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 with William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair which tells the salutary story of Becky Sharp, the opportunistic social climber who comes to a sticky end, so memorably portrayed by Natasha Little in Andrew Davies’ 1998 adaptation.
Quite the opposite feeling to my childhood love of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which led me to beg my parents to take me to Doone Valley every time we were anywhere near Exmoor.
Daphne du Maurier’s celebrated Rebecca is set in Cornwall, which is generally where we were off to as I watched the signs to Doone Valley flash past. At least two authors – Susan Hill and Sally Beauman – were confident enough to pen ‘sequels’ to Rebecca.
Leading me to Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley’s follow-up to Gone with the Wind which picks up our heroine’s story after the funeral of Melanie Wilkes, her old flame Ashley’s wife.
Based on his family history, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain shares the American Civil War backdrop, following a Confederate soldier home to the wife he married just before he enlisted four years before. Inman travels through a country as changed as he is – farms in ruins, terrible poverty, lawlessness and degradation.
With its striking sense of place and gorgeous prose, Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait was one of my favourite novels of 2015. It’s about a father whose need to protect the son who’s run away from a crime clashes with his own morality which, in a way, takes me back to the beginning of this post.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a nineteenth-century morality tale to a twenty-first century version. 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.
Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much 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. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:
I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.
What about you? I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.
Not nearly so many paperbacks to look forward to for me in March as there were in February, and four of them I’ve already read and reviewed. Two of those popped up on my 2015 Books of the Year posts, the first of which tied with four others at the top of the tree. Sarah Leipciger’s superb The Mountain Can Waitis the sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I read last year.
Entirely different, Molly McGrann’s The Ladies of the House also made it on to my 2015 list. It begins 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. McGrann combines a sharp eye for characterisation with wry humour and some arrestingly vivid descriptions in this entertaining piece of storytelling. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through it and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.
If you’ve been following Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy you’ll no doubt be delighted to hear that the final part will soon be in paperback. Beginning with a reunion Golden Age picks up where Early Warning left off taking the Langdons from 1987 into the twenty-first century. As the novel progresses, the next generation moves seamlessly into the spotlight before focussing on their own children. The trilogy comes to a close with two events, both of which will draw the family together again in a world very different from the one in which it opened. Undoubtedly Smiley’s literary legacy, all three novels are assured, thought-provoking, magisterial and damn fine stories. You could read Golden Ageas a standalone novel but I can’t imagine why you’d want to deprive yourself of the first two.
Polly Samson’s The Kindness opens at roughly the same time as Golden Age, with Julia meeting Julian. She’s flying her husband’s Harris hawk and he – struggling up the hill and struck by her beauty – falls instantly for her. Soon the two are besotted but eight years later a grief-stricken Julian is looking back at his life with Julia. A thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing read, Samson’s novel is a triumph of clever plotting. Several times throughout her narrative I congratulated myself on realising what the promised ‘explosive secret’ was only to have the carpet pulled from beneath my feet.
Just one that I haven’t read: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper was much talked about last year when it came out in hardback. In it a married couple who share a love of birds move from America to Switzerland. ‘The Wallcreeper is nothing more than a portrait of marriage, complete with all its requisite highs and lows: drugs, dubstep, small chores, anal sex, eco-terrorism, birding, breeding and feeding’ say the publishers while Zink, herself, describes it as ‘a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code’. I’m cautiously intrigued.
That’s it for March. A click on a title will take you to my review for the titles I’ve read and Waterstones website for The Wallcreeper. If you’d like to catch up with my hardback preview it’s here.
This second batch of 2015 goodies covers April and May, and is made up entirely of women writers. No plan there – just the way this particular cookie crumbled. I’ll begin with The Shore, Sara Taylor’s beautifully packaged debut which appeared on both the Baileys longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/ Peters Fraser Dunlop award shortlist. Taylor’s novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and the novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. Taylor’s writing is striking, her characters believable and her storytelling entrancing. Can’t say better than that.
My second April book is Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.
Christine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure she has the readership she deserves. Written in precise, quiet and unshowy prose The Lives of Women, follows Elaine, back from the States on her first visit home in many years, as she remembers the summer back in the ‘70s which has shaped her adult life. The story’s an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’ve not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. I rate her enough to have included her on my Man Booker wish list but, as with the Baileys, the judges failed to agree with me.
A God in Ruins has recently made its way on to the Costa shortlist, although for the life of me I fail to understand why it wasn’t on the Man Booker longlist at the very least. It was the one title I’d have bet my shirt on. Beginning in 1925, it’s the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative and stitching it all together beautifully. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end.
I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here – or perhaps proving my incompetence as a literary prize judge, not that I’m likely to become one – but here’s yet another novel that appeared on my Man Booker wish list but not on theirs. The Mountain Can Wait is sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Sarah Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I’ve read this year.
Rounding off this second selection is Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, the second instalment of her The Last Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. The first part,Some Luck, made it on to last year’s books of the year posts for me – and many others – so I was looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. It opens in 1953 with a funeral neatly passing the baton on to the next generation and finishes in 1986 with a revelation which offers another pleasing twist in the lives of the family. Published here in the UK in October, Golden Age completed the trilogy, and suffice to say it’s the equal of the other two.
That’s it for the second selection. A click on a title will take you to my review and if you’d like to catch up with the first post, it’s here. More to follow shortly when yet another Man Booker unfulfilled wish will be aired.
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.
I’m not easily swayed by those author quotes you see adorning book jackets – some writers seem to be a little too free and easy with their praise for me – but, as regular readers will know, so enamoured am I of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs that a fulsome quote from him makes me sit up and take notice. Such was the case with Sarah Leipciger’s debut, The Mountain Can Wait, and I wasn’t disappointed – it’s the real deal.
We know from the first brief chapter that Curtis Berry has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party, leaving her for dead at the side of a lonely road. From there Leipciger switches her focus to Tom, Curtis’ father. An unwilling parent at nineteen, Tom has raised Curtis and his younger sister alone. Their unstable mother was found dead in a snowdrift four years after abandoning them when Curtis was five and Erin a mere three months old. Tom runs a tree planting company, camping in the Canadian backwoods with his team where they spend a month or so working and, occasionally, playing hard. He and his lover meet now and then, each preferring to keep their independence. When Tom is visited by a detective at the planters’ camp he knows he must track his son down, a trail which leads him to his mother-in-law last seen a decade ago. There can be no happy ending, clearly, but there is hope of redemption and some kind of understanding.
Leipciger reveals Tom’s character and his relationship with Curtis and Erin through flashbacks to their childhood, interwoven with life overseeing the planters. Her writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The relationship between Tom and Curtis is beautifully portrayed: Curtis’ aching need at odds with Tom’s seemingly distant practicality which masks a driving determination to protect his son, neither able to reach each other. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words Leipciger made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. Tom views the natural world with respect and acceptance, suspicious and dismissive of his mother-in-law’s vaguely New Age rituals. He’s a deeply humane man, one who deplores the shooting of a bear that loggers have carelessly allowed to live too close and now want disposed of, but knows it has to be done. It’s a very fine novel, and hats off to Tinder Press, now in their third year, who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.
Back from sunny Spain on Saturday to a UK where spring has most definitely sprung. More of that later in the week but here’s a taster of things to come next month to be going on with and there are three absolute corkers to look forward to in May’s list. Let’s start with the jewel in the crown which you may well know about already given how much pre-publicity there’s been for it: Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a companion volume to the wonderful Life After Life. I’m still mystified as to why that hasn’t been garlanded with prizes, but then, what do I know. A God in Ruins, interweaves Ursula Todd’s younger brother Teddy’s experiences as a bomber pilot with his life lived into the twenty-first century. To an extent it sounds a little like a state of the nation novel but don’t expect a straightforward linear narrative.
An exponent of that elegant, pared-back writing that the Irish seem to excel at, Anne Enright has a new novel out in May. The Green Road is about the Madigan family of County Clare. When their mother decides it’s time to sell the family home and divvy up the proceeds between her four children they return from all over the world to spend one last Christmas in the house they grew up in.
Jane Smiley’s Early Warningis set in similar territory, picking up the story of the Langdons in the second in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. It opens in 1953 at a funeral attended by Rosanna and Walter’s sons and daughters, all grown up with children of their own. Some Luck was among the best books I read last year so I’m looking forward to this middle volume which takes the family into the 1980s. I gather that the third will be appearing not long after this one.
Still in North America but moving on to Canada, Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait has been compared to Margaret Atwood by no less than Nickolas Butler, author of the sublime Shotgun Lovesongs. I imagine that’s a mixed blessing when you’ve only just published your first novel. It’s about a father trying to track down his son in the Canadian Wilderness after a terrible accident, and so enamoured am I with Mr Butler’s writing that a claim extravagant enough to bring out the old cynic in me has still made me want to read it.
And finally, my last choice for May is actually an April title: Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers which was brought forward a little in the publishing schedules. Her short stories are so highly rated by several people whose opinions I trust that I didn’t want to miss it out. It’s set in a flooded world in which sails a circus boat, home to North who dances with her bear in return for food. Callanish is a gracekeeper, tending the graves on an island in the middle of the sea. When these two are thrown together by a storm they are irresistibly drawn to each other but find may obstacles in their way. Perhaps a little fantastical for my usual taste but I’ve been promised some very fine writing and what a wonderfully eye-catching jacket.
That’s it for May. As ever, a click will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. Here are my April hardback choices if you’d like to catch up with those. Such were the splendours of April paperback offerings that I’ve posted on them twice – here and here.