Another year, another Man Booker Prize longlist in the offing, except this year its reverted to the Booker Prize, thanks to a change of sponsorship with Crankstart stepping into the funding breach as of June 1st this year. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2018 and 30th September 2019, and have been written in English. Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. The judges usually allow themselves twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen and this year I have, too. Their list will be revealed on Wednesday, 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.
It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here before September 3rd when the shortlist is announced but I’m sticking to the tried and tested. And if I had to choose one? That’s a tough decision this year. It’s a toss-up between A Stranger City, The Dutch House and Land of the Living, although there are several others I’d be loath to relinquish.
What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like You, was one of my books of 2016. I loved it for its poignancy leavened with wry humour, and for the striking images shining brightly from its pages. That same deft writing is evident in Starling Days which follows Mina and Oscar from New York to London where Oscar is hoping Mina will find some distraction from what ails her.
Mina is picked up by a patrol car, gazing over the edge of the George Washington Bridge in New York. Her husband comes to collect her, his mind full of memories of her overdose on their wedding night. Mina and Oscar have been together for over ten years but married for just six months. He has never known her well. Her childhood was filled with the sadness of loss, not least of the grandmother who brought her up. Now nearly thirty, her academic career is chequered and her idea for a monograph on women survivors stalled. Oscar’s father offers an opportunity to get Mina away, asking him to oversee the renovation of a set of apartments in London. Oscar works for his father importing sake and exotic beers to the States but their relationship is scratchy. Oscar was brought up by his mother in Britain, the product of a one-night stand. Oscar and Mina try to settle in: Oscar consumed with worry about Mina, she at a loss to know how to occupy herself. Called back to the States on the pretext of business, Oscar is presented with a series of revelations that turns his relationship with his father on its head. Back in London, alone and desperate, Mina turns to the sister of Oscar’s oldest friend for solace. Each, it seems, has decided their future lies elsewhere.
Buchanan’s compassionate, empathetic novel explores the effects of mental illness from both sides of a relationship, switching perspectives between Mina and Oscar. It lays bare both the sheer exhaustion of living with the constant worry of what a beloved partner might do to themselves and the relentless debilitation of a disordered mind. Similar themes run through Buchanan’s debut but her new novel is infused with a deeper melancholy and there are moments of aching sadness:
And she saw herself as if from a great height – this small tattooed woman with the bleached hair crying for her husband’s affection. This small woman dressed to look like a rebel just begging to be held.
Unlike Harmless Like You, there are no slapstick moments such as the hairless therapy cat in its ‘festive jumper’ – although I did think the lovely Benson would make an excellent therapy dog – but the same wry, dark humour brightens the tone:
There was no word for the woman whose husband your mother had borrowed
Given the nature of its story, this was bound to be a more sombre novel than Buchanan’s first, made all the more so by the heartfelt note at its end in which she addresses readers dealing with their own difficulties:
Every day you try again is an act of bravery. Although this is worthy of pride, you may not feel able to be proud of yourself. But I would like to wish you congratulations on being here today
Inevitably, July means summer reading which means fewer books for me, not being of the reading by the pool persuasion or doing anything by the pool for that matter. That said, I’m starting off with what will be a surefire summer bestseller: David Nicolls’ Sweet Sorrow. I loved One Day which was commercial fiction perfection as far as I’m concerned. This new one explores young love over a summer in which sixteen-year-old Charlie meets Fran. It’s described by the publishers as ‘a hymn to the tragicomedy of ordinary lives, a celebration of the reviving power of friendship and that brief, blinding explosion of first love that perhaps can only be looked at directly once it has burned out’. I suspect I’ll probably be reading this one happily ensconced on a sofa.
Nicola Barker is the other end of the literary spectrum from David Nicholls, often wacky and innovative. I still haven’t got around to reading H(a)ppy but have fond memories of The Cauliflower®. I Am Sovereign follows a forty-year-old teddy bear maker trying to sell his Llandudno house. A viewing by prospective buyers sets in train a series of events that cause all concerned to question reality. ‘As religious epiphanies bump up against declarations of love, examinations of subjectivity hurtle into meditations on the history of culture, our entire understanding of the book – and of the boundaries between fiction and real life – is radically upended. A tour de force in miniature form that twists the novel into new shapes as the characters sabotage the fictional world they inhabit, I Am Sovereign sees Nicola Barker at her most joyful, provocative and riotous’ say the publishers promisingly.
We’re back in much more straightforward territory with Anna Hope’s new novel, I suspect. I enjoyed both Wake and The Ballroom very much so hopes are high for Expectation which sees three friends living in East London, their lives full of art, love and delight. A decade later, Hannah, Cate and Lissa are trying to cope with the inevitable disillusionments and difficulties of adult life, each thinking the others’ lives are better than theirs, and each wondering how to make their life more meaningful. ‘Expectation is a novel of the highs and lows of friendship – how it can dip, dive and rise again. It is also about finding your way: as a mother, a daughter, a wife, a rebel. Most of all, it explores that liminal space between expectation and reality, the place – full of dreams, desires and pain – in which we all live our lives’ say the publishers whetting my appetite nicely.
Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game is about the Bauhaus movement, a school of art and design whose ethos and style I find very appealing. Wood’s novel follows Paul Beckermann who arrives at the school in 1922 and becomes entranced by both the teaching and his fellow students, falling in love with one of them. Political tensions and its own internal rivalries result in the group’s disintegration leaving Paul with a secret he’s forced to face when an old Bauhaus friend contacts him, many years later. ‘Beautifully written, powerful and suspenseful, Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game is a novel about the dangerously fine line between love and obsession, set against the most turbulent era of our recent past’ say the publishers. I very much enjoyed Mrs Hemingway, Wood’s take on Ernest Hemingway’s marriage so I’m looking forward to this one.
Two American novels published in July sound like catnip to me. The first, Regina Porter’s The Travelers, follows two families – one Irish-American, the other African-American – beginning in 1942 as America recovers from the Second World War. ‘Illuminating more than six decades of sweeping change – from the struggle for civil rights and the chaos of Vietnam to Obama’s first year as President – James and Agnes’s families will come together in unexpected, intimate and profoundly human ways. Romantic and defiant, humorous and intellectually daring, Regina Porter brilliantly explores how race, gender and class collide in modern-day America – and charts the mishaps and adventures we often take to get closer to ourselves and to home’ say the publishers which sounds right up my literary alley.
As does Salvatore Scribona’s The Volunteer which spans four generations of fathers and sons, beginning in 1966 when Vollie Frade enlists in the US Marine Corps to fight in Vietnam. ‘From the Cambodian jungle, to a flophouse in Queens, to a commune in New Mexico, Vollie’s path traces a secret history of life on the margins of America, culminating with an inevitable and terrible reckoning. Scibona’s story of a restless soldier pressed into service for a clandestine branch of the US government unfolds against the backdrop of the seismic shifts in global politics of the second half of the twentieth century’ say the publishers promisingly.
I’m ending July’s new titles as I began with a novel I’d be amazed if I didn’t love – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days. Oscar and Mina move to London after a patrol car picks her up on the George Washington Bridge, apparently about to jump off. Oscar hopes that getting away from New York will help Mina recover but finds their love tested when another woman offers Mina both friendship and attraction. I loved Buchannan’s debut, Harmless Like You, which was both poignant and wryly humorous. I’m hoping for more of the same with Starling Days.
That’s it for July’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…
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 John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I’m sorry to say that I remember the film, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, rather than the book which is set in Lyme Regis, one of my favourite seaside towns, and explores the position of women in nineteenth century society.
Taking my lead from Fowles’ title, Patrick deWitt’s French Exit is a caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classes, which takes its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their ancient cat
Small Frank is one of the most memorable literary cats I’ve come across, only rivalled by the hairless therapy cat all done up in its ‘festive jumper’ in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You in which a mother leaves her family when he’s a little boy.
Another son wrestles with his resentment at the mother who he believes deserted him when he was a child in Nathan Hill’s The Nix, a panoramic view of American politics from the ‘60s onwards, in which Samuel is forced to come to Faye’s aid when she is accused of being a terrorist.
Russell Banks’ The Darling also explores the fallout from the radical politics of the ’60s and ‘70s together with the machinations of American foreign policy through Hannah Musgrave who has been in hiding after taking part in acts of terror many years ago.
The Larkins in H. E. Bates’ The Darling Buds of May couldn’t be further from such goings on although they do manage to seduce a tax inspector away from his official duties with the joys of rustic life.
Which brings me neatly to Peter Carey’s The Tax Inspector which I have to confess I haven’t read but I gather it’s about a dodgy family business facing an audit.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an early postmodern novel set in Dorset to a second-hand car dealers’ just outside Sydney. 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.
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:
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.
Just one July favourite this year although August brought an embarrassment of riches with five splendid novels. July’s title was Jane Rogers’ Conrad and Eleanor, a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is engaged in medical research as is Conrad but while she is a star in her particular sphere, his work has stalled. When Conrad fails to return from the conference he is supposed to be attending, Eleanor is forced to take a long hard look at their marriage . It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing novel. Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution.
There’s a kind of resolution in Marie Sizun’s painfully autobiographical Her Father’s Daughter, written from the point of view of the titular daughter, named France but known throughout as ‘the child’, who is just over four years old when the it opens, living in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother. When her father returns from the war her mother’s focus shifts and the daughter must learn to live in an entirely different world, deprived of affection and often violent. There’s an intense immediacy to Sizun’s writing, sharpening the effect of the child’s stark observations. It’s a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and utterly engrossing.
The pain and puzzlement suffered by daughters is a theme in Sara Taylor’s second novel The Lauras, much anticipated after her excellent debut The Shore. Like The Shore, The Lauras is stuffed full of stories as Alex looks back on two years spent on the road as an adolescent. As they crisscross the USA, Alex’s mother tells stories about her life before Alex, packed with adventure and misadventure. At each destination, scores are settled, longstanding promises fulfilled and debts repaid. Throughout it all runs the theme of identity – Alex’s determined decision not to identify as male or female, her mother’s sexual ambiguity and rootlessness – all handled with an enviable deftness.
The theme of mother/child relationships also runs through Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s very fine debut, Harmless Like You. After his father dies, Jay finds that the family home in Connecticut has been bequeathed to Yuki, his Japanese mother who left it when he was two years old. As the executor of his father’s will, Jay must hand over the deed in person. Beginning in 1968 when Yuki was sixteen, Buchanan’s novel tells the story of how a mother came to do the unthinkable and leave her infant son. Buchanan’s writing is often very striking, her images vibrantly colourful. She underpins the book’s poignancy with a wry humour, neatly avoiding any sentimental conclusions. Let’s hope there’s a second novel in the works.
One of my favourite writers, Ron Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. His latest novel, Above the Waterfall, is about Les Clary, the local sheriff whose final case sees him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.
Altogether more gentle, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this charming novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for. Just what was needed after the multitude of barbs that 2016 seems to have hurled at so many of us and a very satisfying book with which to bring July and August to a close.
A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review and if you’ve missed the first two posts they’re here and here. Nothing much of note for me in September so the fourth and final post for my books of 2016 will leap ahead to cover October and November.
August is yet another month with a strong showing for American fiction, kicking off with The Lauras by Sara Taylor whose wonderful debut, The Shore, was longlisted for the Baileys last year. A mother bundles her thirteen-year-old daughter into the car in the middle of the night and sets off on a journey towards a new life. Just like all thirteen-year-olds, the daughter thinks of her mother as just that, with no aspirations to be anything else, but as their route takes them away from Virginia, she learns more about her mother’s life and secrets. The Shore was one of my favourite books of 2014 so I’m hoping from great things, fuelled further by the publisher’s description of ‘an extraordinary story of a life; a stunning exploration of identity and an authentic study of the relationship between a mother and her child’.
For some reason I never got around to reading Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl which was raved about by all and sundry when it was published back in 2007. There’s been nothing from him since but The Fortunes sounds well worth the wait. Spanning 150 years, Davies’ novel explores the Chinese-American experience through the lens of four characters: Ah Ling, the son of a prostitute, sent alone to California as a young boy in the 1860s; Anna Mae Wong, the first Chinese Hollywood movie star; Vincent Chin murdered in 1982 just because he looked Japanese and John Ling Smith, visiting America to adopt a child. Apparently, Davies has mixed real and fictional characters, drawing on his own mixed-race experience in what sounds like fascinating read.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like You, also explores how it feels to be an outsider, following Yuki Oyama as she tries to forge a career as an artist in the 1960s after her parents have returned to Japan leaving her alone in America. Running alongside Yuki’s story is that of the son she abandoned when he was only two so that she could pursue her art. Buchanan’s novel encompasses New York, Berlin and Connecticut – two of my favourite settings in there which alone would guarantee it a place in this preview but the premise sounds excellent, too.
Hide, Matthew Griffin’s debut, looks at the plight of the outsider from another point of view. Wendell and Frank meet after the Second World War in a depressed textile town in the American South. They decide to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, well aware of the dangers their relationship poses. Decades later, when Wendell finds Frank collapsed outside it seems that the carefully constructed face they present to the world may fracture. Wendell attempts to maintain the façade as Frank continues to deteriorate but ‘faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion: the different lives they might have lived – and the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had’ say the publishers. This sounds like a heart-wrenching novel, a story that’s to be hoped will play out less and less in real life.
Ending on a high note, for me, at least, is Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall. I’ve long been an admirer of Rash’s pared back, spare writing. I first came across him when I read Serena his reinterpretation of Macbeth which I very nearly passed over, sporting, as it did at the time, a somewhat overblown romantic jacket. This new novel follows Sheriff Les Cary as he embarks on his last case in a small town riddled with violence and drug addiction in which someone has poisoned the local trout stream. ‘Poetic and haunting’ say the publishers which aptly describes Rash’s writing for me, and no complaints whatsoever about that gorgeous jacket.
That’s it for the first batch of August goodies. The second will extend far outside of the USA, you may be pleased to hear. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’d like to read more.