Tag Archives: Our Magic Hour

Books of the Year 2017: Part One

Cover imageI’ve been in dire need of distraction this year. I tend to keep politics out of this blog but ours is a very political household. It’s what we talk about over supper but this year we both decided, for the sake of our mental health, we needed to rein it back. Books, as ever, have been a solace. Far too many favourites for one or even two posts so there will be four, all with links to full reviews on this blog.

January began with a book that was published in the previous December and as a result may not have made the impression it deserved which is why it’s popped up two weeks running here. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend  kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. Written from Audrey’s point of view, Down’s debut is a masterclass in elegant understatement steered neatly away from the maudlin. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix is a big novel in every sense of the word. Through the story of a mother and the son she left when he was eleven, it explores the panorama of American life from the heady idealism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. The writing is striking from the get-go and it’s very funny: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia to mention but a few. Careful plotting ensures that each piece of the puzzle slots neatly into place until both Faye and Samuel’s stories are told. It ends with fresh starts, a much-needed reminder that despite all that’s gone before there will always be both redemption and hope somewhere in the world, albeit personal rather than political.

Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack comes packaged in the perfect jacket. It’s the story of a marriage Cover imagespanning sixty years, contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. In many ways they’re an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs. An engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting.

February also delivered three novels that hit the spot, each very different from the others, starting with Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. This elegant novella is a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past. It’s a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. Woodson is known for her young adult and children’s books but I hope she’ll find time to write some more for us grown-up readers.

Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, The Refugees is by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. It explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Viet Thanh Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view in a collection which combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience lending it a quiet power. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades.

Cover imageAt which point you may be wondering about books as a distraction from politics but my next February choice has that in spades. Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree is a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash – gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang. It’s the story of Edgeworth Bess who is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Alongside Bess’ tale, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.

That’s it for January and February’s favourites. Goodies were thinner on the ground in the following three months but they did include one which should have won all this year’s prizes, as far as I’m concerned, but didn’t…

Five Australian Novels I’ve Read

Given that I nicked this idea from Kim over at Reading Matters, an Australian blogger, albeit one living in the UK, it seems Cover imageonly fair to round up five books I’ve read by Australians. I should say I’ve read considerably more Australian fiction than that but these are five novels I’ve particularly enjoyed. The last three are linked to a full review.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon begins on a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century with a strange and ragged figure dancing out of the bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with indigenous Australians. At first his eccentricities are greeted with amusement but as the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment they see as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aboriginal people, lie? Every word counts in this slim, dazzlingly vivid novella.

Most British readers would probably name Peter Carey if pushed to come up with an Australian author. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed all Carey’s novels but one stands out for me, so good I’ve read it three times: the 1988 Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda. The gawky, misfit, son of a preacher, Oscar Hopkins stumbles upon a method of paying his way through his theology studies, becoming an obsessive but successful gambler, convinced that he’s following God’s will. Equally the misfit, Lucinda Leplastrier, unexpectedly in possession of a large fortune and the proprietor of a glassworks, is well aware of the scandalous nature of her gambling addiction. When these two meet on board a ship bound for Australia, they form an unlikely bond which results in a calamitous misunderstanding as both wager their futures on a fantastical glass church. Set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century colonialism Oscar and Lucinda is a wonderfully witty, vibrant pastiche of a Victorian novel.

Romy Ash’s Floundering begins with Loretta swinging by her parents’ home to pick up her twoCover image sons who she’d left on their doorstep a year ago because ‘things just got complicated’. They’re on the road for days: what’s needed along the way is shoplifted; they sleep in the car; the heat is suffocating; insects bite mercilessly but Tom, who narrates the novel, manages to remain cheerful although increasingly uneasy and at times downright scared. He and his older brother bicker while Loretta – never to be called Mum – chivvies them, often hungover, sometimes drinking at the wheel. They finally arrive at a campsite where Loretta slowly unravels, the heat bounces off everything and their next door neighbour can’t stand to have little boys around. Things go from bad to worse. Through Tom’s voice, Ash manages to capture the panicky fear of an eleven-year-old unsure of what his increasingly chaotic and unpredictable mother will do next.

Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: the titular Sara’s seventeenth-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000. In 1957, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the only extant de Vos painting which has been in the de Groot family for centuries. Marty de Groot’s investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student turned conservator who – decades later – will become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career celebrated in an exhibition which will have the de Groot’s painting as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner is delivering the work himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. Smith deftly weaves the story of the painting and its creator through Ellie and Marty’s narratives, linking all three satisfyingly together in this entertaining literary page-turner.

Cover imageI’ll end this with a novel that I hope grabbed more attention in Australia that it seemed to here in the UK. Jennifer Down’s debut, Our Magic Hour, follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else while her partner tries to take care of her. Down’s novel is a masterclass in elegant understatement. Her writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into her circle making the loneliness of her life all the more wrenching but it can also be very funny: This could easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak book but Down steers it neatly clear of that. The result is a very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Any Australian novels you’d like to recommend?

Books to Look Out for in December 2017

Cover imageAs ever, there’s very little in the way of new titles to trouble your credit card with in December. Probably a relief given the wear and tear of Christmas shopping. Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body sounds intriguing, though. It’s about a daughter’s attempts to understand her mother’s life after she’s found dead at the foot of her stairs, and it’s structured along the lines of a medical report. ‘What emerges is a picture of life lived in the shadows, as well as an attempt to discover how and why her mother died. To make sense of her own grief Laura must piece her mother’s body back together and in doing so, she is forced to confront a woman silenced by her own mother and wronged by her husband’ according to the blurb.

Lily Tuck’s Sisters explores a second wife’s obsession with her husband’s first marriage. ‘Will the narrator ever equal the first wife intellectually and sexually, or ever forget the betrayal that lies between them? And what of the secrets between her husband and the first wife, from which the second wife is excluded? The daring and precise build-up to an eerily wonderful denouement is a triumph of subtlety and surprise’ say the publishers enticingly. Shades of Rebecca here, maybe.

In January I read Our Magic Hour, an extraordinarily impressive novel by an Australian author called Jennifer Down. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. Pulse Points is Down’s collection of short stories about people who ‘live in small dusty towns, glittering exotic cities and slow droll suburbs; they are mourners, survivors and perpetrators’ according to the publishers. Naturally, I’d have preferred a novel but if her short stories are only half as good as Our Magic Hour they’ll be a treat to savour.Cover image

Just one paperback to look out for – Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize earlier in the year. It’s the story of Ingrid Barroy, born into the only family who live on a tiny Norwegian island. When she grows up, Ingrid is sent to the mainland amidst great change for her country then tragedy strikes and she must do what she can to protect her remote home. ‘In detailed, quietly gripping prose, writer Roy Jacobsen and translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw use a small canvas to tell a great, universal story’ say the Man Booker judges which sounds right up my street and all the more intriguing given that two translators worked on the novel.

That’s it for December, and for 2017 previews. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Already looking forward to what 2018 has to offer…

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

Cover image

The Gun Room                               The Crime Writer                       The Lauras

Cover imageCover image

Conrad and Eleanor                        Commonwealth                     Harmless Like You

Cover imageCover imageCover image

Our Magic Hour                                Swimming Lessons                 Another Brooklyn

Cover imageCover imageCover image

First Love                                          A Line Made for Walking           Birdcage Walk

Cover imageCover imageCover image

 

 

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.

Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down: Learning to look after yourself

Cover imageThis book was actually published here in the UK at the very tail end of 2016 – I hope that won’t mean that it falls through the Christmas/New Year coverage cracks because it deserves attention. Our Magic Hour is Jennifer Down’s debut and comes from Australian publishers Text Publishing whose books I’ve learnt to look out for. Someone there has a sharp eye for talent as Down’s novel amply demonstrates. It follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability.

Audrey and Katy have been best friends since school, part of a tight-knit circle who prop each other up at parties, dry each others’ tears and share each others’ good and bad times. Audrey has always been the responsible one; a violent alcoholic father, remembered fondly by her bipolar mother, and a younger brother who seems in danger of going off the rails have made sure of that. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else, listening patiently to Adam’s distressed middle-of-the-night calls and visiting Katy’s parents, while her partner Nick tries to take care of her. Unnoticed by herself, Audrey slowly falls apart while trying to keep everyone else from doing the same. When the crisis finally comes, she decides to strike out on her own, leaving her job as a social worker in Melbourne and finding one in Sydney on a paediatric cancer ward. Audrey is determined to try to make a life for herself but it’s hard, lonely work with missteps along the way.

Written from Audrey’s point of view, Our Magic Hour is a masterclass in elegant understatement. There are no histrionics here: Audrey quietly descends into a black depression as Nick looks helplessly on. Down’s writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into Audrey’s circle making the loneliness of her life in Sydney all the more wrenching but it can also be wonderfully vivid: the exuberant Adam has ‘lungfuls of stories to tell’; Emy is ‘just on the safe side of a really lavish vomit’ at her leaving party and Claire describes making scones as ‘just flour and milk and sugar and cream. You chuck it all in there, and beat it like it owes you money’. Our Magic Hour could very easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak novel but Down steers it neatly clear of that. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely. I’m looking forward to seeing what Down comes up with next.

Books to Look Out for in December 2016

Cover imageDecember’s always a thin time of the year for new titles – publishers have long since assembled their choicest wares for the Christmas trade – but there’s usually something worth looking out for. This year three very disparate novels have snagged my attention. The first comes from an Australian publisher, Text Publishing, who seem to have an eye for a decent debut. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour is set in Melbourne where Audrey and Kate have spent a decade as bosom buddies. When Kate leaves, Audrey is thrown off-kilter as her family threatens to fall apart. ‘Evocative and exquisitely written, Our Magic Hour is a story of love, loss and discovery. Jennifer Down’s remarkable debut novel captures that moment when being young and invincible gives way to being open and vulnerable, when one terrible act changes a life forever’ say the publishers.

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir’s The Good Lover sees a philandering man hankering after a woman he met in his youth. Karl Ástuson decides to track down Una, his first and only love, who left him with no explanation after only a few months. The prospect of happiness may be in his sights but unfortunately for Karl, a spurned ex has decided to make his exploits the focus of her new novel. Sigurðardóttir’s book is ‘an intriguing, unusual and beautiful novel about the messiness of love that will stay with the reader for a long time’ according to the publishers and it’s certainly an interesting premise.margaret-the-first

This last choice is a little outside my usual literary purview but it’s prompted by its protagonist, Margaret Cavendish, who popped up in Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, the title of which she borrowed from her subject. A 17th-century duchess, Margaret, was a thoroughly accomplished woman, the first to be invited to speak at the Royal Society and the last for two hundred years. Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First tells her story in what Jenny Offil has called ‘A strikingly smart and daringly feminist novel with modern insights into love, marriage and the siren call of ambition’. Sounds unmissable to me.

That’s it for December hardbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…