Back from lovely Lille – more of which later in the week – and it’s time for my favourite meme. Six Degrees of Separation is 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 with Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist which I haven’t read but which I know from Kate’s review is about an appalling conflagration which took place in Australia in 2009 and the man who set some of the fires which contributed to it.
For obvious reasons my first link is to Sue Miller’s The Arsonist about the burning down of summer houses in a small New Hampshire town.
One of the characters in Miller’s novel is called Frankie which leads me to Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie whose main protagonist flees South Africa’s apartheid regime in the ‘60s to live in the UK.
South Africa shares a border with Zimbabwe, the setting for Petina Gappah’s TheBook of Memory in which the eponymous narrator tells her story from death row, imprisoned for the murder of the white man she’s been living with since she was nine.
Edgeworth Bess shares a similar predicament, telling her story via Billy Archer as she awaits sentencing for the possession of stolen goods in The Fatal Tree, Jake Arnott’s rollicking tale of eighteenth-century thieves and whores.
In Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree a girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meet a boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties.
Emily Woof is an actor, a profession she shares with Michèle Forbes who wrote Ghost Moth, set in Northern Ireland, which tells the story of a marriage in alternating narratives, twenty years apart.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an investigation of a devastating fire in Australia to a Northern Irish love story, and this time I’ve read all but our starting point. 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.
Spoilt for choice this month: two posts for new titles, and now two for paperbacks. I’ll start the first selection with one of my books of 2015. I have to confess that I didn’t get on with Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty. It was lauded to the skies by all and sundry but I gave it up. The premise of The Lightning Tree was so appealing, though, that I decided to give her a second try and I’m very glad I did. The bare bones are this: girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, lefty activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. I find this structure a particularly attractive one: lots of lovely space for character development.
A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couplealso follows a relationship over many years. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s, published back in 2010. His new novel begins in 1993 with two young British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California. They instantly click then both become involved in a dubious moral act which dogs Adam, in particular. The book charts their friendship over nearly twenty years, picking out the tensions between them – Neil’s resentment of Adam’s casual privilege, career ups and downs, marriage and children with their attendant worries. Miller’s novel was an enjoyable piece of holiday reading for me last year which may explain why I remember it so well.
I think Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie would have stayed with me wherever I read it. As with Emily Woof, I wasn’t particularly keen on Attenberg’s much praised The Middlesteinsbut the background to her new novel was so intriguing that it piqued my interest. The eponymous Mazie was the subject of a short essay by Joseph Mitchell first published in The New Yorker and included in his excellent collection Up in the Old Hotel. Like many of Mitchell’s subjects Mazie’s story is a fascinating one – an ordinary working-class New York woman who did something extraordinary. Attenberg has taken Mitchell’s essay and re-imagined Mazie’s life using fictionalised interviews and autobiography extracts with her diary as the novel’s backbone. Mazie is an unforgettable character, and Joseph Mitchell’s story is almost as interesting as hers.
Still in New York but fast forwarding several decades, Richard Bausch’s Before, During, After is an unusual take on the events of September 11th, 2001. As its title suggests, Bausch’s novel is set in the months before, during and after the terrorist attacks, exploring what happened very effectively by drawing parallels between the personal and the political. Michael and Natasha are newly in love, soon to be married. On the day of the attacks she’s in Jamaica with a friend, he’s in New York for a wedding. What follows is devastating for them both. It’s a profoundly involving novel – quite cerebral at times, but also emotionally engaging
Now to one I haven’t read but am very much looking forward to: Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono. On the same day a retired Parisian police inspector receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter, he finds a stranger waiting for him at his apartment. Professor Tadashi Omura tells Inspector Jovert his extraordinary life story which has surprising parallels with Jovert’s own. It sounds intriguing and comes from Tinder Press who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.
That’s it for the first batch of February paperbacks. A click on the title will take you to my review for the first four while The Snow Kimono will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels they’re here and here.
Last year I was off the blocks at the very beginning of December with my books of the year posts, barely waiting for the starter’s pistol. This year I’ve managed to restrain myself but I’m still incapable of cutting the number of favourites back to a sensible figure. Consequently I’ll be spreading my choices over four posts, picking them out month by month. Just as it did in 2014, my reading year got off to a very satisfying start, although a little more evenly spread this time. Last year’s first books of the year post saw seven titles crammed into two months; this one has six spread over three.
It begins with Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a smart little piece of meta-fiction which found its way on to the Folio Prize short list the month after I read it. Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was much talked about on publication – 10:04 is his second and it’s narrated by a writer whose first novel was much talked about on publication. He’s having trouble writing his second for which he’s got a stonking six-figure advance. Half-way through we learn that the narrator’s name is Ben. Your literary pretentiousness alarm may well be ringing loudly but Lerner’s novel is well worth your time: absorbing, amusing and very clever.
Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree is a much more straightforward kettle of fish: Girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. This kind of structure’s catnip for me – lots of lovely space for character development. Funny and a little eccentric, Woof’s book reminded me of the early Kate Atkinson novels while that structure has a touch of David Nicholls with a hefty dash of sassy wit and political savvy. I’d not got on with Woof’s debut, The Whole Wide Beauty, but this one hit the spot – so much so that I included it in my Baileys Prize wishlist although the judges disagreed.
They didn’t agree with me about my first February choice either even though Lucy Wood’sWeatheringis a striking novel right from the get-go. Its synopsis sounds prosaic enough – single mother returns to the village she left years ago, determined to renovate the dilapidated home she’s inherited from her mother, sell up and leave – but what makes Weathering an unalloyed treat is Wood’s gorgeous word pictures and sharp characterisation all wrapped up in an engrossing story.
February also saw the publication of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Most weeks, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays, Fuller posts a hundred words inspired by a photograph. Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, they’re always inventive. She has a knack of making you look at the world in a slightly different way. No surprise, then, that her debut was on my reading list. It’s the story of Peggy whose survivalist father takes his eight-year-old daughter to the Bavarian forest in 1976 where they stay for the next nine years. True to form, it begins with a photograph as the seventeen-year-old Peggy looks back at that summer. Yet another of my Baileys wishes which failed to come true but Fuller’s wonderfully inventive debut did catch the eye of the Desmond Elliot Prize judges and went on to win it.
Two very different novels for March beginning with my first in translation for this year, Signs Preceding the End of the World. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Yuri Herrera tells the story of Makina’s journey from one world to another, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground. The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid. Herrera – and Lisa Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving his readers pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.
Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed my tendency to bang on about jackets and their importance in snagging readers’ attention. This particular jacket fits its book like a glove. Molly Mc Grann’s The Ladies of the Housebegins with a middle-aged woman, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. She’s never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through this entertaining piece of storytelling and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.
That’s it for the first quarter of 2015. A click on a title will take you to my review. More very shortly, when it’s the turn of the Man Booker judges to let me down not once but three times…
Just before last year’s Man Booker prize winner announcement I wrote a rather disenchanted post about it so you might think that I’ve cast off my world weariness, given the title above. Not entirely, I’m afraid, but I did have to think about it when the lovely people over at Shiny New Books asked if I’d like to contribute a few punts for this year’s longlist. They only wanted two or three, but it got me thinking about other titles that I’d like to see longlisted. I’ve restricted myself to books that I’ve read and like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Theirs will be revealed on Wednesday 29th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:
I’ve been pipped to the post on this by Jackie over at Farm Lane Books whose format I’ve stolen, not for the first time. Interestingly we only overlap on two although if I’d read Anne Enright’s The Green Road I’m pretty sure it would have appeared here. And if you’d like to see which of the above I came up with for the Shinies plus other contributors’ hopes here they are. Let me know which titles you fancy for this year.
It’s that time of year again. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges are putting the finishing touches to their longlist, due to be announced shortly. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2014 and March 31st 2015 qualify for the award. It’s the one prize I pay 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. A few of the titles are a bit out of the way but I’d like to think a sprinkling of them will appear. I’ve followed the same format as last year with thanks to Jackie at Farm Lane Books for coming up with such a simple but striking presentation. I’ve restricted myself to novels that I’ve read and there’s a link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2015 Baileys Prize:
I’m sure there will be omissions and inclusions that some of you feel passionately about. I’ve heard good things about Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, for instance, which is working its way up to the top of my pile. Do let me know what you think.
I have to confess that I didn’t get on with The Whole Wide Beauty, Emily Woof’s first novel. It was lauded to the skies by all and sundry but I gave it up so you may be surprised to hear that I was eager to give her second a try but its premise is particularly appealing. The bare bones are this: girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. I find this structure a particularly attractive one: lots of lovely space for character development. So I pushed my reservations aside and was very pleased to have done so.
We start with Ursula lying in her pram looking delightedly up at a tree whose branches wave against the sky. Her mother’s inside, head in a pile of CND leaflets – a cause for which she has a passion. Only when she hears Ursula’s shrieks and spots a crow with its beak in her pram does Joyce pay attention. We follow Ursula through her childhood, standing on her head for hours in front of the TV, listening to her grandmother Mary’s litany of complaint, waking from nightmares of a nuclear holocaust, until aged fourteen she visits the hairdresser for an ill-advised perm (this is the ‘80s) and meets Jerry the trainee’s brother, precociously intelligent and the youngest member of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society. The narrative shifts back and forth between these two following them through their passionate teenage years until their paths fork, one leading to India from which Ursula returns deeply changed, and one to Oxford, where Jerry’s politics, background and sharp intellect mark him out. Into this are woven Mary’s memories of her past which become increasingly more real than her present. Right from the start Woof tells her readers that this is a book about love, but it’s also about the lack of it which has blighted Mary’s life.
Woof’s style is immensely engaging. Funny, a little eccentric, it reminded me of the early Kate Atkinson novels while the structure has a touch of David Nicholls with a hefty dash of sassy wit and political savvy. Ursula and Jerry are well drawn, nicely rounded, sharply tugging at your heartstrings and making you root for them. The connection between Ursula’s epiphany and her great-grandmother’s which led to so much misery for Mary seemed a little strained to me but that’s a small quibble in what is a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining novel, the kind you can happily polish off in one sitting. It might be time to take a second look at Woof’s first novel.
I know you’ve all get your minds on Christmas but I thought it might be time for a little taster of what 2015 has to offer before we get overdosed on carols and all that malarkey. It’s a good month, too. No huge names leap out for me but there are several interesting looking treats nevertheless.
I’ll start with the appropriately named debut, The Winter War, by Finland’s answer to Jonathan Franzen according to its publishers but I’m not letting that put me off. Middle class Helsinki couple Max and Katriina appear to have a perfect life but as we all know that can’t be true. Katriina no longer loves Max, their adult daughters both have problems and as he nears his sixtieth birthday, Max strides off into dangerous territory. It’s compared to ‘a big, contemporary, humane American novel, but with a distinctly Scandinavian edge’ which sounds just the ticket to me.
Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is about Bjorn (bit of a Scandi theme going on here, I know) a discontented bureaucrat who finds a secret room in his office in which he feels wonderfully empowered, performing to the exacting standards demanded by the Authority with ease. Everyone else, however, denies its existence. It’s an intriguing idea which could easily backfire but it sounds worth a try.
I remember reading Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty, and not getting on with it very well but I like the sound of The Lightning Tree enough to give her another try. Set in Newcastle in the mid-1980s it’s about Ursula, raised on big ideas and keen to start the adventure of adult life, and Jerry, a class warrior with an altogether different sort of upbringing, who fall in love with each other. She heads off to India while he goes to Oxford – will their relationship survive? Recommended for fans of both The Line of Beautyand The Marriage Plot, – two very different novels, make of that what you will – it’s described as ‘lyrical and funny’.
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is another title that could go either way. Jonathan Franzen describes it as ‘hilarious…cracklingly intelligent…and original in every sentence’, apparently, but as you may have noticed I’m not a fan of Mr Franzen. It sounds a little like an early Paul Auster which is where the attractions lies for me. Narrated by Ben, a writer who has just secured a big advance after the ecstatic reception of his first novel and is now writing his second narrated by ‘Ben’, 10:04 ‘charts an exhilarating course through the contemporary landscape of sex, friendship, memory, art and politics’, apparently. Not lacking in ambition, then.
Let’s end with what I hope will be a highly entertaining nineteenth-century romp, the wonderfully named Lucy Ribchester’s debut The Hourglass Factory, which takes us to the circus with the equally wonderfully named Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, tiger tamer and suffragette, who’s stage getup includes the tightest laced corset you’ve ever seen and certainly wouldn’t want to experience. When Ebony disappears mid-performance, intrepid girl reporter Frankie George – fascinated with all things circus-related – is determined to find out what’s happened to her. Sounds like a rip-roaring tale, just the thing for fireside reading.
That’s it for January books. As ever a click on a title will reveal more information at Waterstones website and if you want to know what I’m hoping for in my Christmas stocking just click here.