Tag Archives: The Book of Memory

Six Degrees of Separation – from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to Prodigal Summer #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 Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, yet another book I haven’t read but I know it’s set in Botswana and that’s its author was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

As was Petina Gappah, author of The Book of Memory in which a young black albino woman tells her story from the prison in which she’s detained for a brutal murder she insists she didn’t commit.

The title of which leads me to Margaret Forster’s The Memory Box about a woman whose mother died when she was a baby leaving her a box of mementos – clues as to who her mother really was. Naturally, dark secrets are revealed

Randal Keynes’ Annie’s Box is the story of Charles Darwin’s eldest daughter who died aged ten. The eponymous box contains keepsakes from Annie’s short life, shedding light on Darwin, his work and his family.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s first novel, The Signature of All Things, tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a botanist, and her relationship with Alfred Russel Wallace who published a paper on evolutionary theory with Darwin in 1858. While Whittaker was a figment of Gilbert’s imagination, Wallace was not, although his achievement has been eclipsed by Darwin’s reputation.

Gilbert wrote a book about her struggle to accept the idea of marriage despite being deeply in love with her partner. Ann Patchett wrote of a similar experience in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage which is very much more than that. It’s made up of a set of essays, an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work as well how she came to finally marry.

Patchett wrote what you might call an eco-novel, State of Wonder, set largely in the Amazonian rainforest. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer could also fall into that bracket. It follows a park ranger, a recently widowed entomologist and an old man hoping to find a way to bring an extinct American Chestnut tree back to life. Not one of her best for me – I preferred The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven – but worth a read.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a Zimbabwean prison to small-town Appalachia. 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 2016 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logoIt’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.

Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

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The Book of Memory                     Undermajordomo Minor              The Long Room

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Exposure                                            Under the Visible Life               My Name is Lucy Barton

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What Belongs to You                   The Cauliflower                         The Gun Room

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The Essex Serpent                           The Crime Writer                     The Tidal Zone

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Paperbacks to Look Out For in June 2016

Cover imageWell, this is a turn up for the books (sorry) – I seem to have already read all but one of the paperbacks published this June that I’m interested in. I’ll kick off with one of the few successes from my Baileys Prize wish list back in February: Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory which made it onto the longlist but not the shortlist, sadly. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that our narrator, a black Zimbabwean albino now on death row, was sold to a strange man by her parents. Memory slowly reveals her story finally delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe along the way, all spiced with a hefty helping of Memory’s acerbic wit.

Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World was also on my Baileys wish list, more in hope than expectation it has to be said. Despite its rather insipid jacket it’s a smart, elegantly understated piece of writing which looks at the complexities of parenthood and marriage, belonging and dislocation, following Charlotte and her family across the world from her beloved Cambridge to Australia where her husband Henry is intent on proving himself. Bishop tackles the tricky theme of motherhood with an unflinching honesty, exploring its contradictions with a powerful subtlety.

Marriage and motherhood pop up again in Gebrand Bakker’s June. It’s set largely on a single Cover imageSaturday in a small Dutch village but at its centre is Queen Julianna’s visit on June 17th 1969 nearly forty years before, a day of celebration which turned into tragedy when a farmer’s two-year-old daughter was killed. Her mother has regularly taken herself off to the hayloft over the forty years since the accident, ignoring all attempts to talk her down. There are no fancy descriptive passages littered with similes and metaphors in Bakker’s writing: it’s clean and plain but richly evocative for all that.

Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor has more than a touch of the Gothic fairy tale about it: a dour castle sitting atop a remote mountain, warring factions complete with a heroic ‘exceptionally handsome’ captain, a fair lady with whom our own hero falls in love and a satisfying arc of redemption. It opens with seventeen-year-old Lucy Minor leaving home to take up the titular position of undermajordomo. His mother sees him off from the cottage door, barely waiting for Lucy to close the garden gate. Lucy is glad to be on his way, hoping for adventure, convinced that he is meant for better things. Like DeWitt’s previous novel The Sisters Brothers, Undermajordomo Minor has a richly cinematic quality which brought to mind Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in its almost cartoon-like depictions of the odd world in which Lucy finds himself. A thoroughly entertaining novel.

Cover imageThe only unread title in this month’s paperback publishing schedules that takes my fancy is Liza Klaussmann’s Villa America, largely because I enjoyed her debut, Tigers in Red Weather, set in a slightly Gatsbyesque world – although at the end of the Second World War. This new novel features the Fitzgeralds entertained, alongside the likes of Picasso, dos Passos and Hemingway, by Gerald and Sara Murphy in their villa on the French Riviera until a stranger arrives and the dream shatters. Novels peopled by historical figures are sometimes far from successful but such was my enjoyment of Klaussmnn’s first novel that I’ll be giving this one a try, and that cover is lovely although it would have been so much more elegant without the Tigers in Red Weather inset.

That’s it for June. A click on a title will take you to my review for the books I’ve already read and to Waterstones website for the one I haven’t. If you’d like to catch up with the month’s hardbacks they’re here and here.

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 Read (But Not Reviewed) in December 2015

Cover imageFour novels read but not reviewed this month, all very different but all fine books in their own way, beginning with Rebecca Hunt’s Everland. It’s taken me a while to get around to this novel which follows two expeditions a century apart, charting their progress on a tiny Antarctic island. The second is in commemoration of the first, which we know from the start ended disastrously, and to some extent the parties mirror each other: one member inexperienced, apparently weak, there because of nepotism; one young and a little arrogant; both led by a seasoned leader whose heart is firmly tethered to home.  The shifts and realignments in relationships between the characters are sharply observed and Hunt captures the natural world beautifully with poetically descriptive language. I enjoyed it very much but Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal with its vividly evocative writing and perceptive characterisation remains my benchmark for this kind of novel. A click on the title will take you to Naomi’s excellent review at Consumed by Ink.

I came to Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Future after reading the lovely Molly Fox’s Birthday which follows a woman’s thoughts over the birthday of the friend who has lent her the house she is staying in. This one was not quite the match for Molly but Madden excels at that subtle understatement and exploration of family in the way that so many Irish writers do, examining how our past elides with our present as Fintan Buckley’s newly awakened interest in photography changes his perceptions of those around him. Nothing much happens but it’s thought-provoking and beautifully written.

I very nearly gave up Thomas Christopher Greene’s The Headmaster’s Wife but there’s a magnificent twist about half-way through which made me sit up straight and carry on. Arthur Winthrop is found wandering naked in snowy Central Park. Dull and somewhat stodgy, he’s the headmaster of a Vermont school, following in the footsteps of his father. Arthur tells the first part of his story to the police, a tale of scandal and betrayal. Halfway through the book a lawyer appears and suddenly, like a twist of a kaleidoscope, an entirely different picture appears. The second part of the book is written from his wife’s Cover imagepoint of view, neatly putting into perspective everything Arthur has told his captors.

My last book of 2015 was NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, the second Zimbabwean novel I read this year. Bulawayo’s debut begins in 2005, the year Robert Mugabe bulldozed tens of thousands of houses, leaving families without shelter at a time when the economy was in tatters. Told through the strikingly vivid voice of ten-year-old Darling who roams the shanty town where she now lives with her friends, no longer at school now that teachers are not paid, it’s very different from Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory but equally as good. How nice to end the reading year with such an excellent book!

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?

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Teasing out the threads

Cover imagePetina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly caused quite a stir when it was published back in 2009. Lots of rave reviews, then it won the Guardian First Book Award, but aside from commissioning a review for the magazine I was working on I ignored it. Short stories, you see. More fool me, if The Book of Memory is anything to go by. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that our narrator was sold to a strange man by her parents.

Memory is an albino black Zimbabwean on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. She’s writing her story for an American journalist known for championing miscarriages of justice. Teased and shunned as a child, she listens inside her ramshackle home while the other children play their games, her skin too sensitive for the fierce sun. Hers is a family struck by tragedy leaving her mother unpredictable in her grief and Memory haunted by nightmares. When she’s asked to dress in her best clothes, she’s filled with joy then astonished when she’s introduced to a white man who hands a wad of cash to her mother. The following day she’s taken to his home, a beautiful old colonial house. She yearns to see her father again, but becomes used to the trappings of this new life shrugging off the racist rants of Lloyd’s brother-in-law and becoming immersed in books, still puzzling over why Lloyd has bought her from her parents and why they gave her up. Escaping the fallout of estrangement and betrayal from her first infatuation, she wins a scholarship to Cambridge. On her return all seems healed between her and Lloyd then one day she comes home to find him dead. Writing her story from her cell, she dredges her memory for answers to questions that have troubled her for years. Towards the end the whole sorry tale of what befell her parents and how she came into Lloyd’s care is unravelled.

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. Within the framework of Memory’s gripping story, a multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe. White society clings to its old colonial ways holding their June garden parties in the midst of the Zimbabwean winter. The superstitions of black culture which shuns Memory for her difference and brings misery upon her poor mother are lampooned. The corruption of the country’s political establishment unable to acknowledge the dire state of its prison is graphically conveyed in Gappah’s vivid word pictures. All this served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit. It’s a very impressive first novel but not one likely to be published in her native country.