanor is a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is engaged in medical research as is Conrad but while she’s a star in her particular sphere, his work has stalled. When Conrad fails to return from the conference he’s supposed to be attending, Eleanor is forced to take a long hard look at their marriage. Rogers resists any hint of a fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing novel.Cover image

As, I’m sure Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place will be too. There was a time when I cheerily dismissed O’Farrell’s novels as chick lit – not for me – until I was finally persuaded to read After You’d Gone. This one’s about Daniel, a New Yorker who lives in a remote part of Ireland, with what sounds like a somewhat complicated life: children he never sees, a father he detests and a trigger-happy, ex-film star wife. News of a woman he knew long ago is about to further spice things up.  The novel ‘crosses continents and time zones, giving voice to a diverse and complex cast of characters. At its heart, it is an extraordinary portrait of a marriage, the forces that hold it together and the pressures that drive it apart’ say the publishers. Sounds unmissable.

I’m hopeful that the same can be said of Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers which has an appealing bad boys and girls facing middle age and their own teenagers’ rebellion theme. Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe once played in a band together but now they’re married with kids and mortgages, staring fifty in the face but still clinging to whatever shreds of coolness they can. They all live in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood and their kids are friends, some a little too friendly for their parents’ liking. Straub showed herself to be a sharp, witty social observer in her enjoyable The Vacationers, qualities that sit very well with her new novel’s premise so hopes are high

Cover imageMy last choice, Mike McCormack’s Goldsmith Prize winning Solar Bones, follows the thoughts of Marcus Conway as he stands in his kitchen ‘deconstructing with his engineer’s mind how things are built to consider them better: bridges, banking systems and marriages. In one of the first great Irish novels of the 21st century, Mike McCormack captures with tenderness and feeling, in continuous, flowing prose, a whole life, suspended in a single hour’ say the publishers. I like the sound of this one.

That’s it for the first instalment of May’s paperback preview. If you’d like to know more, a click on a title will take you to my review for the first two and to a more detailed synopsis for the others. If you’d like to catch up with May’s hardbacks they’re here. More paperbacks shortly.

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 of the Year 2016: Part Four

Cover imageThis final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman. The story is structured in brief chapters, Cover imageeach one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.

Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.

Cover imageThis year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .

And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.

Books to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover imageI like to kick off these previews with a novel that I can hardly wait to get my hands on. Sometimes there’s more than one, sometimes nothing that entirely fits the bill, but this month there’s no contest – the prospect of Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days has me almost slavering in anticipation. Brightness Falls was one of my favourite novels of the ‘90s, summing up the heady days of 1980s New York through the lives of Corrine and Russell, a glittering couple in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seemed possible if you were young, bright and fearless until the Wall Street crash of 1987 when the bubble finally burst. Of course, we’ve since been buffeted by a much more damaging financial crisis but Russell and Corrine have that yet to come. Obama and Clinton are still rivals, Lehman Brothers have not yet crashed as the couple go about their lives, Russell running his own publishing company, still hankering after the bohemian life, while Corrine manages a food redistribution programme, longing for more than just a loft to live in for their twelve-year-old twins. ‘A moving, deeply humane novel’ say the publishers which exactly summed up Brightness Falls for me although I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed in its sequel, The Good Life.

Still in New York for Tom Connolly’s Men Like Air which is described by the publishers as ‘a glorious love letter’ to the city, sealing the deal for me. It’s about four men and their relationships with each other: nineteen-year-old Finn, fresh from the UK; Jack, the brother Finn’s determined to track down; Leo, lonely and envious of his best friend’s life and William, not only Leo’s oldest friend but also his happily married brother-in-law. The lives of these four interconnect in unexpected ways, apparently. The ‘love letter to New York’ may have been the hook for me but male friendship is an unusual theme which gives Connolly’s novel an added draw.

We’re off to city far less celebrated than New York in American fiction for Christopher Hebert’s Angels of Detroit. Hebert’s novel explores what was once a beacon of America’s industrial success, now bankrupt and on the point of dereliction, through the lives of a wide Cover imagerange of characters, from activists intent on saving it to an old woman trying to establish a community garden, from a carpenter with an idea for regeneration to an executive who remembers Detroit in its bustling prime. ‘Driven by struggle and suspense, and shot through with a startling empathy, Christopher Hebert’s magnificent second novel unspools an American story for our time’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket to me.

I have something of an on again, off again relationship with Ann Patchett’s fiction – I loved The Magician’s Assistant but couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about with the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto . Commonwealth sounds tempting, though. Deputy District Attorney Bert Cousins falls for the mother of the baby whose christening party he’s crashed in 1964. Twenty-four years later Franny meets her literary idol and tells him her family’s story unaware of the far-reaching consequences she’s setting in train. It’s described by the publisher as ‘a powerful and tender tale of family, betrayal and the far-reaching bonds of love and responsibility… …a meditation on inspiration, interpretation and the ownership of stories’. I’m particularly interested by the ‘ownership of stories’ idea.

Georgia Bain’s Ester in Between a Wolf and a Dog continually listens to the stories of others. Ester is a family therapist, helping clients to navigate their way through misery to happiness on a daily basis. However her own life is far from a delight. Lonely and estranged from both her ex-husband and her sister, each of whom have their own problems, she’s about to face the consequences of a choice made by her mother that will affect them all. Sounds right up my street.

Cover imageAs well as starting with a much-anticipated novel I like to end with one, too, and Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival fits that slot beautifully. Picking up the performance theme of the marvellous Jamrach’s Menagerie with its Victorian East End setting, Birch’s latest novel has one foot in nineteenth-century Europe with Julia Patriana, known as much for her physical oddity as her singing and dancing talent, and one in present-day London with Rose who collects lost treasures. These two share ‘a wonderful and terrible link’ according to the publishers in what they describe as a ‘haunting tale of identity, love and independence’. If Orphans of the Carnival is only half as good as Jamrach’s Menagerie it will be well worth your time.

That’s it for September. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested.