Tag Archives: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Six Degrees of Separation – from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to The Tax Inspector #6Degrees

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.

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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.

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.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Three

Cover imageJust 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 Cover imagefulfilled 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.

Cover imageAltogether 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.

Books to Look Out For in August 2016: Part 1

Cover imageAugust 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.Cover image

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.

Cover imageEnding 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.