Tag Archives: The Lauras

Paperbacks to Look Out for in April 2017: Part One

Cover imageAnother fine month for paperbacks this April, worthy of a two-part preview. I’ve read each of the five books in this first batch, kicking off with Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, one of my favourites from last year. After several miscarriages Melody is twelve weeks into her pregnancy. Her husband has stormed out after learning that the father is the seventeen-year-old Traveller she had been teaching to read. As her pregnancy progresses Melody becomes friends with Mary, caught up in a feud between Traveller clans thanks to her admission of infertility which has brought dishonour upon her family. Structured in brief chapters written in clear, clean yet lyrical prose, Ryan’s novel seamlessly interweaves both Mary’s and Melody’s stories leading to a dramatic conclusion. For me, it’s Ryan’s best novel yet.

Another favourite from 2016, Sara Taylor’s The Lauras is also a wonderful piece of storytelling. Alex is thirteen when she’s hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, packed into the car along with the barest essentials and driven off, not entirely sure what’s happening. So begins a two-year odyssey during which Alex’s education is completed, both school and otherwise, while her mother works to keep them afloat. Each year they travel further along the yellow-highlighted map that Alex finds when her mother is out, settling scores, fulfilling longstanding promises and repaying debts. Stuffed with stories, Taylor’s novel is written in strikingly vivid prose, exploring identity through both the determinedly androgynous Alex and her equally Cover imagedetermined mother. More than lives up to Taylor’s excellent debut, The Shore.

Set in 1920, Suzanne Joinson’s The Photographer’s Wife follows another young girl, this time the eleven-year-old daughter of an architect commissioned to design plans for rebuilding Jerusalem. Far too caught up in himself, his work and his social life, Charles leaves Prue almost entirely to her own devices. She spends her time looking and listening, entangling herself in relationships she can’t understand. It’s a story of duplicity, espionage and thwarted love in which Prue’s experience will have terrible repercussions for her, echoing L. P. Hartley’s Leo Colston in The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in Atonement. Delighted to see that the striking hardback jacket has been kept for the paperback edition.

Repercussions are also a theme which runs through Georgina Harding’s The Gun Room. Set in Asia at the time of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Japanese economic boom, Harding’s new novel is about a young photographer trying to cope with the shadow thrown by not one but two wars. After witnessing what he thinks was a massacre from the air, Jonathan Ashe takes a photograph of a soldier which will become emblematic of the conflict, appearing on the front of a magazine and changing both their lives. Written in elegant yet vivid prose it’s a novel which leaves its readers with much to think about as well as to admire.

Cover imageI’m ending this first batch of paperbacks with a book that for some reason I managed to forget to include on my Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction list A shame, as it would have doubled my feeble hit rate. I’m sure authors will start petitioning to be omitted from my prize wish lists soon. Thankfully the judges weren’t so absent-minded. 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. It’s a very fine book indeed

That’s it for the first batch of April paperbacks. Should you want to know more a click on any of the titles will take you to my review and if you’d like to catch up with April’s new titles they’re here and here. Second batch to follow soon, full of books I’ve not yet read.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

I tend not to get caught up in literary prize fever these days but there is one for which I make an exception – The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist is due to be announced next Wednesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2016 and March 31st 2017 qualify for the award. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably to predict who the judges will select but truth be told I much prefer to indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might favour. This year there will be fewer titles on the judges’ list – they’re restricted to twelve – but given that this is my indulgence I’ve allowed myself three more. I’ve followed the same format as 2016 and 2015, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog apart from one yet to be posted. In no particular order then, here’s my list of wishes rather than predictions for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017:

Idaho                                              The Cauliflower                          Sweetbitter

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The Gun Room                               The Crime Writer                       The Lauras

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Conrad and Eleanor                        Commonwealth                     Harmless Like You

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Our Magic Hour                                Swimming Lessons                 Another Brooklyn

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First Love                                          A Line Made for Walking           Birdcage Walk

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Who knows which of these, if any, will appear on next week’s list but for what it’s worth they’ve they’ve earned their place on mine. A click on a title will take you to my review for all but Birdcage Walk which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. Next year, of course, the prize will be called something else as it’s in search of a new sponsor: let’s hope they find one soon.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, predictions or wishes welcome.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Three

Cover imageJust one July favourite this year although August brought an embarrassment of riches with five splendid novels. July’s title was Jane Rogers’ Conrad and Eleanor, a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is engaged in medical research as is Conrad but while she is a star in her particular sphere, his work has stalled. When Conrad fails to return from the conference he is supposed to be attending, Eleanor is forced to take a long hard look at their marriage . It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing novel. Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution.

There’s a kind of resolution in Marie Sizun’s painfully autobiographical Her Father’s Daughter, written from the point of view of the titular daughter, named France but known throughout as ‘the child’, who is just over four years old when the it opens, living in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother. When her father returns from the war her mother’s focus shifts and the daughter must learn to live in an entirely different world, deprived of affection and often violent. There’s an intense immediacy to Sizun’s writing, sharpening the effect of the child’s stark observations. It’s a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and utterly engrossing.

The pain and puzzlement suffered by daughters is a theme in Sara Taylor’s second novel The Lauras, much anticipated after her excellent debut The Shore. Like The Shore, The Lauras is stuffed full of stories as Alex looks back on two years spent on the road as an adolescent. As they crisscross the USA, Alex’s mother tells stories about her life before Alex, packed with adventure and misadventure. At each destination, scores are settled, longstanding promises Cover imagefulfilled and debts repaid. Throughout it all runs the theme of identity – Alex’s determined decision not to identify as male or female, her mother’s sexual ambiguity and rootlessness – all handled with an enviable deftness.

The theme of mother/child relationships also runs through Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s very fine debut, Harmless Like You. After his father dies, Jay finds that the family home in Connecticut has been bequeathed to Yuki, his Japanese mother who left it when he was two years old. As the executor of his father’s will, Jay must hand over the deed in person. Beginning in 1968 when Yuki was sixteen, Buchanan’s novel tells the story of how a mother came to do the unthinkable and leave her infant son. Buchanan’s writing is often very striking, her images vibrantly colourful. She underpins the book’s poignancy with a wry humour, neatly avoiding any sentimental conclusions. Let’s hope there’s a second novel in the works.

One of my favourite writers, Ron Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. His latest novel, Above the Waterfall, is about Les Clary, the local sheriff whose final case sees him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.

Cover imageAltogether more gentle, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this charming novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for. Just what was needed after the multitude of barbs that 2016 seems to have hurled at so many of us and a very satisfying book with which to bring July and August to a close.

A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review and if you’ve missed the first two posts they’re here and here. Nothing much of note for me in September so the fourth and final post for my books of 2016 will leap ahead to cover October and November.

The Lauras by Sara Taylor: One name, many stories

Cover imageSara Taylor’s debut, The Shore, was a masterclass in storytelling: a set of stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia which were so closely interconnected that it read like a novel. The Lauras is also stuffed full of stories as Alex looks back on two years spent on the road as an adolescent. As they criss-cross the USA, Alex’s mother tells stories about her life before Alex, packed with adventure and misadventure. Alex is determinedly androgynous, unwilling to be assigned to either gender. This as you can imagine makes writing a synopsis well-nigh impossible so, for the sake of my sanity if nothing else and because I’m a woman, I’m going to refer to Alex using female personal pronouns. Clearly, identity is something Taylor wants her readers to think about.

Alex is thirteen when she’s hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, half-way through yet another noisy parental row. She’s packed into the car along with the barest essentials and driven off, not entirely sure what’s happening. Shortly after they set off, Alex’s mother withdraws wads of cash from an ATM, cuts up her credit cards and tosses her phone out of the car window leaving Alex under no illusion that she wants to be found. So begins a two-year odyssey during which Alex’s education is completed, both school and otherwise, while her mother works to keep them afloat. Each year they travel further along the yellow-highlighted map that Alex finds when her mother is out at work annotated with cryptic messages – ‘dead girl found in bath tub’; ‘crazy Laura, kissing Laura’ and the more prosaic ‘where I learned to drive’ – amongst the many ‘group home’ and ‘foster home’ locations where Alex’s mother grew up. At each destination, scores are settled, longstanding promises fulfilled and debts repaid. Alex misses her father, surreptitiously sending him postcards when she can. When, finally, they reach their destination, Alex must make a decision.

Alex tells her own story – niftily avoiding any shenanigans with that personal pronoun – making sure to remind us now and again that she’s an unreliable narrator, that her memory may be faulty, that the past is just another story we tell ourselves. She’s a convincing character, often uncomfortable in her adolescent skin yet engaging and sometimes funny. Taylor’s writing is every bit as striking as it was in The Shore: ‘because I had chosen to give chase, sleep stuck its thumb out, leaving me still on the hard ground, listening to the hum of cars go past’ thinks Alex trying to sleep rough after an unhappy hitchhiking incident. The stories Alex’s mother tells are vivid and riveting, revealing a life far more eventful that Alex could ever have imagined. Throughout it all runs the theme of identity – Alex’s determined decision not to identify as male or female, her mother’s sexual ambiguity and rootlessness – all handled with an enviable deftness. There’s always a little apprehension when picking up a second novel by an author whose first is as entrancing as The Shore was for me but The Lauras more than lives up to that promise.

Books to Look Out For in August 2016: Part 1

Cover imageAugust is yet another month with a strong showing for American fiction, kicking off with The Lauras by Sara Taylor whose wonderful debut, The Shore, was longlisted for the Baileys last year. A mother bundles her thirteen-year-old daughter into the car in the middle of the night and sets off on a journey towards a new life. Just like all thirteen-year-olds, the daughter thinks of her mother as just that, with no aspirations to be anything else, but as their route takes them away from Virginia, she learns more about her mother’s life and secrets. The Shore was one of my favourite books of 2014 so I’m hoping from great things, fuelled further by the publisher’s description of ‘an extraordinary story of a life; a stunning exploration of identity and an authentic study of the relationship between a mother and her child’.

For some reason I never got around to reading Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl which was raved about by all and sundry when it was published back in 2007. There’s been nothing from him since but The Fortunes sounds well worth the wait. Spanning 150 years, Davies’ novel explores the Chinese-American experience through the lens of four characters: Ah Ling, the son of a prostitute, sent alone to California as a young boy in the 1860s; Anna Mae Wong, the first Chinese Hollywood movie star; Vincent Chin murdered in 1982 just because he looked Japanese and John Ling Smith, visiting America to adopt a child. Apparently, Davies has mixed real and fictional characters, drawing on his own mixed-race experience in what sounds like fascinating read.Cover image

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like You, also explores how it feels to be an outsider, following Yuki Oyama as she tries to forge a career as an artist in the 1960s after her parents have returned to Japan leaving her alone in America. Running alongside Yuki’s story is that of the son she abandoned when he was only two so that she could pursue her art. Buchanan’s novel encompasses New York, Berlin and Connecticut – two of my favourite settings in there which alone would guarantee it a place in this preview but the premise sounds excellent, too.

Hide, Matthew Griffin’s debut,  looks at the plight of the outsider from another point of view. Wendell and Frank meet after the Second World War in a depressed textile town in the American South. They decide to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, well aware of the dangers their relationship poses. Decades later, when Wendell finds Frank collapsed outside it seems that the carefully constructed face they present to the world may fracture. Wendell attempts to maintain the façade as Frank continues to deteriorate but ‘faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion: the different lives they might have lived – and the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had’ say the publishers. This sounds like a heart-wrenching novel, a story that’s to be hoped will play out less and less in real life.

Cover imageEnding on a high note, for me, at least, is Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall. I’ve long been an admirer of Rash’s pared back, spare writing. I first came across him when I read Serena his reinterpretation of Macbeth which I very nearly passed over, sporting, as it did at the time, a somewhat overblown romantic jacket. This new novel follows Sheriff Les Cary as he embarks on his last case in a small town riddled with violence and drug addiction in which someone has poisoned the local trout stream. ‘Poetic and haunting’ say the publishers which aptly describes Rash’s writing for me, and no complaints whatsoever about that gorgeous jacket.

That’s it for the first batch of August goodies. The second will extend far outside of the USA, you may be pleased to hear. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’d like to read more.