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 others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
This month we’re starting with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book I’ve read many times as a child and as an adult.
Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass are stuffed with riddles, puzzles, wordplay and a multitude of allusions which Martin Gardner helps elucidate in The Annotated Alice
I’m distinctly unkeen on annotations in novels but Jonathan Coe’s footnotes in TheHouse of Sleep had me in hysterics.
Coe is best known for his state of the nation novels, a sub-genre I find hard to resist. A recent favourite was Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which looks at the divisions between town and country through the story of Lottie, furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him.
A particularly grisly murder brought Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm to mind for me while reading Craig’s novel. A couple of pages later she pleasingly tips her hat to Gibbons with a quote.
Gibbons’ comic novel is widely acknowledged as a parody of the floridly romantic historical style epitomised by Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, set in Shropshire during the Napoleonic Wars.
Shropshire is the location for one of my childhood favourites, Malcolm Saville’s Seven White Gates which has some wonderfully atmospheric scenes on the Long Mynd.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from Alice’s adventures down a rabbit hole to a childhood favourite set in Shropshire. 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.
The longlist for the only UK award that really excites me these days, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Thursday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2017 and March 31st 2018 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in my suggestions but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what the judges think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as 2017, 2016 and 2015, 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 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
There’s an embarrassment of paperback riches this February. Lots to occupy those of us stuck in the depths of winter beginning with one of my books of last year. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him, Lottie finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now.
Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Disoriented and lonely, Marc lets slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction which also made it on to my books of 2017 list.
As did Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees a collection of short stories which enlightens those of us fortunate enough to have lived our lives in a benign political climate, no matter what we may think of our government. Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, it explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Nguyen fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. His beautifully polished eloquent collection combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience giving it a quiet power.
Loosely based on a true story, Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots is a doorstopper of a novel which explores political idealism and the stark realities of life under a totalitarian regime through Florence Fein, who sets out for Russia from New York in 1934, and her son Julian, trying to do business in the ‘new’ Russia of 2008. Well researched and engrossing, The Patriots felt like a particularly timely read given the advent of the Trump administration with relations between the US and Russia under the microscope yet again.
Emily Ruskovich’s debut, Idaho, is entirely different. Six-year-old May and nine-year-old June have had only themselves and their parents for company in their remote mountain home but June no longer wants to play the elaborate games that have kept them whispering together for years. The afternoon the family sets out in their pickup to collect wood will end with an appalling crime which will leave one child dead and the other missing. There’s no black and white in this strikingly written novel, no neat resolution and it’s all the better for that.
Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World is also about families. Alone and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, Isabelle is offered a place in The Infinity Family Project whose billionaire founder is pursuing a utopian ideal: raising nine babies as part of an extended family in a Tennessee compound. ‘Can this experiment really work – or is their ‘perfect little world’ destined to go horribly wrong?’ ask the publishers. Given the number of unhappy children brought up in communes who’ve shared their experiences with the world in one way or another, I suspect we can guess the answer.
That’s it for the first batch of February’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first five titles and to a more detailed synopsis for Perfect Little World should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new titles they’re here and here. More paperbacks shortly…
Summer’s favourites wander around the world a little taking in novels from Scandinavia, South Africa and the USA, beginning in June with Monte Carlo, a book by a Belgian author. Ending on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, Peter Terrin’s novella tells the tale of a God-fearing mechanic who becomes obsessed with the actress whose life he saves when she’s caught in a conflagration. He’s badly burnt, but she’s unscathed. Jack arrives home a hero but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, no acknowledgment of his sacrifice, his obsession with her deepens. From its vividly dramatic opening, this beautiful dreamlike novella had me in its grip. I’m hoping that more of Terrin’s fiction will be translated soon.
Tom Malmquist’s InEvery Moment We Are Still Alive is a piece of autofiction that also deals with trauma, this time 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. I’m not entirely taken with the idea of autofiction but this is an intensely immersive, heart-wrenching book which I hope proved cathartic for its author.
June ended with Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Landwhich explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Lottie – furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him – finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment of her loosely linked state-of-the-nation novels.
Just one book from July but it’s a particularly lovely one. In Victoria Redel’s Before Everything five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.
Death and friendship are also themes in the first of August’s two favourites: Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy. Ellinor stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Georg and Ellinor were married for decades but she has always felt she was leading Anna’s life. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at its edge. Now that Georg has died there is no one that she wishes to talk to except Anna. Ellinor’s grief is such a private, painful thing, not a rending of garments or tearing of hair but a constant ache of absence as much for Anna as it is for Georg. This loving, forgiving friendship is at the heart of Grøndahl’s quietly powerful novella.
Summer’s last book is Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Just as Woolf’s novel reflected the preoccupations of her time, so Johannesburg offers us a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. Melrose deftly knits the many threads of her narrative together, shifting smoothly between her characters and offering a microcosm of this complex country where white privilege often shuts itself away behind razor wire and navigates the constant stream of black hawkers from comfortable, air-conditioned cars. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.
That’s it for summer, a season I cling on to for as long as I can. Autumn gets off to a darker start although not as Gothic as I was expecting…
All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two instalments of my 2017 books of the year they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.
There’s something irresistible about a state-of-the-nation novel, even if that nation has shifted cataclysmically since the novel was conceived. This isn’t the first book in that vein Amanda Craig has written – I remember enjoying Hearts and Minds which explored the lives of immigrants in London a few years back. Two characters from that novel take centre stage in The Lie of the Land which looks at the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of Lottie, furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him.
Made redundant from her job as an architect, thanks to Britain’s post-financial crisis recession, Lottie is searching for a way out of her marriage. She and Quentin share a house in London bought long before property prices became stratospheric. She finds a Devon farmhouse with a surprisingly low rent, lets the London house and takes off with Quentin, their two young daughters and her mixed-race teenage son reluctantly in tow. The plan is to sell the house once the economy has recovered so that she and Quentin can each buy a flat. Everyone hates the countryside: the dilapidated farmhouse offends Lottie’s professional sensibilities and she misses her mother; Rosie and Stella miss their friends; Xan is bored to tears and the butt of racist remarks; Quentin uses the proceeds from his column deriding rural life to pay for a cleaner about whom the girls are distinctly suspicious and frequently takes off for London, ostensibly to cultivate his contacts but staying with his new girlfriend. As the year rolls on, each of them finds a way to cope without the glossy, sophisticated charms of London. Even Quentin occupies himself, speculating about writing the biography of their landlord, an ageing rock star who rejoices in the name Gore Tore. Alongside the Bredins’ story, another one unfolds. It seems that Home Farm’s previous tenant was murdered, a gruesome crime still unsolved.
If you’re looking for a piece of engrossing, intelligent fiction, The Lie of the Land is just the ticket. Craig handles her themes deftly, covering a multitude of issues afflicting twenty-first century British society within the framework of a rollicking good story. Her portrayal of rural poverty and deprivation, unnoticed by the tourists on whom the local economy depends, blows a hole through the much-cherished idea of the English pastoral idyll. Marriage is put under the microscope and men, even the apparently devoted, are found wanting. There’s a bright thread of humour running through the novel: Cold Comfort Farm came to mind when the grisly murder appeared on the horizon, and a few pages later Craig gives it a nod with a quote. Her characters are nicely three-dimensional, Quentin neatly dodging redemption when he tells his mother close to the end of the novel ‘without selfishness, I’ll have a life of misery and boredom’. The murder thread is satisfyingly – if a little melodramatically – resolved and the ending is a perfect fit. The book’s message was summed up for me when Lottie tells Xan ‘Maybe nobody gets what they believe should be theirs, but just getting a bit of it is worthwhile. Just a bit is more than most ever get’. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.
Top of my list for June is Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends which I’m pretty sure isn’t aimed at my age group but sounds enticing all the same. Four friends in their twenties talk about everything under the sun but it’s Frances and her affair with a much older married man who eventually takes centre stage. ‘You can read Conversations with Friends as a romantic comedy, or you can read it as a feminist text. You can read it as a book about infidelity, about the pleasures and difficulties of intimacy, or about how our minds think about our bodies. However you choose to read it, it is an unforgettable novel about the possibility of love’ according to the publishers, kindly leaving the choice up to their readers.
Love is also the subject of Catherine Lacey’s The Answers which comes at it in a very different way. Mary is desperate for work when she sees a job advertised as part of The Girlfriend Experiment whose aim is to analyse the nature of relationships – what works and what doesn’t – through role-playing. She is to be Emotional Girlfriend, joining a team which includes Angry Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend, playing against the Hollywood actor whose idea the whole thing is. ‘A novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which probe the depths of our society, and answers that will leave you reeling’ say the publishers. It’s an interesting premise which has the makings of a great book not to mention a film, although I’m sure that’s been considered already.
Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World is about another kind of social experiment, this one focusing on families. Alone and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, Isabelle is offered a place in The Infinity Family Project whose billionaire founder is pursuing a utopian ideal: raising nine babies as part of an extended family in a Tennessee compound. ‘Can this experiment really work – or is their ‘perfect little world’ destined to go horribly wrong?’ ask the publishers. Given the number of unhappy children brought up in communes who’ve shared their experiences with the world in one way or another, I suspect we can guess the answer.
Here’s one that has attracted a good deal of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods. Julie Buntin’s Marlenafollows naïve fifteen-year-old Cat who finds herself becoming best friends with her neighbour when she moves to a new town in rural Michigan. Cat and Marlena make the town their own, partying like there’s no tomorrow until Marlena is found drowned in nearby woods. Decades later Cat is still trying to come to terms with her past. ‘Alive with an urgent, unshakeable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull ourselves back from the brink’ say the publishers a little dramatically.
The trials and tribulations of settling into a new home also play a part in Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which follows the Bredins – who can neither afford a divorce nor their London home – to a remote part of Devon. No one seems very happy with the arrangement and everyone wonders why their rent is so low. ‘The beauty of the landscape is ravishing, yet it conceals a dark side involving poverty, revenge, abuse and violence which will rise up to threaten them’ say the publishers which promises the revelation of dark secrets. I’ve enjoyed Craig’s previous novels and this one comes with a stonking endorsement from Helen Dunmore.
Allegra Goodman’s The Chalk Artist is about the all-consuming nature of computer gaming and the way it can threaten to take over real life, explored through a teenage boy living in smalltown America. Aidan is at the top of his game when playing EverWhen, putting the problems of adolescence behind him, but when he’s sent a mysterious black box from the game’s designers he finds himself physically taken into EverWhen’s world, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. It’s a fascinating subject – remember Second Life and the divorce it prompted? – and I’ve enjoyed Goodman’s fiction very much in the past.
I’m ending this preview with a book by an author whose first novel is sitting on my shelves but I have yet to read. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away follows three women: one wanting to box at a time when boxing is illegal for women in Ireland; the second contemplating a job offer but wondering if she can bring herself to abandon her mother in her nursing home; and a third who takes up with a biker gang as a means of escape. ‘A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing but perhaps I should get around to reading Generation first.
That’s it for June’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that appeal. Paperbacks to follow soon…