Down the TBR Hole, # 4

Time for another round! It has been a very long time since I last played this game. This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read.

(My Goodreads TBR, by the way, isn’t like a real-world TBR. It only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have. It does, however, often guide my purchasing decisions.)

living-with-a-wild-god-091531624Book #31: Living With a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Why is it on my TBR? Came across a catalogue listing for it when it was first released; I’m interested in personal writing about faith.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Discard for now; it doesn’t feel like a priority.

Book # 32: Merchants of Culture: the Publishing Business in themerchants of culture Twenty-First Century, by John Brookmire Thompson

Why is it on my TBR? Professional interest, natch.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep. Definitely still relevant, maybe even more so now that my job is in trade bookselling, not academic publishing (as I think it was when I first saw this title.)

winter's boneBook # 33: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell

Why is it on my TBR? Recommended by my tutor when I was working on Southern Gothic writing. Also, saw the film and thought it was brilliant.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep. I loved My Absolute Darling so much and I think this might strike the same sort of note.

Book # 34: Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess91bleptewnl

Why is it on my TBR? No idea.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep – Earthly Powers was outrageously funny and I like the idea of life-of-Shakespeare literary fanfic.

10304270Book # 35: The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, by Mark Kermode

Why is it on my TBR? I do believe I read a review of it over at Eve’s Alexandria, many moons ago.

Do I already own it? Y’all know I don’t own most of the stuff I want to read.

Verdict? Keep. My film knowledge is so poor but I love reading film criticism, especially  of popular modern movies.

Book # 36: The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies81bfeulwksl

Why is it on my TBR? :glances at Eve’s Alexandria again:

Do I already own it? Nah.

Verdict? Keep. Epic multi-stranded narratives about people whose lives are inextricably intertwined by tiny coincidences are my jam.

81shqph22glBook # 37: The Cornish Trilogy, by Robertson Davies

Why is it on my TBR? THIS IS ALL EVE’S FAULT.

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? Keeeeeep. This one has “defrocked, mischief-making monks, half-mad professors, gypsies and musical geniuses”. Not to mention, its cover design matches the other one so nicely.

Book # 38: The Salterton Trilogy, by Robertson Daviescover1

Why is it on my TBR? :refuses to answer:

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? This is one I might be prepared to lose, actually. There’s a production of The Tempest in it, which is appealing, but small-town mischief and gossip appeals less. (But! The cover!)

12808190Book # 39: The Emperor’s Babe, by Bernardine Evaristo

Why is it on my TBR? It sounds brilliant: a novel-in-verse about the Sudanese teenage bride of the Emperor Septimius Severus, set in Roman London!

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? Keep. I am forever picking this up in bookshops and then putting it down again due to distraction or penury.

Book # 40: A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth51dpz64rdzl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? It crops up a lot in lists: of best 20th-century books, Big Read surveys of people’s favourite novels. Also, my friend Ollie read it (while revising for his Finals, the madman) and loved it.

Do I already own it? …Unclear. I did have a copy, but I can’t recall whether it went to the charity shop before I moved, and I haven’t yet completed my personal library spreadsheet (which I have because I’m a neeeeerd, thanks for asking).

Verdict? Keep. Sooner or later I’ll break my leg or go on a twelve-hour flight, and then I’ll need this book.


Conclusions: This particular round didn’t go well as a culling exercise, but it did remind me that I’m going on holiday next month, and what better time to get stuck into books you’ve been meaning to read for years?

TBR Update: Previous rounds of this game have actually resulted in a couple titles getting knocked off the TBR! I read Slaughterhouse-Five last July and The Power and the Glory this January (both are from Round 1). Admittedly, that hit rate is neither high nor rapid.

What do you think? Should I just go for broke and read all three of Robertson Davies’s trilogies? Should I pass on Vikram Seth or Anthony Burgess? (Obviously not, but feel free to try and convince me.) Comments much encouraged, as always.

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Reading Diary: from Wednesday to Wednesday

isbn9781408711156Simon Mawer is known as a writer of rather excellent spy novels, many of which are interconnected: The Girl Who Fell From the SkyThe Glass Room and Tightrope all have overlapping characters, and deal primarily with WWII espionage. (I reviewed Tightrope for Quadrapheme when it was released, and was impressed with Mawer’s ability to construct a female spy whose sex didn’t define her, and whose war trauma was acknowledged without being fetishised.) His new novel, Prague Spring, is set during a time that rarely gets treated, at least in the espionage fiction that I see: 1968, in Czechoslovakia, as the titular conflict draws near. Mawer has two sets of protagonists. The first is a pair of English undergraduates named James and Ellie, who are hitch-hiking around Europe and who head to Czechoslovakia more or less on a whim. The second is a British diplomatic official in Prague, Sam Wareham, and a young Czech student, Lenka, with whom he is conducting an affair. These four come into contact with each other about halfway through the book, and one of Mawer’s greatest successes is in showing how insistently social life asserts itself, even as huge political rumblings occur in the background: gigs and meetings and parties don’t stop even as Leonid Brezhnev continues to pressure Alexander Dubček. The espionage element of the plot exists, but is downplayed in favour of exploring political innocence and coming of age. Ellie is a passionate student protester (she was arrested in Paris, which gives her a mystique in James’s eyes), but events in Prague quickly overwhelm her limited and privileged experience of political conflict. The Czechs, meanwhile, experience this disillusionment on a grander scale, as Soviet forces invade the country and crush hopes for a more liberal society. Prague Spring is a much-needed examination of the human cost of repressive regimes, and also a rattling good read.

a1k1al3vf5lThe Golden Age of crime writing is having quite the renaissance at the moment; I presume much of this is down to a desperate desire for escapism on the part of politically left-leaning readers, and a certain level of satisfaction for right-leaning ones in the allure of a simpler, jollier, more British age. Rachel Rhys’s second novel written under that name (it’s the pseudonym of psychological thriller writer Tammy Cohen), Fatal Inheritance, is set just post-WWII and takes place primarily on the French Riviera, where frustrated housewife Eve Forrester finds herself sitting in a solicitor’s office being informed that the last will and testament of Guy Lester, a man she’s never met, has named her as the beneficiary of a quarter share of his beachside villa. Needless to say, Lester’s adult children and wife are furious, but Eve wants to discover the nature of her connection to them, so, despite a barrage of irritated telegrams from her cold and boring husband, Clifford, she remains in France. As she attempts to investigate, it becomes increasingly clear that someone is trying to murder her – and that this might have some connection to a file of old newspaper clippings about a man killed in a London park decades earlier. Fatal Inheritance wears its influences unabashedly on its sleeve (I noticed some Mary Stewart, some Du Maurier, some Christie), although it’s not as original or as engaging as any of them: Eve is sympathetic but a bit of a blank, and the ultimate explanation feels a bit anticlimactic. Still, it’s a sunny summer book that practically reads itself. If it’s your sort of thing, it’ll definitely be your sort of thing, if you see what I mean.

17903275I love advice columns. I love the whole concept of them, the placing of your confusion and entanglement into the hands of a kind, sensible stranger who can step back, look at what they’re holding, and tell you the shape of it. Cheryl Strayed’s column Dear Sugar, published at The Rumpus a few years back, is one of the undisputed classics of the genre. I’ve read Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of some of those columns, before, but I come back to it every few years because Strayed takes people so seriously that it makes me want to cry. She makes their interactions a two-way street: not just some lost soul asking for help, but a conversation in which Strayed shares moments of vulnerability, or of epiphany, in her own life. It helps that she writes with lyrical grace that never falls into the trap of being self-satisfied, and it helps that she has had, by anyone’s standards, a life both tough as hell and outstandingly lucky. She knows whereof she speaks. I used to have a mug that said “Write like a motherfucker” on it, which is a quote from a Dear Sugar column (and to be honest with you, I want that mug back; I’ll buy another someday soon). But my favourite letter is from a man whose son was killed by a drunk driver several years ago, and who is struggling mightily to carry on. It’s a long letter, and the response is long too, but the final three sentences make me weep every time I read them – whether I’m in public or not, whether I’m feeling particularly sad that day or not. I think you, whoever you are, owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy of this book somehow and read them too.*

*Okay, okay: there’s a link to that column online here. Read it, and then buy the book.

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Varina is a historical novel about Varina Davis (née Howell), who married Jefferson Davis, the man who was later appointed President of the Confederate States of America. It’s a hell of a task, as a fiction writer, to humanise people whose ideas and ideals are so obviously, now, wrongheaded. The point on which Charles Frazier is to be commended is that he opens his arms to the complexity of this task. Jefferson Davis is here not portrayed as an evil man, but nor are his flaws brushed over: he’s ambitious, somewhat cold, and has a self-martyring streak. Varina is very clever, pretty, combative, and lonely. Her story is told in flashbacks, through conversations with a black man named James who was raised with her children – not as a slave or servant, but as part of her family – during the years of the Civil War. Varina’s and James’s relationship is complicated (did she really pick him up off the streets of Richmond, or is he her child? Is he Jeff’s?) and their conversations involve elusiveness, and illusion, on Varina’s part. All James wants is the truth about his past; Varina either can’t give it to him entirely, or can’t psychologically lose whatever she would need to lose in order to do that. She is a mystery to the reader much of the time, but Frazier is a gifted writer of character and so the result is not a cipher (like Eve Forrester of Fatal Inheritance, see above) but a woman who is enigmatic because she wants to be; not because there’s nothing there, but because there’s too much there. The musings on the rightness or wrongness of slavery that such a book must contain are integrated in a way that feels psychologically convincing. Varina recognises from the age of five that there is something odd about having masters and slaves – not necessarily good or bad, to her mind, but strange. Her observations of Jeff’s relationship to his longtime body slave and friend, Pemberton, acknowledge that strangeness too. Varina, as a novel, is thus both responsible and artful. We can talk about this in fiction, and the job of doing so can be taken up fruitfully by white writers as well as writers of colour, if we can be honest both to the characters and to the history. We must.

Thoughts on last week’s reading: Two new releases, an older title, and a proof of a forthcoming book: that’s a pretty good balance. To have enjoyed three out of four is also not bad, though it’s sad that I didn’t love the only author here that’s new to me.

 

Three Things: July 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: Apart from continuing with 20 Books of Summer, and trying to deal with my newly expanded pile of proofs for the autumn, I’ve found time to trawl the archives of Adam Roberts’s blog (or one of them, anyway), Morphosis. Roberts is a writer of SF whose work is weird and erudite and very far up my street: his most recent book is a virtual-reality murder mystery called The Real-Town Murders, but he’s probably best known for Jack Glass, which is apparently a mindfuck, and Yellow Blue Tibia, about a bunch of Soviet science fiction authors whose Stalin-approved group writing project appears to be coming true. Morphosis contains Roberts’s intellectual musings on things as diverse as John Bunyan, Cicero’s De officiis, and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One. This is to say, it takes seriously enough to examine critically a combination of high and low culture that I find massively enjoyable, and Roberts always articulates himself with enviable precision and perceptiveness. The whole blog goes as far back as 2013: plenty to explore.

Looking: The view from my sitting room never ceases to delight me. We have two enormous, tall windows—they’re one of the main reasons we took this flat in the first place—and you can see half the street from them, or it feels like it. People with their shopping; a man pushing a buggy; a woman struggling to keep her headscarf tidy against the wind. And the houses: the one opposite us has window baskets and a blue door, and their next-door neighbour has geraniums and begonias spilling out of every window. Especially in the sunshine, to sit here and drink coffee or write or eat breakfast is one of my life’s simplest joys.

Thinking: The other night I was listening to Sheryl Crow’s early album, The Globe Sessions, and her voice was so much more raw and full and stripped-back, all at the same time, than it ever has been in her more “produced” albums, and she was playing the guitar in this strum-and-punch style that feels like the epitome of modern country. And the air in my flat was hot and close, so that I could only bear to be wearing a t-shirt, and all the lights were off but I had a candle burning, and the ice in my drink was melting, and there had been a thunderstorm, and I felt like I’d time traveled back to, oh, 2003, maybe, to one of the muggy Virginia summers of my childhood or adolescence, when everything was lonely and passionate and painful and glorious. Isn’t it strange how music can do that? Music, and the weather. Memory is odd.

15. Collected Stories, by John Cheever

51f8igl7ngl-_sx323_bo1204203200_John Cheever has a reputation, an enormous one, as a giant of post-war American fiction. There is a particular social atmosphere surrounding his work. His men mix drinks and travel into New York every weekday morning on the eight-four; his women wear furs and are quietly, desperately, suicidally bored; everyone plays tennis at the club. The sea is never far away. To a large extent these descriptions hold true when you read the actual stories, but there is a surprising extent to which that is not all they are, or not all that Cheever can do. He can, and does, write about poverty: Christmas Is a Sad Season For the Poor, for instance, which features an apartment building elevator operator who spends the entirety of Christmas morning telling everyone he ferries in his elevator how depressing and lonely his day is likely to be. He succeeds in exciting Christian charity in the hearts of virtually all the families in the building, ending up with seventeen hot dinners and mountains of presents. Unable to distribute them all to his children, he gives most of this bounty to his neighbour, who rouses herself and her family to take them, in turn, to an even poorer family. The moral of this story – even whether there is a moral at all – is unclear, although I think the point here is less any particular moral than it is an overwhelming sense of irony, maybe even of futility, not just in this context but of all human endeavour.

He can, and does, write about adultery and cruelty. (Mostly, in Cheever’s world, it’s wives who are abusive to their husbands. Every now and then, as with The Music Teacher, the position is reversed, but Cheever never seems to be on the side of patriarchy at the expense of justice. He rarely appears to take sides at all, but he generally reserves tenderness for those characters who are baffled, vulnerable, or weak, whether they’re men or women.) Many of his stories revolve around a man who takes a mistress. None of his first-person narrators are women, though he writes some stories in the omniscient third person that focus on female perspectives. He was a closeted bisexual, which, although not the only lens through which to read his dissection of middle- and upper-class American sexual mores, is an interesting one. He is frank and fascinated by the hypocrisy of family values, the liberating effect of post-war European travel, the terrible anxiety about mortality and obsolescence that the act of adultery, in this world, is an attempt to assuage.

Philip Roth is quoted on the back of my edition as saying that Cheever writes “enchanted realism”; it’s an interesting expression because it so explicitly repudiates the implications of how I’d say it, which is that he writes a kind of materialist fabulism or fantasia. Frequently, at the end of these stories, miraculous or inexplicable things happen; time shifts and blurs; people appear and disappear. There’s a sense of the uncanny about all of it. This manifests most famously, perhaps, in the late story The Swimmer, whose protagonist Ned Merrill decides to make his way home from a party by swimming in the pools of all the neighbours between the two houses, and discovers when he returns home that he has aged by decades, his fortune has evaporated, his house is shuttered and empty, his family is gone. But there’s also that twinge of eeriness in earlier work: The Sutton Place Story, for instance, which revolves around a little girl who goes missing. When, eventually, she is recovered, she mentions a mysterious lady who gave her bread, but is either unwilling or incapable of saying more. I think it is a story about the moment you first realise that a child is not an extension of yourself, a realisation that strikes the little girl’s parents especially hard precisely because they have been so neglectful of her.

Most significant, though, is that Cheever’s writing is, quite simply, beautiful. He can write a sentence as simple and declarative as Hemingway; he can spin out a string of subordinate clauses as lush and proliferating as (though more dexterous than) anything of Henry James’s. He is profound and superficial at the same time; he can capture frivolity and desperation in the same breath, and follow it up with genuine, foolish, heart-felt love. And his work is suffused, for me, with this sense of light: suburban light, golden light, American light. I’ve wanted to read his Journals for some time, and on the strength of the short stories, his novels are also about to go on my TBR. Marvelous.

Man Booker Prize 2018: What I Got

HOLY HELL, you guys. What a list. Obviously, virtually none of my wishes/predictions made it (except for The Overstory, thank all the gods). While I’m deeply depressed about the lack of Amy Sackville, Elise Valmorbida, Andrew Miller, Nick Harkaway, Joseph Cassara, and Lidia Yuknavitch, amongst others, I’m also impressed at the generic diversity: there’s a graphic novel on there! There’s a crime novel! This is crazy, y’all!

Less pleasing: the lack of ethnic/national diversity. Opening up this prize to the Americans has, as predicted, resulted in a diminishing of Commonwealth writers; there is no one here from Jamaica or Nigeria or India or even Australia. Two Canadians, two Irish writers (maybe three?), and that’s your lot.

Most of the longlisted books I haven’t read, so these are going to be more along the lines of quick impressions than considered analyses:

coverSnap, by Belinda Bauer. Pretty sure Val McDermid is singlehandedly responsible for this being on the list. Bauer’s reputation is high; I’m wondering if she’s a sort of new Tana French. The premise of this – a heavily pregnant woman walks away from her son and her broken-down car on the M5, in search of a pay phone, and is never seen again – is good.

41wnvealv5l-_sx324_bo1204203200_Milkman, by Anna Burns. The cover is stunning. It’s about an Irish woman being stalked by a paramilitary. That’s really all I’ve got on it. It’s relatively new out and I don’t think anyone at the shop has read it, although my colleague Zoe is keen. The Guardian called it Beckettian and said that Burns reveals “the logical within the absurd”, which sounds very Irish.

41lzvtkhukl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso. This is the first graphic novel ever to be on the Man Booker Prize long list and I’m very excited about it. I’ve flicked through the first ten pages and there’s something quietly disturbing and addictive about its atmosphere, already. The artistic style is one that I happen to hate, but that may not matter much.

9781781258972Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan. This is one of my 20 Books of Summer and it’s already so high up my TBR it’s practically tugging my sleeve, so it won’t be long before I’ve read it. A young slave boy’s master disappears on a voyage of exploration, and then…reappears? People have been comparing this to Sugar Money but I have a strong feeling that Edugyan’s book will be better.

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne. Five narrators seems like an awful lot of voices for one author to differentiate, but Gunaratne’s ability to ventriloquise the slangy vernacular of young London has been one of the major selling points of this book so far.

cover1Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson. The impression I get from this is that it might be a bit like Penelope Fitzgerald’s book Offshore, only with some mythology mixed up in it, and that is the sort of impression that makes me want to read it immediately. However, Anthony Cummins’s description of it “luridly staging the supremacy of biological fact” waves a red flag. What the fuck does that mean, Anthony?

81z2yt8ghblThe Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner. Genuinely delighted about this. I was pretty indifferent to The Flamethrowers (although I read it just out of university, when my reading protocols were still tuned to Edmund Spenser wavelengths, so maybe that was my fault), but I think if I’d read this before the announcement, I’d have put it on my wishlist. My colleague Camille loved it.

81j4lg4hk8l1The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh. Now, this I have read, and it is the only title on the list that really baffles me. It’s not a bad book, but then most books aren’t bad books. It’s just derivative, endlessly, and I cannot find enough originality in it to understand why it’s here. The prose is fine. The plot is fine, although it doesn’t really go anywhere. Controlling men are bad. The punishment of women for their existence is physical mortification. *checks watch*

077107378xWarlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje has been the unfortunate victim of my growing reluctance to read established white male writers. I hear pretty good things about this one – a kind of weird Gothic about children abandoned during World War II to a netherworld of vaguely defined criminality. It’s not going to the top of my list, but if there’s a damaged copy in the shop, I’ll take it.

a1lfnmiqzalThe Overstory, by Richard Powers. Richard Powers is exempted from my reluctance to read established white male writers, because he is wonderful. Partly this is because he doesn’t have any problems with writing women and people of colour into his stories. Partly this is because he writes so beautifully that I would be punishing myself by refusing to read him. I’m so happy he’s here.

9781509846894the20long20take_21The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. A novel in verse! How awesome is this! I’ve read some of Robertson’s poetry before – Hill of Doors, I think – which hasn’t stuck in my mind at all, but this was around the same time as The Flamethrowers, so again, that might have been my fault. This is a kind of post-war picaresque in the same vein as Andrew Miller’s new book. I think I’d like it.

71bdwmuhvzlNormal People, by Sally Rooney. Okay, Rooney’s hip and happenin’, we get it, Jesus. You can accuse me of bitterness all you like, you’re probably not wrong. Anyway, this is another novel where I can’t work out what it’s about. As far as I can tell, two Irish kids go to university. Maybe something happens to them while they’re there. Let’s hope so.

cover2From A Low and Quiet Sea, by Donal Ryan. Kind of a novel in short stories, this one, which actually I’m coming round to, as a form. Zoe tells me the first section is “epic” and the other two are less so; if this makes the shortlist I shall make more of an effort to seek it out.


What do you think of this long list? Good weird? Bad weird? Indifferent weird? What would you have liked to see on it? What enrages you with its presence?

Man Booker Prize 2018: What I Want

The Man Booker Prize longlist is announced tomorrow, and if it were up to me (and, frankly, why isn’t it?), here’s what would be on it. These are all books that I’ve read, so it’s unlikely to correspond in every particular to the list that the panel comes up with; but it does represent the best new books I’ve experienced over the past twelve months. In order of author’s surname:

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2fdc39ec8e-9c61-11e7-a7be-33f2196a0804Mrs Osmond, by John Banville. A follow-up to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, revealing what Isabel Osmond actually does to escape her marriage to the odious Gilbert. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style, albeit a slightly less gnarly one. 

cover121907-mediumThe House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara. Cassara’s prose is so evocative; he effortlessly summons the smells and sounds and sights of a world most of his readers will know nothing of—the piers where kings, queens and johns cruise and mingle; Times Square strip joints; bars on Christopher Street—and his dialogue is perfect, witty and human and liberally sprinkled with Spanglish.

gnomon-tpbGnomon, by Nick Harkaway.  Set in a near-future Britain where surveillance is total and civil order is maintained by a System that occasionally hauls in potential dissidents for a full mind-read, Gnomon follows a detective assigned to a case when a woman dies in custody. In the files of the dead woman’s consciousness, she finds four other minds that aren’t meant to be there… Mind-bending, inventive, wondrous, and very, very funny.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey. Harvey sets her novel in fourteenth-century Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). As the book opens, a local man has drowned in the river, and the village priest is under pressure to find his killer. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths.

isbn9781444784671Now We Shall Be  Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller. I know I’ve just read it, but I don’t think my love for it is a side effect of its recentness. Set in 1809, just after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular War, it follows John Lacroix as he travels north into the Hebrides, trying to escape his memories of complicity in the conflict he has just fled. Beautiful, spare but evocative writing, and a sense of real historical groundedness.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers, by Tim Pears. Set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. Pears’s writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will.

isbn9781473667792A Shout in the Ruins, by Kevin Powers. Alternating between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly, Powers presents the evils of slavery fully, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

a1lfnmiqzalThe Overstory, by Richard Powers. Maybe his most ambitious book yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. Quite possibly the best book I’ve read, or will read, this year.

31937362The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman. What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all, in this deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.

51ehaprfykl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Painter To the King, by Amy Sackville. In her third novel, Sackville zooms all the way in on Diego Velazquez’s life and work at the court of Felipe IV. While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does.

9780571336333The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida. Quiet, but brilliant: it feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Reading it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world, whose socially conditioned responses are alien to your own. One of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever.

sing-unburied-sing-300x0Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. It’s a road trip novel; it’s an examination of American racism and history; it’s modern-day Faulkner, lyrical and elegiac. Jojo, our young narrator, will stay with you for a long time, as will his strong love for his baby sister Kayla and his mother Leonie’s desperation to bring her boyfriend Michael home from prison. An utterly stunning book.

36441056The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.  I described it on Goodreads as “Angela Carter in space”, which I stand by. There is so much going on in this book about bodies, the female body especially, and the reproductive capacities of the female body; how bodies can literally tell stories, carry history; never have I been made so aware of the body as the ultimate site of political resistance. It is resonant with where we are now, as a world, in ways that are both subtle and in-your-face.

Other books that I think might well end up on the longlist: Happiness by Aminatta Forna; Warlight by Michael Ondaatje; The Only Story by Julian Barnes (please God no); I suppose it’s possible that the ubiquitous Eleanor Oliphant will end up with a spot, in which case I will actually cry; The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock; Crudo by Olivia Laing; Transcription by Kate Atkinson.

We. Shall. See. Do any of you have predictions/desires for the Man Booker long list?

08. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

51vdoyi9zgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_It’s really hard to sum up The Bedlam Stacks. We start in 1859. Merrick Tremayne used to smuggle plants out of colonial Asia for the East India Company, but now, thanks to a badly injured leg, he has been sent home to Cornwall. He is quietly stewing in the family manse, relegated to a bedroom at the top of three flights of stairs despite his injury and unable to do anything at all without the approval of his older brother, when he receives a letter: the East India Company wants him back. Malaria is on the rise in India, and it’s bringing down too many colonial administrators; there is a way of treating it, with quinine, but the supply is tightly controlled. Merrick’s job is to find a rumoured forest of cinchona trees, from which quinine is made, in the highlands of Peru; he is to take cuttings from the plants and bring them back to London, so that the East India Company can grow its own supply. Initially dubious, he is convinced to take the job by an old friend, Clem, and Clem’s wife Minna, both of whom will be accompanying him. But the situation in Peru is far stranger than Merrick imagines: his guide, Raphael, is a Catholic priest, but rumours swirl around him of stone saints and mysterious wild men, and an uncrossable border in the forest…

There’s also a city perched on a natural bridge spanning a river, the columns of stone criss-crossed with streams of obsidian from an ancient volcanic eruption, so that sunshine on the river is refracted by the glass, causing the water to boil. There’s luminescent pollen that infuses a whole rainforest. There’s irresistibly funny dialogue, first between Merrick and Clem and then between Merrick and Raphael; both friendships are fractious, but witty. In fact, the relationships between all of the characters are so convincing, and so endearing, that I kept imagining the book as a mini-series, something cast and shot with the same sort of mindset that produced the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Pulley excels at creating a sense of the alien, and because the book is set in 1859, there is a sense of slippage between the merely foreign and the truly supernatural; the mysteriousness of The Bedlam Stacks is that, for a long time, the reader is never sure whether the oddness Merrick encounters is just a result of the limitations of mid-Victorian knowledge. I described it earlier as part David Mitchell, part Haruki Murakami; like those writers, Pulley’s version of the fantastical is a kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncanniness. That her book understands the political ramifications of the phenomena it describes, particularly when its characters belong to an era and nation convinced of its own right to commit rapacious conquest, brings me back to comparisons with Strange and Norrell, though I think, like Clarke, Pulley could have committed herself more thoroughly to exploring the power dynamics that she draws attention to. Perhaps most to the point is the fact that I simply could not put The Bedlam Stacks down: it’s suspenseful, the writing is more than competent, the jokes land every time. Really marvelous.