Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

Books to Look Out for in September 2019

Disappointingly, very few new titles have caught my eye for September. I’ve included the first, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments , more because I’d find it difficult to leave out a new Atwood than because I’m looking forward to it. Truth be told, I’m wary of sequels in the same way I’m wary of unpublished novels found mouldering in dusty desk drawers. Probably best to leave them there. Anyway, Atwood promises to reveal the fate of Offred in this new novel, prompted both by her readers’ pleas and by the state of the world.

I’m much more enthusiastic about The Dutch House, Ann Patchett’s new novel about a house in small-town Pennsylvania lived in by Danny Conroy, his older sister Maeve and their property-developer father. Their mother is both absent and never spoken of but Danny finds solace with his sister until his father brings his wife-to-be home. I’ve jumped the gun with this one and can tell you it’s everything an ardent fan could want it to be. So good, I included it on my Booker wish list. Review to follow…

I’m in two minds about Nell Zink’s Doxology having found her previous novels something of a curate’s egg but the synopsis makes it sound very attractive. It follows two generations of an American family, one either side of 9/11. The first are members of a punk band, two of whom have an unplanned child, Flora. Zink follows the grown-up Flora into the world of conservation with all its political and personal challenges. At once an elegiac takedown of today’s political climate and a touching invocation of humanity’s goodness, Doxology offers daring revelations about America’s past and possible future that could only come from Nell Zink, one of the sharpest novelists of our time’ say the publishers.

Regular readers could be forgiven for being surprised at the inclusion of a novel about time travel but the premise of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold sounds delightful. The offer of something more than just a flat white or macchiato in a tucked away Tokyo coffee shop is taken up by four customers each of who has a reason to travel back to the past. ‘Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?’ say the publishers promisingly.

Past times are also revisited in Philippe Besson’s Lie with Me. When a famous writer sees a young man who resembles his first love, he’s catapulted back to 1984 when he was seventeen and embarking upon an intense affair with a classmate. I think we can assume there’s an autobiographical element here given that the famous writer shares the author’s name. ‘Dazzlingly rendered by Molly Ringwald, the acclaimed actor and writer, in her first-ever translation, Besson’s exquisitely moving coming-of-age story captures the tenderness of first love – and the heart-breaking passage of time’ say the publishers.

I’m finishing September’s new title preview with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already, whose blurb promises a collection of twenty-two short stories in which ‘wild capers reveal painful emotional truths, and the bizarre is just another name for the familiar. Wickedly funny and thrillingly smart, Fly Already is a collage of absurdity, despair and love, written by veteran commentator on the circus farce that is life’. I’m hoping for some light relief in amongst all that.

A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any have taken your fancy. September paperbacks soon…

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?

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

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Spill Simmer Falter Wither       The Other Side of the World                 Exposure

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Under the Visible Life                    The Book of Memory                    Paulina & Fran

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His Whole Life                                 The Lives of Women                    The Ballroom

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The Long Room                           The Mountain Can Wait                            Tender

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Early Warning                               My Name is Lucy Barton                Love Me Back

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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.

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?

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: Fun with dystopia

Cover imageIt’s been quite some time since I’ve read a new Margaret Atwood – a little too much dystopia in her later novels for me – but the synopsis of The Heart Goes Last appealed: homeless couple in the nearish future signs on for a project where they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts. 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 it has some very serious points to make.

Stan and Charmaine are living in their car. He’s lost his job in the Empathy section of a robotics company, she’s lost hers at the Ruby Slippers care home she loved so much. They’re part of the fallout from the financial meltdown. The streets are lawless, roamed by menacing gangs turned out from overcrowded prisons and not averse to a spot of rape. When Charmaine watches a promotional video offering an escape in the shape of a social experiment she jumps at it, persuading Stan to check out the induction programme by dangling the prospect of motel sex in front of him. She’s had enough of sex on the back seat, avoiding it whenever she can. The induction is slick and convincing. All they have to do is spend alternate months in prison while someone else lives in their house, then switch – and all for the greater good. Run by Positron, the town will be called Consilience: ‘Cons + Resilience. Do time now, buy time for our future!’ is its snappy, seemingly socially conscious slogan. Once they’ve signed there’s no going back as Stan’s streetwise brother points out but Stan sees the prospect of regular sex and stifles his worries about just who’s benefiting from this ‘experiment’. All goes well to begin with but when Stan spots a passionate note supposedly from Jasmine, their female Alternate, he becomes obsessed, going to great lengths to track her down only to find that the truth is entirely different from anything he could have imagined. Soon he’s embroiled in a scheme which will blow the lid off the increasingly sinister goings on at Positron/Consilience.

Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging out well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers in to this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. All manner of things are in her satirical sights – the privatisation of prisons, sex obsession, robotics, big business, an ageing population – to name but a few. Both Charmaine and Stan’s characters are expertly drawn. Their internal monologues are often very funny: Charmaine’s wholesomeness, verging on the twee, takes a surprising turn; Stan’s lurid fantasies about the sensuous Jasmine come back to bite him. There’s a good deal of sly wit – the beautiful Veronica’s sexual fixation on a knitted blue bear is particularly funny as are the inane self-help videos streamed into Consilience homes. But despite all that it has a deadly serious message: we humans are all too easily lulled into a soporific acceptance leaving us wide open for exploitation. And its ending is a triumph – no copouts from Ms Atwood here.

If you like the sound of The Heart Goes Last you might like to read Naomi’s account of Erica Wagner’s interview with Atwood at the Manchester Literature festival over at The Writes of Women.

Books to Look Out For in September 2015: Part 1

Sweet CaressJust back from my Baltic states jaunt – of which more in a few days – and barely unpacked so here’s one I made earlier. September’s traditionally a big month for publishing – Christmas is on the horizon for booksellers even if the rest of us are busy sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring it. Consequently there are some starry names shining out from the schedules but you won’t find all of them here, just the ones that appeal to me.

I’ll kick off with a novel by one of those stars, albeit one I’ve become a bit disenchanted with lately. I was a great fan of William Boyd’s Restless, the first of his novels that could be called a thriller. He’s continued in that vein for the last three or four books but the novelty’s worn off for me; Waiting for Sunrise very nearly put the kybosh on my Boyd fandom. Sweet Caress, however, looks like a welcome return to Any Human Heart territory. It follows the life of Amory Clay  whose Uncle Grenville fills the gap left by her emotionally and physically absent father and who gives her a camera setting her on a path that will take her from snapping socialites in his London studio to Berlin in the ’20s, New York in the ’30s and on to a career as a war photographer. Lovers, husbands and children flesh out a life fully lived, apparently. Sounds like a thoroughly enjoyable return to form to me.

Truth be told I’ve also fallen out of sympathy with Margaret Atwood’s novels over the past few years but I like the look of The Heart Goes Last. It’s about Stan and Charmaine, living in desperate economic straits. An advertisement for the Positron Project, a social experiment offering stable jobs and a home, seems to be the answer. All they have to do is give up their freedom on alternate months, swapping their home for a prison cell. Soon they’re in the Cover imagegrips of an obsession about the couple who live in their house when they’re not there. ‘A sinister, wickedly funny novel about a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free’ according to the publishers.

Published a few years ago, Gregoire Delacourt’s charming The List of My Desires had a super-sweet jacket but a nicely sharp edge. In The First Thing You See young car mechanic Arthur Dreyfuss opens his apartment door one day to find a distressed Hollywood starlet but neither Arthur nor Jeanine Foucamprez, with her fake American accent, are quite what they seem. I’m hoping for some thoughtful insight wrapped up in a nice little story.

This one may seem an obscure choice but Beate Grimsund’s A Fool, Free sounds intriguing. It looks at mental illness through Eli Larsen, a talented and successful author and film-maker who has heard the voices of Espen, Erik, Prince Eugen and Emil in her head since she was a child, but kept them secret. Described as a ‘candid and beautiful novel’, Grimsund’s book won the Norwegian Critics Prize.

Cover imageI’ve enjoyed all five of Tessa Hadley’s novels. She writes the kind of quietly intelligent books packed with shrewd observations that I associate with Carole Shields. In The Past three sisters and a brother share a few hot summer weeks together in their grandparents’ old house which is to be put up for sale. Inevitably all does not run smoothly as past and present tensions take hold. I expect lots of entertaining sniping amongst the reminiscing, and we’re promised ‘an ugly secret in a ruined cottage in the woods’. Sounds excellent.

That’s it for the first batch of September titles – a click on the title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. And if you’re still catching up with August, here are the hardbacks and here are the paperbacks. Part two will be here in a week or so.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: One book leads to another

Cover imageI started Burial Rites in the anything but quiet carriage on our way to London on Saturday. Set in 1829, it’s based on the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Convicted of the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, Agnes is to be lodged until her execution with the family of a District Officer at Kornsá, by cruel coincidence the farm at which she lived briefly as a foster child. Allowed the counsel of a priest to prepare her for death she chooses Tóti, a young assistant Reverend she met briefly years ago whose kindness she remembers. At first furious at what they regard as an imposition, the family very gradually warms to Agnes as she tells her story to Tóti. She is illegitimate but educated. Declared a pauper, she has spent her adulthood as a servant. When she met Natan her future brightened at the prospect of becoming his housekeeper and his lover, perhaps even his wife, but when she arrives at his homestead she finds a young girl, Sigga, also convicted of Natan’s murder, already installed as housekeeper. As Agnes’s story unfolds, both in her head and to Tóti, Natan emerges as a manipulator and sexual predator. It’s a novel which at times feels claustrophobic with tension. The appalling Icelandic winter, the hugger-mugger conditions of the Kornsá farmstead and the harshness of poverty are starkly described making them all the more vivid. Almost from the start it reminded me ofCover image Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, also based on a true story of a woman convicted of murder who tells her tale to a young man – an alienist as psychiatrists were then called – although in Grace Marks’ case the sentence was commuted from death to life imprisonment on the grounds of insanity. LIke Alias Grace, Burial Rites is clearly the product of a good deal of research – each of the chapters is introduced with extracts from legal records, correspondence, even poetry – which can sometimes result in leaden fiction, weighed down with too much fact, but Kent succeeds in weaving her findings into a riveting story, slowly engaging her readers’ sympathy for Agnes. In her Author’s Note she says that there are several written accounts of the murder all of which condemn Agnes as an ‘inhumane witch’. By fictionalising the case Kent’s aim was to ‘supply a more ambiguous portrayal of the women’. It’s an excellent first novel – and an object lesson in how very little in life is ever black and white.

And just in case you’re interested in that sort of thing, you can find the Man Booker shortlist here. My money’s on The Lowland.