Tag Archives: Sara Baume

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?

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume: ‘Barely there’

Cover imageSara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was one of my favourite books of 2015. Deeply rooted in the natural world, it’s filled with wonderfully poetic descriptions. The sheer musicality of its language captivated me. I was, of course, hoping for the same from Baume’s new book given that it, too, seemed to have its feet firmly planted in nature. Both novels follow a year or so in the lives of characters who sit uncomfortably in the world: in Baume’s debut Ray finds solace in One Eye the dog who becomes his first and only friend; in A Line Made by Walking Frankie is an artist, lost and unable to find a footing either in art or in life.

Twenty-five-year-old Frankie finds herself on the floor, face pressed to the ratty carpet of her bedsit, reluctant to move, listening to the noises of the neighbours she’s never met. Putting the childhood she wishes she could re-enter behind her, she left home to study art in Dublin where friendships begun in hope faded away. After graduation she found herself a job in a gallery, part-time and short-term, restoring its walls to a pristine white whenever a scuff appeared, but that’s over now. She has just one friend who she says goodbye to in their time-honoured fashion washing down a box of Black Magic with copious amounts of red wine. Her mother appears the next day and takes her home where Frankie languishes until she decides she needs to be alone, offering to house-sit her grandmother’s increasingly dilapidated bungalow, left empty and unsold since her death. Stumbling upon the almost perfect corpse of a robin one day, 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.

Baume structures Frankie’s narrative around the photographs which comprise her project. Each chapter is made up of Frankie’s thoughts, memories of childhood and her life in Dublin, observations about the world around her, and descriptions of artworks reflecting her preoccupations. Their fragmentary nature works well, conveying the sense of a mind in disorder. The writing is characteristically striking: ‘By means of her brown paper bags, the shop woman shows me which purchases I ought to be ashamed of’; ‘Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head’; ‘The pills are just a new sort of sadness… …Softer, slyer’. There’s an aching feeling of loneliness and distress running through the novel conveying Frankie’s debilitating depression and her mother’s quietly careful, concern. Baume liberally peppers her narrative with descriptions of conceptual art works, amplifying Frankie’s musings. Some of these are very effective, in particular the eponymous work by Richard Long who specialises in ‘barely there art’ which sums up Frankie’s tenuous existence perfectly, although there were a few too many for me. It’s an unsettling novel, deeply affecting, and its ending came as a surprise.

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 to Look Out for February 2017: Part One

Cover imageFebruary is my least favourite month – dull, often wet, drained of colour – it’s the fag-end of winter here in the UK but at least it’s short. In terms of books however, this year’s February is looking very bright indeed beginning with Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking for which my hopes are extremely high. Finding herself out of step with life in the city, Frankie moves into her grandmother’s bungalow, vacant since her death three years ago. Resisting the ennui that threatens to overcome her, she picks up her camera and uses it to reconnect with nature. The result is ‘a profound meditation on the interconnectedness of wilderness, art and individual experience, and a powerful exploration of human frailty’ according to the publishers. I loved Spill Simmer Falter Wither with its wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language painting gorgeous word pictures of the natural world and am hoping for more of the same from A Line Made by Walking.

Mhairi is also looking for a refuge in Annalena McAfee’s Hame set on the remote Scottish island of Fascaray where she takes her nine-year-old daughter after the breakup of her relationship in New York. Mhairi has been commissioned to write the biography of renowned poet Grigor McWatt. Her subject seems a little slippery but as she uncovers more detail, Mhairi finds there’s a good deal more to McWatt than his reputation as a Scottish national treasure had suggested. ‘A dazzling, kaleidoscope of a novel, Hame layers extracts from Mhairi’s journal, Grigor’s letters and poems and his evocative writing about the island into a compelling narrative that explores identity, love and the universal quest for home’ say the publishers of what sounds like a very satisfying read.Cover image

A few years ago Hannah Kent’s Icelandic-set Burial Rites was everywhere. It’s one of those rare books that, like Spill Simmer Falter Wither, actually lived up to the hype which surrounded it. Hopes are high for The Good People then, although mine have been a little tempered by Kate’s review over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It’s set in County Kerry in 1825 where newly widowed Nora is caring for her grandson Micheal who can neither speak nor walk. This is a time of superstition – rumour is rife that Micheal is a changeling, a bringer of bad luck. Two women come into Nora’s life who may be able to help her restore him to the health he once enjoyed but not without danger. Kent’s second novel, like her first, is loosely based in fact, apparently.

Set in London a century earlier than The Good People, Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree sounds like an entirely different kettle of fish. Jack Sheppard and his lover, Edgeworth Bess, seem to be the only the inhabitants of the city’s underworld to have bested Jonathan Wild, the ‘Thief-Taker General’ determined to get crime under control in the wake of the bursting of the Southsea Bubble. Now in Newgate, condemned to death, Bess dictates their story to Billy Archer, a hack known to Defoe and Swift, and a secret denizen of the city’s molly-houses. Arnott’s first novel, The Long Firm, explored similar territory in 20th-century London blending fact and fiction in a vivid evocation of the times. He’s never quite matched it for me but perhaps The Fatal Tree will buck that trend.

Cover imageAmor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow takes us to Russia in June 1922. Count Alexander Rostov is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square to the Hotel Metropol where an attic room awaits him. Sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to indefinite house arrest, the Count is forced to reassess his privileged life while Russia endures decades of upheaval. ‘With the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose’, according to the publishers. There’s a fair head of steam behind this one already which always makes me sceptical but Towles’ first novel, The Rules of Civility, was a joy and we all need a bit of that at this time of the year.

That’s it for the first batch of February’s treats. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’re interested. The second part of the preview will be along soon…

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016

Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already.  The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed.  What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:

A God in Ruins                                The Heart Goes Last                The Versions of Us

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Spill Simmer Falter Wither       The Other Side of the World                 Exposure

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Under the Visible Life                    The Book of Memory                    Paulina & Fran

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His Whole Life                                 The Lives of Women                    The Ballroom

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The Long Room                           The Mountain Can Wait                            Tender

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Early Warning                               My Name is Lucy Barton                Love Me Back

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I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 4

Cover imageMy fourth and final selection begins with an award-winning novel. After differing with both the Baileys and the Man Booker judges I’ve finally found a set I can agree with: the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Of course, they’d made their minds up in June and I only got around to reading Jo Mazelis’ utterly engrossing Significance in October. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel – it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other. Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. By showing events from so many points of view, she draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize.

October’s other treat was Zimbawean author Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that Memory, our narrator, was sold to a strange man by her parents. She’s now on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe, all served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit.

We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me and two sets of literary judges agreed: it’s on the Costa First Novel shortlist and it won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature. It’s the story of fifty-seven-year-old Ray who on one of his weekly shopping trips spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. Ray claims One Eye from the dog pound and soon the two are inseparable. Over the course of a year Ray tell his sad story to the only friend he’s ever had. As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality.Cover image

My final choice is entirely different. Way back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. Twenty years later and they’re back. Beginning in 2003, Number 11 follows ten-year-old friends Rachel and Alison over a decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws. Number 11 bears several familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Honourable mentions to Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last,  Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road, Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

And if I had to choose one? Impossible as ever – last year it was a three-way between Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist. This year looks like a four-way between Weathering, A God in Ruins, Spill, Simmer, Falter Wither and The Mountain Can Wait.

That’s it for my reading year highlights. What about you? What are your 2015 favourites?