Tuesday, 22 December 2020

The December Shortlist

1. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata 

‘When I wasn’t using my magical powers, I really was a dead loss. I’d always been clumsy and ugly. From the perspective of the people in this Baby Factory town, my very presence must be a nuisance’

Natsuki’s extra-terrestrial backstory is an effective allegory for the alienation that she feels from her family but the trauma she experiences at school only embeds her own myth even deeper.

2. Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

‘Plot is the artificial reduction of life’s complexity and randomness. It is a way to give aesthetic form to reality’

The cult of Heinrich von Kleist looms large on the shores of Lake Wannsee as the narrator obsesses over tiny distractions that prevent him from focusing on work to the extent that his own reality becomes compromised. 

Themes of surveillance, privacy and Alt-right conspiracy theories are bound up in one man’s experience on a writing fellowship at the enigmatic Deuter Centre. A clever take on the mid-life crisis novel that couldn’t be more relevant in 2020.

3. We’ll call you by Jacob Sundberg

9 short stories, each based on a job interview, unite to expose the unconscious bias, the indifference and the downright snobbery that sits behind the personas we create at work. 

The anxiety of living in the right area of Stockholm or of understanding the ‘symmetry, balance and harmony’ in Nordic design are uniquely Swedish dilemmas but the novel equally reveals universal themes; irrecoverable dreams, unrealised talents and isolation. Equally revealing and enjoyable. Perfect weekend read

4. Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

If the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 showcased the modernity of post-war Japan to the world what can we understand of Tokyo 2021? Yu Miri has a view in the story of Kazu who sleeps rough in the city’s Ueno Park. 


Kazu’s life follows that of the Emperor’s family yet the comparisons couldn’t be further apart as Miri holds up a mirror to society. Challenging, critical and seeking to shine a light on issues under explored in literature this is powerful stuff.

5. Moonstone: The Boy who Never Was by Sjon

For a slim novel Sjon packs a mighty punch! As Iceland is gripped by the threat of Spanish Flu in 1918 one boy escapes to a fantasy world within Reykjavik’s two new cinemas. Mani’s plight is so personal yet ‘Moonstone’ is a screen itself onto which readers project themselves 

Themes of fear, isolation and the need to escape are startlingly relevant today and delivered with real intensity in precise but elegant prose. Mani is a character you can’t forget and his place as a real outsider feels distinctly contemporary.

All reviews independent and books paid for :)

Friday, 23 October 2020

The October Shortlist

This month's stack was literally toppling over after a number of visits to some of my favourite bookstores; Daunt Books of Marylebone and The Book House in Thame. With a slight lull in review copies (have I done something wrong??) I had the opportunity to crack the spines of some new fiction I'd long been looking forward too.

So here it is the latest shortlist with no spoilers...

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1892 by Cho Nam-Joo

‘Disappointment collected between them like dust on top of the refrigerator or medicine cabinet - spots clearly visible but neglected’
Flag of South Korea

Kim Jiyoung is a fascinating character though as unremarkable as they come. Her story is personal yer arguably the story of all women in South Korea at the end of the twentieth Century. At first, the gender inequality portrayed in the novel feels like Alice looking through the looking glass until you read the citations in the margin and realise, no, this is real. What a novel.
Flag of South Korea

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Two novels in one, both pushing the boundaries of gender identity in Japanese fiction and challenging the status quo - the bookshelves will never be the same again.

We know that Kawakami writes believable and unforgettable female characters from her landmark novel Ms Ice Sandwich but here we are taken further into what it means to be a woman in Japan.

Is this the new benchmark by which all new Japanese fiction will be judged? Maybe. It’s a landmark novel from a female writer unafraid to challenge social norms and literary representation.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

'Memory shifts. Memory lifts. Memory makes due with what its given. Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measure of the pain in one's life'

The campus novel of our time? College for Wallace is a another world that cannot ‘lay a claim on who you were before you arrived’ but there is no escaping the truth in Brandon Taylor’s brilliantly genuine novel.

‘The past is not a receding horizon. Rather it advances one moment at a time, marching steadily forward until it has claimed everything’ #amreading Brandon Taylor

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

The September shortlist

This month's stack was as varied as ever with award winners, books in translation from Gallic Books (thank you) and new reads from one of my favourite Japanese authors. Here's the shortlist, and what to read next, with no spoilers....

1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Rather than a single overarching narrative, it's the shared experiences of twelve black women that binds this novel so brilliantly together. Each character is expertly drawn from Evaristo's pen which never succumbs to cliche or stereotype.  Expertly conceived and completely unforgettable.

'Nobody talked loudly about feeling too uglystupidfatpoor or just plain out of place, out of sorts, out of her depth'

Enjoyed Bernadine Evaristo? Try Tayari Jones

2. People from my Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami

Kawakami's new novel is a collection of extremely short stories that, together, depict the inhabitants of a small neighbourhood. Each story is essentially a vignette with a character introduced in a specific situation often whilst interacting with others. Quite why or how this works is a mystery yet Kawakami manages to deliver an expansive novel from the fewest number of pages. 

If this is how micro-fiction works then I'm hooked but I suspect that, rather than the genre being in the spotlight, its Kawakami's eye for detail and ability to present only the words that really matter in the page that is the real winner.

The dog school principle, the woman who ran The Love, Grandpa Shadows, Uncle Red Shoes or The Princess - who's your favourite character?

More work by Hiromi Kawakami here

3. The Sleeping Car Murders (originally published as Compartiment Tuers) by Sebastian Jaspirot

This 1962 novel was not the first to introduce the idea of a dead body on a train, indeed Agatha Christie got there in the mid-1930s, but The Sleeping Car Murders is a stylish and sophisticated take on the trope that is as much literary fiction as it is crime writing. Almost as soon as the body of a 'beautiful young woman' is discovered by a shocked train conductor the classic 'whodunit' narrative is subverted by Jaspirot who begins killing off the other passengers as quickly as Police Inspector Grazziani can interview them. Cool mid-century noir brought write up to date in a new translation by Francis Price.

 'As soon as you accept the idea of killing someone, the number of people you kill becomes unimportant.'

Enjoyed Sebastien Japrisot? Try Leila Slimani

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

The August Shortlist

Discovering new reads to add to the stack is almost as exciting as actually breaking the spine on a new book. Besides regular visits to my local bookstore and library plus the review copies I am lucky enough to receive through my letterbox I am never without a healthy choice of new titles. This month’s stack however, came about thanks to few more tried and tested routes:

1. Advanced reviews in the Press. The FT Weekend and Monocle Reads are my top picks which this month led to Derek Owusu's Desmond Elliott Prize winning novel, That Reminds Me.

2. Books inspired by a previous read, i.e. when one book mentions or plays homage to another. Reviewing Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski led me to pick up James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room.

3. Following exceptional independent publishers. Inlands by Elin Willows is another title from the brilliant folk at Nordisk Books.

So what tops the August shortlist? Derek Owusu's stunning debut That Reminds Me from Stomzy's imprint #Merky. Here are some of my thoughts on the Owusu and the best of the rest this month with no spoilers…

Derek Owusu's debut is at once a simple coming of age tale and an epic drama about identity and belonging. In five briefest of chapters, framed by statements to Ghanaian deity Anansi, Owusu brings the narrator's truth to life in lyrical and rhythmic prose.

The novel blends the mundane, 'She separates the socks and tosses a bio capsule into the washing machine', with the profound, 'she trusted me to keep her alive, to deify, to render her an immortal' with the ease of a skilled storyteller. The story of K is unforgettable.

The pace is almost too fleeting in places but Owusu keeps moving forward with an urgency that pushes the limits of literary fiction. This is fresh writing that hints at even greater writing to come. 

From Owusu's South London we head much further up North for another debut novel. Elin Willow's debut, Inlands, is set in a small town within the Arctic circle. For a girl from Stockholm the town holds an unexpected pull. For anyone who has ever imagined starting over this book is for you.

'Just before it lets winter in is when it's darkest'.

Willow's clipped prose and brief chapters allow us into the mundanity of life through the eyes of an outsider. The feeling of 'otherness' is pronounced by the implicit routines through which social order is maintained.It's bitterly cold for the most part yet heart-warming.

Finally this month, a novel I've wanted to read for many years. 

James Baldwin broke the mould with his version of the American in Paris trope. Giovanni's Room is complex, character driven and rare as a portrait of a bisexual man and his infatuation with an Italian bartender.

In beautifully written prose, Baldwin evokes not only a specific time in the subculture of Parisian gay bars but a specific moment for masculinity in post war USA. Utterly deserving of a place on the bookshelf.

'I feel nothing now, nothing. I want to get out of this room, I want to get away from you, I want to end this terrible scene.'

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

The July Shortlist

This month’s stack was as varied and unpredictable as the weather – where did the British summer go? With fewer review copies landing on the doorstep I resorted to digging deep into my must-read pile with varying degrees of success. Elena Ferrante’s My Beautiful friend was a bit of slog, Ann Cleaves’ The Long Call presented a potentially interesting new protagonist in DI Matthew Venn and then there was Kerouac’s The Big Sur which reminded why I love beat writers and what a real summer looks like, California style.

‘And we come out on the highway and go right battin up to Monterey in the Big Sur dusk where down there on the faint gloamy frothing rocks you can hear the seals cry’

So what tops the July shortlist? Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness. Here are some of my thoughts with no spoilers…

If you were left wanting more after What Belongs to you then this hardback release is for you. Greenwell’s new collection of short stories expands the world he created first time round with more layers of vividly poetic texture.

The stories cleverly inhabit the same world, and broadly the same characters, but the short story format allows for so much more to be packed in. In expert prose Greenwell simultaneously digs deeper and more widely to weave a richer and more complex tapestry.

Obsessive inclusion of Bulgarian phrases aside, Cleanness delivers an impressive follow up that cements Garth Greenwell’s talent as a storyteller unafraid of the truth.

‘The sound of the crowd grew louder, that inchoate sound, formless and primal, inhuman, hardly animal now but primordial, chthonic, like a sound the earth would make’

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

The June Shortlist

The June Shortlist

‘My memory has its limits, of course, it may occur in the blanks without admitting to it, dramatize or revise. I guess there is no photographic memory for emotions. But this is my truth right now, for better or worse’ Tomasz Jedrowski, Swimming in the Dark 

This month's stack came about thanks to some much-welcomed review copies of new fiction from Fleet and from Gallic Books which made up for the agony of my local high street bookstore and library remaining closed. Thank you for bringing great literary fiction and books in translation through my letterbox! 
Being unable to browse the physical stacks of late I’ve resorted to Instagram with serendipitous results having discovered Nordisk Books, an independent publisher specialising in contemporary Scandinavian literature. Let’s just say that they’ve helped me get over no longer travelling to Norway for work. I now have a handsome stack of new reads for next month. 

So, on with the shortlist for June. Here’s the best of the month’s reads with no spoilers. 

Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski (2020) – bought online
 ‘This is my truth right now, for better or worse’, Tomasz Jedrowski’s debut is honest, raw, and brave. In protagonist, 22-year-old Ludwik, the LGBTQ literary canon has a new icon. The 2nd person narrative perfectly captures the tenderness of the relationship between Ludwik and Janusz who first meet at a summer working camp in 1980. Beneath their intense chemistry is an ideological tension that charts Poland’s tumultuous political transformation. Available in bookstores now.

The Sea Wife by Amity Gaige (2020)– Review copy received from the publisher.  
‘Tears or sweat – so many stories end in saltwater’. A family are out of their depth aboard their boat, 𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝐽𝑢𝑙𝑖𝑒𝑡, off the coast of Panama. Through alternate 1st person narratives Gaige presents a couple at odds trying to chart a safe course. A tense psychological thriller about marriage, ambition and family. You’ll need a life-vest as the voyage is far from plain sailing. The plot is well-paced and little by little we learn more about exactly what rests on the success of this family adventure. Stylish literary fiction for the summer. Available in bookstores now. 

A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea (2020) – Review copy from Publisher
‘Two hours later, we reach the peak…my vertigo is no longer vertical, it is horizontal. I am like the prisoner who is suddenly set free, panicked by the absence of corridors and walls’I was unexpectedly moved by this sublime story of a man on a mission in the frozen Alps. Standing on the ‘cliff edge of insanity’ he sees his past and his present through a lens of hunger, doubt and sheer grit. Concise yet epic. Tender but unbreakable. Available for pre-order here now.

Restless by Kenneth Moe (2019) – Purchased online as part of a bundle of new books in translation from Nordisk books
‘My room is as empty as the rest of my life’. Rejection, isolation and self-doubt fuel this letter to an ex-girlfriend. Pithy observations committed to paper reveal a raw truth ‘A book is an attempt to become a better person - or else it is nothing’

'What if literature is both symptom and cure? What if it shifts so imperceptibly between the two that when you believe it to be the one thing, it's actually the other? Kenneth Moe Restless

Thursday, 7 May 2020

The May shortlist

‘We write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself around every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver’ Virginia Woolf, 'Orlando'

This month's stack came about thanks to curtailed visits to the bookstore and the enforced closure of the library. Armed with duster and polish I ventured into the deepest recesses of the bookshelves to rediscover those books that have travelled with me from student digs through to first flats and bank-breaking mortgages. The covers may have lost their lustre and the pages have developed an odd musty scent but there's a satisfying feeling in rediscovering a great book.

If lock-down has any upside, the chance to delve deep into the stacks has to be up there. For me, this meant a classic re-read from Jack Kerouac, a second attempt (after 20 years) of finishing Virginia Woolf's Orlando and another go at Pride and Prejudice.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928) - first picked up in 1994
Everyone's life is made up of distinctly different chapters but Orlando’s journey through time (and gender) is extraordinary. Virginia Wool’s fictionalized memoir is a completely unrestrained fantasy with a central conceit, a time-travelling narrator, which allows Woolf to comment on everything from class and social mobility to gender politics. A staggering literary achievement that’s as fresh in the 2020s as it was in the 1920s.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957) - first read and loved in 1997
In the same decade that Walt Disney presented Disneyland's 'Frontierland' and 'Main Street USA' Jack Kerouac gave us route 6, hipsters, beat-up jalopies, apple pie and dusty railway sidings. This paradox is alive and well in the USA today. A Ulysses for the Beat Generation or a rambling road trip? The truth is that 'On the Road' is both. Like Joyce, Kerouac captured generational anxiety that still continues today.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813) - first read and hated in 1995
Fine country houses, assemblies and balls; Austen's rules of civility offer a welcome respite during the Corona lockdown. The plot is laboured in places but kept alive thanks to Mrs Bennett's relentless determinism and Lydia's immature gossipping which would be at home is any reality TV show!

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

The April shortlist..

The April shortlist....

‘This man was a vortex - all rationality was devoured within him’Dave Eggers, 'The Parade' 5/5

This month's stack includes a cracking dystopian fable from Dave Eggers, the hugely anticipated second novel from Women's Prize for Fiction winner Tayari Jones and the debut novel from Jeanene Cummins that saw Oprah Winfrey's book club under fire.

The shortlist this month came thanks to Oxfordshire Library service's new arrivals, One World publications generous offer of a review copies and the brilliantly curated new Waterstone's store at Victoria. 

The Parade by Dave Eggers
A dystopian fable set in a civil war ravished state where the Authorities commission a massive infrastructure investment to unify the country. Two men and a machine have the construction task. Read in one go for maximum impact! Erudite, provocative and sophisticated 5/5

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Silver Sparrow is most successful in exploring the theme of bigamy from the perspective of the women most closely involved. Tayari Jones implicitly understands the way histories are shared and uses this technique to shine a light on the complicity that exists in bigamous relationships. A convincingly messy family drama told with real class. 4/5 
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
An epic (if over ambitious) story for our time. Lydia and her son flee Acapulco for the promise of the USA. The tension is nail-biting as 'La Bestia' transports its human cargo to El Norte and the taste of American Dirt. Cummins has been equally praised and pilloried 4/5

Friday, 20 March 2020

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

'My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist', Tayari Jones begins as she means to go on by immediately dropping us in to the heart of the action with real urgency.

Silver Sparrow is the new and much anticipated novel from Tayari Jones who achieved massive success and critical acclaim with her novel American Marriage (2019). Coming off the back of such a landmark novel was never going to be easy but in Silver Sparrow we are back in the type of domestic drama that Tayari Jones articulates so effortlessly.

For her epigraph, Jones choses a poem by Natasha Tretheway A Daughter is a Colony to set us up for a journey about what it is to be somebody's daughter and, furthermore, to be somebody's secret daughter.  

Like American Marriage, the narrative in Silver Sparrow is told through multiple voices but interesting in this new work is the way two half-sisters, Dana and Chaurisse, tell their own stories. In alternating chapters they tell the historic backstory of how their parents got together as if through their very own experience. 

In concurrent stories of family secrets and deception the girls' own perspective on how they came to be in the world mythologises their father and highlights the heroism and self-curation that exists in the way we tell our own stories. Jones understands the way histories are shared and uses this technique to shine a light on the complicty that exists in bigamous relationships. 

The novel is most successful in exploring the theme of bigamy from the perspective of the women most closely involved, in this case the second wife and 'secret' daughter. The parts in Dana's mother's salon, The Pink Fox, are particuarly immersive into the authentic world Jones creates. 

Convincing messy family drama told with real class. 4 star

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones published by Oneworld Publications 368 pages

Thank you to One World for the advanced review copy and for supplying the below extract from an interview with Tayari Jones.

What was your inspiration for Silver Sparrow?

I have always been intrigued by the idea of half sisters. I have two sisters with whom I share a father, but we each have different mothers. They were born before my father met my mother, and they grew up in another state and led completely separate lives from me and from each other. When I was a little girl, with only brothers, I used to fantasize about having two big sisters far away who would love me, dress me up, listen to me talk, et cetera.

The link between my own personal obsession and this fictional story was inspired quite accidentally. While enjoying a night out with a bunch of friends, we were discussing one of the many cases you hear abouta man dies and the other grieving widow shows up with her stair-step kids. One of my girlfriends looked up from her margarita and said, You know, he had to have some help from the inside. You cannot get local bigamy off the ground unless one of the women is willing to work with you.It was all I could do to keep from running out of the bar to get home and start writ- ing. The first line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,jumped into my head, as clearly as though someone had spoken into my ear.