Tag Archives: Sally Rooney

Books to Look Out for in September 2018: Part One

Cover imageMy heart sings with joy at the prospect of several books in September’s publishing schedules. You’ve probably already heard of at least one of them: Kate Atkinson’s Transcription whose announcement made my literary year. Wartime spy, Juliet Armstrong, has moved on from MI5 to the BBC ten years after she was recruited in 1940 but finds herself confronted with her past. ‘A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence. Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy’ say the publishers and, having already read it, I’d say they’re right. Still mystified as to why Atkinson didn’t win all the prizes for A God in Ruins.

Hard to follow that, I know, but I’ve learned to prick up my ears when a new Sarah Moss is announced. In Ghost Wall, Sylvie is spending the summer with her parents in a Northumberland hut where her father is intent on re-enacting Iron Age life. ‘Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Bodies of Light and The Tidal Zone.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends was a surprise inclusion on my 2017  books of the year list. The more I read it the more it grew on me. Her new novel, Normal People, follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly.

Nihad Sirees’ States of Passion sees a Syrian bureaucrat seeking shelter in an old mansion where he hears stories of an all-female society, passions and subterfuge set against the backdrop of the golden age of Aleppo. ‘Sirees spins astonishing literary beauty out of this tangled web of family secrets, and he writes with great humour and warmth about the conflict between past and present in this surprising and unique novel about a lost world’ according to the publishers.

Catherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval Cover imagewhich must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, setting the bar a tad high. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for the first batch of September’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye. Part two also anticipates some stonkingly good titles although perhaps none to equal Transcription

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?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2018: Part One

Cover imageLots of paperbacks to look forward to in March, many of which I’ve already read beginning with Sally Rooney’s award-winning debut, Conversations with Friends, which is about two best friends – once lovers – who fall into a friendship with an older couple whose marriage seems a little frayed. Rooney’s novel explores the endless exchanges that make up relationships, big and small; the misunderstandings, misconceptions and happenstance that can ultimately shape your life. Not a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably.

You could say the same about Katie Kitamura’s A Separation about a woman whose husband is missing in the Peloponnese. Their estrangement has been kept secret from every one apart from her new partner. She flies to Greece at her mother-in-law’s request where she finds herself both an observer, looking back on her relationship with her self-absorbed husband, and a participant in the dramatic turn events have taken. It’s an absorbing novel, if discomfiting, with nothing so simple as a clean resolution.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie’s retelling of Antigone, also begins with a separation. Orphaned Isma has finally taken up her place to study in America now that her sister and brother are grown up. A chance meeting leads to an affair back in London between her sister, Aneeka, and the son of Cover imagethe determinedly anti-terrorist, Muslim home secretary but Aneeka has an ulterior motive – a determination to bring her beloved brother back from Syria. Shamsie’s characters are carefully fleshed out and entirely credible, her writing is both beautiful and lucid, her depictions of political maneuvering and the media’s lurid sensationalism sophisticated and believable.

A second novel from a writer whose first you’ve loved as much as I did Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs is a tricky thing – sets the heart racing with anticipation tinged with apprehension. Set in Wisconsin and spanning nearly six decades The Hearts of Men explores what it is to be a man in America through the lens of two very different boys who form a kind of friendship in 1962. Butler is careful to avoid turning them into cartoon black and white characters but Nelson is clearly the novel’s moral compass while Jonathan represents a more louche type of manhood. It’s a deeply heartfelt novel which asks hard questions and gives no easy answers.

Sara Baume’s second novel also followed a debut which I deeply admired: Spill Simmer Falter Wither was one of my favourite books of 2015. Both novels follow a year or so in the lives of characters who sit uncomfortably in the world. In A Line Made by Walking twenty-five-year-old Frankie is an artist who takes herself off to her grandmother’s dilapidated bungalow, left empty since her death. Stumbling upon the almost perfect corpse of a robin, Frankie decides to photograph it, to make it part of an art work, a project that might rescue her from her overwhelming unhappiness and loneliness. An unsettling, deeply affecting novel.

Cover imageTom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is also deeply affecting. Labelled as a piece of autofiction it’s about the death of his partner a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom finds himself caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare in which he must prove himself to be Livia’s father. The novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter. An intensely immersive, heart-wrenching book which I hope proved cathartic for its author.

That’s it for the first batch of March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review if you’d like to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with new March titles they’re here. More paperbacks soon, none of which I’ve read.

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?

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: Mulling things over

Cover imageThis is one of those novels that’s been gathering a head of steam in my neck of the Twitter woods. Not in an off-putting, shouty, endless-stream-of-gushy-tweets way – just enough to pique my interest. It’s a debut from a young Irish author about two best friends – once lovers – who fall into a friendship with an older couple whose marriage seems a little frayed. It’s a novel about relationships, about youth and the dawning of middle age, and about the gap between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us.

Twenty-one-year-old students Frances and Bobbi have been friends since school. Bobbi is the outspoken one, happy to pontificate loudly, lengthily and intelligently about the state of the world while Frances fades into the background, dull and lacking in personality – or at least that’s how she thinks of herself. They catch Melissa’s eye while performing Frances’ poetry on the street. She wants to write a magazine feature about them to which they agree, a little star struck by Melissa’s reputation and her marriage to a beautiful actor. Frances and Bobbi find themselves drawn into Melissa and Nick’s orbit – meeting their friends, attending dinner parties, bumping into them at Dublin’s arts events then invited to join them in France for a holiday. Bobbi has a crush on Melissa, then Frances takes an initiative which leads to an affair with Nick. Frances’ day-to-day life – her worries about her father’s alcoholism, her concerns about Bobbi’s handling of her parents’ break-up, her own seeming lack of direction – is the background hum to this affair in which neither party seems to know quite what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

Conversations with Friends is written entirely from Frances’ point of view. She thinks of herself as nondescript – Bobbi is the vibrant, beautiful one, argumentative but erudite with it. If that was the case, it would make for a rather dull book but Frances is not what she thinks she is as Bobbi makes clear towards the end of the novel. Rooney smartly captures the awkwardness of young adulthood, trying to find a way to be and a place in the world. She has a knack of making the most mundane observations both interesting and amusing – Frances’ angst-ridden narrative reminded me at times of a Woody Allen film. Melissa’s friends are portrayed as a little jaded, painfully conscious of the age gap between themselves and Frances and Bobbi. This isn’t a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably. It’s about the endless exchanges that make up relationships, big and small; the misunderstandings, misconceptions and happenstance that can ultimately shape your life. I wasn’t at all sure about the ending but somehow it was in tune with the rest of the novel which I found curiously addictive.

Books to Look Out for in June 2017

Cover image Top of my list for June is Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends which I’m pretty sure isn’t aimed at my age group but sounds enticing all the same. Four friends in their twenties talk about everything under the sun but it’s Frances and her affair with a much older married man who eventually takes centre stage. ‘You can read Conversations with Friends as a romantic comedy, or you can read it as a feminist text. You can read it as a book about infidelity, about the pleasures and difficulties of intimacy, or about how our minds think about our bodies. However you choose to read it, it is an unforgettable novel about the possibility of love’ according to the publishers, kindly leaving the choice up to their readers.

Love is also the subject of Catherine Lacey’s The Answers which comes at it in a very different way. Mary is desperate for work when she sees a job advertised as part of The Girlfriend Experiment whose aim is to analyse the nature of relationships – what works and what doesn’t – through role-playing. She is to be Emotional Girlfriend, joining a team which includes Angry Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend, playing against the Hollywood actor whose idea the whole thing is. ‘A novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which probe the depths of our society, and answers that will leave you reeling’ say the publishers. It’s an interesting premise which has the makings of a great book not to mention a film, although I’m sure that’s been considered already.

Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World is about another kind of social experiment, this one focusing on families. Alone and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, Isabelle is offered a place in The Infinity Family Project whose billionaire founder is pursuing a utopian ideal: raising nine babies as part of an extended family in a Tennessee compound. ‘Can this experiment really work – or is their ‘perfect little world’ destined to go horribly wrong?’ ask the publishers. Given the number of unhappy children brought up in communes who’ve shared their experiences with the world in one way or another, I suspect we can guess the answer. Cover image

Here’s one that has attracted a good deal of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods. Julie Buntin’s Marlena follows naïve fifteen-year-old Cat who finds herself becoming best friends with her neighbour when she moves to a new town in rural Michigan. Cat and Marlena make the town their own, partying like there’s no tomorrow until Marlena is found drowned in nearby woods. Decades later Cat is still trying to come to terms with her past. ‘Alive with an urgent, unshakeable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull ourselves back from the brink’ say the publishers a little dramatically.

The trials and tribulations of settling into a new home also play a part in Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which follows the Bredins – who can neither afford a divorce nor their London home – to a remote part of Devon. No one seems very happy with the arrangement and everyone wonders why their rent is so low. ‘The beauty of the landscape is ravishing, yet it conceals a dark side involving poverty, revenge, abuse and violence which will rise up to threaten them’ say the publishers which promises the revelation of dark secrets. I’ve enjoyed Craig’s previous novels and this one comes with a stonking endorsement from Helen Dunmore.

Allegra Goodman’s The Chalk Artist is about the all-consuming nature of computer gaming and the way it can threaten to take over real life, explored through a teenage boy living in smalltown America. Aidan is at the top of his game when playing EverWhen, putting the problems of adolescence behind him, but when he’s sent a mysterious black box from the game’s designers he finds himself physically taken into EverWhen’s world, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. It’s a fascinating subject – remember Second Life and the divorce it prompted? – and I’ve enjoyed Goodman’s fiction very much in the past.

Cover imageI’m ending this preview with a book by an author whose first novel is sitting on my shelves but I have yet to read. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away follows three women: one wanting to box at a time when boxing is illegal for women in Ireland; the second contemplating a job offer but wondering if she can bring herself to abandon her mother in her nursing home; and a third who takes up with a biker gang as a means of escape. ‘A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing but perhaps I should get around to reading Generation first.

That’s it for June’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that appeal. Paperbacks to follow soon…