Monday, 26 October 2015

#amreading A Little Life

Author: Hanya Yanagihara

Discovered: Shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize

Where read: Everywhere, this book didn't leave my side for 2 weeks

What's the story?
A Little Life is an epic coming-of-middle-age novel that follows a group of four friends after they graduate from college. Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm each formed a bond in their twenties that ties them together through the rest of their lives. Lawyer Jude and actor Willem, both orphaned, take centre stage as the story develops in the apartment they rent together in NYC. The novel was shortlisted for both the National Book Award for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize.

The Word's Shortlist view:
I was thoroughly drawn into this novel from the very beginning bingeing on pages on the train, in the street and waiting for the lift at work. I can only apologise for the inevitable "Good Mornings" that I've been ignoring for the passed couple of weeks. Thinking back, the only other novel to have this affect on me recently was David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks

So, why is this book so easy to fall in love with? Hanya Yanagihara creates an intimate world full of characters we actually believe, empathise with and more importantly trust. Over 750 beautifully written pages we are rewarded with a lifetime's worth of compelling and at times devastating narrative.

For me, the genius of the novel is the way Yanagihara connects us with the characters, particularly Jude, before taking us to places few writers can effectively conjure. As we learn more about Jude's childhood there a scenes of child abuse, rape and self-harm that are devastating initially and eventually moving in a way few novels can actually deliver. 

But the novel is also accomplished in the detail, the extreme loyalty that Jude's friends and adopted family demonstrate throughout is unwavering and beautifully written. Harold, Jude's former mentor and later adopted father, is tender, kind and protective even when pushed to inconceivable lengths. The love he shows for both Jude and Willem is one of the most eloquent parts of the book.

Never indulgent, this is a story that needs many pages to breath. After all, real life isn't about one off incidents or experiences but about the way these are played out daily for years after.

"..things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”       

Who should read this book?

To live with these characters is an unforgettable experience that you'll miss when its over. Prepare yourself now, life will never be the same again. 

What’s next on the bookshelf

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Tuesday, 20 October 2015


#amreading Wind/Pinball

Author: Haruki Murakami

Discovered: Murakami fans, like me, have been waiting for this release for years

Where read: Kaffeine, Great Titchfield Street, London

What's the story?

This, brilliantly designed, reversible hard-back release features Murakami's first 2 novellas (Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973) written in the early 1970s. Both novels feature an unknown narrator, his friend 'The Rat' and typical Murakami-esque settings; coffee shops, bars and cheap rent apartments.  

The Word's Shortlist view:
The fact that the first translation of a Murakami work into English can cause such a publishing stir is evidence of the near God like status of Mr Murakami. Such is the power of his canon that ANYTHING he writes, or once wrote, is treated as nectar by publishers and fiction fans alike. 

Could this simply be straight forward publishing furore? Possibly, but for us Murakami fans we just don't care. Both of these novels, and the newly composed prologue, can be seen as drafts of ideas that are later explored in classics such as A Wild Sheep Chase. You'll be tracing themes and characters from these stories right through to Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore.

For me Hear the Wind Sing is the stronger title and the most revealing in terms of Murakami's pre-emmience. The insight provided in the prologue exposes why his work has gone on to become the complete genre that it is. 

Murakami sums it all up perfectly; “There's no such thing as perfect writing, just like there's no such thing as perfect despair.”

Who should read this book?

Quite simply this is a book for Murakami fans (read super-fans) who will relish the genesis of the Murakami style. New readers may wonder what all the fuss is about.

What’s next on the bookshelf

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Last chance to read the novel before the movie release

Tender, sincere and beautifully understated.

Title: Brooklyn

Author: Colm Toibin

Tags: #ireland #norawebster #nickhornby

Discovered: Imagine. Colm Toibin: His Mother's Son (BBC)

Where read: (In part) Shoreditch Grind, Old Street 

The Word's Shortlist view:

"Some people are nice and if you talk to them properly they can be even nicer"

I've picked this book up any number of times over the last few years but never got around to actually reading it until watching Alan Yentob's brilliant film about Colm Toibin for Imagine. Plus with his new book Nora Webster receiving rave reviews this seemed like the right time to finally commit. 

Colm Toibin's Costa Novel Award winning book tells the story of Eilis Lacy, a young girl who escapes the hardship of 1950s Ireland in search of a new life in the USA. The dredge of colourless Enniscorthy in Southern Ireland is brilliantly portrayed as a cage trapped with family commitment and few job prospects. On the other hand, Brooklyn is a dream of bright lights, colour and hope. 

As the story develops, and Eilis settles in to a new life of work and study in Brooklyn, there is a foreboding sense that she won't fully shake off her former life in Ireland. Before long Eilis meets a young Italian plumber, Tony, and begins a romance played out over a beautiful Summer on Coney Island. Local priest Father Flood is protective and caring but didn't expect girls like Eilis to find their own independence in Brooklyn, having brought them over for one purpose only. 

Colm Toibin's depiction of this new girl coming of age on the other side of world is tender, sincere and beautifully understated. Elias makes choices that her mothers generation in Ireland could never have conceived.  

Out of the blue Eilis receives some tragic news from home and must return to Ireland to be with her family. This is the major plot point that goes on to define the novel and the duality which all emigres face. For most the journey across the Atlantic was one way leaving a bereaved family at home. For Eilis she must make the return journey to make a decision about her new life with Tony and her family commitments in Eniscorthy. 

Many Irish families will have an Eilis in their family which makes this book personal and intimate - the decision she must make is about more than her own family, this is a decision about a generation and about a time. This is a great read that explores the schizophrenic life of emigres forced to return home. 

With a film in the making we can expect renewed interest in this novel. Read the novel now and enjoy the movie later in the year.

Looking forward to seeing Tom Hiddleston's portrayal of Dr Robert Laing in High-rise? The film is adapted from the 1974 novel by JG Ballard which I reviewed back in 1974....

Watch the “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

With a new film in production, with Tom Hiddleston and director Ben Wheatley, and the Tate Britain exploring the enigma of ruined architecture, in current show Ruin Lust, this is the perfect time to pick up a copy of JG Ballard's 1975 sci-fi gem Highrise.

In the novel Ballard imagines a scenario in which society, in this case within the microcosm of a luxury Highrise development, completely breaks down. What begin as minor malfunctions such as faulty lifts and waste disposal systems soon escalate to life threatening events as the inhabitants turn feral within the luxury carpeted halls. Social order is literally thrown from the high rise balconies as a new dystopian order seeps through the concrete structure of the vertical city. 

The story centres on 3 key characters who neatly represent the social worlds that exist within the complex. On one of the lower proletariat floors is Laing, a lecturer who we meet early on in the novel roasting an Alsatian on a pyre of yellow pages. Higher up lives TV producer and social climber Wilder. On one of the upper floors is Royal, architect, urbanist and idealist.

The work is at its best when the boundaries blur between the social strata creating an anti-society no-mans land. Ballard allows us to experience this through the eyes of the three main protagonists effectively. This wouldn't have worked as well told through one single view point.

The challenge with the novel is to recognise that this is essentially a period piece. Much has changed since 1975 and the book is markedly void of digital interference.

A great read with a unforgettable first opening sentence that will hook you in whether browsing in the library/bookshop or trying a kindle sample. Your perfect hit of post-apocolyptic mayhem.

More about the film adaptation here

More about Tate Britain's show here

Tweet @wordsshortlist if you're planning to read

Saturday, 3 October 2015

#amreading Bonjour Tristesse

Author: Françoise Sagan

Discovered: Waterstone's, Leamington Spa Summer reads display

Where read: By the sea on La Corniche, Marseille

What's the story?

Françoise Sagan's debut novella was first published in 1954 to critical and commercial success at home in France. 18 year old Sagan was an overnight sensation and the book became a short-hand for glamorous and amoral Riviera life in Fifties France. More recently the book has been republished by Penguin Modern classics in the UK.

The Word's Shortlist view:
Bonjour Tristesse is a wonderfully simple novella that is vividly evocative of the 1950s. In Sagan's young hands we are instantly swept along in the story of Cecile, 17 years old and sent to spend the summer with her Father, Raymond, and his mistress Elsa. Sagan's prose is articulate yet naive and perfectly captures early adulthood and sexuality. “My love of pleasure seems to be the only consistent side of my character. Is it because I have not read enough?” 

Cecile hits the riviera running and sets out initially to attract men of her father's age. Although this strategy ultimately fails she does fall for a younger chap, Cyril. The story really develops with the arrival of Anne, another of Raymond's girlfriends. The combination of attention seeking Cecile, louche Raymond, superficial  Elsa and cultured Anne results in a delicious blend of love and revenge.

Bonjour Tristesse is a French literary classic and appears in Le Monde's top 100 books of all time. I also recently came across an article which suggested that this is one of Michael Stipe's favourite books of all time. Pick up a copy and find out why?

Who should read this book?

My recommendation? Pick up a copy and enjoy in the blazing hot Provençal sun under the very same skies depicted in the novel.

“La liberté de penser, et de mal penser et de penser peu, la liberté de choisir moi-même ma vie, de me choisir moi-même. Je ne peux dire ˝d´être moi-même˝, puisque je n´étais rien qu´une pâte modelable, mais celle de refuser les moules.” 
What’s next on the bookshelf

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann