An occasional round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)
As predictable as the ‘Must have Christmas gifts’ and the ‘get in shape for the beach’ feature articles, newspapers have started trotting out that annual stalwart: “must read books for your holiday.”
The Sunday Times “Suitcase Essential” feature listed 100 of what they claimed were the best books for the summer. The basis for their selection wasn’t explained but we had a variety of history, biography, memoirs, and science titles plus of course a fiction list. Out of the 50 fiction titles, they singled out five as ‘top choices’
- Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend which it described as “an addictive read”
- The Green Road by Anne Enright summarised as “a heart-wrenching novel about family secrets. The newspaper is tipping it for the Booker Prize this year.
- All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, described as “an exquisite nobel that feels wrenched from the author’s heart”
- Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster – considered a vivid description of small-town life. This is the only one I’ve read. I thought it was a superb study of how a recently widowed woman slowly claws her way back into some form of a life.
- The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – a “superb tale” according to the Sunday Times
- The Cartel by Don Winslow which is described as a superb thriller on a par with TV’s The Wire
Surprisingly given the amount of attention garnered by The Girl on the Train, this didn’t get a mention in the crime & thrillers category. It did however make the summer selection published recently by the Financial Times.
It’s interesting to see how different the two lists are in their selections. The FT selects two of the big stories from this year so far – Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, The Buried Giant— though both are missing from the Sunday Times list. But the most significant difference is the selection of works in translation or by authors from outside the British/American camp. The Sunday Times manages just two as far as I can tell; The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara and The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Dadud, an author who seems to be creating rather a stir with his retake on Albert Camus’ L’Etranger. The Financial Times however gives us a special list of fiction in translation. The title that most caught my attention was Wolf, Wolf, by Eben Venter who provides a scathing perspective on the new South Africa. it could however be next summer by the time I get around to reading this…..
If you want to read the Financial Times list in full, click here
And this doesn’t help you fill up your bookshelves, you could always take a look at the list of upcoming new publications put together by The Millions.
You’ve read everything on your ‘to read’ shelf (ok, I’m joking) And got through everything you were given as a Christmas gift. So now you’re in the mood to look ahead and start planning what to read over coming months. Naturally the authors and publishers know that no matter how many books lying unopened on your shelves avid readers always want more.
This year will see new issues from some of the foremost writers of our times (work from at least three Nobel Laureates) and a few second books from people whose debuts got them noticed.
The selection below is just a fraction of course of what will be published (they don’t include science fiction, YA or fantasy since none of those genres have appeal for me). If you think I’ve missed something new and notable, do let me know.
And of course tell me what you’re most looking forward to reading.
This month sees the posthumous publication of the final book written by Iain Banks. It’s a collection of poetry written in collaboration with his childhood friend and fellow science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. Publisher Little, Brown will issue this to mark what would have been Banks’ 61st birthday
Neil Gaiman brings out his third collection of short fiction Trigger Warning which includes some previously published pieces of short fiction and a special Doctor Who story written for the fiftieth anniversary of the series in 2013. One story in the collection, “Black Dog,” is a new work of fiction that revisits the world of American Gods,
From John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, comes A History of Loneliness, a story of an Irish priest who has endured recent, founded outcries against the church. He’s forced to examine his role in this scandal.
And if you love the work of Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Tyler, watch out for her 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, which she says will be her last. Like many of her previous books, it is a family saga set in Baltimore, as told by the aging Abby Whitshank and her husband Red, who will soon need to be cared for by her children and grandchildren. Tyler talks about this novel in a BBC interview
SJ Watson aims to repeat the soaring success of Before I Go to Sleep with a new novel. Second Life. It’s another psychological thriller featuring a woman leading a double life.
Arguably the literary event of the year happens on March 5 when Kazuo Ishiguro publishes his first nobel in 10 years. The Buried Giant is set in Britain during the Dark Ages, opening as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years. Details are scarce but according to Ishiguro, this is a novel about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”.
That’s enough to hook me, and anyway this is by Ishiguro so sure to be good. Hence why I’ve already put my name on the wait list at the library…
Two years ago, Huffington Post named Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, one of their Best Books of 2013. I added it to my wish list though have yet to get to it. Now she returns with an epic tale of four talented but frustrated college friends trying to find their way in New York and how their friendships shift as the years pass.
One book The Guardian has suggested we keep an eye out for is an unusual work in translation due out in March by Máirtín Ó Cadhain. They describe The Dirty Dust as an exuberant novel set in a graveyard and told entirely in the voices of the dead. Apparently it’s been labelled the most important prose work in modern Irish though by whom it’s not clear. Could be a good one though for people who like something different.
Two Nobel laureates hit the bookshops this month. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison is about race, family dysfunction and how past traumas reverberate to the present. Her publishers are keeping quiet so further details are hard to come by but just Morrison’s name will make it certain this book will be hard to miss the closer we get to the publication date.
it’s taken two years to translate into English but Mario Vargas Llosa‘s The Discreet Hero, finally gets some exposure outside his native country of Peru where it has been a best seller. The narrative follows two businessmen – one the victim of extortion, and one whose children want to kill him.
Early Warning by Jane Smiley is the second instalment in her Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants from 1920 to 2020. The first book,Some Luck covered the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the midst of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era.
So successful was Kate Atkinson with her 2013 novel Life after Life (I disliked it so much I couldn’t finish it) that she’s chosen to go back to the same family for her next book A God in Ruins. It’s about the fortunes of Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula Todd (the girl who kept dying in Life after Life). He’s a RAF pilot and aspiring poet.
Amitav Ghosh, whose Glass Palace I reviewed recently will publish the final novel in a trilogy this month. Flood of Fire starts in 1839 when China bans the lucrative opium trade from British plantations in India. An expeditionary force is despatched to try and reverse the decision but when they arrive in Hong Kong they get caught up in what became known as the first Opium War. Knowing Ghosh this will be as meticulously researched as his other historical novels.
This month sees the publication of the last novel written by Kent Haruf who died last year. In Our Souls at Night he returns to the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt with a story of a widower and a widow who come together and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. This could be one to cherish.
Judy Blume is an author who needs no introduction, having brought pleasure to millions of children and young adults during her 16 year career. With In the Unlikely Event she branches into a new field with her first novel for adults in which she tells the story of a community reeling in the wake of a series of freak plane accidents.
Love + Hate by Hanif Kureishi was meant to have come out in December to mark Kureishi’s birthday but for some reason publication was delayed. This is a collection of short fiction and essays. One story features a Pakistani woman who has begun a new life in Paris, there’s an essay about the writing of Kureishi’s acclaimed film Le Week-End, and an account of Kafka’s relationship with his father. The book ends with a long piece of reportage from which the collection takes its title, about the conman who stole Kureishi’s life savings, a man who provoked the author’s admiration but also revulsion
Another offering from the Faber stable is The Festival of Insignificance by the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the French-Czech novelist Milan Kundera. It’s been fifteen years since publication of his last novel, so his fans will likely be disappointed that his first book after so long is a very slim one indeed It’s a story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal).
Benjamin Markovits, one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists publishes You Don’t Have to Live Like This, a tale of two college friends who hit on a plan to revitalise poor neighbourhoods in Detroit. One friend is an ex Yale graduate now down on his luck and the other is a wealthy player in the dot com phenomena. It seems like a foolproof idea but they soon find themselves in the midst of everyone else’s battles.
If you loved Captain Corelli’s Mandolin then you’ll be keen to get The Dust that Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernières which is another epic romance set around the first world war.
August brings us a short novel by one of the biggest names in literary fiction. Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie is inspired by ancient traditions of storytelling. There’s a playful clue in the title but you have to do a bit of arithmetic to find it (hint: add up the numbers).
Attention on world conflicts of the twentieth century continues unabated and who better to help us reflect on the impact of World War 1 than Pat Barker. She took a break from the 1914-18 period for a few years but returned in 2007 with Life Class, the first part of a trilogy about a group of characters in the London Blitz. Book 2 in the sequel, Toby’s Room, came out in 2012 and this year sees the completion with publication of Noonday in which she moves her characters forward to the early years of the second world war. One of the characters in the book was named by a reader who won an auction staged to raise money for Freedom from Torture, a charity that provides therapies and support to torture survivors.
Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is the story of a young woman named Purity (or Pip) who is on a quest to uncover her father’s identity, with a “mythical undertone”. There have been hints that he’s adopted a different style for this novel, moving away from his usual realism to a more ‘fabulist’ style.
Novelists have been experimenting for the last few years with new media as a story telling device. The latest to tread the path of interactivity is Iain Pears whose novel Arcadia will be published both in traditional book format and as an interactive app. The idea apparently is to showcase the time-slipping narrative of a spy turned academic. According to his publisher, Faber, the novel’s characters’ lives will intersect in vivid ‘time-slip’ stories. As it mixes genres, periods and styles it can be read as a traditional linear story or episodically – reading and omitting sections as they choose.
I couldn’t resist slipping one non-fiction book into the list though I very rarely read them. It’s a surprise to find Paul Theroux coming out with a new travel book – his last trip covered in The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola had to be abandoned because it was too dangerous to cross through the Congo. He’s in his seventies so he can be forgiven for wanting to be closer to home for his next travel. Deep South sees Theroux set out for the southern states of the US that he has never before explored.
A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk (Faber). The ninth novel from the Nobel laureate conjures the changes in Turkish society over the last few decades from the point of view of an Istanbul street vendor.
October marks the start of a major international project in which Shakespeare’s plays will be retold by acclaimed novelists. Jeanette Winterson‘s re-imagining of The Winter’s Tale launches the series this month.
Sebastian Faulks used to be one of my favourite authors though I found his latest novels rather disappointing. Maybe he will have found his winning formula with Where My Heart Used to Beat. The title is taken from Tennyson’s In Memoriam and is an exploration of memory, desire and the madness of the 20th century.
These are both rather fallow months, presumably because publishers it’s too late for the Christmas market. All I’ve found of interest so far is a new title by Kenzaburō Ōe , the Nobel winner, Death by Water is about an internationally acclaimed author’s investigation into the mysterious death of his father.
Other notable issues
If you’re still hungry for more then keep an eye out for these second novels from authors whose debuts made a splash.
- Belinda McKeon whose first novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, comes out with her second book in April. Tender is described by publishers Picador as “a dazzling exploration of the complexities of human relationships.”
- AD Miller follows up his Man Booker shortlisted debut, Snowdrops (reviewed by Booker Talk here with The Faithful Couple, a story of male friendship. Publishers Little,Brown say it’s a ” story of a friendship built on a shared guilt and a secret betrayal… They clearly have ambitions for this novel since they consider it “a literary novel with mass appeal as well as the potential to win prizes”. We’ll see if that comes true when the book gets published later this spring.
I didn’t join in any challenges last year despite multiple temptations because I wanted to focus on my own projects. As the new year beckons however I’m feeling that I need a bit of a nudge to clear some of the backlog of books on my shelves. The 2015 TBR challenge run by Adam at Roof Beam Reader came just at the right time so I’ve signed up.
It’s a very doable challenge since I can combine it with my projects (we’re allowed to double count books we read). Of the 12 books I’ve listed, four are from my Classics Club list, four from my Booker Prize winners list and the remainder from my world literature reading list.
And for once I know what I’ll be reading first – Daisy Miller/Washington Square by Henry Miller.
Half way through the year we start seeing features recommending the books we should take on our summer holiday. For some reason newspaper arts editors seem to think we are interested in knowing what books actors and politicians will be reading. I’m always suspicious when I see the titles chosen by the latter —they sound so dull and worthy that they’ve probably been scrutinised by political advisers desperate to make their chap (or chapess) seem intelligent.
And then we get to the second point in the year, the one we are in right now. In the run up to Christmas you can be sure to find articles giving you suggestions of what to buy as gifts for grannie, little James and Agatha and impossible-to-buy-for brother.
This week saw the Daily Telegraph publish their ‘Books for Christmas’ annual feature which promised to bring a selection of ‘the year’s best books’ to the notice of readers. There are the usual autobiographies of minor actors and pop stars and the kind of compendium books that only ever make an appearance this time of the year. I’m going to cross every finger and toe I possess that no-one in my family follows through on some of their recommendations ; I absolutely do not want a biography of Beyoncé, nor can I imagine myself whooping with delight upon unwrapping 100 Things You Didn’t Know About Maths or 101 Two Letter Words which apparently sets the dictionary words of two letters in a rhyming quatrain.
The fiction selection promises far richer offerings. The columnist Tim Martin bypasses many 2014 published books by big name authors or that we’ve seen popping up in fiction prize lists. So Ian McEwan is out as is David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest, as Martin looked instead for titles that “took little for granted, questioned established structure and kept the reader perpetually off balance.'”. The resulting list is a blend of lesser known names with some that will suit people who like a challenge.
Here is his selection
- Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill: charts the breakdown of a marriage using fragmentary narrative style
- Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer: described as “a doomy, hilarious, thoughtful Cambridge comedy”
- Shark by Will Self: a prequel to last year’s novel Umbrella
- The Wake by Paul Kingsworth: this was long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It’s written in a pseudo-Saxon form of English so might be best read after a few glasses of ginger wine
- Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets Do They Live For Ever? by Dave Eggers: a novel about a lunatic who kidnaps his way up the American chain of command.
- Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: a tale of a Russian prankster, author and politician
- How to be Both by Ali Smith: shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize (and should have been the winner IMHO)
- Tristano by the Italian writer Nanni Balestrini: this has to be the oddest title on this list. Each copy is unique since the sentences forming the text are shuffled, giving unique variations running into 16 digits. Nevertheless Martin says it is oddly compelling.
- The Blazing World by Siri Hustevedt: a multi voice novel about a female sculptor who publishes her work under several male aliases
- Look Whose Back by Timur Vermes: I think he is a German author. This novel is a comedy in which Hitler is reincarnated in modern-day Germany where he becomes a You Tube sensation
- Outline by Rachel Cusk: a short debut novel about a writer teaching in Greece
- End of the Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: a story based on the concept of one-life-multiple-outcomes
- Orfeo by Richard Powers: mixes current themes like bio-terrorism with a passion for classical music
- In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman: Martin describes this as the year’s most interesting first novel, a ‘gobbling up of ideas around the financial crisis, war, terrorism, philosophy’
Do any of these pique your interest? From this list I think I’d be most inclined to go for the ones by Zia Haider Rahman and Jenny Offill. Which reminds me that I haven’t put my request list into my family yet. I’d better get going…..
When Amazon came out with a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime earlier this month, the members of LibraryThing took umbrage at the fact the oldest book on that list was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. So they created their own list of 100 books older than 200 years.
I confess that until last summer every time I saw a list like this I couldn’t resist doing a count of how many of the titles I’d read myself. As if was giving myself an end of term report card. What I was really hoping of course is that I would end up with the marks of an A student not a D. Mostly though I landed somewhere in the category of ‘should try harder’.
But part way through the summer months I began to go off lists. I’d glance at them but didn’t feel compelled to grab a pen instantly and start doing the count.
I’m not exactly sure what caused the turn around. Maybe it was just a case of one list too many. Summer and Christmas seem to be two points in the year where we get a plethora of lists — what to take to the beach, books to read at the poolside, books to read on your Amazonian trek (ok I made that one up); 12 Christmas stocking filler books; Books of the Year … and on and on it goes.
Some of these lists are clearly confectionary dreamed up by creative folks in marketing departments desperately thinking of some new initiative that will get the number crunching accountants off their backs.
Some seem bizarre — I don’t know when I’m going to die so how do the creators of the 100 Books to Read Before You Die list, know? They can’t possibly know either how quickly I can read so I might get through 100 books in a couple of years but you might romp through them in one. So what happens then, is there a follow up — a kind of ‘100 Books part 2.’
And others are ones that irritate me. They’re the ones that have the word ‘must’ in the title. For example:
50 Must Read Novels
100 Novels Everyone Must Read
25 American Novels Everyone Should Read in their Lifetime
Must Read Books Around the World
I object to the somewhat hectoring tone of these. Who are these people to tell me what I must or must not do? ‘Recommended’ or ‘Suggested’ I can live with but not ‘must’ I object i suppose to the idea contained in that word must — that if I don’t follow their prescription and read all of these books then I can’t be considered well read or educated. Thanks for making me feel inadequate! At a time when we want to encourage people to read anything, giving the impression that you have to read 50 or 100 books is surely the wrong message?
I also question the choice of books. I know each of us has our favourite novel or writer and can’t believe they are not included in the list. Reddit has a discussion thread on the Amazon list in which there are multiple comments bemoaning the exclusion of particular authors and the ephemeral nature of some of the choices (Gone Girl and Hunger Games are hugely popular certainly but do they really have enough staying power to be on the list along with the likes of The Long Goodbye, Great Expectations or The Sun Also Rises?)
Even more of a turn off for me is that these lists have a very narrow lens on the world of literature. Predominantly they come from the canon of Western literature — you might be lucky and find a few well trodden paths into French, Russian or Spanish literature via the tried and tested stables of Dumas, Tolstoy or Cervantes but beyond that there are slim pickings. Little from the East even though it’s Japan that’s often considered as providing us with the first ‘novel’ (The Tale of Genji) and nothing from India or Africa. As I’ve found through bloggers writing the View from Here series on this blog, these countries do have a literary vein that would be worth opening up to the world. Until someone is creative enough to develop a list of recommended reading from Africa, or India, from China or Japan and other parts of the world, I’m going to ignore lists.
What’s your view on this? Do you have a fascination with lists? What value do you think they have that I may be missing?