Thursday, 31 May 2012

Orange Prize 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller was announced as the winner of the 2012 Orange Prize last night. Miller is a Latin teacher in the US and The Song of Achilles is the only first novel on the shortlist. I should confess at this point that I have not read it as yet, although I have a copy which I was looking at last night. This is the signed, numbered limited UK edition of 500 copies from Bloomsbury, which is a hardcover in pictorial boards without a dustwrapper. The inner side of the front board has a mirror like gold finish, which is striking but would mark very easily. This edition is currently available from Amazon UK for £25.50 (including UK delivery). I can imagine that many collectors would be too scared to read it – luckily plenty of cheaper editions are now available!  For the moment the UK first edition remains at its original price.

 The other shortlisted books are listed below.

Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues Serpent’s Tail Canadian  
Anne Enright The Forgotten Waltz Jonathan Cape Irish
Georgina Harding Painter of Silence Bloomsbury British

Cynthia Ozick Foreign Bodies Atlantic Books American
Ann Patchett State of Wonder Bloomsbury American

Monday, 28 May 2012

Prize Updates

Several literary prizes have announced their shortlists in the last couple of weeks, and books which I have featured previously have been doing well.

The Desmond Elliot Prize has only been running since 2007, but has quickly established its importance as an award for the best first novel written in English and published in the UK. The shortlist of three novels includes The Land of Decoration (Grace McCleen) and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce), as well as The Last Hundred Days (Patrick McGuiness) which featured on the longlist for last year’s Booker Prize.

The James Tait Black Prizes are, in contrast, the UK’s oldest literary awards, and are made by the University of Edinburgh. This year’s fiction prize includes Snowdrops (AD Miller), There But For The (Ali Smith) and Solace (Belinda McKeon), as well as You and I (Padgett Powell).

Meanwhile, Orange announced that this will be the last year of their sponsorship of the Orange Prize (for female writers in English). I have been collecting and reading the shortlisted books since the inauguration of the prize seventeen years ago. Good luck to Anne Enright with The Forgotten Waltz – I will update on the winner later in the week.

Book of the Week - China Mieville, Railsea

China Mieville is one of my favourite writers in any genre. He prefers to call his writing “weird fiction”, though most people would classify it as science fiction or fantasy. He is also a very interesting and highly political writer, as I highlighted in an earlier article. His most recent novel, Railsea, has just been published and is my second book of the week this year to take significant inspiration from Moby Dick (after The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach). Railsea is described as a crossover novel, targeting the young adult and adult markets. Reviews have been outstanding and given the quality of Mieville’s writing and the success of his earlier books I am certain that this will do very well.

The UK hardback from Macmillan already appears to be into more than one printing. Interestingly, there is a signed limited slipcased edition of 500 copies which seems to be available only from The Book Depository and in addition there will be a limited edition from The Subterranean Press. You pay your money and you make your choice.....

“On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt. The giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one's death and the other's glory are extraordinary. But no matter how spectacular it is, travelling the endless rails of the railsea, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life. Even if his philosophy-seeking captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she's been chasing ever since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But the impossible salvage Sham finds in the derelict leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides: by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea”.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Book of the Week - Adam Thorpe, Flight

Adam Thorpe is an unusually versatile writer, with success as a poet, dramatist and novelist in a number of different genres. There is something refreshing about the breadth of his scope, but it has probably worked against him at times when it comes to the main literary prizes. Flight is his tenth novel and is described as a literary thriller, a class of book which has achieved a modicum of recognition by the Booker Prize judges over the last couple of years (for instance, Child 44 and Snowdrops). Reviews for Thorpe’s novels have generally been good, and this one is no exception. He is due success in one of the major literary prizes – for a thriller to win would be a significant surprise, but this is sure to be a good read.

Thorpe was born in Paris in 1956 and grew up in India, Cameroon and England. After graduating from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1979, he started a theatre company and toured villages and schools before moving to London where he taught Drama and English Literature. He currently lives in France with his wife and three children.

“Bob Winrush used to fly passengers, then worked for years as a 'freight dog', flying consignments of goods and sometimes people to all the corners of the world - including bush-strips in war zones: 'real flying,' as he called it. Until, one day, he walked away from a deal that didn't smell right - something a freight dog should never do. Now working as a private pilot for an Emirate prince in Dubai, he finds that moment of refusal catching up with him. Caught between those who want to find out more and those who want to cover their traces, he becomes a marked man, and flees to a remote Scottish island. Pursued by both armed assassins and a ruinous, bitter divorce, he struggles to re-fashion himself in this barren, beautiful place, taking on another identity. But back in the world of smuggled AK-47s and heroin, the stakes are rising. Despite the presence of Judith, the alluring environmentalist, memories of his uglier flights return to haunt him. Even in the furthest Hebrides his past is with him, and the predators are closing in. Adam Thorpe's tenth novel is an extraordinary amalgam: a vertiginous, page-turning thriller and a masterful work of literary fiction. Fast, funny and very frightening, Flight shows a new facet of this most brilliant of writers.”

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Oak Tree Fine Press - Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

Oak Tree Fine Press have just issued the tenth book in their First Chapter Series – Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Each book in the series consists of the first chapter of a novel which has won the Booker Prize, presented in a signed and numbered edition. Each book is illustrated, in some cases by a leading contemporary artist (Gilbert &George and Antony Gormley, for example), and some of these illustrations are available separately for framing. Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was subsequently voted the “Booker of Bookers” in both 1993 and 2008, in events celebrating the 25th and 40th anniversary of the prize. It is undoubtedly Rushdie’s iconic work, and this edition includes a new introduction from Ion Trewin, acclaimed author and Administrator of the Booker Prize. The book is bound in a blue cloth, selected to match the dominant cover of the first English edition (Jonathan Cape), and is numbered and signed by Rushdie and comes in a matching cassette. The frontpiece is by Thomas Howard, described as an up and coming art student. The books in the first chapter series are produced to a very high standard, and some of the illustrations are superb – a look at the website is recommended. One of the best things about this series is that the profits go to African Charities, and to date over £50 000 has been raised.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Review - HHhH, by Laurent Binet

HHhH is Laurent Binet’s first novel and won two major literary prizes in France. It tells the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during the second world war, the events leading up to it and some of its aftermath. It is, therefore, a work of historical fiction, telling a story which I knew in outline, but in a way which made it seem fresh. Heydrich was the number two to Himmler in the Nazi hierarchy, a ruthless persecutor of the Jews and an effective administrator with a high level of ideological commitment. He was known as “The Hangman of Prague” and “The Blond Beast” and was the highest ranking Nazi to be killed until near the end of the Second World War. The title of the book comes from a German phrase of the time - Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich) – highlighting Heydrich’s importance to the Germans.

 At the core of HHhH are some dramatic, almost unbelievable events – heroic resistance on the part of the Czech’s and extraordinary courage in the face of considerable danger. Binet narrates these events well, and the climax of the book in particular is moving and gripping. However, this is a quintessentially French novel, and just as slightly surreal inventive twists are a feature of some modern French Cinema (see Amelie or Gainsbourg) so Binet introduces a strong experimental element into HHhH.

In this case, intertwined with the narrative, are the reflections of the author about writing the book and more generally about the challenges of writing historical fiction. The author becomes a self-observing additional character in the events, commentating on his own behaviour and motivation while also narrating the events of the novel. While this may sound a little irritating to some potential readers, I thought that it worked very well and it certainly added to my enjoyment of the book. So, when near the end Binet writes (of himself) “ I am coming to the end and I feel completely empty,” it summed up how I felt as a reader as well, though not just empty, but rather emotionally drained by the intensity of what I had been reading.

At times HHhH reads like a history text, but as a reader I was left feeling unsure about how much of the book is fact and how much authorial speculation. In some places Binet says that he is speculating, whereas in others he will state something as a fact, only to correct himself a few pages later, saying that more information has emerged. His intention, in part, is presumably to remind us that much of what we believe to be history is in fact fictional speculation, an attempt to fill the holes which exist between a few available facts in a way which allows us to tell a persuasive story in tune with our contemporary mood and beliefs. These thoughts and others are likely to be provoked by HHhH in many readers, but perhaps it is enough to say that it is a well written (and translated) French novel telling an exciting story in a stimulating way.

Finally, a word about HHhH as an object. My edition (the first English edition) is a beautiful book, with the letters HHhH blocked in a red Cyrillic-style script on the edges of the page block. Interestingly, there are no page numbers, just short chapters with their own numbered heading. Long live real books......

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Book of the Week - Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was the best selling Booker Prize winner of recent years. You could have picked up a signed first edition when I recommended it in 2009 for cover price, and the cheapest online copy is currently around £300. Bring up the Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall, the second novel to feature Thomas Cromwell with a third in the pipeline. Reviews seem if anything to be better than those for Wolf Hall, although I should confess at this point that I was one of those who was underwhelmed by the latter and who failed to see what all of the fuss was about. Bring up the Bodies comes as a standard hardcover in dust wrapper (first print run unknown to me but likely to be relatively large) and a limited signed hardcover in a slipcase with a print run on 2000 copies. I’m sure that neither will ever reach the value of Wolf Hall, but still a worthwhile book to pick up.

 'My boy Thomas, give him a dirty look and he'll gouge your eye out. Trip him, and he'll cut off your leg,' says Walter Cromwell in the year 1500. 'But if you don't cut across him he's a very gentleman. And he'll stand anyone a drink.' By 1535 Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, is far from his humble origins. Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes have risen with those of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church. But Henry's actions have forced England into dangerous isolation, and Anne has failed to do what she promised: bear a son to secure the Tudor line. When Henry visits Wolf Hall, Cromwell watches as Henry falls in love with the silent, plain Jane Seymour. The minister sees what is at stake: not just the king's pleasure, but the safety of the nation. As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a 'truth' that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne's final days. In Bring up the Bodies, sequel to the Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel explores one of the most mystifying and frightening episodes in English history: the destruction of Anne Boleyn. This new novel is a speaking picture, an audacious vision of Tudor England that sheds its light on the modern world. It is the work of one of our great writers at the height of her powers.”

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Review - Pure, by Timothy Mo

PurePure by Timothy Mo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is over 10 years since Timothy Mo’s last novel, but Pure has been worth the wait. Mo has written an effervescent novel overflowing with verbal ticks and tricks, addressing some serious topics in a most unusual way. The book is set in southern Thailand, where a small but vigourous Islamic insurgency, vaguely linked with global backers, dreams of a South Asian caliphate and embarks on a campaign of terrorism. In an effort to infiltrate one of the Islamic cells, the police recruit a most unlikely double agent, Snooky - a Thai ladyboy of Islamic origin working as a film critic in the city. Against all expectations, Snooky proves to be a very effective terrorist and a somewhat less effective informant for the authorities.

Pure is told mainly in the first person, with several key voices alternating their stories. Snooky is the most important and most entertaining, displaying all of the characteristic traits of the unreliable narrator. Beginning with vivid descriptions of the life of a ladyboy, moving through police brutality to life as part of an Islamic cell in the jungle, Snooky observes all that is happening and increasingly participates, maintaining a constant commentary on events and the people she meets. She has a tendency to refer to herself in the third person, and peppers her narration with cultural, and in particular cinematic, references. Snooky is highly intelligent, a trait which she continually underplays and uses to her advantage.

The second main narrator is Victor, a Church of England clergyman in a high academic position in an Oxford college, who for many years has acted as a recruiter for the security services. Because of his connections with the Far East, Victor becomes involved in an electronic correspondence with Snooky the double agent, and eventually visits Thailand to make contact with her.

Much of the novel is concerned with the clash between fundamentalist Islam and Western (and Eastern) democratic values. All battle for control of Snooky’s heart and mind, while she deteriorates physically and metamorphoses mentally. Pure contains serious philosophical discussion, historical review, theological musings, fantastic pen portraits and sketches of minor characters, surreal interludes, and above all a torrent of words, puns and verbal pyrotechnics. It is at times a challenging read, and perhaps fades a little in the latter third, but it is certainly one of the most interesting and innovative books I have read this year.

There is a danger that Pure may pass most readers by, which would be shame. Mo fell out with mainstream publishers in the 1990’s and his last couple of novels have been published independently. Pure is published by Turnaround Books, but lacks the benefits which come from a major publicity machine and promotion behind it. It is a book which deserves to do very well in the literary prizes. If this does happen, it will hopefully attract more attention. However, in the meantime it is well worth seeking out.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Book of the Week - Patrick Flanery, Absolution

Absolution is a first novel by Patrick Flanery which has attracted considerable notice and good reviews.  It was selected by Waterstones as one of their debut novels of the year and has also been longlisted for the Desmond Elliot prize.  Interestingly, Flannery is an American currently living in London, yet has set his novel in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. He was born in California and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. After earning a BFA in Film from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts he worked for three years in the film industry before moving to the UK, where he completed a doctorate in Twentieth-Century English Literature at the University of Oxford.  Nonetheless, most reviewers think he has portrayed the setting of his novel convincingly and some have compared his portrayal favourably with those of Coetzee and Galgut.  Certainly an interesting prospect and now into several printings, so the first edition hardback from Atlantic is well worth picking up. 

 “In her garden, ensconced in the lush vegetation of the Western Cape, Clare Wald, world-renowned author, mother, critic, takes up her pen and confronts her life. Sam Leroux has returned to South Africa to embark upon a project that will establish his reputation – he is to write Clare’s biography. But how honest is she prepared to be? Was she complicit in past crimes; is she an accomplice or a victim? Are her crimes against her family real or imagined? As Sam and Clare turn over the events of her life, she begins to seek reconciliation, absolution. But in the stories she weaves and the truth just below the surface of her shimmering prose, lie Sam’s own ghosts.

Absolution shines light on contemporary South Africa and the long dark shadow of the recent past, the elusive nature of truth and self-perception and the mysterious alchemy of the creative process.”

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Review - Waiting for Sunrise, William Boyd

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd is a literary thriller, starting in pre-first World War Vienna and finishing in wartime London.  In between it touches down in the battlefields of France and a more peaceful Geneva.  The main protagonist is Lysander Rief, a young English actor beginning to make a name for himself on the stage, following in the footsteps of his more famous father.   As the novel commences, Lysander has travelled to Geneva seeking psychotherapy for a sexual problem from one of Vienna’s leading psychotherapists.  Lysander remains at the centre of events throughout the novel, becoming a wartime undercover agent on a mission to identify a traitor who is leaking important logistical information to the Germans.  Several women play a key role in his story – Blanche, his actress fiancĂ© as the book begins, is initially left back in London, while in Vienna he falls under the sway of Hettie Bull, a sculptress, who comes to dominate his life completely.  As the book progresses Lysander begins to feel that he is being and has been manipulated from an early stage by those around him, even those closest to him, and becomes increasingly uncertain who, if anyone, he can trust.  

William Boyd is a successful and well-established author, probably best known for Any Human Heart, A Good Man in Africa, and An Ice-Cream War.  He has won a number of literary awards and is undoubtedly a very accomplished writer.  Waiting for Sunrise is an entertaining read, with a complex plot with plenty of twists and turns set in an interesting historical period which is portrayed in a convincing way.  Apart from Lysander, there is a cast of convincing supporting characters, most of whom will have a significant role to play before events resolve.  Even at the end of the book, there is a sense of uncertainly as to whether the whole truth has been revealed or resolved.  To quote Lysander “The more we know, the less we know”. 

I enjoyed Waiting for Sunrise, without thinking it exceptional.  It was a good read, but I don’t expect it to stick in my mind for very long. I liked the idea of “parallelism”, a psychological technique by which Lysander is helped to forget past traumatic events by imaging repeatedly and in detail a less traumatic alternative which gradually he comes to believe was real.  There are various linkages to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Lysander under a magical spell, a denouement in a forest etc.  Most of the book is written in the third person, but some sections are written as autobiographical notes in the first person by Lysander, and for me the transition grated a little.  Interestingly from a technique perspective, the book starts with second person sections addressed to the imaginary reader, which act as a frame for the contents.  Overall, then, a good literary thriller, but for me not quite outstanding.  I think it would translate well to cinema or television, a period thriller with plenty of sex and some violence.