Tag Archives: Fiona Macfarlane

Paperbacks to Look Out for January 2017: Part Two

Cover imageWith luck you’ll be awash with book tokens by now and if you haven’t managed to spend them all already, here are a few paperbacks worth keeping an eye out for, starting with one I wasn’t at all drawn to when it was first published but I’ve seen so many good reviews I think it’s time to take a look. Beginning in 1968, Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees is set against the backdrop of the Biafran civil war and its fallout. Ijeoma is effectively orphaned after her father is killed and she’s separated from her mother, taking solace in her friendship with Amina, a relationship which will ‘will shake the foundations of Ijeoma’s faith, test her resolve and flood her heart’ according to the publishers.

Hannah Kohler’s debut, The Outside Lands, also has war as its backdrop, this time the Vietnam war. Jeannie and Kip’s mother died when Jeanie was nineteen and Kip fourteen. Jeannie’s marriage takes her into the unfamiliar world of wealth and politics while Kip turns to petty crime, then volunteers for the Marines. Both are caught up in events leaving them ‘driven by disillusionment to commit unforgivable acts of betrayal that will leave permanent scars’ in a ‘story of people caught in the slipstream of history, how we struggle in the face of loss to build our world, and how easily and with sudden violence it can be swept away’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown to me but I’m attracted by the idea of a debut that takes its readers from 1960s California to Vietnam.

Fiona McFarlane’s The High Places is a somewhat uncharacteristic choice for me given that it’s a collection of short stories, few of which are reviewed on this blog, although I have been getting a little better at that recently. It’s made up of thirteen stories written over ten years – eight previously unpublished – and ranges far and wide, both in terms of geography and subject. Some tend towards the slightly surreal while others are more conventional but all are inventive and served up with an appealing wry humour. Those who enjoyed McFarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest, should find lots to enjoy here. Still hoping for a novel, though.

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Ending with a third yet to-be-read book, this time Sunil Yapa’s debut, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, which is set in Seattle against the backdrop of the 1999 World Trade Organization protest. Victor, the estranged son of Seattle’s police chief, finds himself homeless after a family tragedy. On a day that will see the city under siege from protesters, Victor and his father are set on a collision course. This one could go either way but it has an unusual setting and that’s an eye-catching title which you could also say for the cover, I suppose, but not in a good way.

That’s it for January paperbacks. Several treats to help see off the miseries of a UK winter. If you’d like more detail, a click on  The High Places will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other three. If you missed the first part of January’s paperbacks, it’s here, while the hardback previews are here and here.

Well-worn themes

Cover imageA few years ago when I was running the reviews section of a magazine which included children’s books, YA novels were awash with vampires. Then suddenly dystopian fiction seemed to be the thing – as if teens don’t have enough to angst about. It seems that publishers find bandwagons hard to get off, no matter how overcrowded they become. Two current well-trodden paths in adult fiction are post apocalypse (closely related to dystopian) and the demented protagonist.

The first has a long history – lots of it around in the Cold War years, for instance, including what’s now come to be a classic of the genre: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seemed to spark off a new post apocalyptic trend with the likes of  Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse not far behind and now we have Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both longlisted for the Baileys. Cover image

The first example I can remember of the dementia theme is Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. Then there’s Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness, and more recently Sue Peeble’s Snake Road,  Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, Fiona MacFarlanes’s The Night Guest, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves.

Not hard to see what’s triggered either of these trends – climate change and the financial crash seem to have contributed to the first while we’re all terrified of the dementia spectre – but they feel a little over-exposed to me. I’m sure you can think of other well-worn themes, not to mention many books I’ve failed to include. Let me know what your pet likes or dislikes are.

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.