Tag Archives: Megan Hunter

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2018: Part One

Cover imageI seem to start most of these posts with promises of many treats, or potential treats, on the paperback horizon and May’s no exception with publishers not yet assuming that we’ve put our brains away in preparation for summer reading.

At the top of May’s goodie list for me is Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which appeared on both my books of 2017 list and my Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 wish list. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. It’s a highly ambitious debut but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is a caustic satire which takes a distinctly dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way. Desperate for money, Mary enrolls in The Girlfriend Experiment as Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few. The ensuing shenanigans skewer the contemporary pursuit of the perfect partner in a novel which lives up to its Margaret Atwood puff.

Technology comes in for a bashing in The Chalk Artist which sees Allegra Goodman contrasting the world of gaming with the older more established one of literature. Despite her antipathy to it, Nina prods Collin into a job in her father’s business which designed the game that Cover imageconsumed his teenage years. As Nina struggles to imbue her students with a love of literature, Collin is pulled further into Arkadia with its playground offices and exacting taskmasters. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old games-obsessed Aidan has been given a black box which opens up a virtual reality game to him. The Chalk Artist is an absorbing, all too believable read but I preferred Goodman’s previous novel, The Cook Book Collector, which explores similar thematic territory.

I had a similar reaction to Jennifer Egan’s first historical novel Manhattan Beach to which I had been looking forward very much having enjoyed A Visit from the Goon Squad. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her beloved father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him. Anna is assigned to work in the shipyards during the Second World War but manages to argue, cajole and doggedly train her way onto the all-male diving programme while still trying to find answers to the mystery of her father’s disappearance. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away.

I’m hoping Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl won’t continue the disappointment trend after the excellent The Woman Upstairs. Her new novel looks at female friendship through two women who have been friends since nursery school but whose paths diverge leaving one of them feeling cast aside. ‘Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship. Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship’ say the publishers which sounds right up my street.

I’m ending this selection with Jamie Ford’s Love and Other Consolation Prizes which I’m not at all sure about largely because of the cover which looks somewhat soapy to me but I like the sound of the premise. At the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair Ernest, a half-Chinese boy, is raffled off as a prize and ends up working in a brothel where he falls in love with the daughter of its madam. In 1962, on the eve of the new World’s Fair, Ernest looks back at his past while his daughter attempts to unravel her family’s story. Quite an eye-catching synopsis but it I’m still not convinced by that jacket.

That’s it for the first batch of May paperback delights. A click on any of the first four will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other two should you want to know more. If you missed May’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second batch of paperbacks shortly…

My wish list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

The longlist for the only UK award that really excites me these days, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Thursday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2017 and March 31st 2018 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in my suggestions but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what the judges think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The judges are restricted to twelve on their longlist but given that this is my indulgence I’ve decided to ignore that and include two extra that I couldn’t bear to drop. I’ve followed the same format as 2017, 2016 and 2015, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

The End We Start From                   The Lie of the Land               Conversations with Friends

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Johannesburg                                        Home Fire                                   Sugar Money

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The Ninth Hour                                    The Life to Come                                 Sisters

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The Break                                                Asymmetry                  Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

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All Day at the Movies                           Before Everything

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I’ll be happy if even one of these takes the judges’ fancy. A click on a title will take you to my review should you want to know more..

How about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the longlist?

Books of the Year 2017: Part Two

Cover imageJanuary and February boasted six reading treats for me but things were spread a little more thinly over the following three months. March began with what I knew would be a favourite author’s last book. Helen Dunmore’s, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling. Dunmore quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she was gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

April’s favourite is by another writer whose work seems underrated to me. Although longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was omitted from the shortlist much to my – and many other readers’ – amazement, then it missed the Goldsmiths Prize. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fingers firmly crossed that the Costa judges see sense.Cover image

Three books stood out for me in May, the first of which was all about storytelling. Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Disoriented and lonely, Marc begins to let slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction.

I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Duncan Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos when it was first published here in 2016. Three timelines run through this tightly plotted, inventive novel: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting from the de Groot family in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000 when its curator is faced with a youthful indiscretion which could destroy her reputation. Smith juggles his narrative stands with admirable deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted and there’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel. It’s that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure about Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which looked distinctly dystopian, not the kind of distraction I was looking for in a year spent trying to escape the real world, but she’s a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

The next three months kick off with another bumper selection in June, including one often described as a Brexit novel. Can’t seem to get away from it…

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

My 2017 Man Booker wish list

Despite swearing off Man Booker predictions a few years back I can’t seem to keep away although I must emphasize that my track record is pretty dismal so don’t go laying any bets on my suggestions. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and 30th September 2017 and have been written in English. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September but I’m sticking to novels I’ve already read. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Thursday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order:

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The Fatal Tree                                             Birdcage Walk                             Reservoir 13

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The End We Start From                      The Answers                      Conversations with Friends

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A Line Made by Walking               Before Everything                            The Nix

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The Hearts of Men                     Johannesburg                              Forest Dark

Usually several titles jostle for position as my top choice but this year there’s no contest – Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. No reflection on the merits of the other books: McGregor’s writing is sublime and this is quite possibly his best work yet. I’ll be searching for a hat to eat if it doesn’t make it on to the longlist at the very least. If you’d like to read my review, a click on a title will take you to it. A reviews of Forest Dark to follow soon, as will a what I got up to on my holidays post later in the week for those who might be interested.

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

The End We Start From: Megan Hunter: Hopes springs eternal

Cover imageSometimes I read for the storytelling, sometimes for the writing. With The End We Start From I suspected it was going to be the latter – Megan Hunter is a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. The book also sounded as if it fell into dystopian territory, something I usually avoid like the plague, no pun intended, but once I’d stared reading I found myself drawn into Hunter’s story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives.

Our narrator is in labour with just a few panicky friends in attendance, her husband somewhere up a mountain not expecting their child to make its entrance yet. All goes well but three days later our narrator, her husband R and their child Z must leave: the waters that have been inexorably rising are now threatening to engulf London. They flee north, taken in by R’s parents. As the flood spreads the country is seized by panic. R and his parents’ foraging trips take longer and longer until, one day, only R and his father return, then several weeks later, only R. Caught up in the tiny intimate world of mother and newborn, the news an irritating TV buzz, our narrator worries that her milk will fail. As the situation deteriorates, R is persuaded to drive over the border to Scotland where they first live in their car, then a refugee camp which R tolerates for a few months before leaving. At the urging of her new friends, our narrator moves on again, eventually finding shelter on an island until she decides that it’s time to find R. Throughout the catastrophe, Z has thrived, meeting each developmental milestone and adapting to whatever changes the world throws at him.

The End We Start From is a mere 140 pages in length – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence – but it’s an immensely powerful piece of work. The language is arresting, sometimes stark, occasionally lyrical. Flashes of humour shine out. Hard not to fill this review with a stream of quotes but I’ll try to make do with a few to give you a flavour: ‘G is nowhere, and the kitchen is full of her, her face shining out from the kettle, the shape of her waist wrapped around jars’; ’Days are thin now, stretched so much that time pours through them’; ‘At night, my stomach reaches up to ask for more’. Loosely, and intermittently, woven through our narrator’s story is that of the Ark, a thread which didn’t work so well for me. I found myself not reading those sections so carefully, eager to return to the narrator and Z. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence. It ends on a ringing note of optimism.

Books to Look Out for in May 2017

Cover imageFewer treats than usual in May for me but three of them are from some of my favourite authors. It was a toss-up as to which one of them should lead this preview but in the end it had to be Elizabeth Strout. Anything is Possible is a novel told in stories linked to Lucy Barton, familiar to readers of last year’s very fine My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a successful writer living in New York but these stories explore the lives of those she left behind in the small town of Amgash, Illinois. ‘Writing these stories, Lucy imagines the lives of the people that she especially remembers. And the people she has imagined that, in small ways, have remembered her too. For isn’t it true that we all hope to be remembered? Or to think in some way – even fleetingly – that we have been important to someone?’ say the publishers. Such an interesting device to have a character playing the role of the author of a book.

Colm Tóibin’s House of Names comes a very close second to Anything is Possible but I’m slightly put off by its premise. It’s a retelling of the story of Agamemnon whose shocking sacrifice of his daughter in an effort to secure the gods’ approval for his battle plans plunges his family into a terrible and violent chaos. ‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams’ quotes the publisher assuring us that it’s ‘a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers’. I won’t argue with the last point.

Even before my short story conversion I would have read Haruki Murakami’s Men without Women. These seven stories bear many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ promises the publisher who also quotes the author on writing short stories in the Cover imagebook’s blurb: ’I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’ I’d still prefer a novel.

I’m particularly fond of the idea of an apartment block portrayed as a microcosm of a city – Alaa Al Aswany did it beautifully in The Yacoubian Building as did Manil Suri in The Death of Vishnu but my favourite has to be Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Fran Cooper’s debut, These Dividing Walls, is set in a Parisian building whose inhabitants live their separate lives, barely aware of their neighbours’ existence. Enter Edward who seems to be about to change all that. ‘As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…’ say the publishers somewhat melodramatically. Maybe I’ve set the bar too high having Perec in mind but it sounds worth investigating.

I tend to shy away from dystopian fiction, particularly at the moment. My optimistic world view has taken such a bashing over the past year that I’m looking for a little comfort. Megan Hunter’s first novel, The End We Start From, is set against a backdrop of an environmental crisis which sees London under water. It follows a couple desperately seeking sanctuary for themselves and their new-born baby. This all sounds a little familiar, a well-worn dystopian trope, but what’s caught my attention is the promise of beautiful writing and this quote from the blurb: ‘though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love’. Let’s hope so.

I’m finishing this preview with a novel which, unusually for a new title, I’ve already read – Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell. TwoCover image people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Marc has been kidnapped while on business in Pakistan and finds himself caught up in the web of stories the woman he comes to know as Josephine weaves around his murdered daughter. These are the bare bones of Lowe’s cleverly structured, subtle debut which I found utterly engrossing. Breathes new life into that hoary old cliché ‘unputdownable’. Review to follow next month.

That’s it for May’s new books. A click on any of the titles that takes your fancy will give you a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks to follow soon…