The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

My review of Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests appeared in yesterday’s Globe and Mail. I’ve had a string of good books to review recently, which is always nice.

You get the sense from her books that Jones had—or at least dreamt of—an idyllic country childhood, full of exhilarating bike rides, freewheeling down steep hills, being comfortable and in tune with animals of all kinds, spending hours lying in scratchy hay stubble watching the clouds pass. She is one of the best creators of children characters I’ve come across recently. Her children are ordinary—both in their ordinariness and in their particularities, their cruelties and their suffering. They don’t talk in precociously adult ways, nor is their childish logic made cutesy or fetishised. And she is a writer who genuinely seems to be developing with each novel.



Secret favourite Orange

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

It turns out I did have a favourite for the Orange Prize after all. Just before I clicked to find out who it was, I realised I wanted it to be Madeline Miller. And it was! Many congratulations to her.


May 28, 2012 § 2 Comments

So for the past several weeks I have been labouring under the delusion that AL Kennedy had made the Orange shortlist. I read five of the shortlist ages ago and couldn’t get hold of The Blue Book. It finally arrived in my hands last week, and I got about halfway through before discovering that it was the wrong book anyway. I’m not entirely sure why I thought Kennedy was on the shortlist rather than Georgina Harding (Painter of Silence), and I’m pretty sure I would have preferred reading the latter. Even though I adored On Bullfighting, I can’t quite get on with AL Kennedy’s fiction.

Before I read the shortlist, I had a hierarchy in my mind that went something like: Kennedy and Miller at the top, Enright and Edugyan in the middle, Patchett at the bottom, and Ozick an unknown. Obviously that was somewhat scuppered by reading the wrong book, but even of the five I did read I honestly can’t choose a favourite or even a least favourite. It feels like a genuine competition with a lot of good writing.

Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 255 pages, $32.50

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Why it could win: Possibly the most experienced writer (and definitely the oldest) on the shortlist, Ozick’s book is the most traditionally literary. You’ve got to love someone who can naturally use words like “fustian” in the 21st century. She has an elegant turn of phrase and a good ear for dialogue. Interesting idea to write a negative of The Ambassadors (and nicely done with the title, too – the perfect opposite of an ambassador). Ozick is very good stylistically, and the book is a conversation with all of literature, not just contemporary novels.

What I didn’t like: The anomie/world-weariness/neurasthenia of all the characters was a bit overdone, leading to unconvincing exchanges (or frequently silences) that were necessary for the storyline but rather annoying en masse.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, HarperCollins, 353 pages, $18.99

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Why it could win: Patchett’s story is the biggest on plot (except, perhaps for The Song of Achilles). It isn’t a criticism if I say it’s not exactly a page-turner, but it heads in that direction. I liked that the character of Dr Swenson was no less unpleasant even after we discover her secret agenda. It’s always good to read a book whose characters have jobs and visit places that are utterly unlike my own.

What I didn’t like: The ending was a bit neat for me—a bit too tidy overall, and too predictable in one specific part of it. The male characters seemed like sketches helping to move the plot along. People cope with enormous difficulties unrealistically, and then break down at unexpectedly small things (this was largely a problem because it felt accidental rather than meaningful).

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, Thomas Allen, 309 pages, $24.95

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan        

Why it could win: This novel is a fresh and interesting take on a very familiar—and much-loved (if that could possibly be the right word) by readers–period of history. Nice use of a semi-vernacular voice without falling into the abyss of caricature. The main character is very well drawn, and Edugyan plays successfully with perspective and nuance of interpretation when dealing with his sin/guilt/denial. The best cover of the entire longlist. You can listen to an extract from the audiobook here, read in a great coffee and cigarettes voice.

What I didn’t like: The setting and the context were never truly married to the action, and were not quite full enough, so overall the novel felt a bit thin.

US edition, March 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Why it could win: Bold and well-paced interpretation of the relationship between two well-known Greek figures, retold for a contemporary audience. Miller has done a great job of conveying bits of Greek mythology that readers need to know without it being intrusive. (She also has an interesting blog that serves up appetiser-sized chunks of things Greek.)

What I didn’t like: Took me a while to adjust to the spare, lyrical style, but once I had settled in to it, I loved it.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Why it could win: Lots of moments where she fully nails the human experience and perfectly identifies universal emotions that we might prefer to believe are unique to us.

What I didn’t like: It became a bit repetitive and slow towards the end, and I wasn’t keen on the rather unsettled relationship between the narrator and author, and consequently reader and narrator. Was I supposed to despise her or recognise her? Mock or empathise? All of the foregoing, I think, but it needed just a little more something to pull off those mixed feelings.

So who should win?

I really don’t know who I would put forward as the best of the six five I read. I didn’t absolutely adore any of them but they are all worthy contenders. If I was forced to pick one I would say…hmmm…you know what, I really couldn’t. To narrow it down to two, I’ll go with Miller and Enright, although I think if I was a judge I’d be tempted not to go with a first novel, however good. A nomination for a first novel must be a huge boost to a writer’s career, but if you win a major prize with your debut, where is there left to go? The next book surely has to be astoundingly good if the writer is not to be written off as a one-book wonder.

All will be revealed very shortly. As for me, I’m off to track down Painter of Silence.

The Three Rs: Martha Schabas

May 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Martha Schabas’ first novel Various Positions was named one of the “Best Books of 2011” by Quill & Quire, and among the “Best First Fiction of 2011” by The Globe and Mail. It was recently shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association’s 2012 Evergreen Award. Her articles, book reviews and fiction have appeared in The Globe and Mail, The New Quarterly, ELLE Canada, Broken Pencil, and Maisonneuve. She holds degrees from McGill University, Queen’s University, and the University of East Anglia, where she received the David Higham Literary Award. Martha lives in Toronto and is currently working on her second novel.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

There was no revelatory moment for me. I’ve always written and have always longed to write books in an abstract sort of way, but the idea that I was going to make it a kind of full-time, all-encompassing enterprise snuck up on me pretty slowly. As a kid, I wanted to be a politician or a ballerina. It may have only been quite recently, sitting down to my second novel, that I paused and realized that there wasn’t going to be much else for me.


What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

I get up early and try to write straight through until lunch. I drink a lot of coffee. I try not to check my email. If I’m still feeling interested, I’ll keep going for a few hours in the afternoon. The post-lunch bit is inevitably not as disciplined, and I allow myself to get distracted by vaguely relevant internet research.

What do you read while you’re writing?

I read very selfishly while I’m working on a book. I look for narratological structures that may parallel or inform my own. It’s frequently the relationship between the narrator and the implied author that obsesses me, and I look for books that can help me explore that. For example, in my first novel Various Positions, there was a significant wedge between the protagonist’s point of view and (what I hoped were) some of the cumulative implications of her character. So I read lots of irresistible but unreliable narrators, books that contrast the authenticity of lived experience with the problem of the truth. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier is a great example of that. So is most Nabokov, of course.

What have you read recently that you really loved?  

Suicide by Edouard Levé, The Notebook by Agota Kristof, The End of the Story by Lydia Davis, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin, After the Fire a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld, Great House by Nicole Krauss, The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud.

What are your all-time favourites?

War and Peace — Tolstoy, Notes from Underground — Dostoevsky, Master and Margarita — Bulgakov, AusterlitzSebald, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter – Simone de Beauvoir, Mrs. Dalloway —  Woolf, Molloy — Beckett, Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys, 2666 – Roberto Bolaño, The Book of Evidence – John Banville, The Gathering­ – Anne Enright, Sick Notes – Gwendoline Riley, Wuthering Heights ­– Emily Bronte.

Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley (2004)

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Cruel and unusual. Pass.

What’s your third R? 

Contemporary dance and theatre.

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

May 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

After seeing (and wishing I had been articulate enough to write) Meg Wolitzer’s now-famous piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago I tracked down a few of her books. She might just be my new favourite writer. First I read The Wife, which was pretty good but perhaps a little too much like a negative of a Philip Roth novel for my taste. Wolitzer was witty, intelligent and sharp, but the rage was a little wearying by the end. But The Ten-Year Nap, which I have just swallowed whole, is utterly fabulous. If you’re a woman or a man you should read it. If you’re a parent you should read it. If you work you should read it. If you don’t work you should read it. If you’ve ever had an ambition or a dream you should read it. If you’ve ever woken up and realised that the time for ambitions and dreams must have passed you by while you were Tweeting, while you were searching the employment ads for something similar to (but better paid than) your current and despised job, or even while you were washing meconium out of a handknitted baby blanket at three am, well, you should read it too. In fact, if you can read at all, you should read this book.

I’m not going to summarise the story, except to say that it centres around four mothers who have made various choices along the way, often without even knowing that they were making choices or at least that without understanding that making this choice meant closing off that other choice. What makes this novel so great, apart from the fact that every other line is so stingingly true that I’d turned down the corner of every page as a reminder before I was twenty pages in, is how gentle Wolitzer is to her characters. She’s friends with all of them—or almost all; even the ones she can’t bring herself to be friends with are still allowed to be the kind of people that someone would want to be friends with. It’s the kind of novel that skewers so many little details and secret emotions so wonderfully, so exactly, and yet with such human nuance, that for a while afterwards you wonder why anybody else bothers writing, and what on earth you could possibly read next. Dare I read another of her novels? What if I don’t like it as much?

Slightly less bookist?

May 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have no desire to own a reader because I have no desire to read e-books. I do, however, have a small desire to be able to subscribe to overseas publications that postage costs currently make unaffordable. And those moments of “oh, wouldn’t a reader be handy” come more and more often I come across something that is not available, or no longer available, to paper-preferrers. The Ecologist magazine, for example, whose green-motivated decision to go electronic only seemed to me not so much reducing its carbon footprint but outsourcing it, unless nobody else in the world reads magazines like I do, with a quick skim one day, a detailed read another day, and several more flicks through before ripping out the pages I want to keep. Once the paper copy is produced, it can be read an infinite number of times without further energy expenditure. Not so for an electronic version, for which no definite carbon footprint can surely ever be calculated. I can see many reasons why readers and publishers would prefer digital to print, but I’m not convinced by claims of enviro-superiority.

Last month the frustration of not having a reader was trying to read the three Bronwen Wallace nominations on iTunes. This week the exclusive e-only temptation is a great little app called Storyville, which I’ve been hearing about for ages and trying not to mind that it’s for iPods, iPads and Kindles only. It sends subscribers four short stories a month, usually from newly published collections. I wonder if I could talk them into producing a pdf (which is how I read Five Dials, a great little sort-of online publication).

And then there was the time I tried to borrow an e-book from the library. More and more often, my local library is getting books as e-books only, or—even more frustratingly—as e-books and audiobooks but not paper books. After going round in circles for a while I finally tracked down the link to download the book. Turned out my library doesn’t have the book at all, but belongs to a centralised network that does. I tried to check out the book there, but it had already been borrowed (don’t look now, public library system, but I think one of the advantages of e-books over print just got checked out).

A couple of weeks later an email told me my book was available but I had to check it out within 72 hours or lose my chance. The downloaded pdf wouldn’t open. The Kindle version wouldn’t open (although I downloaded Kindle for PC specifically for that purpose). I decided it must be me, and abandoned the whole scheme. But a few days later I saw that a friend had self-published a Kindle-only e-book. The single pound she was charging was not much to lose if I couldn’t make it work. I bought it, downloaded it and watched it open automatically in the reader in less time than it took to find the link to request an email notification that the book was available.

I’m (mostly) not a Luddite but I am in favour of ease of use. If saving money by going digital means, for some organisations, effectively outsourcing a huge slab of the effort onto the reader, then I’m not interested. The technology and the people using it have to meet me more than half way. Is ease of use, as much as its price-slashing, publisher-breaking business tactics, the reason that Amazon is eating the book world? Or is it far less painless than my library makes it seem, and in fact everyone else is doing a great job? I don’t know. For the moment, though, my most pressing question is “Can you print a Kindle file?”

The Three Rs: Joe Dunthorne

May 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Joe Dunthorne was born and brought up in Swansea. His debut novel, Submarine, was translated in to fifteen languages and made into a film. His debut poetry pamphlet was published by Faber. His second novel, Wild Abandon, is out now.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I spent my teenage years feeling assured that my destiny was to tour the world playing slap bass. So it wasn’t until university – and the shelving of that dream – that I thought seriously about writing.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

When I’m in the dark heart of a book, I get up as early as I can — about 6.30am — eat vast amounts of porridge then get to my desk as quick as I can. I keep a graph, which I colour in and illustrate, to show my progress. Sometimes my writing day becomes more about making my graph look pretty than about literature. By 11am, I’m fading. From then on, I edit and procrastinate and make a nice lunch. I can edit all afternoon and evening if I need to but there’s only a small window of opportunity in the morning where I can write new words.

Joe's pretty graph

What do you read while you’re writing?

I used to believe in avoiding reading books that might be too influential. I’ve come to think that that’s nonsense. I now just try and make sure what I read is really, really good so that when I get influenced — as I inevitably do — it will be for the better.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

Three recent loves: Coetzee — Disgrace, Ishiguro — Remains of the Day, McCarthy — Blood Meridian.

What are your all-time favourites?

Today’s all-time favourites: Revolutionary Road — Richard Yates, White Noise — Don De Lillo, Slaughter-House Five – Kurt Vonnegut, anything by William Hazlitt.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Write, for sure.

What’s your third R? 


Hardback UK Cover

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