In between books from the Young Writer of the Year shortlist, I have been reading a lot of non-fiction during the November lockdown. The Cubans by Anthony DePalma is a narrative non-fiction account of the everyday lives of Cuban citizens in recent decades. It follows a handful of families based in the Havana suburb of Guanabacoa including an artist called Arturo, an engineer and company vice-president called Cart, and Jorge, who lost several close relatives when the 13 de marzo tugboat sank off the coast as dozens of Cubans attempted to leave for the United States. DePalma explains he has “set out not to bash the Cuban regime but to give voice to individuals whose lives have been overshadowed by those towering historical figures”. It is certainly true that Fidel Castro is instantly recognisable outside Cuba, whereas the dire economic consequences of the Special Period in the early 1990s and the reality of the restrictions placed on Cuban citizens are not as widely known or understood. This is reflected in the range of English-language books about Cuba which almost always focus on the country’s leadership rather than modern Cuba more generally, and this excellent account is a step in the right direction towards redressing that balance. Continue reading
Category Archives: Books
I have been following the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award since its relaunch in 2015 and shadowed the prize in 2017. This year’s shortlist was announced on Sunday 1st November and consists of two poetry collections, two novels and one memoir. The titles are:
Surge by Jay Bernard
Inferno by Catherine Cho
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt
Nightingale by Marina Kemp
The poetry collections include Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt which draws on Hewitt’s time in Sweden, a translation of the Irish legend of Buile Suibhne, and his father’s terminal illness. Rooted in the natural world, these poems are very immersive, and deal with themes of identity and loss. Surge by Jay Bernard has already been shortlisted for several other major awards (Costa, Forward, Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot). It focuses on the New Cross house fire in south-east London in January 1981 which killed 13 black teenagers who were celebrating a birthday party. The cause has never been fully established but it is possible that the fire was started deliberately in a racist attack. In poems such as ‘Sentence’, Bernard explores parallels between the New Cross fire and the grief surrounding more recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Windrush scandal. I don’t read poetry very often, but I could see ‘Surge’ being a potential winner with its thoughtful exploration of a powerful central theme.
I borrowed Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett from the library because I really enjoyed reading The Bus on Thursday last year. Barrett’s debut novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016. Set in the early 20th century in the port town of Eden in New South Wales, ‘Rush Oh!’ is loosely based on the life of George Davidson, one of Australia’s most prominent master whalers at the time. During the 1908 season, his fictional teenage daughter, Mary, is tasked with supporting her father’s whaling crew and caring for her five siblings after their mother’s death, and the arrival of the mysterious former Methodist preacher, John Beck, proves to be a welcome distraction for her.
In ‘Rush Oh!’, Barrett strikes a good balance between the well-researched and brutal descriptions of whale hunting and the more gentle strands of Davidson family drama. Mary is a brilliantly imagined narrator, looking back on the events of her youth with amusingly chatty asides to the reader. In terms of genre, Barrett’s two novels to date couldn’t be more different, but they share a brilliant sense of humour and I look forward to reading more by Barrett in the future. Continue reading
I have read four books on this year’s Booker Prize longlist so far. All four are debut novels – there are eight in total on the 13-strong longlist – and two of them have made the shortlist.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid is about a young African-American woman, Emira, who is accused of abducting the white toddler she is looking after in an upmarket grocery store in Philadelphia. The toddler’s mother, Alix Chamberlain, is a wealthy white social media influencer who is at pains to show Emira how “woke” she is, lacking the self-awareness to realise that her attempts to be more progressive end up becoming the total opposite, and often result in her becoming more controlling and insecure. After the incident in the grocery store, Emira starts a relationship with Kelley Copeland, a white man who has a connection with Alix’s past. The novel is a slow-burn after the initial confrontation scene and the structure is a bit all over the place, but overall, ‘Such A Fun Age’ is subtly written with a great sense of irony and skewers “white saviour” hypocrisy very effectively. Continue reading
I didn’t read much in the way of medicine or health-related books during lockdown, but I have recently started thinking about books which will be eligible for the Wellcome Book Prize next year following its “pause” this year. The three books I have read so far are all powerful and memorable if far from cheerful in their chosen subject matter.
Coming Undone by Terri White is the author’s memoir of her addiction issues and subsequent mental breakdown. The book opens with an account of her admission to a psychiatric ward in a New York hospital. She then details the abuse she suffered during her childhood growing up in poverty in Derbyshire before embarking on a career as a magazine editor. She moved to New York in 2012 where her problems with substance abuse spiralled and her outwardly successful life eventually unravelled. It is difficult to review a book, particularly a memoir, on this subject without using the same old adjectives: raw, honest, brutal, painful. ‘Coming Undone’ is all of those things, but for all its rawness and honesty about White’s state of mind, there does seem to be a lot held back too, especially about her career and more recent relationships, although I expect that this is mostly due to the necessity of protecting those close to her as well as her own privacy and recovery. Continue reading
I have read two books recently which were top of my wish list for this year’s Booker Prize longlist but sadly didn’t make the cut. The omission of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell has surprised a lot of people although it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. O’Farrell’s eighth novel and her first foray into historical fiction is a reimagining of the short life of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet in Warwickshire in the late sixteenth century. The playwright himself only has a background part in this story which is told from the point of view of his wife Agnes (more commonly known as Anne Hathaway, O’Farrell uses the name given in her father’s will) who is the mother of their daughter Susanna followed by twins Hamnet and Judith. The novel focuses on events before and after Hamnet’s early death at the age of 11 in 1596, the true cause of which is unknown but is presented as bubonic plague here. Continue reading
‘One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time’ by Craig Brown is not a biography which claims to reveal vast amounts of new information or insight about the most famous rock band of all time. As with his 2017 biography of Princess Margaret, Ma’am Darling, Brown favours an anecdotal format, tackling the band’s history from John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s early childhoods in 1940s Liverpool to the band’s split in 1970 across 150 short chapters rather than a straightforward linear narrative.
I really enjoyed American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld which is a thinly disguised account of the life of Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush and former First Lady of the United States. I also enjoyed Sittenfeld’s short story ‘The Nominee’ which is included in the UK edition of You Think It, I’ll Say It and is told from the perspective of Hillary Rodham Clinton a few months before the 2016 US presidential election. The premise of her sixth novel ‘Rodham’ – “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?” – is one of the most intriguing alternative history scenarios I can think of, so it was the first book I picked up at a physical bookshop after they reopened following lockdown. Continue reading
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze
The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Such a Fun Age Kiley Reid
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Redhead by The Side of The Road by Anne Tyler
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang Continue reading
Booker Prize longlist predictions are rarely dominated by one book, but the question of whether or not The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel will make the cut will shape a lot of the debate this year. It would open up the potential for Mantel to be the first author to win the Booker Prize three times following the first two books in the trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall in 2009 and Bring Up the Bodies in 2013.
If the judges do select ‘The Mirror and the Light’, they will still need to nominate another 12 books to sit alongside it on the “Booker dozen” longlist. I haven’t read many eligible books this year due to library closures during lockdown which is my main source of new books. However, I was lucky enough read a review copy of Summerwater by Sarah Moss which is due to be published next month and I would very much like to see Moss receive a long overdue nomination for this brilliantly unnerving novel set in a Scottish holiday park. I also enjoyed Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes which is about the life of a Scottish pop star and political activist who takes her own life. Continue reading
I read a proof copy of Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes back in April, when it was originally due to be published, but its release date in the UK was pushed back to July due to the pandemic. It tells the story of Clio Campbell, a one-hit-wonder Scottish pop star and political activist who takes her own life just before she turns 51, some three decades after a brief period of fame as the singer of the anti-poll tax anthem ‘Rise Up’.
Clio’s suicide isn’t a spoiler as it is revealed right at the beginning of the book when her body is discovered by her friend Ruth. The story then jumps back and forth in time looking back at Clio’s life with each part retold by a selection of people who knew Clio from very different perspectives. The non-linear story is slightly confusing initially, but I really got into it by the second half as the glimpses of Clio’s life through the eyes of others gradually come together to reveal an affecting character portrait of someone who is very vulnerable in lots of ways behind the outspoken public facade. Continue reading
I found a copy of Treats by Lara Williams in a charity shop shortly after I read the author’s debut novel Supper Club which was published last summer. This very short collection – 21 stories in just over 100 pages – published in 2016 by the now-defunct Freight Books includes more of the same sharply observed prose about modern life, usually from the point of view of millennial age characters. Consequently, Williams is particularly good on the ways in which reality does not always meet expectations, whether it’s graduate job-hunting, relationships after university or creative writing courses. Her stories written in the second person are also very effective – a tricky perspective to get right. Overall, this is a fresh contemporary collection written by a striking new voice. Continue reading
There wasn’t much in the way of comfort reading in my previous blog post, but there is in this one in the form of Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession which has become a word-of-mouth success since it was published by the small independent press Bluemoose Books last year. It is a novel which defies straightforward genre categorisation and tells the story of two quiet friends in their thirties who live seemingly unremarkable lives driven by familiar routine. Leonard is a ghostwriter who has a growing bond with his colleague Shelley while Hungry Paul (his nickname is never explained) lives with his retired parents who are busy with preparations for the wedding of his sister Grace who is frustrated by Hungry Paul’s lack of ambition in life. Hession is particularly skilful at showing how introverts deal with both small-scale events such as the awkwardness of small talk on a first date as well as the bigger picture questions of what they really want from life. Other than the rhythms of everyday scenes, there is little in the way of plot which happily means there is no attempt to improve their characters via a saccharine journey towards them becoming more extroverted. ‘Leonard and Hungry Paul’ is an understated gem of a book. Continue reading
Lots of people might be seeking out comfort reads in these strange times, but it seems that I am not one of them. Anyone with anxieties about hospitals, lockdown or politics probably won’t want to look at the books I have been reading recently which include a novel set in a hospital, diaries written by a prisoner at HMP Wandsworth and a survey of modern UK Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson to Theresa May. On the plus side, all three books contain a fair amount of dark humour.
Bodies by Jed Mercurio is the 2002 novel which forms the basis of the BBC TV drama of the same name which aired from 2004-06 about whistleblowing in hospitals. Best known for creating the TV series Line of Duty and Bodyguard, Mercurio trained as a junior doctor in Birmingham and his knowledge and experience is evident in a grimly realistic account of frontline healthcare. It is clear that his debut novel was very much an early blueprint for the TV series which, in my view, is far more developed in terms of plot and characterisation, both of which are only lightly sketched in the novel. The TV series is set in an obstetrics and gynaecology department with junior doctor Rob Lake suspecting that consultant Roger Hurley is negligent towards his patients. The novel shares the same central theme of whistleblowing and sees an unnamed newly qualified house officer fresh out of medical school starting work in an accident and emergency department. He makes mistakes resulting in injury and death, as do his colleagues, and the central dilemma is neatly summarised towards the end: “Whether as doctors we make an honest mistake or we commit a huge clanging act of incompetence, the system treats us the same” (p. 329). The unnamed protagonist becomes detached and disillusioned as the boundaries between right and wrong become increasingly blurred. I wasn’t sure the dramatic tension on screen would be as effective in the book but I would say both are equally stressful with plenty of black humour and cynicism thrown in for good measure. ‘Bodies’ is engaging and pacy but definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The Wellcome Book Prize celebrating fiction and non-fiction with a medical theme was “paused” this year and Rebecca has organised an alternative blog tour and public vote of books that would have been eligible. Rebecca, Laura, Paul, Annabel and I have selected a shortlist and you can vote for your favourite at this Twitter poll (see both tweets in the thread for all six books) which is open for a few more hours today. The six books we have chosen are:
Exhalation by Ted Chiang – a collection of sci-fi short stories about artificial intelligence and what it means to be human
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – a non-fiction book exposing gender bias in the modern world
Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson – an essay collection about health, motherhood and grief
The Nocturnal Brain by Guy Leschziner – a non-fiction book about the neuroscience of sleep
The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman – a non-fiction-book about the history and science of skin
War Doctor by David Nott – a memoir by a trauma surgeon who has worked on the frontline of war zones and natural disasters
The Wellcome Book Prize celebrating fiction and non-fiction with a medical theme was “paused” this year – a decision taken before the current pandemic, although even if it had gone ahead, it would have inevitably faced disruption anyway. Fortunately, Rebecca has organised an alternative Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour of books that would have been eligible had the prize taken place this year. Rebecca, Laura, Paul, Annabel and I will be selecting a shortlist over the weekend based on what we’ve managed to read between us and announcing a winner on 11th May based on our discussions and a Twitter poll. Continue reading
I went to a Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction shortlist readings event in 2016 where Philippe Sands spoke about his book ‘East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity’ which won the prize that year, and I finally got round to reading it last month. Sands, an international human rights lawyer, was invited to give a lecture on genocide and crimes against humanity at the university in the Ukrainian city of Lviv in 2010 and took the opportunity to explore his family history on his mother’s side, particularly the life of his grandfather, Leon Buchholz, who was born near the city in the early 20th century. Continue reading
Until recently, the closure of all libraries and bookshops until further notice in the UK and many other countries across the world was a scenario which would only be considered in the context of a dystopian novel, but this is now the new reality we live in as social distancing measures come into force to prevent the spread of coronavirus. I currently have one physical library book checked out (‘The Body’ by Bill Bryson – from what I’ve read so far, I can tell you that pages 33-36 on viruses have acquired a new significance since the book was first published just six months ago) and I have no idea when I’ll be able to return it. Fortunately, the library service I use has a very good ebook selection so I’ll be using that a lot over the next few months. Continue reading
I have reduced my blog post frequency to monthly round-ups of what I have been reading instead of the weekly posts I was writing before. A consequence of taking a bit of a step back meant that February was a slightly slower month for me in terms of how much I read, but I recommend all of the books below:
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year. Set in Nigeria, it tells the story of Korede who keeps coming to the aid of her sister, Ayoola, whenever she bumps off one of her boyfriends, always claiming self-defence each time. Grimly deadpan and satirical, it’s easy to see why the setting, tone and plot of this provocative debut all stand out for their originality. However, the paciness means it lacks a bit of depth, so I’m not too surprised it didn’t progress further in the literary prizes it was nominated for. Continue reading