Tag Archives: Shotgun Lovesongs

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.

Books to Look Out for in July 2017

Cover imageJuly sees publishing well into its summer reading season with far fewer books than usual to tempt me although Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men more than makes up for that. His debut, Shotgun Lovesongs, was a wonderful, heart-tugging piece of writing. As ever, there’s that nagging worry about second novel syndrome but this new one sounds set in similar thematic territory. Nelson and Jonathan are very different – one diffident the other popular – but they become friends in 1962, the same summer Nelson’s family is rocked by his father’s betrayal. Butler’s novel follows these two into adulthood with all its many challenges and setbacks. ‘The Hearts of Men is a lyrical, wise and deeply affecting novel about the slippery definitions of right and wrong, family and fidelity, and the redemptive power of friendship’ say the publishers. Fingers firmly crossed for this one.

Continuing the friendship theme Victoria Redel’s Before Everything is about five girls who dub themselves the Old Friends, aged eleven. They see each other through the multitude of ups and downs that adult life throws at them until one of them is diagnosed with a recurring cancer and decides enough is enough. Each of the five reacts differently to their friend’s decision. It sounds like quintessential summer reading but I can never resist that old evolving friendship theme.

It’s also the theme of Elizabeth Day’s The Party although perhaps this time with more of a bite to it. Scholarship boy Martin Gilmour meets Ben Fitzmaurice at Burtonbury School, becoming firm friends with him despite their wildly differing backgrounds. Over the next twenty-five years, these two are bound together both by friendship and by a secret about Ben that Martin is determined to keep. However, as the blurb hints, things may be about to change when ‘at Ben’s 40th birthday party, the great and the good of British society are gathering to celebrate in a haze of champagne, drugs and glamour’. Sebastian Faulks is quoted as finding it ‘witty, dark and compelling’.Cover image

I’m not entirely sure about Maile Meloy’s Do Not Be Alarmed  which doesn’t sound up my usual alley. Two families are enjoying a cruise together. Both adults and children go ashore in Central America where things go horribly awry: ‘What follows is a heart-racing story told from the perspectives of the adults and the children, as the distraught parents – now turning on one another and blaming themselves – try to recover their children and their shattered lives’ say the publishers. This sounds so different from the three previous novels I’ve read by Meloy that I had to check it was the same author but I enjoyed them so much that I’ll be giving this one a try.

I’m also a somewhat doubtful about Yuki Means Happiness but Alison Jean Lester’s Lillian on Life was a treat. A young woman leaves America for Japan, keen for adventure. She takes a job as a nanny to a two-year-old, immersing herself in the routine of the household and becoming increasingly attached to her charge until she becomes aware that the Yoshimura family isn’t quite what it seems. ‘Yuki Means Happiness is a rich and powerfully illuminating portrait of the intense relationship between a young woman and her small charge, as well as one woman’s journey to discover her true self’ according to the publishers which sounds very different from the worldly Lillian’s tale.

Cover imageI’m ending with Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, which from the title alone, seems certain to be a Marmite book. The publisher’s blurb is a little opaque although I suspect they’re not to blame for that given Barker’s idiosyncratic approach to fiction. Best to quote it at length, I think: ‘H(A)PPY is a post-post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, a story which tells itself and then consumes itself. It’s a place where language glows, where words buzz and sparkle and finally implode. It’s a novel which twists and writhes with all the terrifying precision of a tiny fish in an Escher lithograph – a book where the mere telling of a story is the end of certainty’. I loved The Cauliflower with all its wackiness although there’s no guarantee I’ll feel the same about this one.

That’s it for July’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks to follow…

Six Degrees of Separation – from Shopgirl to Shotgun Lovesongs #6Degrees

I’m not one for memes but Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, is one I’ve come to eagerly anticipate on other blogs so I thought I’d stick my toe in the water. 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 other books on the list, only to the one preceding it.

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This month’s starting point is Steve Martin’s Shopgirl which I’ve not read but the Goodreads synopsis tells me that it’s about a lonely young woman selling expensive evening  gloves in a department store who tries to form a relationship with an ageing rich Lothario while shrugging off the attentions of an awkward slacker. Feelings about the book seem to be mixed but it doesn’t sound like the barrel of laughs one might expect from a novel by a comedian.

Like Steve Martin, David Baddiel is known to many as a comic, a familiar face from the ‘90s BBC comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience. He now channels his writing talent into children’s books but his first novel, Whatever Love Means, which I’ve not read either, was aimed at adults. It’s described by the publisher as ‘part-satire, part-love story, part-whodunnit, and part-meditation on the nature of sex and death’.

Earlier this year Baddiel took part in a documentary about his father’s dementia which leads me to Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a riveting thriller told from the point of view of a demented narrator. McFarlane won the Dylan Thomas Prize for her collection of short stories, The High Places last month. I’m a recent short stories convert and my fourth book is one which played a large part in that conversion

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. draws heavily on her own rackety life: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. This collection drew lots of attention when it was published in 2015 but Berlin, who died in 2004, had been quietly writing since the ‘60s so you could describe her stories as rediscovered classics which leads me to John Williams’ Stoner.

First published in 1965 Stoner became that wonderful thing a word-of-mouth bestseller when it was re-issued a few years ago. It’s a lovely elegiac novel about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life, written in quietly graceful prose. Stoner is an academic, the main protagonist of a campus novel which leads me to Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

Russo’s Hank Devereaux is very different from Williams’ Stoner. Slap in the middle of a mid-life crisis, Hank is also caught up in campus politics, trying to cope with a teenage daughter and juggling a complicated love life. Things go horribly and quite hilariously wrong for Hank – there’s one scene in which had me almost crying with laughter.

Russo is known for his American small town novels, another weakness of mine. One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years with this sort of backdrop is Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, a gorgeous, tender novel about love and friendship, set against in Little Wing, Wisconsin.

So endeth my first but I hope not my last Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from selling gloves in a department store to broken hearts in small town America. I hope I’ve got the hang of it but I’ve a feeling this may get easier with practice. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees.

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?

Beneath the Bonfire: A rare short stories review

Cover imageI think this may be the first short story collection I’ve reviewed here. There’ve been a few linked sets – Judy Chicurel’s If I’d known You were Going to Be This Beautiful… springs to mind as does Sara Taylor’s The Shore – but Nickolas Butler’s is the only one I can think of filled with standalone pieces. I know many readers will tell me I’m missing out – and I have tried – but my natural inclination is for a longer piece of work. I do make exceptions for the likes of Helen Dunmore, and Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs was such a fine piece of writing that Beneath the Bonfire just had to be read.

It’s made up of ten stories – some a mere few pages others lengthier, all firmly rooted in smalltown America. In ‘Rainwater’ a grandfather remembers how to help his grandson discover the world when it seems the boy’s wild mother may not return. ‘Morels’ reunites three old friends, one of whom has a smart new life in the city, but things go horribly wrong. In ‘Leftovers’ a man watches his wife clear out his dead mother’s fridge and comes to a momentous conclusion. ‘Sweet Light Crude’ sees an ageing environmentalist take an oil man hostage, knowing that it will be his last hurrah. A friendship is tested to breaking point in ‘Sven and Lily’. These five brief outlines give a flavour of the terrain covered by Butler’s collection which ranges far and wide through the universalities of life.

Many of Butler’s themes will be familiar to readers of his novel: male friendship, nature and our sometimes troubled relationship with it, chance, the compromises and collusions of smalltown life, and, of course, love. His writing is often striking, polished phrases are slipped in with ease: ‘his sunburn now a suit of pain’; ’Her face had been made into a jigsaw puzzle’; ‘His viciousness and kindness meshed together to form their own cage’ – are a smattering of the ones that stood out for me. There’s a wonderful image describing a couple grown apart when the husband imagines calling his wife from a payphone, listening to her answering then hearing her walking away without hanging up, leaving him there until he grows old in his callbox. Another gorgeous example comes from the eponymous story as a young woman swimming underneath a frozen lake sees the bonfire of Christmas trees above, unsure if she can trust the man she’s come to love. It’s as fine a collection as fans of Shotgun Lovesongs could hope for. If I had to pick a favourite it would be ‘Apples’ about a happily married couple, together for many years, but I’m a hopeless romantic.

Books to Look Out For in July 2015: Part 2

Cover imageTopping my wish list for this second July selection is Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children billed as the third part of a loosely linked trilogy which began with Night Waking. Bodies of Light, the second instalment, appeared on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist for its theme of nineteenth century women in medicine. This one picks up Ally and Tom’s story from there. Newly married they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum and Tom builds lighthouses in Japan. Bodies of Light was one of my favourite books of 2014 so I’m particularly eager for this one.

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was a huge bestseller in Germany, apparently. It’s about Andreas who arrives in the Austrian Alps as a small boy and stays there for the rest of his life, leaving just once to fight in the Second World War.The publishers have somewhat ambitiously compared it to Stoner. If it’s only half as good as John Williams’ rediscovered gem it will be well worth your time.

Paula McGrath’s Generation has a much wider stretch covering eighty years, three generationsCover image and three continents. Discontented with her life in Ireland, Aine takes her six-year-old daughter to an organic farm near Chicago. Things don’t go quite as planned and the events of that summer will have far-reaching consequences. It’s billed as ‘a short novel that contains a huge amount’, a neat little description that snagged my attention.

Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House could go either way. It’s a re-imagining of the origins of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Tait is the great-granddaughter of Alice Lidell which gives the novel an intriguing edge although you may feel that Alice has been over exposed given the brouhaha around Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice earlier this year. I’ve yet to read that but the two could well be complementary.

Cover imageMy last choice for July is an uncharacteristic one for me but it’s by an author I’ve banged on about ceaselessly – at least some readers may think so – since the publication of his first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. I’d love to tell you that there’s a new Nickolas Butler novel in the offing but sadly that’s not to be. Instead his collection of short stories, Beneath the Bonfire, is to be published this summer and I’m sure it will be wonderful.

That’s it for July hardbacks. If you missed the first part you can find it here and a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis.

The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger: The real deal

The Mountain Can WaitI’m not easily swayed by those author quotes you see adorning book jackets – some writers seem to be a little too free and easy with their praise for me – but, as regular readers will know, so enamoured am I of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs that a fulsome quote from him makes me sit up and take notice. Such was the case with Sarah Leipciger’s debut, The Mountain Can Wait, and I wasn’t disappointed – it’s the real deal.

We know from the first brief chapter that Curtis Berry has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party, leaving her for dead at the side of a lonely road. From there Leipciger switches her focus to Tom, Curtis’ father. An unwilling parent at nineteen, Tom has raised Curtis and his younger sister alone. Their unstable mother was found dead in a snowdrift four years after abandoning them when Curtis was five and Erin a mere three months old. Tom runs a tree planting company, camping in the Canadian backwoods with his team where they spend a month or so working and, occasionally, playing hard. He and his lover meet now and then, each preferring to keep their independence. When Tom is visited by a detective at the planters’ camp he knows he must track his son down, a trail which leads him to his mother-in-law last seen a decade ago. There can be no happy ending, clearly, but there is hope of redemption and some kind of understanding.

Leipciger reveals Tom’s character and his relationship with Curtis and Erin through flashbacks to their childhood, interwoven with life overseeing the planters. Her writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The relationship between Tom and Curtis is beautifully portrayed: Curtis’ aching need at odds with Tom’s seemingly distant practicality which masks a driving determination to protect his son, neither able to reach each other. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words Leipciger made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. Tom views the natural world with respect and acceptance, suspicious and dismissive of his mother-in-law’s vaguely New Age rituals. He’s a deeply humane man, one who deplores the shooting of a bear that loggers have carelessly allowed to live too close and now want disposed of, but knows it has to be done. It’s a very fine novel, and hats off to Tinder Press, now in their third year, who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.

Books to Look Out For in May 2015

Cover imageBack from sunny Spain on Saturday to a UK where spring has most definitely sprung. More of that later in the week but here’s a taster of things to come next month to be going on with and there are three absolute corkers to look forward to in May’s list. Let’s start with the jewel in the crown which you may well know about already given how much pre-publicity there’s been for it: Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a companion volume to the wonderful Life After Life. I’m still mystified as to why that hasn’t been garlanded with prizes, but then, what do I know. A God in Ruins, interweaves Ursula Todd’s younger brother Teddy’s experiences as a bomber pilot with his life lived into the twenty-first century. To an extent it sounds a little like a state of the nation novel but don’t expect a straightforward linear narrative.

An exponent of that elegant, pared-back writing that the Irish seem to excel at, Anne Enright has a new novel out in May. The Green Road is about the Madigan family of County Clare. When their mother decides it’s time to sell the family home and divvy up the proceeds between her four children they return from all over the world to spend one last Christmas in the house they grew up in.

Jane Smiley’s Early Warning is set in similar territory, picking up the story of the Langdons Cover image in the second in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. It opens in 1953 at a funeral attended by Rosanna and Walter’s sons and daughters, all grown up with children of their own. Some Luck was among the best books I read last year so I’m looking forward to this middle volume which takes the family into the 1980s. I gather that the third will be appearing not long after this one.

Still in North America but moving on to Canada, Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait has been compared to Margaret Atwood by no less than Nickolas Butler, author of the sublime Shotgun Lovesongs. I imagine that’s a mixed blessing when you’ve only just published your first novel. It’s about a father trying to track down his son in the Canadian Wilderness after a terrible accident, and so enamoured am I with Mr Butler’s writing that a claim extravagant enough to bring out the old cynic in me has still made me want to read it.

The GracekeepersAnd finally, my last choice for May is actually an April title: Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers which was brought forward a little in the publishing schedules. Her short stories are so highly rated by several people whose opinions I trust that I didn’t want to miss it out. It’s set in a flooded world in which sails a circus boat, home to North who dances with her bear in return for food. Callanish is a gracekeeper, tending the graves on an island in the middle of the sea. When these two are thrown together by a storm they are irresistibly drawn to each other but find may obstacles in their way. Perhaps a little fantastical for my usual taste but I’ve been promised some very fine writing and what a wonderfully eye-catching jacket.

That’s it for May. As ever, a click will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. Here are my April hardback choices if you’d like to catch up with those. Such were the splendours of April paperback offerings that I’ve posted on them twice – here and here.

Paperbacks to look out for in February 2015

Cover imageOne of my books of 2014 is out in paperback in February – cue fanfare of trumpets – that gorgeous American small town gem, Shotgun Lovesongs. I’ve raved about this book so often on this blog that you could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Butler is my long lost brother but it’s sublime, and that’s not a word I use often. Preferred the original jacket, though.

Keeping with the American theme, the first instalment of Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, Some Luck, is being published promptly in paperback in February – the hardback edition only appeared in the UK last November. The trilogy tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920. Each chapter of this first instalment follows a year in their lives ending in 1953. The second instalment is due this May and I’m looking forward to it very much, particularly after Some Luck’s ending which left a large question mark over the family’s future.

Johanna Lane’s impressive first novel Black Lake is written in that pared back, elegant style which seems to be the mark of so much Irish writing. The past throws a dark shadow in Lane’s novel, the story of a family no longer able to maintain their nineteenth century Donegal estate, which reminded me a little of William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault. Praise indeed!

Sebastian Barry is another Irish writer who excels in spare, beautiful prose. His latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is about Jack McNulty, an Irishman whose Second World War commission with the British Army has never been made permanent, who tells his story from his lodgings in Accra in 1957. I’ve yet to read a Barry I haven’t admired.

Ellen Feldman’s Scottboro, her re-imagining of an infamous miscarriage of justice in 1930s Alabama, made quite an impression on me so I’m looking forward to The Unwitting, set against the backdrop of the Cold War, which explores the betrayal and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination through Nell Benjamin whose world is shattered by a phone call. I see the publishers have kept the original cover which sports what seems to be one of the most popular jacket motifs of the last couple of years: a woman in a red dress walking away from the camera. Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed this?

I’ve been a fan of Michael Cunningham since I read A Home at the End of the World, a tender novel about what constitutes a family. His new novel The Snow Queen is about two brothers, one a struggling musician who turns to drugs to release his creativity, the other drawn to religion after experiencing a vision in Central Park. I’m a little doubtful about that premise but we’ll see.

Regular readers of this blog might be surprised to find that the last paperback on my Cover imageFebruary list is a thriller, not a genre that usually appeals but there’s something about Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm that snags my attention. Perhaps it’s the Scandi connection. Far from enjoying the blissful retirement on a Swedish farm that Daniel had assumed, his parents are on their way to London each with a different story about the other’s crimes and misdemeanours. Daniel must decide who’s lying and who’s not. Bit of a page-turner, apparently.

That’s it for February paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a review on this blog  or to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis of those I haven’t reviewed. Click here if you’d like to find out which February hardbacks caught my eye.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?