Tag Archives: Nicola Barker

Books to Look Out for in July 2017

Cover imageJuly sees publishing well into its summer reading season with far fewer books than usual to tempt me although Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men more than makes up for that. His debut, Shotgun Lovesongs, was a wonderful, heart-tugging piece of writing. As ever, there’s that nagging worry about second novel syndrome but this new one sounds set in similar thematic territory. Nelson and Jonathan are very different – one diffident the other popular – but they become friends in 1962, the same summer Nelson’s family is rocked by his father’s betrayal. Butler’s novel follows these two into adulthood with all its many challenges and setbacks. ‘The Hearts of Men is a lyrical, wise and deeply affecting novel about the slippery definitions of right and wrong, family and fidelity, and the redemptive power of friendship’ say the publishers. Fingers firmly crossed for this one.

Continuing the friendship theme Victoria Redel’s Before Everything is about five girls who dub themselves the Old Friends, aged eleven. They see each other through the multitude of ups and downs that adult life throws at them until one of them is diagnosed with a recurring cancer and decides enough is enough. Each of the five reacts differently to their friend’s decision. It sounds like quintessential summer reading but I can never resist that old evolving friendship theme.

It’s also the theme of Elizabeth Day’s The Party although perhaps this time with more of a bite to it. Scholarship boy Martin Gilmour meets Ben Fitzmaurice at Burtonbury School, becoming firm friends with him despite their wildly differing backgrounds. Over the next twenty-five years, these two are bound together both by friendship and by a secret about Ben that Martin is determined to keep. However, as the blurb hints, things may be about to change when ‘at Ben’s 40th birthday party, the great and the good of British society are gathering to celebrate in a haze of champagne, drugs and glamour’. Sebastian Faulks is quoted as finding it ‘witty, dark and compelling’.Cover image

I’m not entirely sure about Maile Meloy’s Do Not Be Alarmed  which doesn’t sound up my usual alley. Two families are enjoying a cruise together. Both adults and children go ashore in Central America where things go horribly awry: ‘What follows is a heart-racing story told from the perspectives of the adults and the children, as the distraught parents – now turning on one another and blaming themselves – try to recover their children and their shattered lives’ say the publishers. This sounds so different from the three previous novels I’ve read by Meloy that I had to check it was the same author but I enjoyed them so much that I’ll be giving this one a try.

I’m also a somewhat doubtful about Yuki Means Happiness but Alison Jean Lester’s Lillian on Life was a treat. A young woman leaves America for Japan, keen for adventure. She takes a job as a nanny to a two-year-old, immersing herself in the routine of the household and becoming increasingly attached to her charge until she becomes aware that the Yoshimura family isn’t quite what it seems. ‘Yuki Means Happiness is a rich and powerfully illuminating portrait of the intense relationship between a young woman and her small charge, as well as one woman’s journey to discover her true self’ according to the publishers which sounds very different from the worldly Lillian’s tale.

Cover imageI’m ending with Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, which from the title alone, seems certain to be a Marmite book. The publisher’s blurb is a little opaque although I suspect they’re not to blame for that given Barker’s idiosyncratic approach to fiction. Best to quote it at length, I think: ‘H(A)PPY is a post-post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, a story which tells itself and then consumes itself. It’s a place where language glows, where words buzz and sparkle and finally implode. It’s a novel which twists and writhes with all the terrifying precision of a tiny fish in an Escher lithograph – a book where the mere telling of a story is the end of certainty’. I loved The Cauliflower with all its wackiness although there’s no guarantee I’ll feel the same about this one.

That’s it for July’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks to follow…

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.

Paperbacks to Look Out for January 2017: Part One

Cover imageLots of lip-smacking paperbacks piled up on bookshop tables to tempt you this January, all ready and waiting for those Christmas book tokens we’ve been given, or hope we’ll have been given. Top of the list is a book I took some persuading to read when it was first published but Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier turned out to be extraordinarily inventive and assured, particularly for a debut. Parker is a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and his novel is the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – told from the point of view of forty-five objects. You may share my initial scepticism about this structure but it works beautifully and continues to work through all forty-five objects which range from Tom’s boot to his mother’s handbag, his occupational service medal to the IED’s detonator. Hard to imagine quite why the publisher has abandoned the entirely suitable hardback jacket for the rather odd pink number they’ve chosen to adorn the paperback edition.

I’ve not read Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans, much talked about on Twitter when it was first published – not always a good thing – but a striking jacket and an intriguing synopsis has piqued my interest. Once a man of note with extraordinary gifts, Mr Crowe has given himself over to earthly pleasures, living in faded grandeur with his ward, Clara, and his manservant. When he commits a crime of passion he draws the attention of the head of the secret society to which he belongs, attention that’s soon diverted to Clara who, it seems, may be able to save them all. Sounds like it might be just the ticket for long dark evenings, if done well.Cover image

Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt takes us to a very different time and place. Set in post-war Egypt, Aswany’s novel views the social and political change engulfing the country through the shenanigans at Cairo’s automobile club. Its European members are attended by a squabbling band of servants ruled by the tyrannical Alku. When one of them rebels, his family finds themselves drawn into both public and private politics: ‘Egyptians both inside and outside the Automobile Club will all face a stark choice: to live safely without dignity, or to fight for their rights and risk everything’ according to the publishers. Aswany’s much-acclaimed The Yacoubian Building offered a microcosm of Egypt around the time of the first Gulf War and it sounds as if The Automobile Club of Egypt takes a similar tack with the end of Ottoman rule.

Cover imageMy last choice for this batch is without doubt a Marmite book: you’ll either love it or hate it. Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower® is born of her fascination with Sri Ramakrishna – an avatar, widely regarded as having played a leading role in reviving Hinduism, influencing both Gandhi and Nehru. Her novel is her extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of the avatar’s sketchy story and defies a simple synopsis. Perhaps it’s best to quote Barker herself who sees her novel as ‘a painstakingly constructed, slightly mischievous and occasionally provocative/chaotic mosaic of many other people’s thoughts, memories and experiences’. I loved it, otherwise it wouldn’t be here.

A click on the title will take you to my reviews for both Parker and Barker’s novels, and to a fuller synopsis for the other two. A second batch of paperbacks will follow after Christmas and if you’d like to catch up with the hardback previews, part one is here and part two here.

To those of you who are looking forward to Christmas, I hope you have a lovely time. If, as it is for many, it’s a more complicated time of the year for you, I hope it will pass as painlessly as possible,

Books of the Year 2016: Part Two

Cover imageAfter a stonking start to my reading year, the second instalment of 2016 favourites covers the four months from March to June with just eight books, beginning with a rediscovered American classic. First published in 1967, Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog requires a strong stomach to get through the first page but the rest of this wrenching novel makes the effort well worth it. Written in straightforward yet cinematic prose it tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same room they’ve slept in for all but the few years they were at university. The publisher’s comparison with John Williams’ celebrated Stoner may seem extravagant at first but Savage’s novel proves itself to be more than worthy of it.

My second March novel seemed a little overlooked at the time – I hope the paperback publication has put that right. Opening in 1999, Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow follows a young PhD student as he parties his way around a city in the midst of transforming itself. Erades vividly evokes Moscow awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.

Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier was April’s surprise success for me. It took some persuasionCover image to get me to read it – its structure seemed too tricksy by half. Parker, a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – from the point of view of forty-five objects, ranging from the tourniquet tied around what’s left of Tom’s leg to his occupational service medal. Parker carries this off beautifully, managing to be both objective and extraordinarily vivid in his descriptions of what happens to Tom. It’s a thoroughly impressive and inventive piece of work. Not an autobiography but it’s impossible not to think of the author’s own experience when reading it.

If Anatomy of a Soldier’s structure sounds a little too unconventional for you best steer clear of May’s favourite. Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower is an extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of Sri Ramakrishna’s story, the avatar with whom she became fascinated as a child. It has two narrative strands running through it – neither chronological – with a multitude of diversions and devices, from recounting dreams to imagining the goings-on in the temple through the eyes of a swift equipped with a tiny camera. Barker frequently pulls the rug out from beneath her readers’ feet, contradicting and questioning what has gone before.

June made up for April and May’s sparse favourites with four winners for me, starting with one of the most talked about British novels of this year, at least in my neck of the Twitter woods. Set in 1885, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around Aldwinter. A novel of ideas all wrapped up in a riveting bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose, it focuses on the passionate friendship between the recently widowed Cora, fascinated by the emerging theories about the natural world, and Will Ransome, Aldwinter’s pastor, determined to ignore the titular serpent’s effect on his parishioners. A very fine book indeed.

Cover imageMy second June favourite is Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer which sprang from her self-confessed addiction to Patricia Highsmith’s novels. It’s based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator, further unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter caught my attention for June’s preview when I speculated that it might merely be an entertaining piece of fluff but it turned out to be much better than that. It shares a restaurant backdrop with a January favourite, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, this time in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

The first half of the year was rounded off for me by the discovery of Icelandic author Sjón’sCover image writing through Moonstone. Set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this book whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.

A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review of each of the books should you be interested. The third books of the year post will cover July and August, two months whose splendours rival those of January and February.

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:

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The Book of Memory                     Undermajordomo Minor              The Long Room

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Exposure                                            Under the Visible Life               My Name is Lucy Barton

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What Belongs to You                   The Cauliflower                         The Gun Room

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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?

The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker: A Marmite novel, unsurprisingly

Cover imageEven if you’ve not already read one of Nicola Barker’s novels you’ll gather from its cover – and perhaps its title – that you’re going to be in for a wacky ride with The Cauliflower®. It’s born of Barker’s fascination with Sri Ramakrishna – an avatar, widely regarded as having played a leading role in reviving Hinduism, influencing both Gandhi and Nehru – which has its roots in a free album about Krishna Consciousness which she was handed aged ten in a shopping plaza. Many of us, I’m sure, have waved these offerings away, wary of being drawn into an attempt at conversion but if Barker had followed that line we wouldn’t have this extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of the avatar’s sketchy story.

Pointless to attempt a detailed synopsis of The Cauliflower®. Suffice to say that it’s Barker’s version of the life of a nineteenth-century man who came to be regarded as a saint thanks to the patronage of a powerful, wealthy woman known as the Rani. As a sunny-natured child, Sri Ramakrishna is given to falling into sudden trances. He eventually becomes a priest, taking up residence at the temple supported by the Rani and her son-in-law who conceives a spiritual infatuation for him. As Sri Ramakrishna’s trances become more frequent, apparently triggered by religious experiences, he attracts a devoted following and eventually is pronounced a saint. Over twenty-five years he’s both cared for and watched in loving frustration by his nephew Hridayram who would dearly love to tread his own spiritual path instead of playing nursemaid to his uncle on the journey which will see him behaving like an ape for the year he espouses Hanuman the monkey-god, dressing as a woman for his goddess Radha period and mastering Tantra, thanks to an orange-robed brahimini whom Hridayram detests.

There are two narrative strands running through Barker’s novel, neither chronological: one is told through the voice of the put-upon but devoted Hridayram, the other is Sri Ramakrishna’s story as told by the author of The Cauliflower®. Barker punctuates her novel with haiku and extracts from the Song of Solomon together with a multitude of diversions and devices – from recounting dreams to imagining the goings-on in the temple through the eyes of a swift equipped with a tiny camera – frequently pulling the rug out from underneath her readers’ feet, contradicting and questioning what has gone before. It’s often very funny not to mention vivid. Kali, the goddess to whom Sri Ramakrishna devotes himself, is described as an ‘all-singing, dervish-dancing, ecstatically stomping, bloody-sword-wielding Beyoncé Knowles’. Barker has clearly researched her subject long and hard – there’s a bibliography accompanied by enthusiastic recommendations – but, as she’s the first to admit, this is not a biography of Sri Ramakrishna. In her own words it’s ‘a painstakingly constructed, slightly mischievous and occasionally provocative/chaotic mosaic of many other people’s thoughts, memories and experiences’.  Apart from one very irritating passage – too many ‘parp-parps’, if you’re interested – it worked beautifully for me but it’s a Marmite novel, no doubt about it.

Books to Look Out For in April 2016: Part 1

Cover imageWith luck those of us who’ve been struggling with a grey, damp – or worse – winter will be able to see a bit of light glimmering on the horizon by now. Far too early with that observation according to H but I’m forever the weather optimist and if I’m proved wrong there are a few books to take refuge in the first of which I have very high hopes for: Georgina Harding’s The Gun Room. She’s one of those authors who takes her time but whose novels are always worth the wait. This one follows a war photographer whose shot of a burning Vietnamese village makes his career but who remains haunted by what he’s seen. Hardly original, I know. Many novels have dealt with this theme, from Catherine Hall’s The Repercussions to William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, but Harding’s writing is always so beautifully crafted that I suspect this will be well worth reading.

I’d expect to be feeling the same pleasurable anticipation for a new Curtis Sittenfeld novel – Sisterland and American Wife were both excellent – but Eligible is a tribute novel, the kind of thing that makes my heart sink. It’s a retelling of Pride and Prejudice with the Bennett sisters transported to 1930s America, both successful career women summoned home from New York to Cincinnati to nurse their father where they meet Chip Bingley and his haughty friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. I’m going to have to grit my teeth in order to start this one but Sittenfeld’s such a good writer it’s got to be done.Cover image

I may have to do the same with Nicola Barker’s wacky looking The Cauliflower. You may feel that she’s a Marmite author but I’ve loved some of her novels and failed miserably to get on with others. Whatever you think of her she’s rarely anything but original. This one follows a nineteenth-century guru who must, at all costs, be protected from that most bland of vegetables, the cauliflower. ‘Rather than puzzling the shards of history and legend together, Barker shatters the mirror again and rearranges the pieces. The result is a biographical novel viewed through a kaleidoscope. Dazzlingly inventive and brilliantly comic’ says the publisher. We’ll see – brilliant jacket, though.

Rick Moody is another author whose books I’ve read and enjoyed. You may remember his name from The Ice Storm which tells of the accidental death of a young boy and was made into a devastating film directed by Ang Lee. Hotels of North America is set in lighter territory. Motivational speaker Reginald Edward Morse has a talent for the witty anecdote, exercising his skills at the RateYourLodging website but perhaps giving away more than he thinks. ‘Always funny, unexpectedly tragic, this is a book of lonely rooms, long lists, of strong opinion and quiet confession, by one of America’s greatest novelists’ say the publishers. Well worth a look by the sound of it.

Cover imageFinishing off this first batch of books to look out for is a debut but by a name you may well know already. Award-winning poet and rapper Kate Tempest has turned her hand to fiction with The Bricks that Built the Houses. Set in London, it spans several generations telling the story of Becky, Harry and Leon who turn their backs on the city in an old Ford Cortina with a suitcase stuffed with money leaving behind Becky’s boyfriend at his own party. ‘Moving back in time – and into the heart of London – The Bricks that Built the Houses explores a cross-section of contemporary urban life with a powerful moral microscope, giving us intimate stories of hidden lives, and showing us that good intentions don’t always lead to the right decisions’ say the publishers which certainly whets my appetite.

That’s it for April’s first selection. Quite a mixed bunch as is the second, all by authors new to me. As ever, a click on the title will take you to a more detailed synopsis.