The longlist for my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Monday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2018 and March 31st 2019 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, 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 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
Several of my favourite writers are listed here – Kate Atkinson, Amy Bloom, Siri Hustvedt, Georgina Harding – but I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention. We’ll see. Any titles that you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
That’s it from me for a few days. We’re off for what could be our last weekend as European citizens abroad. I may need tissues. Back next week to tell you all about it.
There’s an embarrassment of paperback riches in March, several of which were among my books of 2018. This first batch begins in the ‘30s with Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley about a young woman who turns up in the village of Elmbourne and inveigles herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie’s flattered by Constance’s attentions but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism gathering throughout Europe. As with all of Harrison’s novels, there’s a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy.
Kate Atkinson’s Transcription follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from beneath her readers’ feet several times during Juliet’s journey through the Secret Service’s labyrinthine corridors. As ever, there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy but some serious points are made about idealism and national interest. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were met for me. And there’s another Atkinson in the offing this year: Big Sky, a Jackson Brodie novel. Hurrah!
Amy Bloom’s White Houses is also set in the ‘40s. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House and with whom Eleanor had a long and passionate affair. Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s presidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons. Such a cool jacket for the paperback edition, too.
Set just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, Louise Levene’s Happy Little Bluebirds keeps us in the ‘40s. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off. Like all the best satire, serious points are made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are all slipped into the narrative. That said, Levene’s novel is a thoroughly enjoyable romp and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood.
Set in the early ’90s, Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart is about a Filipino community in California, and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp, finding a second home with Rosalyn who knows nothing but the city of Milpitas where she lives. Castillo’s novel wasn’t without flaws for me – I could have done with a glossary – but it’s both entertaining and enlightening.
I’m ending this first batch of paperbacks with Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion, set in the near future, which I’ve yet to read but which will no doubt depress me. Set in a small English town, post-Brexit, it depicts a country in the grips of fear and loathing thanks to a few opinions aired too stridently, political extremism on the rise and the revelation of secrets threatened. ‘Smart, satirical and honed to frightening acuity, Sam Byers’s writing offers up a black mirror to Britain post-Brexit in this frighteningly believable and knowingly off-kilter state-of-the nation novel’ say the publishers. I do love a state-of-the-nation novel but given the state of my particular nation I may just put my head in the sand although humour is promised, presumably of the dark variety.
That’s it for the first selection of March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first five and to a more detailed synopsis for the last one. If you’d like to catch up with March’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second paperback instalment soon…
Spring, which seems so far away now, was a particularly good reading time for me hence this bumper post. March began with Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a carefully crafted, moving novella which explores love, loss and connection through the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk is a bereaved refugee, Lampy helps out at the local care home, spending much of his time in a rage, and John is fixer, bent on the corruption of good men. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in three discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does here but he pulls it off beautifully, writing in prose which has a lilting rhythmic beauty.
Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness explores similar themes through the story of three siblings. Forty-one-year-old Jules is in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. Each of their children deal with their loss differently: Liz takes to promiscuity and drugs; Marty loses himself in study and Jules becomes a dreamer, unable to settle at anything. Wells explores grief and death with empathy and compassion neatly avoiding the maudlin while facing what many of us might prefer to avoid contemplating. You might think that sounds somewhat gloomy but it’s not: the clue’s in the title. Another excellent translation by Charlotte Collins whose name I’ve learnt to look out for.
Death pops up again in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists which had my hype antennae twitching before I read it. It’s a novel with a very clever hook: what would you do with your life if you knew the date of your death? Would you choose to live it to the full, or would you keep yourself as safe as you could? In other words, would you choose to live or merely to survive? This is the conundrum for the Gold siblings whose stories unfold as they move inexorably towards the dates appointed to each of them at their childhood visit to a fortune-teller. Entertaining, moving and thought-provoking it’s a compassionate and satisfyingly immersive novel.
April brought probably the longest title of a contemporary novel I’ve ever come across: renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t. This carefully constructed piece of fiction offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by his novella’s fragmented structure. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking – beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch.
Michael Andreassen’s weird and wonderful The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is probably the oddest book to appear in my books of any year, but you never know. It’s a collection of twelve short stories, a work of surreal, off-the-wall fantasy. From the get-go you know you’re in discombobulating territory as a loving son remembers the many happy times they have shared before his father is crated up in his wheelchair and dropped into the sea. Next, a man longs for his wife after he and his unconsummated one-night-stand are abducted by aliens (yes, I know) and takes radical action to find her. In the eponymous story a crew look on helplessly, quarrelling amongst themselves, fretting about their cannibalistic admiral and being propositioned by mermaids as a many tentacled sea monster tightens her grip on what she hopes is her new lover. That should give you a flavour of this strange, often very funny collection. You’ll either hate it or love it; I loved it.
Amy Bloom took me back to more conventional literary territory in May. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, White Houses tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House and with whom Eleanor had a long and passionate affair. Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s presidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons.
’Elegantly spare’ is a description that could also be applied to Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, my other favourite May read. Set in the mountains above Ronda in Andalucia, Carrasco’s slim novella reads like a fable deeply rooted in the landscape of southern Spain. It tells the story of two brothers – one committed to saving the family olive farm, the other looking for a way out – against the backdrop of a searing autumnal drought. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut. Carrasco’s writing is strikingly poetic at times, stripped of ornament and all the better for it.
The next instalment covers four months of what turned out to be one of the most glorious summers we’ve known for some time here in the UK.
All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.
Almost time for the 2018 Man Booker judges to announce their longlist to readers, not to mention publishers, waiting with bated breath to see if their favourites are amongst the chosen few. This year’s a special one. As I’m sure you all know, It’s the prize’s fiftieth anniversary which has been celebrated with a string of events, culminating in the coronation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient as the Golden Man Booker ten days ago. There’s also been a little celebration over at Shiny New Books where contributors have been writing about their own favourites.
Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the 2018 Man Booker judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2017 and 30th September 2018 and have been written in English. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Tuesday 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.
It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September – I’m reasonably sure that Patrick deWitt’s French Exit would make my cut and William Boyd’s Love is Blind is due in September– but I’m sticking to novels I’ve read. And if I had to choose one? That would be Kate Atkinson’s Transcription but no doubt the judges will disagree with me on that yet again.
What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?
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 Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the first in a series of books beginning in the ‘70s about a group of young people – some gay, some straight – and their adventures living on Barbary Lane in San Francisco under the wing of the wonderful Mrs Madrigal, just the kind of landlady you’d want. I’ve read the whole series many times. It’s a joyous treat although it becomes darker as AIDs rears its ugly head. It was Tales of the City that made me determined to go to San Francisco which I did in 1995.
Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room also played a part in my holiday plans when we went on our central European railway jaunt a couple of years ago. It’s about the construction of very beautiful modernist house in the Czech Republic town of Brno, and the families who live in it.
Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-year House also tells the story of a house and its inhabitants, working backwards through its century long history. I enjoyed it but not as much as Makkai’s debut The Borrower which is about a librarian and a little boy she takes on the run.
Hard to imagine Sophie Divry’s slightly waspish librarian in The Library of Unrequited Love extending her hand to a ten-year-old. When she finds a young man who has been locked in overnight she treats him to a passionate soliloquy about her colleagues, the Dewey Decimal system and bookish conspiracies while unwittingly spilling the beans about her yearning for a young researcher.
Divry is also the author of Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, a tribute to a much-loved classic as is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern take on Pride and Prejudice. I’ve yet to read it but given the acute observation and acerbic wit on show in her recent short story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It, I’m sure she’s a fitting writer to take on the task.
Sittenfeld wrote American Wife based loosely on Laura Bush. Amy Bloom’s White Houses also features an American First Lady telling the story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s affair with Hick, a journalist who came to live in the White House, giving up her job as a Washington reporter.
Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt is also about a lesbian relationship between two historical characters, this time Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Troung tells her story through the voice of their Vietnamese cook who regales us with descriptions of the delectable food he serves to them in their Parisian apartment.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from San Francisco in the ‘70s to Paris in the ‘30s. 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.
I’ve yet to read anything by Amy Bloom that I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons. Hopes were extraordinarily high, then, for White Houses but they were surpassed to the extent that this post is in danger of degenerating into one long gush. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bloom’s novella tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House.
Hick waits at Eleanor’s New York apartment on Washington Square just three days after Roosevelt’s death. Once caught up in a passionate affair, these two women still love each other dearly. It’s to Hick that Eleanor turns for comfort, solace and help with the sacks stuffed with condolence letters. Wary of accusations of bias, Hick gave up a promising career as a White House reporter when she took up residence, instead traveling the country and reporting to Federal Emergency Relief Administration on the desperate conditions wrought by the Depression. She’s no stranger to poverty but what she saw appalled her. Both Hick and Eleanor share memories of a childhood marked by the loss of their mothers but whereas Eleanor’s was cushioned by privilege, Hick’s was scarred by negligence and worse, bowdlerised to spare Eleanor’s sensitivity. When Roosevelt was elected, Hick joined them in her own spartan apartment – Eleanor tacitly accepting her husband’s mistresses while he returned the favour. Hick remains long after their ardour has cooled. Theirs is a deep and lasting love which continues until Eleanor dies in 1962.
Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. Both Hick and Eleanor are vividly drawn: Hick’s sharp-eyed view of Eleanor’s need for approbation and moral probity – so hard for those around her to match and at times, so exasperating – contrast with her passion and tenderness for her lover. The storytelling is engrossing and evocative – Hick’s description of her brief time with a travelling freak show is a particular delight. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s presidency, and the writing is sublime, often conveying a great deal in a couple of well-chosen words. I could fill this post with quotes but here are just a few favourites:
Eleanor’s love was like some shabby old footstool. Everyone used it without wanting it and no one ever gave it a moment’s thought
I wouldn’t call it nagging. It was like having the Statue of Liberty watch you have one beer too many
Sometimes, I love her more when I don’t even see her
He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… …He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?
From its brief opening sentence to its gloriously poetic, heart-wrenching final paragraph, this is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of fiction. Bring on all the prizes.
There are several juicy looking short story collections on offer in May, three of which I’m including in the first part of this preview kicking off with the excellent Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say Itwhich explores both the ineptitude some people display in reading others and our ability to deceive ourselves, apparently. ‘Sharp and tender, funny and wise, this collection shows Sittenfeld’s knack for creating real, believable characters that spring off the page, while also skewering contemporary mores with brilliant dry wit’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.
Sittenfeld fans will remember her brilliant depiction of a First Lady, based on Laura Bush, in American Wife which leads me neatly to Amy Bloom’s White Houses, set in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife move into the presidential residence. Bloom’s novel explores the relationship between Lorena Hickock, the celebrated journalist who accompanied them, and Eleanor Roosevelt. ‘Filled with fascinating back-room politics, the secrets and scandals of the era, and exploring the potency of enduring love, it is an imaginative tour-de-force from a writer of extraordinary and exuberant talent’ say the publishers. That alone would pique my interest but I’m a huge fan of Bloom’s writing, from her short stories to novels like Lucky Us, so I have high hopes for this one.
Geir Gulliksen’s Story of a Marriage also puts a relationship under the microscope as a husband whose wife has fallen in love with another man after twenty years together tries to understand the disintegration of their marriage from her point-of-view. ‘Intense, erotic, dramatic, raw – Story of a Marriage examines two people’s inner lives with devastating and fearless honesty. It is a gripping but slippery narrative of obsession and deceit, of a couple striving for happiness and freedom and intimacy, but ultimately falling apart’ according to the publishers which sounds very ambitious to me but definitely worth a look.
Back to short stories for Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood. ‘Schutt’s sharply suspenseful and masterfully dark interior portraits of ordinary lives are shot through with surprise and, as Ottessa Moshfegh has it, “exquisitely weird writing”’ say AndOtherStories who are publishing this collection as part of their response to Kamila Shamsie’s provocation exhorting publishers to release only books by women. ‘Exquisitely weird’ could go either way for me.
I’m bookending this post with the third short story collection of the month from the late master of the craft. William Trevor’s Last Stories comprises ten pieces described by the publishers as ‘exquisite, perceptive and profound’ and for once I won’t be arguing with their superlatives. This will undoubtedly be a treat to savour for all who treasure quietly understated, elegantly lyrical prose.
That’s it for the first instalment of May’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you wish to know more. Part two to follow at the end of the week with not a short story collection in sight.