Tag Archives: The Language of Birds

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2020: Part One

April’s paperback preview falls neatly into two parts – those I’ve already read and those I’ve yet to read. I’m beginning with the former, the first four of which were on my last year’s books of the year list. Hard to know which one to kick off with but I’m plumping for Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with and I think we could all do with one of those at the moment.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded the high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

When I read that Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair my heart sank but far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with the usual Cover imagespeculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s book reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective. Her careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours Sandra Rivett’s memory, tipping the balance away from the media portrayal which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best, and that’s saying something after The Crime Writer, a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction starring Patricia Highsmith.

Paul Lynch’s Beyond the Sea is from Oneworld who’ve  bagged not one but two Booker Prizes in the last few years. Written in that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, this intense novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis through the story of two fishermen cast adrift after a dreadful storm. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness.

Anna Hope’s  Expectation narrowly missed my books of last year list only because I was wary of stretching readers’ patience a little too far. Very different from her first two novels, Wake and The Ballroom, it has the kind of structure I find irresitsible, exploring friendship, motherhood, love and feminism through the lives of Hannah, Cate and Lissa who share a house together in their twenties. Hope bookends her lovely, empathetic novel with two sunny Saturday mornings, the first in 2004 when Hannah and Cate buy breakfast to share with Lissa at home and the second in 2018 when the three, now in their mid-forties, meet for a picnic. Much has changed in between – betrayal, grief, disappointment, pain have all been suffered along with forgiveness, joy and hope. I loved it.

I’ve not read anything by Laura Beatty before but I found Lost Property’s synopsis intriguing. A woman finds herself in a state of despair at her country’s apparent indifference to the suffering and poverty on its streets and decides she must find a way to understand how such a state has come about. This witty yet profound novel of ideas takes us across Europe in a second-hand camper van on a road trip through history, following our unnamed narrator’s quest for meaning. It’s not an easy Cover imageread but it’s a richly rewarding one, and it’ll make you think.

Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands follows a man woken by a vivid dream of his wife’s infidelity, convinced of its truth. He takes himself off to the airport, boards the first plane that will take him as far away as he can get, ending up in Japan where he becomes involved with a young man intent on suicide. It’s a playful yet poignant novella which I enjoyed although I was a wee bit surprised to see it shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker International Prize.

That’s it for the April paperbacks I’ve read. A click on a title will take you to my review should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles they’re here and here. Into uncharted april paperback territory soon…

I should be rushing off to catch the train to Ghent after posting this but with Belgium closing restaurants and museums thanks to covid-19 there seems little point. Never mind, It’ll still be there when all this is over. Take care and keep washing those hands.

My Wishlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

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The Language of Birds                        Good Day?                                 A Stranger City

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The Hiding Game                                 Starling Days                             The Dutch House

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Olive, Again                                          Body Tourists                                    Adults

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The Warlow Experiment                    Say Say Say                                    Weather

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There Was Still Love                     Right After the Weather          Coming Up for Air

There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.

What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?

Books of the Year 2019: Part Two

Cover imageEarly summer, which seems so very long ago now, was packed with literary goodies for me, particularly May which began with A Stranger City, Linda Grant’s portrayal of a post-referendum London through a set of disparate characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body has been pulled from the Thames. Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry – some of it ragged and frayed – of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Her book reveals a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it – a Brexit novel if ever there was one. I ended Part One by saying I’d try to avoid politics in the next instalment but as you can see, I’ve already failed.

Flotsam, May’s second favourite, is by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, this strange, unsettling book is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings through the story of a young girl and her mother. Told in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Far from an easy read but certainly a rewarding one, Ziervogel’s book leaves much for readers to deduce and is all the better for it.

Vesna Main’s Good Day? sported the second jacket I fell in love with this year, fitting its book as perfectly as the gloriously pink cover of Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar, which popped up in Part One. Always a joy when publishers use an image which is both strikingly original and appropriate. Main’s Good Day? recounts a daily conversation between a Writer and her Reader, who is also her husband, describing the progress of her novel about a couple whose marriage is strained to breaking point. It’s such a clever piece of writing and a daring one, too. To write a novel almost entirely in dialogue and carry it off as well as Main does requires quite a degree of chutzpah. Thoroughly deserving of its place on this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

May’s last choice is much more straightforward, a piece of fictionalised biography which introduced me to a someone I’d never come across but who turned out to be an internationally popular figure. Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage is based on the life of Len Howard who, aged forty, threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds, determined to devote herself to researching their habits. Using simple, clean prose, Meijer lets her subject tell own story, weaving through it observations of Star, one of Howard’s favourites. A delightful book, the story of a true English eccentric.

June began with another piece of fictionalised biography by Jill Dawson who often chooses that form for her work. When I read that The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair my heart sank but far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with the usual speculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s book reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective. Her careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours Sandra Rivett’s memory, tipping the balance away from a media which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best, and that’s saying something after The Crime Writer, a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction starring Patricia Highsmith.

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The first half of 2019’s books of the year ends with Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers, an inventive and imaginative piece of storytelling which takes its readers from 1902 to 1974 with a tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before. Not just one story but several nested within each other, this is a novel haunted by madness and grief with more than a touch of the gothic brightened with moments of humour. Absolutely gripping – I loved it.

All of the above are linked to my reviews here if you’d like to know more. Part Three takes us into high summer with the return of Jackson Brodie after a nine-year hiatus, a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal in the Bauhaus and another beautiful jacket, perfect for its book’s contents. If you missed the first quarter on 2019’s favourites and would like to catch up, it’s here.

My 2019 (Man) Booker Wish List

Another year, another Man Booker Prize longlist in the offing, except this year its reverted to the Booker Prize, thanks to a change of sponsorship with Crankstart stepping into the funding breach as of June 1st this year. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2018 and 30th September 2019, and have been written in English. Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. The judges usually allow themselves twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen and this year I have, too. Their list will be revealed on Wednesday, 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.

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Little                                                         Flames                                   Land of the Living

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Memories of the Future              In the Full Light of the Sun            A Stranger City

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We, The Survivors                            The Narrow Land                       The Language of Birds

 

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Starling Days                                     The Dutch House                    The Hiding Game

Beyond the Sea

It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here before September 3rd when the shortlist is announced but I’m sticking to the tried and tested. And if I had to choose one? That’s a tough decision this year. It’s a toss-up between A Stranger City, The Dutch House and Land of the Living, although there are several others I’d be loath to relinquish.

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

The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson: Lord Lucan – the nanny’s story

Cover imageI’m a fan of Jill Dawson’s writing. Her last novel, The Crime Writer, was a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction, a perverse love letter to Patricia Highsmith. However, when I read that The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair I dismissed it. I’m old enough to have seen far too much in the way of tawdry media coverage of that. Then I spotted a publishers’ giveaway on Twitter and decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did. Far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with speculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s novel reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective.

Mandy and Rosy meet at a psychiatric hospital: Mandy is recovering from a breakdown but Rosy suffers occasional psychotic episodes. Each is the other’s first real friend. Rosy goes on to pursue her studies in child development, becoming a Norland nanny. When she hears of a vacancy with the Morverns, she recommends Mandy. Katharine Morvern is desperate for help with her quiet, eager-to-please son, James, and Pammie, the baby Mandy hears squalling when Katharine opens her front door. Katharine is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce from her husband who is given to frequent silent phone calls and posting private detectives outside the house. The apparently charming, urbane Dickie has weaponised the children against his wife in a bitter custody battle. Katharine unburdens herself to Mandy, sharing her gorgeous clothes and the grubby secrets of her marriage with both Mandy and Rosy on their Thursday evenings off. While Mandy voices her concerns about Dickie’s behaviour, the violent streak Katherine has talked of and his unpredictability, Rosy is seduced by the attention he pays her, unheeding of his manipulation. One night, breaking their usual routine, it’s Mandy rather than Katherine who goes downstairs to make a pot of tea.

Touchingly, Dawson has dedicated her novel to Sandra Rivett, the nanny who spent a scant ten weeks in the Lucan household. Readers of a certain age will remember the incessant, prurient coverage of her murder, and of Lucan’s subsequent disappearance. Dawson turns this coverage on its head, telling her story from Mandy’s perspective interwoven with Rosy’s occasional reflections. Both are complex and convincing characters – Rosy a little immature and caught up in the glamour of the circles she finds herself attached to while Mandy’s complicated past is slowly revealed. Through these two, Dawson reveals a society still deferring to and obsessed by its upper echelons who farm out the care of their children, seemingly incapable of looking after them themselves. Violence against women is a constant undercurrent, culminating in Mandy’s murder and the attack on Katherine. By telling the story from the nanny’s perspective, Dawson’s careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours her memory, tipping the balance away from a media obsessed with Lucan which reduced Sandra Rivett to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best.

That’s it from me for a few weeks. H and I are off on our travels again, no doubt taking a book or ten with us. I’ll be back to tell you all about it in July.

Books to Look Out for in April 2019

Cover imageFewer titles than usual to whet my appetite in April, enough for just one longish post kicking off with Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds. Dawson frequently uses historical figures in her fiction and this time it’s the turn of the notorious Lord Lucan. In 1974, Mandy River arrives at her new job as a nanny to find a household in the midst of a bitter domestic feud. Mandy is warned by her employer that her estranged husband has a violent streak but can she be trusted? ‘Drawing on the infamous Lord Lucan affair, this compelling novel explores the roots of a shocking murder from a fresh perspective and brings to vivid life an era when women’s voices all too often went unheard’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed several of Dawson’s novels, particularly The Crime Writer, so I have hopes for this one.

I loved Nickolas Butler’s debut, Shotgun Lovesongs; The Hearts of Men, its follow-up, not so much. I’m a wee bit cautious, then, about Little Faith which tells the story of the family of a young woman and her involvement with a fundamentalist preacher who is convinced her five-year-old son has the power to heal the sick. ‘Set over the course of one year and beautifully evoking the change of seasons, Little Faith is a powerful and deeply affecting novel about family and community, the ways in which belief is both formed and shaken, and the lengths we go to protect our own’ say the publishers, setting us up for more gorgeous descriptions of Butler’s beloved WisconsinCover image

Altogether more urban, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set in 1993 and sounds like it might be a take on Orlando. The eponymous Paul is a bartender in a university town gay bar, studying queer theory by day, but he has a secret. ‘Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Women’s Studies major to trade, Paul transforms his body at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco – a journey through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure’ promise the publishers which sounds wildly ambitious but well worth investigating.

I first came across Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love on Kate’s Books Are My Favourite and Best blog. She described it as ‘easily one of the most original stories I’ve read. Ever’ so I’m delighted to find it’s to be published here in the UK. Film composer Arky has promised his dying wife not to visit her in hospital. She wants to spare him the burden of her suffering but it’s destroying him. ‘One day he finds his way to MOMA and sees Mariana Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do’ say the publishers.

The husband in Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands is also seeking succour by the sound of it, this time from a cheating wife although only in his dreams. He takes himself off to Tokyo where he decides to follow in the footsteps of Basho meeting a young student seemingly bent on suicide along the way. ‘Gilbert travels with Yosa across Basho’s disappearing Japan, one in search of his perfect ending and the other the new beginning that will give his life meaning’ Cover imageaccording to the publishers. I like the sound of travels in a ‘disappearing Japan’.

Unusually for me, I’ve got ahead of myself with Tash Aw’s We, the Survivors and have already read it. Set in rural Malaysia, it tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy. Ah Hock tells his story to a young woman who is writing about him, revealing what led up to the uncharacteristic act of violence that resulted in a man’s death and his own incarceration. It’s a quietly powerful, compelling piece of fiction, beautifully expressed. Review to follow next month.

Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian is a doorstopper, the kind I’d usually avoid, but Zadie Smith has called it ‘a sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful’ so I think I might have to give it a try. It follows a young Palestinian from the Middle East to Paris during the First World War. ‘Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War’ say the publishers. Apparently, Smith has never spoken of a student in such glowing terms in the fifteen years she’s taught.

I’m ending with Season Butler’s Cygnet which has been in the offing for six months. It sees a Cover imageyoung girl, stranded on an island seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.

That’s it for April’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…