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.
This month we’re starting, appropriately enough, with Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol which is about generosity of spirit. I’m all for that but I’m still a bit bah humbug about Christmas after so many years in bookselling which left me a wee bit cynical about the whole thing.
Patricia Highsmith’s Carol was first published with the title The Price of Salt and renamed for the film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It’s the semi-autobiographical story of a tragic love affair. I’ve yet to read the book but the film was superb.
Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer is an homage to Highsmith, a brilliant piece of literary fan fiction. She takes the writer’s time at Bridge Cottage in Suffolk and weaves it into a story which constantly pulls the rug from under her readers’ feet.
Dawson often tells the stories of real people in her fiction. Sean Michaels takes the same tack in Us, Conductors, his fictionalised story of the inventor of the theremin, a weird and wonderful musical instrument. If you want to hear it, pop over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by Leon Theremin the subject of Michaels’ book.
Much to my surprise I read another novel about the theremin, shortly after Us, Conductors. Tracy Farr’sThe Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt tells the story of a fictional virtuoso theremin player and has a cameo from its inventor.
Continuing the musical instrument theme, Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes tells the story of immigration through the accordion, an instrument dear to many nations’ hearts so it seems. I like the idea of this very much but learned – and have since forgotten – far more about accordions than I ever wanted to know.
Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News is set on Newfoundland as is Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist which was published around the same time as Proulx’ bestseller in the UK. I enjoyed The Shipping News but much preferred Howard’s lyrical, poetic novel, stuffed full of eccentric characters
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a nineteenth-century tale of Christmas cheer (eventually) set in London to a tale of betrayal and revenge in Newfoundland. 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.
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:
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.
The first instalment of February’s paperback preview took a few steps outside my comfort zone but this one’s stuffed with tried and tested favourites, four of which made it onto my books of 2016 lists, and the fifth narrowly missed doing so only because things seemed to be getting out of hand.
My only disappointment with Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is that it hasn’t won the shedload of prizes I was hoping it would. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion, as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism.
Expectations were also high for The Crime Writerby Jill Dawson, another favourite writer of mine. The titular crime writer is Patricia Highsmith for whose work Dawson has a self-confessed addiction. Her novel is based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator and unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning and claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.
Sjón’s writing was a new discovery for me last year. Moonstone is set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing
Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter was one of those books that took me by surprise, much better than its slightly fluffy synopsis suggested. It’s set against the backdrop of a high-end restaurant in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.
My last February paperback is Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing in which our unnamed narrator works in cancer research. Sitting outside on the smokers’ bench one day he meets a young Russian woman who introduces herself as a translator. He can’t help but be interested in this attractive young woman given to wry pronouncements about doctors and their well-meaning uselessness. It seems their friendship might become something else until the real reason for Marya’s presence in the hospital becomes apparent. There’s a welcome vein of quietly dark humour running through Duffy’s book, leavening its cool, slightly melancholic tone. It’s an unusual novel and it does that thing that good fiction so often does – educates us and helps us understand what it’s like for others.
That’s it for February. A click on any of the five titles will take you to my review. If you’d like to catch up with the first part of the paperback preview it’s here. New books for February are here and here.
After a stonking start to my reading year, the second instalment of 2016 favourites covers the four months from March to June with just eight books, beginning with a rediscovered American classic. First published in 1967, Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog requires a strong stomach to get through the first page but the rest of this wrenching novel makes the effort well worth it. Written in straightforward yet cinematic prose it tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same room they’ve slept in for all but the few years they were at university. The publisher’s comparison with John Williams’ celebrated Stoner may seem extravagant at first but Savage’s novel proves itself to be more than worthy of it.
My second March novel seemed a little overlooked at the time – I hope the paperback publication has put that right. Opening in 1999, Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow follows a young PhD student as he parties his way around a city in the midst of transforming itself. Erades vividly evokes Moscow awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.
Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier was April’s surprise success for me. It took some persuasion to get me to read it – its structure seemed too tricksy by half. Parker, a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – from the point of view of forty-five objects, ranging from the tourniquet tied around what’s left of Tom’s leg to his occupational service medal. Parker carries this off beautifully, managing to be both objective and extraordinarily vivid in his descriptions of what happens to Tom. It’s a thoroughly impressive and inventive piece of work. Not an autobiography but it’s impossible not to think of the author’s own experience when reading it.
If Anatomy of a Soldier’s structure sounds a little too unconventional for you best steer clear of May’s favourite. Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower is an extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of Sri Ramakrishna’s story, the avatar with whom she became fascinated as a child. It has two narrative strands running through it – neither chronological – with a multitude of diversions and devices, from recounting dreams to imagining the goings-on in the temple through the eyes of a swift equipped with a tiny camera. Barker frequently pulls the rug out from beneath her readers’ feet, contradicting and questioning what has gone before.
June made up for April and May’s sparse favourites with four winners for me, starting with one of the most talked about British novels of this year, at least in my neck of the Twitter woods. Set in 1885, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around Aldwinter. A novel of ideas all wrapped up in a riveting bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose, it focuses on the passionate friendship between the recently widowed Cora, fascinated by the emerging theories about the natural world, and Will Ransome, Aldwinter’s pastor, determined to ignore the titular serpent’s effect on his parishioners. A very fine book indeed.
My second June favourite is Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer which sprang from her self-confessed addiction to Patricia Highsmith’s novels. It’s based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator, further unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.
Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter caught my attention for June’s preview when I speculated that it might merely be an entertaining piece of fluff but it turned out to be much better than that. It shares a restaurant backdrop with a January favourite, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, this time in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.
The first half of the year was rounded off for me by the discovery of Icelandic author Sjón’s writing through Moonstone. Set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this book whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.
A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review of each of the books should you be interested. The third books of the year post will cover July and August, two months whose splendours rival those of January and February.
It’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:
Better start this with a confession: I’ve never read a Patricia Highsmith novel. I’ve often thought about it, been urged by fans to do so, but I’ve never got around to it. Jill Dawson, on the other hand, has long been addicted to Highsmith’s fiction as she tells us in her acknowledgements. Obviously, my reading of The Crime Writer will be entirely different from a Highsmith fan’s but my ignorance didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely. Dawson takes Highsmith’s sojourn at Bridge Cottage in Suffolk and weaves it into a story which constantly pulls the rug from under her readers’ feet.
Highsmith has bought the Suffolk cottage to be in easy reach of her married lover, Sam, who lives in London with her brutish husband and their eight-year-old daughter. She’s agreed to have her fiercely protected privacy breached by a Virginia Smythson-Balby, a journalist after a piece for the local paper on the famous author in their midst. Aside from Sam, the only person welcome in Highsmith’s life is Ronnie, a writer friend who calls in daily to prise her out of her shell. She’s unsettled when Virginia turns up, sure that she’s seen her somewhere before, but Highsmith’s no stranger to such niggling suspicions, constantly dogged by the conviction that she’s being stalked. It’s true that a stream of letters were sent to her in Paris, some signed ‘Brother Death’, but the gendarmerie dismissed them as only to be expected by a crime writer. Highsmith bristles at this particular epithet, insisting that – like Dostoevsky – she writes ‘suspense stories’. She struggles with the two books she’s writing – one a novel, the other about her craft – longing for Sam and painting her lover’s portrait to fill the void. One evening her yearnings are fulfilled and Sam arrives. Then things take a very dark turn, or do they?
Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction, replete with a multitude of allusions to Highsmith’s work as Dawson makes clear in her acknowledgements for the ignoramuses among us. Biographical details are all present and correct, from Highsmith’s grim childhood to her obsession with snails. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator and unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. The irascible Highsmith is a woman constantly in the grips of a paranoia aggravated by her alcoholism. Dawson is careful to tie in some loose ends but we’re left wondering what exactly happened inside and outside Ms Highsmith’s head. It’s a very clever piece of writing, absolutely engrossing. I’ll be interested to hear what Highsmith’s fans think of it. It’s left me determined to get my hands on one of her novels as soon as I can. The question is which one. Any suggestions?
June really is a bumper month for fiction. I know I frequently kick these previews off with that kind of pronouncement but such were the many interesting looking titles on offer that there were nearly enough books for a three-parter which seems excessive even for my eyes-bigger–than-stomach tendencies. Several of them are set in that fabled decade the 1960s, beginning with Emma Cline’s debut The Girlswhich has been attracting attention for a good few months now. Set in the summer of 1969, it’s about fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd entranced by the girls in their short dresses and long tatty hair who live on a Californian ranch, deep in the hills with the charismatic Russell. ‘Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways. Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?’ say the publishers. Cline’s novel is based on the notorious Manson murders and seems to have caused quite a stir already.
Following an immensely successful debut with a second novel is a nerve-wracking time for writers, I’m sure. Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist was hugely successful two years back. Her second novel, The Muse begins in London in 1967 with Odelle Bastien who left her Trinidadian home five years before and who is about to find her niche working in a London art gallery. One day a lost masterpiece with a story behind it is delivered to the gallery, purported to be by the legendary Isaac Robles. Burton’s novel untangles the painting’s history taking her readers to Spain in 1936. ‘Seductive, exhilarating and suspenseful, The Muse is an addictive novel about aspiration and identity, love and obsession, authenticity and deception – a magnificent creation and a story you will never forget’ say the publishers.
By contrast, the synopsis of Susan Beale’s The Good Guyisn’t anything hugely special but there’s something about it that draws me in. Perhaps it’s that old third-party dynamic. Still in the ‘60s but this time in suburban New England it’s about Ted – a car-tyre salesman married to Abigail – whose chance encounter with Penny sets him off inventing a new life for the both of them until ‘fantasy collides with reality, the fallout threatens everything, and everyone, he holds dear’, apparently. Could be as dull as ditch water but it’s got a great jacket and John Murray often publish interesting novels.
Staying in the ‘60s, Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer follows Patricia Highsmith to a cottage in Suffolk where she is concentrating on her writing and avoiding her fans while conducting an affair with a married lover. When a young journalist arrives determined to interview her, things take a dark turn. ‘Masterfully recreating Highsmith’s much exercised fantasies of murder and madness, Jill Dawson probes the darkest reaches of the imagination in this novel – at once a brilliant portrait of a writer and an atmospheric, emotionally charged, riveting tale’ say the publishers. Dawson has a particular talent for taking the bare bones of a life and working it up into a richly imagined novel.
Natasha Walter – she of Living Dolls and The New Feminism fame – has a debut novel out in June which also takes the story of historical figures and fictionalises it. Laura Leverett has been living in Geneva since her husband disappeared in 1951. Ostensibly a conventional wife and mother, Leverett has been living a double life since 1939 when she met a young Communist woman aboard a transatlantic liner. When she marries a man with similar sympathies she becomes caught up in a world of espionage which will take her from wartime London to Washington in the grips of McCarthyism. Based on the relationship between the Cambridge spy Donald Maclean and his wife Melinda Marling, A Quiet Life is ‘sweeping and exhilarating, alive with passion and betrayal’ according to the publishers. This is the third Cold War novel to have caught my attention this year although Walter has stiff competition to beat: the other two were Francesca Kay’s The Long Room and Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, both excellent.
This next one is eagerly anticipated, by me anyway. It’s the third in Louisa Young’s First World War series which began with My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You and continued with The Heroes’ Welcome. Those who have read the first two novels will be familiar with several of the characters which apparently reappear in Devotion, although the baton has been handed onto the next generation now faced with the prospect of another war as Tom, adoptive son of Nadine and Riley, falls in love with Nenna whose father supports Mussolini. The first two instalments of this series were a joy – compassionate and humane without a hint of sentimentality.
Winding back to the end of the First World War and the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept the world, Sjón’s Moonstone is set in Iceland in 1918 against a backdrop of an erupting volcano and coal shortages. Sixteen-year-old Mani loves the movies, even dreaming about them, but everything changes when the ‘flu hits Iceland. ‘Capturing Iceland at a moment of profound transformation, this is the story of a misfit in a place where life and death, reality and imagination, secrets and revelations jostle for dominance’ say the publishers. Make of that what you will. It’s so unusual to see an Icelandic novel in the publishing schedules that seems to have nothing to do with crime that I feel I should give this one a go.
Finally, at least for this first batch, Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching is set in New York which is usually enough to guarantee any novel a place on my list but this one sounds particularly attractive, apparently featuring the city itself as the main protagonist. From Walt Whitman in 1891 to Robert Mapplethorpe in 1967, from Robert Moses in 1922 to Edmund White in 2013, Bradbury’s novel is about the artists and writers who have made New York a city that captures the imagination. ‘Through the lives and perspectives of these great creators, artists and thinkers, and through other iconic works of art that capture its essence, New York itself solidifies. Complex, rich, sordid, tantalizing, it is constantly changing and evolving. Both intimate and epic in its sweep, Everyone is Watching is a love letter to New York and its people – past, present and future’ say the publishers which suggests that it could either be a great sprawling mess of a novel which rambles about all over the place or a resounding success. We’ll see.
That’s it for the first batch of June titles. As ever a click on a title will whisk you off to a more detailed synopsis.