Tag Archives: Costa Awards

A Few Bizarre Backlist Reads: McEwan, Michaels & Tremain

I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.

 

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)

[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]

This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.

Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.

Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.

Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.

This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.

Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.

This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.

 

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)

[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]

“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”

Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”

The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.

Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.

 

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)

[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]

In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.

Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.

At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.

To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:

Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation

Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary

Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality

Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident

Confederate flag = Tennessee

Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits

Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop

Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene

Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions

Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell

Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality

Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Blog Tour Review)

I’ve been a huge admirer of Maggie O’Farrell’s work ever since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which won the Costa Novel Award, in 2011. I was intrigued by the premise of her new book, in which she delves further back into history than she has before to imagine the context of the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the effect it had on the playwright’s work – including, four years later, Hamlet.

Curiously, O’Farrell has decided never to mention Shakespeare by name in her novel, so he remains a passive, shadowy figure seen only in relation to his wife and children – he’s referred to as “the father,” “the Latin tutor” or “her husband.” Instead, the key characters are his wife Agnes (most will know her as Anne, but Agnes was the name her father, Richard Hathaway, used for her in his will) and Hamnet himself.

 

 

As the novel opens, 11-year-old Hamnet is alone in his grandfather’s glove workshop. His twin sister Judith has a fever and lumps at her neck and he is frantically trying to find an adult. But with his father in London, his mother off tending her bees and his grandfather’s indifference all too ready to shade into violence, there is no one to help. Although it’s Judith who appears to be ill with the Plague, readers know from the scant historical record that it is Hamnet who dies. Somehow, even though we see this coming, it’s still a heavy blow. Hamnet is a story of the moments that change everything, of regrets that last forever: Agnes will ever after be afflicted with a sense of having neglected her children just when they needed her.

Short chapters set in that summer of 1596 alternate with longer ones from 15 years before, when WS was engaged as a Latin tutor to the sons of a sheep farmer to pay off his father’s debts. Soon he became captivated by a young woman with a kestrel whom he assumed to be the family’s maid but learned was actually the unconventional daughter of the household, Agnes. She had a reputation as a herbal healer and was known to have second sight – just by holding someone’s hand, she could see into their past or predict their future.

There are some wonderfully vivid scenes in this earlier story line, including a tryst in the apple shed and Agnes going off alone into the forest to give birth to their first child, Susanna. My favourite chapter of all, though, is the central one that traces the journey of the pestilence from a glassmaker’s studio in Italy to the small Warwickshire village. The medical subplot of Hamnet has taken on a new significance that O’Farrell surely never predicted when she was immersing herself in the time period by undertaking falconry and mudlarking.

Although I remain a big fan, Hamnet is the least successful of the six books of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read. Her trademark third person omniscient voice and present tense narration, which elsewhere exude confidence and immediacy, here create detachment and even vagueness (“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs”; “Look. Agnes is pouring water into a pan”). The strategy for evoking the 16th century seems to be to throw in the occasional period prop, but the dialogue and vocabulary can feel anachronistic, as in “Boys! Stop that this instant! Or I’ll come up there and give you something to wail about”.

In comparison with historical fiction I’ve read recently by Geraldine Brooks and Hilary Mantel, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief. My reaction was lukewarm, but this should not deter readers from trying this wonderful writer – if not this book, then any one of her previous five.


My thanks to Midas PR and Tinder Press for the free copy for review.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Stasiland to The End of the Point

It’s my third time participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). The challenge starts with Stasiland (2003) by Anna Funder, which I also happened to read recently. While working part-time for an overseas television service in what was once West Berlin, Funder started gathering stories of how ordinary people were put under surveillance and psychologically terrorized by the Stasi, the East German secret police. She molds her travels and her interviewees’ testimonies into riveting stories – though this won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction in 2004, it’s as character-driven as any novel.

 

#1 My interest in Stasiland was piqued by reading Sophie Hardach’s Costa Prize-shortlisted novel Confession with Blue Horses (2019). When Ella’s parents, East German art historians under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect during a ‘vacation’ to Hungary in 1987, their three children were taken from them and only two were returned. Ella is determined to find her brother, whom they’ve had no word of since, via a correspondence with the Stasi archive. It’s an emotionally involving story of one ordinary family’s losses and reconstruction.

#2 Blue Horses (2014) is one of Mary Oliver’s lesser poetry collections. I found it to be a desperately earnest and somewhat overbaked set of nature observations and pat spiritual realizations. There are a few poems worth reading (e.g., “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond” and Part 3 of “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”), and lines here and there fit for saving, but overall this is so weak that I’d direct readers to Oliver’s landmark 1980s work instead.

 

#3 Oliver’s poetry, especially “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day,” gets quoted everywhere. The latter’s most famous lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” appears in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, my book of 2020 so far. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a completely natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her late father, also a doctor, and his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate yet practical book, this aims to get people talking about end-of-life issues.

#4 I have meant to read Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012) since before she won the Nobel Prize. I was sent a free paperback copy for a Nudge review, but as the site already had a review of the book up, I let it slip and never followed through. More than once I’ve put this short story collection onto a reading stack, but I have never quite gotten past the first page or two. At some point this must be rectified.

 

#5 Alice Munro is one of the authors featured in Writers & Co. by Eleanor Wachtel (1993), a terrific collection of interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.

#6 My first-ever author Q&A, for Bookkaholic in 2013, was related to The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver. (Alas that the site is now defunct, so the interview only exists as a file on my computer.) In an astonishing historical sweep, from Massachusetts’s first colonial settlers through the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century, Graver’s family saga with a difference questions parent‒child ties, environmental responsibility, and the dictates of wealth and class. Her complex, elegiac tale, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, offers multiple points of view in a sympathetic gaze at a vanishing way of life – but an enduring sense of place.

 

Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!

 

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

11 Days, 11 Books: 2020’s Reads, from Best to Worst

I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year – though a number of them were started in 2019 (one as far back as September) and several of them are novelty books and/or of novella length. Just for kicks, I’ve arranged them from best to worst. Here’s how my reading year has started off…

 

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale – Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of bipolar Cornwall artist Rachel Kelly and her interactions with her husband and four children, all of whom are desperate to earn her love. Quakerism, with its emphasis on silence and the inner light in everyone, sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows for family secrets to proliferate. There are two cameo appearances by an intimidating Dame Barbara Hepworth, and three wonderfully horrible scenes in which Rachel gives a child a birthday outing. The novel questions patterns of inheritance (e.g. of talent and mental illness) and whether happiness is possible in such a mixed-up family. (Our joint highest book club rating ever, with Red Dust Road. We all said we’d read more by Gale.)

 

Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil – An extended essay whose overarching theme of hospitality stretches into many different topics. Part of an Indian family that has lived in Kenya and England, Basil is used to a culture of culinary abundance. Greed, especially for food, feels like her natural state, she acknowledges. However, living in Berlin has given her a greater awareness of the suffering of the Other – hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered the EU, often to be met with hostility. Yet the Sikhism she grew up in teaches unconditional kindness to strangers. She asks herself, and readers, how to cultivate the spirit of generosity. Clearly written and thought-provoking. (And typeset in Mrs Eaves, one of my favorite fonts.) See also Susan’s review, which convinced me to order a copy with my Christmas bookstore voucher.

 

Frost by Holly Webb – Part of a winter animals series by a prolific children’s author, this combines historical fiction and fantasy in an utterly charming way. Cassie is a middle child who always feels left out of her big brother’s games, but befriending a fox cub who lives on scrubby ground near her London flat gives her a chance for adventures of her own. One winter night, Frost the fox leads Cassie down the road – and back in time to the Frost Fair of 1683 on the frozen Thames. I rarely read middle-grade fiction, but this was worth making an exception for. It’s probably intended for ages eight to 12, yet I enjoyed it at 36. My library copy smelled like strawberry lip gloss, which was somehow just right.

 

The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame – This is the last and least enjoyable volume of Frame’s autobiography, but as a whole the trilogy is an impressive achievement. Never dwelling on unnecessary details, she conveys the essence of what it is to be (Book 1) a child, (2) a ‘mad’ person, and (3) a writer. After years in mental hospitals for presumed schizophrenia, Frame was awarded a travel fellowship to London and Ibiza. Her seven years away from New Zealand were a prolific period as, with the exception of breaks to go to films and galleries, and one obsessive relationship that nearly led to pregnancy out of wedlock, she did little else besides write. The title is her term for the imagination, which leads us to see Plato’s ideals of what might be.

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – Collins won the first novel category of the Costa Awards for this story of a black maid on trial in 1826 London for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. Margaret Atwood hit the nail on the head in a tweet describing the book as “Wide Sargasso Sea meets Beloved meets Alias Grace” (she’s such a legend she can get away with being self-referential). Back in Jamaica, Frances was a house slave and learned to read and write. This enabled her to assist Langton in recording his observations of Negro anatomy. Amateur medical experimentation and opium addiction were subplots that captivated me more than Frannie’s affair with Marguerite Benham and even the question of her guilt. However, time and place are conveyed convincingly, and the voice is strong.

 

(The next one is a book my husband received for Christmas, as are the Heritage and Pyle, further down, which were from me. Yes, I read them as well. What of it?)

 

Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker – This has had us in tears of laughter. It lists examples of English being misused abroad, e.g. on signs, instructions and product marketing. China and Japan are the worst repeat offenders, but there are hilarious examples from around the world. Croker has divided the book into thematic chapters, so the weird translated phrases and downright gobbledygook are grouped around topics like food, hotels and medical advice. A lot of times you can see why mistakes came about, through the choice of almost-but-not-quite-right synonyms or literal interpretation of a saying, but sometimes the mind boggles. Two favorites: (in an Austrian hotel) “Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension” and (on a menu in Macao) “Utmost of chicken fried in bother.”

 

All the Water in the World by Karen Raney – Like The Fault in Our Stars (though not YA), this is about a teen with cancer. Sixteen-year-old Maddy is eager for everything life has to offer, so we see her having her first relationship – with Jack, her co-conspirator on an animation project to be used in an environmental protest – and contacting Antonio, the father she never met. Sections alternate narration between her and her mother, Eve. I loved the suburban D.C. setting and the e-mails between Maddy and Antonio. Maddy’s voice is sweet yet sharp, and, given that the main story is set in 2011, the environmentalism theme seems to anticipate last year’s flowering of youth participation. However, about halfway through there’s a ‘big reveal’ that fell flat for me because I’d guessed it from the beginning.


This was published on the 9th. My thanks to Two Roads for the proof copy for review.

 

Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle – I love these simple cartoons about aliens and the sense they manage to make of Earth and its rituals. The humor mostly rests in their clinical synonyms for everyday objects and activities (parenting, exercise, emotions, birthdays, office life, etc.). Pyle definitely had fun with a thesaurus while putting these together. It’s also about gentle mockery of the things we think of as normal: consider them from one remove, and they can be awfully strange. My favorites are still about the cat. You can also see his work on Instagram.

 

Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals by Stuart Heritage – I bought this for my husband purely for the title, which couldn’t be more apt for him. The stories, a mix of adapted fairy tales and new setups, are mostly up-to-the-minute takes on US and UK politics, along with some digs at contemporary hipster culture and social media obsession. Heritage quite cleverly imitates the manner of speaking of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. By its nature, though, the book will only work for those who know the context (so I can’t see it succeeding outside the UK) and will have a short shelf life as the situations it mocks will eventually fade into collective memory. So, amusing but not built to last. I particularly liked “The Night Before Brexmas” and its all-too-recognizable picture of intergenerational strife.

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – The Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize shortlist? You must be kidding me! The plot is enjoyable enough: a Nigerian nurse named Korede finds herself complicit in covering up her gorgeous little sister Ayoola’s crimes – her boyfriends just seem to end up dead somehow; what a shame! – but things get complicated when Ayoola starts dating the doctor Korede has a crush on and the comatose patient to whom Korede had been pouring out her troubles wakes up. My issue was mostly with the jejune writing, which falls somewhere between high school literary magazine and television soap (e.g. “My hands are cold, so I rub them on my jeans” & “I have found that the best way to take your mind off something is to binge-watch TV shows”).

 

On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho [trans. from the Japanese by Lucien Stryk] – These hardly work in translation. Almost every poem requires a contextual note on Japan’s geography, flora and fauna, or traditions; as these were collected at the end but there were no footnote symbols, I didn’t know to look for them, so by the time I read them it was too late. However, here are two that resonated, with messages about Zen Buddhism and depression, respectively: “Skylark on moor – / sweet song / of non-attachment.” (#83) and “Muddy sake, black rice – sick of the cherry / sick of the world.” (#221; reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s “tired of London, tired of life” maxim). My favorite, for personal relevance, was “Now cat’s done / mewing, bedroom’s / touched by moonlight.” (#24)

 

Any of these you have read or would read?

Onwards with the 2020 reading!

Best of 2019: Fiction and Poetry

I’ve managed to whittle my favorite releases of 2019 down to 20 in total: 12 nonfiction (that’s for tomorrow), 5 fiction and 3 poetry. It felt like a particular achievement to limit myself to five top novels, though plenty more turn up on my runners-up list, due Saturday.

Let the countdown begin!

 

Fiction

 

  1. Bloomland by John Englehardt: Subtle and finely crafted literary fiction about a mass shooting at a fictional Arkansas university. The second-person narration draws the reader into the action, inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, a student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter. Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, too.

 

  1. Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: Autofiction in fragments, like a pure stream of memory and experience. Navigating between two cultures and languages, being young and adrift, and sometimes seeing her mother in herself: there’s a lot to sympathize with in the Brazilian–English main character. What a hip, fresh approach to fiction. I’d hoped to see Fowler on the Women’s Prize longlist and winning the Young Writer of the Year Award.

 

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: A terrific linked short story collection about 12 black women in twentieth-century and contemporary Britain balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. It’s a warm, funny book, never strident in its aims yet unabashedly obvious about them. It’s timely and elegantly constructed – and, it goes without saying, a worthy Booker Prize winner.

 

  1. The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer: Every day the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille interviews 60 refugees and chooses 10 to recommend to the command center in New York City. Varian Fry and his staff arrange bribes, fake passports, and exit visas to get celebrated Jewish artists and writers out of the country via the Pyrenees or various sea routes. The story of an accidental hero torn between impossible choices is utterly compelling. This is richly detailed historical fiction at its best.

 

  1. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Crosby, Maine feels like a microcosm of modern society, with Olive as our Everywoman guide. She hasn’t lost her faculties or her spirit, but the approach of death lends added poignancy to her story. Strout is a master of psychological acuity and mixing hope with the darkness. Those who are wary of sequels need not fear: Olive, Again is even better than Olive Kitteridge. (I revisited the book for BookBrowse, whose subscribers likewise voted it the 2019 Best Fiction Award Winner.)

 

Poetry

 

  1. Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough: From the Costa Awards shortlist. I was struck by the hard-hitting, never-obvious verbs, and the repeating imagery. Flashes of nature burst into a footloose life in Brighton. The poems are by turns randy, neurotic, playful and nostalgic. In “Flock of Paper Birds,” one of my favorites, the poet tries to reconcile the faith he grew up in with his unabashed sexuality.

 

  1. A Kingdom of Love by Rachel Mann: The Anglican priest’s poetry is full of snippets of scripture and liturgy (both English and Latin), and the cadence is often psalm-like. This is beautiful, incantatory free verse that sparkles with alliteration and allusions that those of a religious background will be sure to recognize. It’s sensual as well as headily intellectual. Doubt, prayer and love fuel many of my favorite lines.

 

  1. Flèche by Mary Jean Chan: Exquisite poems of love and longing, with the speaker’s loyalties always split between head and heart, flesh and spirit. Over it all presides the figure of a mother – not just Chan’s mother, who had difficulty accepting that her daughter was a lesbian, but also the relationship to the mother tongue (Chinese) and the mother country (Hong Kong). Fencing terms are used for structure. I was impressed by how clearly Chan sees how others perceive her, and by how generously she imagines herself into her mother’s experience. I’ve read 3.5 of the 4 nominees now and this is my pick to win the Costa Award.

 

What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?

 

Tomorrow I’ll be naming my favorite nonfiction of 2019.

A Report on My Most Anticipated Reads & The Ones that Got Away

Between my lists in January and June, I highlighted 45 of the 2019 releases I was most looking forward to reading. Here’s how I did:

Read: 28 [Disappointments (rated or ): 12]

Currently reading: 1

Abandoned partway through: 5

Lost interest in reading: 1

Haven’t managed to find yet: 9

Languishing on my Kindle; I still have vague intentions to read: 1

To my dismay, it appears I’m not very good at predicting which books I’ll love; I would have gladly given 43% of the ones I read a miss, and couldn’t finish another 11%. Too often, the blurb is tempting or I loved the author’s previous book(s), yet the book doesn’t live up to my expectations. And I still have 376 books published in 2019 on my TBR, which is well over a year’s reading. For the list to keep growing at that annual rate is simply unsustainable.

Thus, I’m gradually working out a 2020 strategy that involves many fewer review copies. For strings-free access to new releases I’m keen to read, I’ll go via my local library. I can still choose to review new and pre-release fiction for BookBrowse, and nonfiction for Kirkus and the TLS. If I’m desperate to read an intriguing-sounding new book and can’t find it elsewhere, there’s always NetGalley or Edelweiss, too. I predict my FOMO will rage, but I’m trying to do myself a favor by waiting most of the year to find out which are truly the most worthwhile books rather than prematurely grabbing at everything that might be interesting.

 


I regret not having time to finish two 2019 novels I’m currently reading that are so promising they likely would have made at least my runners-up list had I finished them in time. I’m only a couple of chapters into The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (on the Costa Awards debut shortlist), a Gothic pastiche about a Jamaican maidservant on trial for killing her master and mistress (doubly intended) in Georgian London, but enjoying it very much. I’m halfway through The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, a quiet character study of co-pastors and their wives and how they came to faith (or not); it is lovely and simply cannot be rushed.

The additional 2019 releases I most wished I’d found time for before the end of this year are:

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

&

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: I’ve heard that this is an amazing memoir of a same-sex abusive relationship, written in an experimental style. It was personally recommended to me by Yara Rodrigues Fowler at the Young Writer of the Year Award ceremony, and also made Carolyn Oliver’s list of nonfiction recommendations.

Luckily, I have another chance at these four since they’re all coming out in the UK in January; I have one as a print proof (Cruz) and the others as NetGalley downloads. I also plan to skim Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez, a very important new release, before it’s due back at the library.

The biggest release of 2019 is another that will have to wait until 2020: I know I made a lot of noise about boycotting The Testaments, but I’ve gradually come round to the idea of reading it, and was offered a free hardback to read as a part of an online book club starting on the 13th, so I’m currently rereading Handmaid’s to be ready to start the sequel in the new year.

 


Here’s the books I’m packing for the roughly 48 hours we’ll spend at my in-laws’ over Christmas. (Excessive, I know, but I’m a dabbler, and like to keep my options open!) A mixture of current reads, including a fair bit of suspense and cozy holiday stuff, with two lengthy autobiographies, an enormous Victorian pastiche, and an atmospheric nature/travel book waiting in the wings. I find that the holidays can be a good time to start some big ol’ books I’ve meant to read for ages.

Left stack: to start and read gradually over the next couple of months; right stack: from the currently reading pile.

I’ll be back on the 26th to start the countdown of my favorite books of the year, starting with fiction.

 

Merry Christmas!

Recent Poetry Reads

I love interspersing poetry with my other reading, and this year it seems like I’m getting to more of it than ever. Although I try to have a poetry collection on the go at all times, I still consider myself a novice and enjoy discovering new-to-me poets. However, I know many readers who totally avoid poetry because they assume they won’t understand it or it would feel too much like hard work.

Sinking into poems is certainly a very different experience from opening up a novel or a nonfiction narrative. Often I read parts of a poem two or three times – to make sure I’ve taken it in properly, or just to savor the language. I try to hear the lines aloud in my head so I can appreciate the sonic techniques at work, whether rhyming or alliteration. Reading or listening to poetry engages a different part of the brain, and it may be best to experience it in something of a dreamlike state.

I hope you’ll find a book or two that appeals from the selection below.

 

Thousandfold by Nina Bogin (2019)

This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life: her father’s sheepskin coat, her grandmother’s pink bathrobe, and the slippers her late husband shuffled around in – a sign of how diminished he’d become due to dementia. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I’d recommend this to fans of Linda Pastan.

My rating:


Thousandfold will be published by Carcanet Press on January 31st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri (2019)

I was previously unfamiliar with Chaudhuri’s work, and unfortunately this insubstantial book about his beloved Indian places and foods hasn’t lured me into trying any more. The one poem I liked best was “Creek Row,” about a Calcutta lane used as a shortcut: “you are a thin, short-lived, / decaying corridor” and an “oesophageal aperture”. I also liked, as stand-alone lines go, “Refugees are periodic / like daffodils.” Nothing else stood out for me in terms of language, sound or theme. Poetry is so subjective; all I can say is that some poets will click with you and others don’t. In any case, the atmosphere is similar to what I found in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms.

My rating:


My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.

 

 

Windfall by Miriam Darlington (2008)

Before I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing (Otter Country and Owl Sense). These poems are rooted in the everyday: flipping pancakes, sitting down to coffee, tending a garden, smiling at a dog. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. I loved her descriptions of a heron (“a standing stone / perched in silt / a wrap of grey plumage”) and a blackbird (“the first bird / a glockenspiel in C / an improvisation on morning / a blue string of notes”), Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re missing Mary Oliver.

My rating:

 

A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (2018)

Elson, an astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, died of breast cancer; this is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes an autobiographical essay and extracts from her notebooks. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the book. I focused on the finished poems, which take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (indeed, “Evolution” was my favorite). In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain.

My rating:


My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

 

These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party.

 

Us by Zaffar Kunial (2018)

Many of these poems are about split loyalties and a composite identity – Kunial’s father was Kashmiri and his mother English – and what the languages we use say about us. He also writes about unexpectedly developing a love for literature, and devotes one poem to Jane Austen and another to Shakespeare. My favorites were “Self Portrait as Bottom,” about doing a DNA test (“O I am translated. / The speech of numbers. / Here’s me in them / and them in me. … What could be more prosaic? / I am split. 50% Europe. / 50% Asia.”), and the title poem, a plea for understanding and common ground.

 My rating:

 

Soho by Richard Scott (2018)

When I saw him live, Scott read two of the amazingly intimate poems from this upcoming collection. One, “cover-boys,” is about top-shelf gay porn and what became of the models; the other, “museum,” is, on the face of it, about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum, but also, more generally, about “the vulnerability of / queer bodies.” If you appreciate the erotic verse of Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan, you need to pick this one up immediately. Scott channels Verlaine in a central section of gritty love poems and Whitman in the final, multi-part “Oh My Soho!”

My rating:

 

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)

Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a book whose aims I can admire even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. It’s about being black and queer in an America where both those identifiers are dangerous, where guns and HIV are omnipresent threats. “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Smith asks. “when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.” The narrator and many of the other characters are bruised and bloody, with blood used literally but also metaphorically for kinship and sexual encounters. By turns tender and biting, exultant and uncomfortable, these poems are undeniably striking, and a necessary wake-up call for readers who may never have considered the author’s perspective.

My rating:

 

Up next: This Pulitzer-winning collection from the late Mary Oliver, whose work I’ve had mixed success with before (Dream Work is by far her best that I’ve read so far). We lost two great authors within a week! RIP Diana Athill, too, who was 101.

 

Any recent poetry reads you can recommend to me?

The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson

After all that Wellcome Book Prize reading, I’ve given myself a break from the medical reads, right? No way! I’m already eagerly looking out for hopefuls for next year’s prize – I’ve amassed quite a nice little pile – and this is a particularly strong candidate, based on the 20 years that Watson spent as a nurse in England’s health system before leaving to write full-time. (Her debut, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, won the Costa First Novel Award in 2011; she followed it up with Where Women Are Kings in 2013.) It taps into the widespread feeling that medicine is in desperate need of a good dose of compassion, and will ring true for anyone who spends time in hospitals, whether as a patient or a carer.

Watson presents her book as a roughly chronological tour through the stages of nursing – from pediatrics through to elderly care and the tending to dead bodies – but also through her own career, as she grows from a seventeen-year-old trainee who’s squeamish about blood to a broadly experienced nurse who can hardly be fazed by anything. The first chapter is set up like a tour of the hospital, describing everything she sees and hears as she makes her way up to her office, and the final chapter takes place on her very last day as a nurse, when, faced with a laboring mother in a taxi, she has to deliver the baby right there in the carpark.

In between we hear a series of vivid stories that veer between heartwarming and desperately sad. Watson sees children given a second shot at life. Aaron gets a heart–lung transplant to treat his cystic fibrosis and two-year-old Charlotte bounces back from sepsis – though with prosthetic limbs. But she also sees the ones who won’t get better: Tia, a little girl with a brain tumor; Mahesh, who has muscular dystrophy and relies on a breathing tube; and Jasmin, who is brought to the hospital after a house fire but doesn’t survive for long. She dies in the nurses’ arms as they’re washing the smoke smell out of her hair.

Although Watson specialized in children’s intensive care nursing, she trained in all branches of nursing, so we follow her into the delivery room, mental health ward, and operating theatre. As in Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, we learn about her links to hospitals over the years, starting with her memories of being nursed as a child. She met her former partner, a consultant, at the hospital; they had a child together and adopted another before splitting 12 years later. And as her father was dying of lung cancer, she developed a new appreciation for what nurses do as she observed the dedicated care he received from his hospice nurse. She characterizes nursing as a career that requires great energy, skill and emotional intelligence, “that demands a chunk of your soul on a daily basis,” yet is all too often undervalued.

(The superior American cover.)

For me the weakest sections of Watson’s book are the snippets of history about hospitals and the development of the theory and philosophy of nursing. These insertions feel a little awkward and break up the flow of personal disclosure. The same applies to the occasional parenthetical phrase that seems to talk down to the reader, such as “women now receive medical help (IVF) to have their babies” and “obstetricians (doctors) run the show.” Footnotes or endnotes connected to a short glossary might have been a less obtrusive way of adding such explanatory information.

I would particularly recommend this memoir to readers of Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind and Henry Marsh’s Admissions. But with its message of empathy for suffering and vulnerable humanity, it’s a book that anyone and everyone should read. I have it on good authority that there has recently been a copy on the desk of Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary of the UK, which seems like an awfully good start.

 

A few favorite passages:

“I wanted to live many lives, to experience different ways of living. I didn’t know then that I would find exactly what I searched for: that both nursing and writing are about stepping into other shoes all the time.”

“What I thought nursing involved when I started: chemistry, biology, physics, pharmacology and anatomy. And what I now know to be the truth of nursing: philosophy, psychology, art, ethics and politics.”

“You get used to all sorts of smells, as a nurse. [An amazingly graphic passage!] But for all that I’ve seen and touched and smelled, and as difficult as it is at the time, there is a patient at the centre of it, afraid and embarrassed. … The horror of our bodies – our humanity, our flesh and blood – is something nurses must bear, lest the patient think too deeply, remember the lack of dignity that makes us all vulnerable. It is our vulnerability that unites us. Promoting dignity in the face of illness is one of the best gifts a nurse can give.”

My rating:

 

The Language of Kindness was published in the UK on May 3rd by Chatto & Windus. My thanks to the publisher for the free review copy. It is released today, May 8th, by Doubleday Canada and Tim Duggan Books in the States.

In Praise of Literary Prizes

I like a spot of competition. Whether watching Olympic figure skating, playing board games like Scrabble and Boggle, entering a low-key Oscars pool, or rooting for my favorites in American Idol seasons and Miss America pageants, I’ve always loved trying to pick the best. This means that literary prizes are hugely exciting for me, and I follow the races closely.

I’m particularly devoted to the Man Booker Prize. I was delighted to see Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on the recent longlist (catch up on it here), a truly interesting set of books, diverse in terms of their genres and authors’ nationalities and nicely balanced between male and female writers (6:7). I’ve read four of the longlisted titles so far:

  • fishermenThe Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma (full review in May 2015 issue of Third Way): From a young Nigerian debut novelist comes a haunting tale of sibling rivalry and revenge. With sectarian riots afoot, the four oldest Agwu boys decide to make money by skipping school and fishing in the Omi-Ala River. Things get more complicated when Abulu, the local madman, issues a prophecy that seems bound to divide the brothers. The first quarter of the novel, especially, is drenched in foreshadowing (not always subtle, nor do the plot turns often rise above the predictable). Rich with prophecy and allusions, this owes much to biblical narratives and tragedies from Shakespeare to Chinua Achebe.
  • Lila, Marilynne Robinson – reviewed at For Books’ Sake
  • A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler – also reviewed at For Books’ Sake
  • A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara – reviewed at Shiny New Books

greenroadNext up: I’m reviewing The Green Road by Anne Enright for the November 2015 issue of Third Way. The Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on September 15th and the winner on October 13th.

 


Beyond the Booker, here are some of the other prizes I follow throughout the year, listed in vague chronological order:

  • shamefinnThe Not the Booker Prize run by the Guardian. On this year’s shortlist is Shame by Melanie Finn, a book I loved when I reviewed it for Third Way’s April 2015 issue. It’s a powerful story of regret and the search for redemption. Though it has elements of a straightforward psychological thriller, the daring structure and moral complexities are more akin to Graham Greene. In alternating chapters, Pilgrim Jones contrasts flashbacks to her car accident and the subsequent investigation back in Switzerland with her present-tense African odyssey. This is Conrad’s Africa, a continent characterized by darkness and suffering. The question of culpability remains murky, yet the possibility of salvation shines through. [Voting will take place in October.]
  • The Guardian First Book Award (open to both fiction and nonfiction): the shortlist will be announced this Friday, August 14th. One entry, Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume, has already been chosen by readers, and the other nine are selected from publishers’ submissions. [Winner announced in late November.]
  • The Costa Book Awards give separate prizes for fiction, debut fiction, biography, poetry, and children’s books, and also choose one overall winner. [Category shortlists in late November, category winners in early January and overall winner on January 26, 2016.]
  • The Folio Prize, only two years old, considers any work of fiction published in English; before the Booker expanded to include American entries last year, it was the most Catholic of the fiction prizes. Now it risks being considered redundant; especially since it lost its Folio Society sponsorship, it’s unclear whether it will continue. [Shortlist in February and winner announced in March.]
  • icebergThe Wellcome Book Prize is for medical-themed literature, fiction or nonfiction. Last year’s winner, The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, meant a lot to me for personal reasons but was also one of the most unusual and impressive memoirs I’ve ever read. I reviewed it for The Bookbag here. [Shortlist in March and winner announced in April.]
  • The Pulitzer Prize is America’s premier literary award. I confess I often feel a little out of touch with the winners and don’t necessarily make a conscious effort to seek out the nominated books. I’d like to be more familiar with Pulitzer winners. Next year marks the prize’s centennial, so there’s no better time! [Winners announced in April.]
  • The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is for any book that has been translated into English and published in the UK in the previous year. I’ve found some great offbeat reads by browsing through previous longlists. As of next year, the prize is merging with the Man Booker International award, which previously recognized the life work of a foreign author every other year. [Longlist in March, shortlist in April and winner announced in May.]
  • lostforwordsThe Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, the UK’s prize for comic literature, has run since 2000. Among the past winners are Paul Torday, Howard Jacobson, Terry Pratchett, Geoff Dyer, Gary Shteyngart, and (surprise!) Ian McEwan. I’ve read five of the winners, including Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn. [Shortlist in March and winner announced in May.]
  • The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize). Ali Smith won the 2015 award for How to Be Both. [Longlist in March; shortlist and winner announced in June.]

Do you follow literary prize races? Do you make a point of reading the winner and/or the shortlisted books? All comments welcome!