Sunday, 29 January 2012

Books of the Week - Jon McGregor and Lucy Wood

Short stories are one of the most undervalued literary formats, but many very fine writers have achieved their initial success in this format before going on to full length novels, while others continue to produce very high quality short stories throughout their literary career (Haruki Murakami, for instance). A good short story can achieve considerable impact in a few pages, along with providing an easily accessible introduction to an author’s work. When there is not much reading time available, or for readers with a short attention span, short stories also have a lot to offer.

This week Costa announced that they are adding a short story prize to their list for next year, although it will be for a single short story rather than a volume. This should help to increase interest in the area which is a good thing, so this week I want to highlight two strong volumes of short stories, recently released and attracting good reviews.

Jon McGregor is one of my favourite writers with a well-established track record in this genre – as he says on his website “Britain’s second best short story writer”. The stories inThis Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You are set in the Lincolnshire Fens and are often about middle aged men having difficulty coming to terms with life. They are an unsettling bunch, some of which will live long in the memory, from a writer who clearly loves the genre and has considerable mastery of it. Jon McGregor has an excellent website, well worth investigating carefully, where further details of this and his other books can be found.

"A man builds a tree house by a river, in anticipation of the coming flood. A sugar-beet crashes through a young woman's windscreen. A boy sets fire to a barn. A pair of itinerant labourers sit by a lake, talking about shovels and sex, while fighter-planes fly low overhead and prepare for war. These aren't the sort of things you imagine happening to someone like you. But sometimes they do. Set in the flat and threatened fenland landscape, where the sky is dominant and the sea lurks just beyond the horizon, these delicate, dangerous, and sometimes deeply funny stories tell of things buried and unearthed, of familiar places made strange, and of lives where much is hidden, much is at risk, and tender moments are hard-won."

Diving Belles is a first book of short stories by Lucy Wood set in Cornwall and steeped in Cornish Folklore. Several reviewers have likened her writing to some of the work of Angela Carter, whose short stories I greatly admire. I haven’t had a chance to read Diving Belles as yet, but based on the reviews I am looking forward to it.

" Along Cornwall's ancient coast, the flotsam and jetsam of the past becomes caught in the cross-currents of the present and, from time to time, a certain kind of magic can float to the surface...Straying husbands lured into the sea can be fetched back, for a fee. Magpies whisper to lonely drivers late at night. Trees can make wishes come true - provided you know how to wish properly first. Houses creak, fill with water and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A teenager's growing pains are sometimes even bigger than him. And, on a windy beach, a small boy and his grandmother keep despair at bay with an old white door. In these stories, Cornish folklore slips into everyday life. Hopes, regrets and memories are entangled with catfish, wrecker's lamps, standing stones and baying hounds, and relationships wax and wane in the glow of a moonlit sea. This luminous, startling and utterly spellbinding debut collection introduces in Lucy Wood a spectacular new voice in contemporary British fiction."

Monday, 23 January 2012

Book of the Week - Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is a first novel about baseball, and this is likely to limit its appeal within the UK. As someone who crosses the Atlantic quite regularly, I like basesball, although the finer points of its rules and appealare about as well understood here as the finer points and appeal of cricket are in the US. Do you need to like baseball to appreciate this book? I don’t think so, but it will probably help. As Harbach has said, “What fascinates me about baseball is that although it’s a team game, and a team becomes a kind of family, the players on the field are each very much alone. Your teammates depend on you and support you, but at the moments that count they can’t bail you out.” And I suspect that this is what the novel is really about, with the sport as a background.

The Art of Fielding was released in the US towards the end of last year to a very positive reception, and UK reviewers have also liked it. Is it an important book? Well, Vainty Fair have released a separate e-book about how it came to be written, so some people certainly thing so. The UK first edition has just been released, published by Fourth Estate. Harbach paid a brief visit to the UK to sign, so you may be able to pick a signed copy up if you are lucky.

"At Westish College, the baseball star Henry Skrimshander flourishes until one of his throws goes disastrously off course. In the aftermath of the error, the fates of five people are upended. Henry finds himself mired in self-doubt, his life's purpose called into question. Guert Affenlight, the college's president, has fallen helplessly in love. Mike Schwartz, the student-coach, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. Owen Glass, Henry's gay roommate, is caught in his own drama of unexpected love. And Pella Affenlight, the president's daughter, has returned to Westish after an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life. As the season counts down to its climax, these five confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. Written with an almost superhuman affection and insight into character and emotion, THE ART OF FIELDINGis a tender depiction of young people finding their paths and a riveting exploration of ambition, family, and love."

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Book of the Week - Samantha Harvey, All is Song

All is Song is the second novel by Samantha Harvey, born in Kent in 1975. Her first novel, The Wilderness did extremely well and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009, longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and won the 2009 AMI Literature Award and the Betty Trask Prize. She was recently named by The Culture Show as one of the 12 Best New British Novelists. All Is Song was published on 5th January 2012 by Jonathan Cape and has attracted very good reviews early in the year. Certainly worth picking up a signed copy, and an early contender for this year’s literary prizes.

"It is late summer in London. Leonard Deppling returns to the capital from Scotland, where he has spent the past year nursing his dying father. Missing from the funeral was his older brother William, who lives in the north of the city with his wife and three young sons. Leonard is alone, and rootless - separated from his partner, and on an extended sabbatical from work. He moves in with William, hoping to renew their friendship, and to unite their now diminished family. William is a former lecturer and activist - serious, defiantly unworldly and forever questioning - a man who believes that happiness and freedom come only from knowing oneself, and who spends his life examining the extent of his ignorance: running informal meetings with ex-students. Leonard realises he must drop his expectations about the norms of brotherhood and return to the 'island of understanding' the two have inhabited for so long. Yet for all his attempts at closeness, Leonard comes to share his late father's anxieties about the eccentricities of William's behaviour.But it seems William has already set his own fate in motion, when news comes of a young student who has followed one of his arguments to a shocking conclusion. Rather than submit, William embraces the danger in the only way he knows how - a decision which threatens to consume not only himself, but his entire family. Set against the backdrop of tabloid frenzies and an escalating national crisis, "All Is Song" is a novel about filial and moral duty, and about the choice of questioning above conforming. It is a work of remarkable perception, intensity and resonance from one of Britain's most promising young writers."

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Book of the Week - Moira Young, Blood Red Road

The category winners in the Costa Book Prize were announced earlier this week. I was pleased to see a win for one of the books I recommended last year in the novel category (Pure by Andrew Miller). However, the one which really caught my eye was Blood Red Road by Moira Young in the Children’s category. It is a young adult book which should also appeal to older readers and a couple of interesting characteristics – it is the first book in a trilogy and is currently being adapted for film by Ridley Scott’s production company. Blood Red Road is dystopian post-apocalyptic novel, written in an unusual dialect, which has received very strong reviews.

Moira Young was born in Canada and trained as an opera singer before settling in the UK. So far as I can tell, the true first was a paperback with a gatefold sleeve and the pictured cover, published 2nd June 2011 in the UK by Marion Lloyd books. A hardcover US edition was published five days later by Margaret K. McElderry Books. However, I may be mistaken on this and I would be interested if anyone can confirm or point out a different priority.

I was lucky enough to pick up a first edition in a local bookshop towards the end of last year, and will get this signed at some stage if I can. I have no idea of the print run – it may have been relatively large, but there do not seem to be many copies around at the moment and if you could find one I would suggest it is a worthwhile buy.

“Saba has spent her whole life in Silverlake, a dried-up wasteland ravaged by constant sandstorms. The Wrecker civilization has long been destroyed, leaving only landfills for Saba and her family to scavenge from. That's fine by her, as long as her beloved twin brother Lugh is around. But when a monster sandstorm arrives bearing four cloaked horsemen, Saba's world is shattered. Lugh is captured, and Saba embarks on a quest to get him back.

Suddenly thrown into the lawless, ugly reality of the world outside of desolate Silverlake, Saba is lost without Lugh to guide her. So perhaps the most surprising thing of all is what Saba learns about herself: she's a fierce fighter, an unbeatable survivor, and a cunning opponent. And she has the power to take down a corrupt society from the inside. Teamed up with a handsome daredevil named Jack and a gang of girl revolutionaries called the Free Hawks, Saba stages a showdown that will change the course of her own civilization."

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Looking forward to 2012 - books for the year ahead.

The Telegraph previews the literary year ahead this week, and after a busy December and Christmas I am returning to blogging action.  I'm looking forward to The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey but no doubt there will be much other good reading in the year ahead.  The Independent offers a different take on things to come, although Carey features in both.

Finally, a trailer for one of the best tipped first novels of the year, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.  Another one not to be missed....