It’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person’. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.
Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:
Well, this is a turn up for the books (sorry) – I seem to have already read all but one of the paperbacks published this June that I’m interested in. I’ll kick off with one of the few successes from my Baileys Prize wish list back in February: Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory which made it onto the longlist but not the shortlist, sadly. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that our narrator, a black Zimbabwean albino now on death row, was sold to a strange man by her parents. Memory slowly reveals her story finally delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe along the way, all spiced with a hefty helping of Memory’s acerbic wit.
Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World was also on my Baileys wish list, more in hope than expectation it has to be said. Despite its rather insipid jacket it’s a smart, elegantly understated piece of writing which looks at the complexities of parenthood and marriage, belonging and dislocation, following Charlotte and her family across the world from her beloved Cambridge to Australia where her husband Henry is intent on proving himself. Bishop tackles the tricky theme of motherhood with an unflinching honesty, exploring its contradictions with a powerful subtlety.
Marriage and motherhood pop up again in Gebrand Bakker’s June.It’s set largely on a single Saturday in a small Dutch village but at its centre is Queen Julianna’s visit on June 17th 1969 nearly forty years before, a day of celebration which turned into tragedy when a farmer’s two-year-old daughter was killed. Her mother has regularly taken herself off to the hayloft over the forty years since the accident, ignoring all attempts to talk her down. There are no fancy descriptive passages littered with similes and metaphors in Bakker’s writing: it’s clean and plain but richly evocative for all that.
Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor has more than a touch of the Gothic fairy tale about it: a dour castle sitting atop a remote mountain, warring factions complete with a heroic ‘exceptionally handsome’ captain, a fair lady with whom our own hero falls in love and a satisfying arc of redemption. It opens with seventeen-year-old Lucy Minor leaving home to take up the titular position of undermajordomo. His mother sees him off from the cottage door, barely waiting for Lucy to close the garden gate. Lucy is glad to be on his way, hoping for adventure, convinced that he is meant for better things. Like DeWitt’s previous novel The Sisters Brothers, Undermajordomo Minor has a richly cinematic quality which brought to mind Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in its almost cartoon-like depictions of the odd world in which Lucy finds himself. A thoroughly entertaining novel.
The only unread title in this month’s paperback publishing schedules that takes my fancy is Liza Klaussmann’s Villa America, largely because I enjoyed her debut, Tigers in Red Weather, set in a slightly Gatsbyesque world – although at the end of the Second World War. This new novel features the Fitzgeralds entertained, alongside the likes of Picasso, dos Passos and Hemingway, by Gerald and Sara Murphy in their villa on the French Riviera until a stranger arrives and the dream shatters. Novels peopled by historical figures are sometimes far from successful but such was my enjoyment of Klaussmnn’s first novel that I’ll be giving this one a try, and that cover is lovely although it would have been so much more elegant without the Tigers in Red Weather inset.
That’s it for June. A click on a title will take you to my review for the books I’ve already read and to Waterstones website for the one I haven’t. If you’d like to catch up with the month’s hardbacks they’re here and here.
It’s time for a brand new issue of Shiny New Books, stuffed full with reviews, interviews, features and competitions. My own contribution is a review of Patrick deWitt’s fantastical tale, Undermajordomo Minor. For anyone who’s already read deWitt’s darkly comic ripping yarn, The Sisters Brothers, this one is entirely different but just as entertaining. It has more than a touch of the Gothic fairytale, richly cinematic in its descriptions: as I was reading it Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel kept popping into my mind. If you’d like to know more why not pay a visit to Shiny New Books where you can read my review and finds lots of other treats to cheer you up now that winter’s looming again.
My second selection for September seems to be made up almost entirely of books by American novelists. No particular reason, it just turned out that way. No starry names either but a couple of the authors already have several excellent novels to their credit so I hope they’ve come up with the goods this time, too.
Anyone who enjoyed Patrick Dewitt’s brilliant Western The Sisters Brothers may well execute a little jig at the prospect of a new novel from him, even if the title is a little perplexing. Undermajordomo Minor is about Lucien Minor, assistant to the eponymous majordomo of Baron Von Aux’s castle where he meets the beautiful Klara, sadly already spoken for. It’s ‘a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behaviour is laid bare for our hero to observe’, ‘an adventure story, and a mystery, and a searing portrayal of rural Alpine bad behaviour with a brandy tart, but above all it is a love story’ which sounds absolutely marvelous.
I thoroughly enjoyed both TheMonsters of Templeton and Arcadia so I’m looking forward to Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furiesvery much. It tells the story of a marriage and creative partnership over a period of twenty-four years. Lotto and Mathilde are a glittering, enviable couple, apparently as happy ten years since their wedding as they were on the day itself but things may not be quite what they seem – we’re promised ‘stunning revelations and multiple threads, in prose that is vibrantly alive and original.’ Fingers crossed.
Already longlisted for the Man Booker, American literary agent Bill Clegg’s first novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, is published in the UK in September and it looks very enticing. June Reid is the only survivor of a house explosion that takes place the morning of her daughter’s wedding. She takes off from her small Connecticut town in the hope of escaping her neighbours and her grief, holing up in a motel on the other side of the country. ‘The novel is a gathering of voices, and each testimony has a new revelation about what led to the catastrophe… everyone touched by the tragedy finds themselves caught in the undertow, as their secret histories finally come to light.’ says the publisher, all of which sounds just the ticket for an absorbing read, if a little wordy.
Appropriately enough, my final September choice is Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans, a set of linked short stories, a form to which I’ve become rather partial. This collection looks at the immigrant experience in America through the eyes of Tara, a single Indian woman in her mid-thirties who travels to the States to look after her teenage niece. It tells the stories of eleven people and spans the entire country with Tara as the common thread. Inevitably, the publishers compare it to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, setting the bar high, but they’re also Lahiri’s publishers so perhaps the comparison is accurate, for once.
And one last title – this time by an Italian – just to alert the many fans out there, as if they don’t already know – Elena Ferrante’s long awaited The Story of the Lost Child is published in September. I’ve never quite got into the Ferrante fever which seized Twitter and hasn’t yet let go but I’m delighted that the small but perfectly formed Europa publishers have met with such success.
That’s it for September – as ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to check out my first batch of September titles here they are, and if you want to catch up with August the hardbacks are here and the paperbacks are here.