Tag Archives: Kim Echlin

Five Canadian Novels I’ve Read

I follow a couple of Canadian bloggers whose recommendations often hit the spot for me – Naomi at Consumed by Ink, in particular. Frustratingly, many of the books she reviews aren’t Cover imagepublished here in the UK. I know I can get them via Amazon but I’ve sworn off them until they treat their staff like human beings. I do have hopes of visiting Canada one of these days and it’s clear I’ll need at least one extra suitcase for the trip home. In the meantime, here are five favourite Canadian novels I’ve managed to get my hands on, two with links to full reviews.

Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air is set in the summer of 1975. Harry has returned from his Toronto television job with his tail between his legs and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who occupies the late-night slot. Dido is the object of a great deal of quiet desire at Yellowknife’s radio station staffed by a collection of misfits and blow-ins. Nothing much happens in the novel aside from a summer canoe trip with four of the characters but it draws you in with its wistful tone and gorgeous descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. Hay acquaints her readers intimately with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care about them deeply. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

The Republic of Love is my favourite of the late lamented Carol Shield’s novels. It’s a thoroughly satisfying love story in which Fay – a folklorist with a particular interest in mermaids and impossibly high romantic expectations based on her ideas about her parents’ relationship – and Tom – a talk-show host with what can only be charitably described as a chequered romantic past – try to find a way to be together. The schlock potential here is high but Shields is far too sharp an observer to fall in to that trap with the result that the book is both wry and touching. Not a prize winner, but an absolute delight.Cover image

Margaret Atwood is arguably the best known of Canada’s contemporary novelists. The Heart Goes Last may not be the obvious choice from her prodigious list of novels but it’s the one that brought me back to her work after a long break. In the nearish future a homeless couple signs up to a project in which they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts and embroiled in a plan that will blow the lid off the scheme’s increasingly sinister goings on. Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers into this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. What took me by surprise was how funny it is – almost to the point of being a caper – but lest you think this is dystopia-lite, Atwood’s novel has some very serious points to make.

Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life is about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Mahsa is the child of an Afghan woman and an American man who wins a scholarship to study music in Montreal. Katherine, the child of a white mother and a Chinese father, carves out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with a passionate determination. When these two meet, an indissoluble bond is formed. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing.

Cover imageWith great wit and humanity, Rohinton Mistry’ A Fine Balance explores the effects of the state of emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India through a cast of vividly drawn characters. Determinedly clinging to her independence, recently widowed Dina sets up as a seamstress, recruiting two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, and taking in Maneck, a student, as a lodger. What begins out of economic necessity eventually becomes an arrangement between friends, each with a demon to defeat: Dina must conquer her fear of losing her rent-controlled flat to help Ishvar and Om who in turn must cope with the fallout from stepping outside the caste system. Even the privileged Maneck is troubled by his father’s apparent rejection. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart.

Any books by Canadian authors you’d like to recommend?

Five Novels I’ve Read About Friendship

Cover imageThere’s a multitude of books focussing on love of the romantic variety and just as many on love of the familial kind but platonic love not so much. We talk about relationship breakups but not the breakup of a friendship although they can be almost as heart breaking, and for many, friends constitute family. Below are five novels I’ve read which sing the praises of friendship, all with links to full reviews. Perhaps because I’m a woman all my choices revolve around female friendship, or maybe there are fewer books written about the male variety.

Emily Gould’s Friendship seems the obvious place to start. Bev and Amy met when they were both working in publishing. They console each other, messaging constantly through the day keeping each other up to date on the minutiae of their lives and meet frequently. Everything changes when Bev becomes pregnant after a half-hearted one-night stand with a particularly obnoxious colleague. Bev and Amy are immensely appealing and believable characters, struggling to deal with the enormous change which threatens to engulf the bond that has been the only sure thing they’ve had to cling to as they navigated their way through their uncertain twenties. A smart, funny book with something serious to say about growing up and the value of friendship, and it has a lovely ending.

The two eponymous pals in Rachel B. Glaser’s savagely funny yet heart-warmingly poignant Paulina & Fran are a little more mismatched than Bev and Amy. Paulina rampages around the campus of her New England art school in a fury of contempt towards her fellow students while the more conventional Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life. Surprisingly, these two hit it off, curling their lips at the world, becoming bosom buddies overnight and bonding over their hair problems. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over aCover image line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other. Glaser’s depiction of this tortured friendship resists any saccharine sentimentalisation, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory.

Sally Rooney’s award-winning Conversations with Friends takes friendship a few steps further with Frances and Bobbi – once lovers – who are drawn into an older couple’s orbit, meeting their friends, attending dinner parties, bumping into them at Dublin’s arts events then invited to join them in France for a holiday. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, then Frances takes an initiative which leads to an affair with Nick. Rooney smartly captures the awkwardness of young adulthood. She has a knack of making the most mundane observations both interesting and amusing. This isn’t a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably.

Katherine and Mahasa, the two friends in Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life, are faced with far greater challenges than Frances and Bobbi. These two very different women meet through their mutual love of music which binds them together in an enduring friendship. This is an intensely romantic novel at times – there are four love stories running through it but the most powerful is the platonic fifth. Echlin paints a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women, able to withstand all that’s thrown at them from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour. A memorable, beautifully written hymn to friendship.

Cover imageThe same can be said of Victoria Redel’s Before Everything in which five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

Any books about friendship you’d like to recommend?

Six Degrees of Separation – from Pride and Prejudice to Under the Visible Life #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 we’re starting with Pride and Prejudice. It would have taken a very determined person to avoid Jane Austen’s sharply observed, elegantly expressed novel on love and marriage among the English bourgeoisie over the last couple of decades. There have been a multitude of tributes paid to it, not least the BBC TV series featuring a wet-shirted Colin Firth emerging from a lake after a swim. Not sure what Austen would have made of that.

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary is surely the best known of those tributes, all about a young woman’s trials trying to find the man of her dreams when he’s practically under her nose. He’s even called Darcy which might have given her a clue. In a clever bit of casting, the much-ogled Firth played Darcy in the Bridget Jones films which may even have eclipsed the books in terms of their success.

Bridget Jones began life in a newspaper column in the now defunct print version of the Independent which leads me to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, originally a San Francisco Chronicle column, also all about relationships with a good deal of product placement and outlandish adventure thrown in. I loved them but not the TV adaptation which failed to capture the charm of the books for me.

Which leads me to another TV adaptation, this time a successful one. I posted an entry in my Blasts from the Past series recently on Jake Arnott’s tale of 1960s East End gangsterism, The Long Firm, which prompted me to seek out the DVD of the BBC’s excellent dramatisation, It turned out to be just as good as I remembered – Mark Strong fits the part of Arnott’s complex Harry Starks perfectly.

When I passed Arnott’s novel onto H, my resident contemporary historian, he was struck by the accuracy of its period detail. The only other novel I can think of that fits this exacting bill is Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, so good H included it on his undergraduate reading list for the period. It’s about four school friends growing up ’70s Birmingham and facing strikes, IRA bombs and appalling fashion trends.

Coe wrote a book called Expo ’58 set in the same year as Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments, was born. Doyle’ s funny, touching novel is set in working class Dublin and follows a group of disparate people who form a band, belting out classic soul numbers. While some of the members are there for lack of anything else to do its the camaraderie of making music that keeps them together despite their many falling outs.

Which brings me to my last book, one which I’ll grab any chance to write about – Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. A memorable, beautifully written novel

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an early nineteenth century classic about love and marriage to a novel about friendship and a shared love of music. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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 of the Year 2016: Part One

exposureHere we all are, hurtling towards the end of another year. Out there in the world, 2016 as proved to be pretty dreadful for liberals like me what with Brexit and Trump, not to mention the utter misery of Syria which surely touches us all. The reading world has been a much more comfortable place to be, although a little patchy in places for me. It certainly got off to a roaring start in January beginning with two books which share a similar theme. Set in 1960 against the backdrop of the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia, Helen Dunmore’s Exposure sees a woman fighting for her family’s survival when her husband becomes caught up in an old friend’s treachery. Gripping storytelling, sharp characterisation and beautifully crafted prose all combine in  this subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. Another Dunmore triumph.

The Cold War is still quietly raging in Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, set in the last few weeks of 1981. Stephen is a ‘listener’ at The Institute wading through tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When the loyalty of a colleague falls into question, Stephen is called upon to spy on him and finds himself obsessed by the operative’s wife. Kay draws you in to Stephen’s story while slowly but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. The dénouement when it comes is hardly a surprise but this isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.

Entirely different, Rachel B. Glaser’s first novel, Paulina & Fran is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from when they first meet as students. It’s both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant. Paulina strides around apparently impervious to criticism, hurling waspish barbs at her fellow students yet deflated by the slightest setback. Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life, obsessing over Paulina while eventually settling for the kind of job that would make her friend spit bile at its merest mention. It’s a very smart piece of fiction, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke.Cover image

January’s fourth favourite is also a debut – Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that’s what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic. Love Me Back is a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what Tierce comes up with next.

February delivered a couple of excellent reads beginning with Kim Echlin’s superb Under the Visible Life. Like Paulina & Fran, it’s a story of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Echlin takes her time, unfolding Katherine and Mahsa’s stories using alternating narratives to round out these very different characters through their distinctive voices: Katherine’s sharp, passionate and frenetic; Masha’s gentle, quietly determined, almost poetic at times. It’s a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women able to withstand all that’s thrown at them, from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour.

Cover imageYou may have noticed that all five of my books of 2016 so far have been by women as is the sixth: Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton for which I had high hopes as a Baileys contender, sadly dashed. It did, at least, make it on to the longlist but there it stuck, much to my mystification. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism which seems a good point at which to finish this post.

Six books covered already and it’s only the end of February but as I mentioned, it’s been a patchy reading year for me – the next post will leap ahead from March to June. Should you be interested, a click on any of the titles above will take you to my review.

Books to Look Out for In November 2016

Swing TimeA new Zadie Smith novel is always the cause of a great deal of pre-publication anticipation. Twitter has been all agog for some time ensuring that Swing Time will turn up in quite a few Christmas stockings. Moving between Smith’s home territory of north-west London to West Africa and New York, it spans the years from the 1980s to the present following two childhood friends who meet at a ballet class. ‘Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them’ say the publishers which reminds me of Kim Echlin’s wonderful, Under the Invisible Life, a novel which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.

The subject of Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out is something of an attention-grabber. It looks at assisted suicide through the experiences of Evan, a hospital nurse who helps people to die, something he keeps firmly under his hat from his friends. A tricky love life, his increasingly unwell mother and his supervisor’s concerns as he sails ever-closer to the wind in terms of morality and law add further spice in what the publishers describe as ‘a brilliantly funny and exquisitely sad novel that gets to the heart of one of the most difficult questions each of us may face: would you help someone die?’ ‘Brilliantly funny’ may be the best approach to engage readers with this dilemma with which many countries, including the UK, frequently wrestle but never manage to resolve.Cover image

Mette Jakobsen’s What the Light Hides explores suicide but in a rather different way. Vera and David live in the Blue Mountains, still passionately in love after twenty years of marriage. Jakobsen’s novel begins five months after their son apparently took his own life in Sydney where he was at university. Vera is coping but David cannot accept his son’s death, taking himself off to Sydney to try to make sense of things. ‘Mette Jakobsen’s gifts of delicate and empathetic observation are on display in this tender and moving novel’ say the publishers. I’ve read several excellent novels from the Australian Text Publishing and have high hopes for this one.

Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle sounds a world away from her last novel Upstairs at the Party which I loved. It’s set against the backdrop of a TB sanatorium in Kent at the beginning of the 1950s, where a teenage brother and sister ’living on the edge of the law… … discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched’ according to the publisher. I haven’t enjoyed all of Grant’s novels but this sounds well worth a try.

Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love is set in another kind of hospital, just outside Stockholm. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but it’s been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Gerard Reve’s The Evenings is set in one of my favourite European cities which is one of its draws for me. It’s the story of ten evenings in the life of Frits van Egters as he walks the streets of post-war Amsterdam. That may seem a tad dull but it’s been voted one of the greatest novels of all time by the highly literary Dutch. Described by the publishers as ‘edgy, mesmerising, darkly ironical’ it sounds quite intriguing.

Cover imageMy last choice for November is Brad Watson’s Miss Jane which was inspired by the true story of Watson’s great-aunt, Jane Chisolm, born in rural Mississippi in the early twentieth century with, as the publishers put it, a ‘genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage’. ‘From the country doctor who adopts Jane to the hard tactile labour of farm life from the sensual and erotic world of nature around her to the boy who loved but was forced to leave her, the world of Miss Jane Chisolm is anything but barren’ continues the blurb. It sounds like an uplifting read which after several of the novels listed above may come as something of a welcome change.

That’s it for November. As ever a click on the title will take you to a full synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover imageSome particularly delectable paperback treats in store for September, all but one of which I’ve already read and reviewed, beginning with Francesca Kay’s The Long Room set in the last few weeks of 1981 when terrorism was in full swing in Northern Ireland. In an MI5 back office, Stephen listens to tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When he’s called to a meeting by an operative concerned about the loyalty of a colleague, he finds himself listening to the comings and goings at the Greenwood household. Soon he’s obsessed with Helen Greenwood, convinced he’s in love with her. Judgement is clouded, risks are taken and before too long Stephen has found his way down a very dangerous path. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.

Music is the obsession that brings Mahsa and Katherine together in Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life an engrossing tale of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Mahsa finds escape in music after she becomes the ward of her uncle in Karachi, winning a scholarship to Montreal where she finds liberation, fulfilment and adventure, eventually meeting Katherine. The child of a Chinese father and a white mother, jailed in 1940 when her baby daughter was a mere three months old for ‘incorrigible’ behaviour, Katherine has carved out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with passionate determination.  There’s so much to admire about this absorbing novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing. I hope it gets more attention in paperback than it did when it was first published here in the UK.

Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina & Fran is about a very different friendship, no less enduring in its way.Cover image Paulina rampages around her New England college campus in a fury of contempt towards her fellow aspiring artists, sleeping with all and sundry whenever an opportunity presents itself. She and Fran become bosom buddies on a study trip to Norway, curling their lips at the world together. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over a line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other. Glaser’s book is a raucous, roller-coaster of a novel, both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant.

There’s much more of the latter in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family which unfolds the aftermath of a tragedy in a beautifully nuanced, multi-layered narrative, skilfully interweaving the many stories of those affected by it. 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 and heads west across the country, holing up in the Moonstone motel for months. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s elegantly crafted novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.

Cover imageMy final paperback choice seems appropriate after that – Max Porter’s much-lauded, award-winning Grief is the Thing with Feathers. As a father faces the awfulness of their mother’s sudden death with his two young sons, they’re visited by Crow a smelly ‘self-described sentimental bird’ who is determined to stay until they no longer need him. It sounds a little outlandish but the book’s beauty of expression and honesty of sentiment has been much praised. ‘Full of unexpected humour and profound emotional truth, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers marks the arrival of a thrilling new talent’ say the publishers and reviewers seem to agree..

That’s it for September paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first four novels, should you want to know more, and to a fuller synopsis for the Porter. If you’d like to catch up with the rest of September’s preview it’s here.

My 2016 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logoIt’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.

Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

Cover imageCover imageCover image

The Book of Memory                     Undermajordomo Minor              The Long Room

Cover imageCover imageCover image

Exposure                                            Under the Visible Life               My Name is Lucy Barton

Cover imageCover imageCover image

What Belongs to You                   The Cauliflower                         The Gun Room

Cover imageCover imageCover image

The Essex Serpent                           The Crime Writer                     The Tidal Zone

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Almost three days in Nice and one book

View from our windo, NiceWe’d booked our weekend in Nice long before I was felled by the flu but the timing couldn’t have been better. Four weeks after the first aches and shivers we were on the plane. It always lifts my spirits to see palm trees after a British winter and this time even more so. Nice turned out to be the perfect place for a recuperative few days: sun, an elegant esplanade to amble along – as long as you make sure to keep your back turned to Le Méridien – and lovely food.

Our apartment was in one of the old town’s winding narrow streets lined with tall buildings to keep out that forty degree summer heat which makes me quail just to think about it. Given my feeble state not much was got up to but we did visit the St Nicholas Russian Orthodox church on our first day and it’s quite fabulous. Owned by the Russian Federation, it’s in pristine condition outstripping Helsinki and Riga in its rather more restrained splendour by quite some distance. From the mid-nineteenth century Nice was firmly on the Francophile Russian nobility’s map which explains its rather surprising location. Given that the upper echelons of society spoke in French to each other, a Russian church in Provence makes perfect sense. That and the weather.St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Nice

Our only other bit of culture was a visit to the Matisse museum which charts his artistic development from the first rather gloomy still lifes to his vibrant cut-outs, although ironically many of those are currently on loan to Tate Modern for an exhibition due to open this weekend. We did see a sample of the stained glass which he designed for the windows of Chappelle du Rosaire de Vence, an ambitious project begun late in life which looks quite stunning.

Other than that we wandered around in the sun, climbed the wooded Chateau hill for lovely views of the city and its gorgeous bay (twice) and generally loafed about. Just what the doctor ordered! Many thanks to Allison Coe for her excellent blog which both whetted our appetites in the week before we took off and pointed us at La P’tite Cocotte – one of the few restaurants open on Sundays and just round the corner from us – where we had an excellent lunch before heading for the airport.  If you do find yourself in Nice, I advise you to do your damnedest to avoid using taxis – unless, of course, money’s no object.

Cover imageAnd the book? It was Attica Locke’s Baileys longlisted Pleasantville, picked because I was still feeling worn out and wanted something absorbing but not too taxing. Told from the point of view of the recently widowed Jay Porter, a black lawyer who first appeared in Locke’s Black Water Rising, the premise is a little reminiscent of The Killing with its missing girl coupled with political intrigue but the writing is far too cluttered for me: too many adjectives, too much description, too many similes. A shame, because the story itself is a gripping one. It’s published by the lovely Serpent’s Tail whose Under the Visible Life was one of my wishes for the Baileys longlist but sadly the judges disagreed with me just as they did over Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, an astonishing omission from Monday’s shortlist.

I’m typing this listening to the sound of rain hammering on the skylight. Hard not to wish I was back in sunny Provence thinking about sauntering off into town for a café crème.  Back to books in a few days when I’ll be reviewing yet another thriller, this one beautifully clipped and succinct in its writing.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016

Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already.  The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed.  What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:

A God in Ruins                                The Heart Goes Last                The Versions of Us

Cover imageCover imagecover image

Spill Simmer Falter Wither       The Other Side of the World                 Exposure

Cover imageCover imageCover image

Under the Visible Life                    The Book of Memory                    Paulina & Fran

Cover imageCover imagePaulina & Fran

His Whole Life                                 The Lives of Women                    The Ballroom

Cover imageCover imageThe Ballroom

The Long Room                           The Mountain Can Wait                            Tender

Cover imageCover imageTender

Early Warning                               My Name is Lucy Barton                Love Me Back

Cover imageCover imageCover image

I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.