A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

A History of Loneliness John Boyne

I really enjoyed reading John Boyne’s two most recent novels The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky last year and this week I have read his 2015 novel ‘A History of Loneliness’ which tackles the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Ireland. It tells the story of Odran Yates who enters Conliffe College seminary at the age of 17 in the 1970s after his mother informs him that he has a vocation. It is there that he first meets Tom Cardle, and the two remain friends despite Tom moving between several different parishes and Odran having his suspicions about why that keeps happening. It isn’t until many years later that Odran is forced to come to terms with what happened and recognise his own complicity.  Continue reading

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Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill

Their Brilliant Careers Ryan O’NeillI have been reading a lot of non-fiction over the last few weeks, and even the most recent novel I have read masquerades as a series of biographical sketches. ‘Their Brilliant Careers’ by Ryan O’Neill is introduced as a collection of sixteen portraits of Australian literary figures from the 20th century. It is a shame that the blurb and my review are forced by necessity to reveal that everything from the dedication to the index is invented, but O’Neill’s highly amusing pastiche more than makes up for this. Continue reading

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The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five Hallie RubenholdI enjoy following the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (previously known as the Samuel Johnson Prize) because it is the one book prize which consistently picks winners I actually agree with: Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy, How to Survive a Plague by David France and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald to name a few from recent years. I had just finished ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold when it was announced as this year’s winner on Tuesday and, once again, I think it is another book which really deserves this prestigious award. It is about the “untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper”, namely Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly who all died in 1888 in Whitechapel in east London. Continue reading

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Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton and Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

Character Breakdown Zawe AshtonI have read two memoirs written by actresses recently, namely Zawe Ashton and Mara Wilson. Despite their very different career paths, both clearly have mixed feelings about the industry and how it operates.

Zawe Ashton’s memoir ‘Character Breakdown’ has an unusual but brilliant structure switching between prose sections about different auditions and roles she has played, and scenes from her life in the form of a play script as she makes the transition to roles in Hollywood. Each chapter begins with the “character breakdown” of the audition – in other words, a short description of the role and the type of actor they are looking to cast. Some chapters are about the auditions or roles themselves, and others draw on events in her life at the time. Continue reading

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Novels That Shaped Our World

Novels That Shaped Our World

I was invited to celebrate the launch of the BBC’s ‘Novels That Shaped Our World’ campaign at New Broadcasting House on Tuesday night with other book bloggers and vloggers. It begins a year-long celebration of literature at the BBC and also marks the 300th anniversary of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe which is widely considered to be the first modern English novel.

Six writers and critics – Stig Abell, Syima Aslam, Juno Dawson, Kit de Waal, Mariella Frostrup and Alexander McCall Smith – have come up with a list of 100 novels that shaped our world. The list itself is not going to please everyone. It consists of English language titles only and it also includes several series such as the Earthsea trilogy and Discworld, so to call it a list of “100 novels” isn’t strictly true. However, I think those bemoaning the fact that it is not a collection of “greatest” novels featuring lots of worthy tomes are slightly missing the point, as it is very much a list of books which have had personal impact on the panellists. That’s not to say that books traditionally thought of as great literature are not here because they are (‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Middlemarch’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ are among those which made the cut). But it seems to have upset some people that they appear alongside more modern books considered to be guilty pleasures (‘The Twilight Saga’ and ‘Riders’ being two which are typically excluded from these kind of lists). Organised thematically, it’s a bit like an updated version of The Big Read series from the early 2000s but without a public vote, thereby preventing the overrepresentation of Jeffrey Archer and Jacqueline Wilson this time. Continue reading

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Babel by Gaston Dorren

Babel Gaston Dorren‘Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages’ by Gaston Dorren takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the most popular languages spoken across the world today. Out of approximately 6,000 different languages currently in use, over half of the world’s population speak at least one of the top 20 as a mother tongue, from Vietnamese (85 million speakers) to English (over 1.5 billion speakers), spanning all corners of the globe. Continue reading

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The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory Richard PowersShortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers brings together nine stories in which the characters grow to realise the extent of the ecological crisis, particularly where trees are concerned. It is difficult to elaborate further on the plot in which the structural concept is, according to the blurb, based around “concentric rings of interlocking fable” which sees the various strands gradually become interlinked. The diverse cast of characters includes a war veteran, a biologist, a childless married couple and a college student who has a near-death experience. The first part ‘Roots’ reads more like a collection of short stories in which trees feature in one way or another. However, links between the characters start to emerge in the second part ‘Trunk’ and the narrative finally starts to read more like a novel.  Continue reading

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Akin by Emma Donoghue and The Confession by Jessie Burton

Akin Emma DonoghueAutumn usually sees the publication of novels by popular authors in the run-up to Christmas and there are some excellent ones appearing on the shelves this year. ‘Akin’ by Emma Donoghue tells the story of Noah Selvaggio is a widower and retired chemistry professor born in France and based in New York. He is planning his first visit back to Nice since he was a child in time for his 80th birthday. However, he discovers he has an 11-year-old great-nephew called Michael whose father died from a drug overdose and whose mother is in prison. Noah is the only relative available to take care of Michael and he decides to take him along on his trip of a lifetime. Continue reading

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Gotta Get Theroux This by Louis Theroux

Gotta Get Theroux This Louis Theroux‘Gotta Get Theroux This: My Life and Strange Times in Television’ is Louis Theroux’s memoir reflecting on over twenty years of making television documentaries. His career began in 1994 with a one-off segment on Michael Moore’s ‘TV Nation’ on apocalyptic religious sects followed by the ‘Weird Weekends’ series which focused on odd aspects of Americana. More recently, he has moved towards documentaries about hard-hitting topics such as eating disorders and addiction. Continue reading

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Three Books I’ve Read Recently About Crime

I have been going through a mini crime phase in my reading across different genres recently, namely non-fiction, crime fiction and historical fiction. Here are three books I have enjoyed over the last few weeks:

Court Number One Thomas GrantCourt Number One by Thomas Grant is an anthology of 11 significant trials held at the Central Criminal Court in London, more commonly known as the Old Bailey, during the 20th century. The majority of these deal with murders, but also include espionage and treason, and as the subtitle of the book promises, Grant shows how the trials defined modern Britain, particularly where attitudes towards social change are concerned. The earlier chapters tend to involve cases which have largely been forgotten such as the Camden Town murder trial in 1907 shortly after the court opened, while those in the second half of the century mostly remain notorious such as those involving John Christie, Ruth Ellis and Jeremy Thorpe. While some chapters are a tad overlong due to the considerable amount of detail, each case is outlined in a gripping narrative, capturing the essence of courtroom drama. Grant, a practising barrister, shines a light on the tactics involved and how and why the trials had the outcomes that they did. ‘Court Number One’ is ideal for a lay reader who wants to understand more about the history of the English criminal justice system, and would be a good companion to The Secret Barrister. Continue reading

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All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

All Among the Barley Melissa Harrison‘All Among the Barley’ by Melissa Harrison tells the story of fourteen-year-old Edie Mather, living at Wych Farm in the East Anglian countryside in 1933 with her family. The impact of the Great War and the Depression is still being felt and the fickle nature of the weather and the outcome of the harvest are a constant worry. Bookish Edie is naïve and impressionable and the arrival of former Suffragette Constance FitzAllen brings new ideas to the community and repercussions for the Mather family. Continue reading

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Chiswick Book Festival: Sadie Jones and Sonia Purnell

The Snakes Sadie JonesIt’s been a while since I’ve been to a literary event, and three years since I last went to Chiswick Book Festival in 2016, so another visit was long overdue. Yesterday, I went to two events: Sadie Jones talking to Cathy Rentzenbrink about her latest novel ‘The Snakes’ and Sonia Purnell discussing her book ‘A Woman of No Importance’ with Julia Wheeler.

‘The Snakes’ tells the story of Beatrice, the thirty-something daughter of multimillionaire property developer, Griff Adamson. Having more or less cut herself off from her parents and their money, she works as a psychotherapist and lives in a small flat with her husband Dan, an estate agent from a working-class background who doesn’t know the full extent of Bea’s family’s wealth. They plan to use their savings of a few thousand pounds to travel across Europe for a couple of months and stop to visit Bea’s brother Alex in the dilapidated hotel he runs in the south of France. However, Bea’s parents drop in for a surprise visit and when tragedy strikes, Bea is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the family’s past. Continue reading

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Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Confessions of a Bookseller Shaun BythellIf you enjoyed The Diary of a Bookseller, then the second volume of Shaun Bythell’s account of running a large second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland will definitely appeal. It is very much more of the same in terms of content, format and sense of humour with bizarre customer queries and the trials and tribulations of book dealing providing the main focus of his diary entries from 2015. Continue reading

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Platform Seven by Louise Doughty

Platform Seven Louise DoughtyLouise Doughty is brilliant at writing about underlying resentment and the things we secretly notice about people but rarely articulate. I suspect she will remain best known for Apple Tree Yard but her latest novel ‘Platform Seven’ is a very effective domestic psychological thriller and likely to be another commercially successful one too.  Continue reading

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Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible Peter Pomerantsev“Fake news” had yet to become a common term when ‘Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia’ was published in the UK in 2015, but the concept is very much present in Peter Pomerantsev’s anecdotal depiction of post-Soviet Russia. Raised in London, he moved to Russia as an adult and his work as a reality television producer allowed him access to all sorts of people and places at the peak of the television industry boom years in the 2000s. However, Pomerantsev quickly discovered that the media remained heavily state-influenced and he was not always free to produce the content he had planned. It is no surprise that his account of his time there shows how the boundaries between truth and reality were constantly blurred.  Continue reading

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Spring by Ali Smith and Supper Club by Lara Williams

Spring Ali SmithI haven’t read any of this year’s Booker Prize longlist yet, but I have read two of the novels shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize which recognises an alternative selection of eligible books chosen by the public, judges and book champions. ‘Spring’ by Ali Smith wouldn’t look out of place on this year’s official Booker Prize longlist which mostly consists of novels by established authors, although I have read that her novels are no longer submitted to literary awards for consideration. It is the third book in Smith’s quartet of seasonally themed novels following Autumn (which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016) and Winter. Continue reading

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Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls

Sweet Sorrow David NichollsDavid Nicholls’ fifth novel ‘Sweet Sorrow’ is set during the summer of 1997. Charlie Lewis is waiting for his GCSE results, living with his depressed father and working at a petrol station. In a chance encounter on a bike ride, he becomes a member of the Full Fathom Five amateur theatre company and lands the role of Benvolio in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Charlie falls for Fran Fisher, the girl playing Juliet, but just like Shakespeare’s famous play, there is plenty of foreshadowing that their happiness will not last long. Continue reading

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The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid and Another Planet by Tracey Thorn

The World I Fell Out Of Melanie ReidI have read two non-fiction books recently which both draw on regular newspaper columns penned by their authors. In April 2010, at the age of 52, journalist Melanie Reid broke her neck and fractured her back after falling from a horse, spending nearly a year in a high-dependency spinal unit. She is now a tetraplegic, permanently paralysed from the top of her chest downwards and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She has documented her experience of adult-acquired disability in her ‘Spinal Column’ in the Times for several years now. Her memoir ‘The World I Fell Out Of’ draws on those articles but also provides a fuller account of how her life changed following the accident. Continue reading

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The Booker Prize 2019 Longlist

The Booker Prize 2019 LonglistThe Booker Prize 2019 longlist was announced on Wednesday. The 13 titles are:

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
The Wall by John Lanchester
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
Lanny by Max Porter
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

I posted a list of predictions last Sunday – part personal wish list and part those I thought might be successful based on trends from past longlists. In the end, I got four right: ‘Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli which was also on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ by Lucy Ellmann which looks set to be the indie publishing hit of the year, ‘The Wall’ by John Lanchester and ‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood. Overall, there are fewer surprises than usual in a longlist dominated by established names and previous prizewinners. My prediction about historical fiction hasn’t really transpired in the actual longlist which appears to be more focused on contemporary settings and issues, but I will still be looking out for the books I listed last week. Continue reading

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The Booker Prize 2019: Predictions, Possibilities and Preferences

The Booker Prize 2019The Booker Prize longlist (no longer sponsored by the Man Group) for 2019 is due to be announced on Wednesday 24th July which means it’s time for another game of what Julian Barnes once termed “posh bingo”. I’ve come up with a list of predictions in terms of what I think could be some strong possibilities alongside my own personal preferences, based on a few eligible books I have read in recent months as well as ones I haven’t. As ever, I have no idea which novels have actually been submitted for consideration.

Of the eligible books I have read, one of the most striking titles is Throw Me To The Wolves by Patrick McGuinness which is a literary crime novel loosely based on what happened to Christopher Jefferies when he was wrongly accused of murder and follows the 2011 shortlisting for McGuinness’s debut novel The Last Hundred Days. I would also like to see Little by Edward Carey on the longlist which is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud. Continue reading

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