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
I am planning to reduce my blog post frequency to fortnightly or monthly posts, so I can use my time to write shorter reviews of more books, rather than focusing on the ones I can write longer reviews for each week which has been my main pattern for nearly 8 years (!) of blogging.
I am also planning to reread a few books this year, mostly ones I first read when I was a teenager. ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell is not quite the blueprint of the modern dystopian novel, but it is probably the one which has had the most cultural significance since it was first published in 1949 and the concepts of Big Brother, Room 101 and the Thought Police remain commonly used terms. Even if you haven’t read ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, you may well be aware of the basic plot in which low-ranking member of The Party, Winston Smith, secretly denounces the government and begins a forbidden relationship with Julia. Needless to say their rebellion is risky and complicated and it is remarkable just how prescient and perceptive Orwell was about the sinister consequences of certain technological developments in the 20th century and the ways in which totalitarian states seek to gain control through surveillance. As a reread, the thing that struck me most was how powerful and fitting the ending is and it’s easy to see why ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ has become such an enduring classic. Continue reading
My main read over Christmas was ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ by Philip Pullman, the second volume in the Book of Dust trilogy following La Belle Sauvage two years ago. ‘La Belle Sauvage’ was essentially a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy in which we saw Lyra as a baby. The events in ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ take place about seven years after the end of that trilogy with Lyra now a 20-year-old undergraduate in Oxford. It opens with the murder of a botanist who had recently returned from a research trip to central Asia studying the effects of rose oil. The web of intrigue which follows this murder has implications for the authoritarian rule of the Magisterium and leads to Lyra and Malcolm undertaking separate journeys across Europe through to Turkey and Syria. Continue reading
I have an ever-growing list of anticipated books due to be published in 2020. Here are the titles I am looking forward to reading the most. All publication dates where known are for the United Kingdom only.
In non-fiction, Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell is the Wellcome Book Prize-winning author’s second book after To Be a Machine. Due in April, it will explore how we get to grips with the future and the possible end of the world in an age of anxiety.
Also due in April, Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies by The Secret Barrister promises to be an equally eye-opening account as his/her bestselling debut book of how the legal system really works, this time focusing on themes of ignorance, corruption and fake news. Continue reading
2019 is the first year non-fiction has more or less overtaken fiction in my reading. This is partly due to shadowing the Wellcome Book Prize at the beginning of the year. My favourite titles from this year’s longlist include the excellent This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein and The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein – the latter was our shadow panel winner.
Unfortunately, the Wellcome Book Prize has been paused for 2020. Mother Ship by Francesca Segal and The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid would definitely have been on my longlist wishlist – two outstanding memoirs about the premature birth of twins and spinal injury respectively. This year’s Baillie Gifford Prize winner The Five by Hallie Rubenhold about the lives of Jack the Ripper’s victims is another stand-out title as is last year’s winner Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy. Continue reading
I mentioned ‘The Warlow Experiment’ by Alix Nathan in my Booker Prize longlist predictions post in July as a possible contender for the 2019 prize. Even though my prediction about the dominance of historical fiction on this year’s longlist ended up being way off the mark, I was intrigued by the premise of this particular novel which is based on a real experiment proposed in the late 18th century. Nathan came across a brief article in the 1797 edition of the Annual Register which suggests that someone had taken up the offer posted by a Mr Herbert Powyss a few years earlier to spend seven years living in total isolation in the cellar of his manor house in the Welsh Marches. Only one person applied: a labourer who was apparently attracted by the reward offered by Powyss of 50 pounds per year for life in order to provide for his large family. However, further information about the outcome of the experiment is unknown and Nathan’s imagining of the scenario is therefore entirely fictionalised. Continue reading
‘The Bus on Thursday’ by Shirley Barrett will appeal to those with a certain sense of humour, most likely a dark one. It opens with Eleanor Mellett discovering that she has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at the age of 31. After being dumped by her boyfriend, she gets a new job teaching at a tiny school in Talbingo (population: 241) in a particularly remote area of rural Australia. The previous teacher, Miss Barker, has gone missing in mysterious circumstances and the oddball residents are bewildered by her sudden disappearance. Continue reading
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
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
Shortlisted 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
Autumn 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
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 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
‘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
Louise 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
I 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
David 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
The 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
The 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
‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid charts the rise to fame of a fictional 1970s rock group based in California and the making of their seminal album ‘Aurora’. Billy Dunne formed The Six with his brother Graham and fellow band members, Eddie, Warren, Karen and Pete. Following the success of a collaboration with Daisy Jones, the solo artist and rising star officially joins the group. However, the dynamic between Billy and Daisy as two competing singer-songwriters soon becomes a fraught one when they embark on creating a hit record together. Continue reading
I watched the excellent film adaptation of ‘The Wife’ by Meg Wolitzer recently (currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK) and still had Glenn Close’s performance in mind when I read the book which was first published in 2003, so this week’s blog post is more of a joint review of both. Joan has been married to celebrated novelist Joe Castleman for forty years after meeting in the late 1950s. She was his student in a creative writing class at Smith College and they began an affair which ended his first marriage. In the present day, they are travelling to Scandinavia where Joe is due to receive a literary award – the Nobel Prize for Literature in the film, the fictional Helsinki Prize in the book, which is said to be slightly less important than the Nobel Prize for Literature but prestigious nonetheless. However, during the flight, Joan decides that enough is enough and plans to end their marriage after years of putting up with Joe’s philandering. Continue reading