Books of the Year 2014 (Part 1)

I’m being cheeky this year and splitting my books of the year into two posts. Tomorrow will be books published in 2014; today’s it’s books I’ve read this year and loved but that were published prior to 2014. I’ve decided to do it this way because (at the time of writing) I’ve read 131 books so far this year and there are 24 that I think deserve highlighting. That needs splitting into two, so this seemed like the fairest/easiest/most sensible way to do it. So, the books I loved this year that were published before 2014 were (click on the titles to see the original reviews):

 

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It’s not often as an adult that you read a book which changes your world view. Adichie uses her main characters Ifemelu and Obinze to explore race in America and the UK and love in Nigeria. It’s thought-provoking and compelling. A potential future classic.

 

 

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

A book that I nearly gave up on and ended up so pleased I didn’t. It begins as the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, growing up in Calcutta, one involved in political protests, the other studious and well-behaved, but it becomes the story of Gauri, transported to America after Udayan’s death. Sparse prose and a woman in a situation she doesn’t know how to deal with. Superb.

 

 

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Jake’s a sheep farmer on a remote island. She chooses to cut herself off from the locals but something’s killing her sheep. As her present day story is told, alternate chapters reveal why she left Australia – in reverse chronology. Inventive, tense and told in sharp prose. Deserves every award it won.

 

 

The Awakening – Kate Chopin 

A feminist classic, republished this year by Canongate. Edna Pontellier, treated as an object by her husband, begins to reject motherhood and decides to break from society’s expectations of her. Powerful and still relevant.

 

 

The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever. Fuelled seemingly equally by the compelling story of Elena and Lena in The Neapolitan Novels and her desire to protect her anonymity. The Story of a New Name is my favourite book of the series so far. Ferrante is superb at depicting the type of love/jealousy filled friendship that only women seem to have. The novels are brutal, both in terms of the relationship between the two women but also because of the backdrop of Naples and poverty. I intend to spend some of 2015 reading the rest of her back catalogue.

 

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

Nora Eldridge is angry. She’s spent years as the woman upstairs, the one who’s well-behaved, who no one pays any attention to because she’s single without any children. She meets the Shahid family and life changes for a time but is Nora really being seen? I loved this book and if you don’t agree, well ‘fuck you all’!

 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

Another feminist classic. Connie Ramos is committed to a psychiatric unit by her niece Dolly’s pimp after she attacks him in self-defence and he – and Dolly – tell the medics that she’s violent. But Connie discovers she can visit the future, a future where there’s no gendered pronouns, babies are all bred mixed heritage/race and have three parents, and people contribute equally to society. Inspiring and depressing in equal measure – how far have we come in 38 years?

 

The Notebook – Agota Kristof (translated by Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers who are taken to live with a cruel grandmother, surrounded by other cruel people. A dark, twisted alternative take on fairytales and the nature vs nurture question. Brutal, stark and compelling. I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy in 2015.

 

 

Thanks to Fourth Estate, Evie Wyld, Canongate and Europa Editions for review copies.

In the Media: 10th August 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought-provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

I’m a huge fan of lists, despite the inevitability of me adding several books to my TBR from them. Two in particular caught my attention this week:

The Guardian First Book Award longlist was announced this week. The longlist looks pretty good (although male dominated with 7 books to 4 by females) but what was more interesting was the piece Richard Lea wrote about deciding which of the readers’ choices was to go forward.

I read three great interviews with female writers:

And four interesting essays:

Have you read anything interesting that’s not on my list? Let me know in the comments.

 

The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014

 

I love Fiction Uncovered, I think they do a brilliant job of highlighting British writers who, for whatever reason, don’t seem to have garnered the attention they deserve.

This year’s list, in my opinion, is their best yet. Eight titles, an equal gender split, and two of the best books I’ve read in the last nine months. The winners are:

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
Little Egypt – Leslie Glaister
Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Woods
All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld
Lolito – Ben Brooks
The Dig – Cynan Jones
Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? – Gareth R. Roberts
Vanishing – Gerard Woodward

I’ve listed the women first (of course) and if you click on Mr Loverman and All the Birds, Singing you can read my reviews. I already have copies of Little Egypt and Mrs Hemingway and I’ll be reading and reviewing those over the summer.

Have you read any of these titles? What do you think of the list?

My Bailey's Women's Prize Shortlist

On Monday 7th April, the judges of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will announce their shortlist. Trying to second guest the books those five women will decide to put through to the second round of the prize is not my aim here – I would no doubt be wrong on several counts. However, having read sixteen of the longlisted books and partially read three (at the time of writing), were I to be one of the judges fighting for the books I love to be included, these are the six I’d be fighting for (click on the covers to read my reviews):

I was stunned to discover that the longlist included two of the best books I’ve ever read. Stunned because the older you become and the more you read, the less often a book is the ‘best’ book you’ve ever read. However, Americanah is an incredible book. It has a fresh, direct tone; its subject matter is intelligent and thoughtful but doesn’t detract from the love story at its core; it’s quite an achievement. The Lowland is a masterpiece. Skilfully written with carefully layered sentences and ideas of loss at its centre, it’s deeply affecting.

The Luminaries makes the list because it combines a cracking detective story with a interesting structure. When I reached the second half of the book, the plot and the decreasing length of the chapters meant I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing is another novel with an interesting structure – the present day story is told forward, while the past is presented to us in reverse. This leaves the reading feeling like a detective looking for the protagonist’s motive and being wrong-footed at several points.

Then I have two debuts: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is an incredible piece of literature. Again, the sentences are layered, although in this case they are staccato and dense – an odd juxtaposition that you have to completely immerse yourself in. This could have been a fairly straight-forward (although very grim) coming-of-age story but the style and structure transcend it. The Undertaking also transcends a genre, in this case, war fiction. Two things make this a good book as opposed to a good debut – the use of dialogue and the point of view. The novel’s mostly dialogue, not an easy thing to write, and it works; it’s snappy and clear, while leaving room for ambiguity of meaning. Point of view wise, this is a story of a family of Nazi sympathisers and a soldier in the battle of Stalingrad. Again, this was a book that felt fresh.

It’s worth pointing out here that of the nineteen longlisted books I’ve read (or partially read at the time of writing) there isn’t a bad one amongst them. I was going to post some ‘near misses’ too but I found myself wanting to post all of them. The full list of my reviews is here (hopefully this will be complete shortly); I’m sure there’s something there you’ll enjoy.

Now for the excitement of waiting for the actual shortlist…

 

(The only book I haven’t read any of is Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam as I want to read the whole trilogy.)

The Bailey's Women's Fiction Prize Longlist 2014

Well it’s after midnight and I’m bleary eyed but here it is, the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist for 2014.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Margaret Atwood – MaddAddam

Suzanne Berne –  The Dogs of Littlefield

Fatima Bhutto – The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Claire Cameron –  The Bear

Lea Carpenter – Eleven Days

M.J. Carter – The Strangler Vine

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

Deborah Kay Davies – Reasons She Goes to the Woods

Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of All Things

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English

Anna Quindlen – Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Elizabeth Strout – The Burgess Boys

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Evie Wyld – All The Birds, Singing

First thoughts: I’ve got a lot of reading to do! I’ve read and reviewed seven: The Luminaries, The Flamethrowers, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, Still Life with Breadcrumbs, The Burgess Boys, The Goldfinch and All the Birds, Singing. Am particularly thrilled for Eimear McBride, Anna Quindlen and Evie Wyld. I also think The Burgess Boys has been hugely underrated in the UK, so it will be wonderful to see Elizabeth Strout get the recognition she deserves.

As for the rest, Americanah, Burial Rites, The Lowland and Almost English were already high on my review pile. I have copies of The Signature of All Things and Maddaddam, although Maddaddam’s terrifying me – I love Margaret Atwood’s writing but it’s the third part of a trilogy of which I’ve read nothing and I don’t want to read the end before the beginning. I might have to hide for a long weekend to read that one!

The Dogs of Littlefield, The Bear and Eleven Days were also already on my radar and I’m really looking forward to those.

That leaves four I’ve never heard of, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

As ever, I’ll be linking my reviews on this page as I add to them. I’m excited as to what the next month of reading brings.

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that.

All the Birds, Singing opens with our unnamed (as yet) female narrator discovering her second dead sheep in a month. She is a sheep farmer on a remote (also unnamed) British island where she keeps herself to herself having only a dog, named Dog, for company. She thinks the killings are being carried out by the local teenagers. Don, another farmer and the person she bought the cottage from, thinks another animal is taking the pickings from an already dead sheep, ‘But I’ve never seen anything round here flense an animal like that’.

As a reader, we are not entirely trusting of Jake’s theory (our narrator reluctantly reveals her name on page 36 when she goes to the local police station to report the killings). Partly because she doesn’t really seem to believe it either and also because she’s obviously fearful of something herself:

Stupid to have become so comfortable. The fridge hummed back in agreement. Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit. That feeling I’d had when I first saw the cottage, squat and white like a chalk pebble at the black foot of the downs, the safety of having no one nearby to peer in at me – that felt like an idiot’s lifetime ago. I felt at the side of the fridge for the axe handle.

Jake’s story prior to her arrival on the island is told to us in alternating chapters and is set in her native Australia. However, it is told backwards, a device that can leave you confused for a page or so while you position the tale being told within the existing narrative. What’s clever about this though is the way that it forces you into believing one particular person is behind her flight and possibly the death of the sheep, only for the narrative to move on and for you to realise you’ve been misled.

The structure of the narrative allows Wyld to keep the tension high throughout. This is a brutal and sometimes scary story. However, it is not without moments of tenderness and also humour to break the tension. Early in the novel, Jake’s returning to the house when Dog pricks his ears. As they enter the cottage, Dog shoots upstairs while Jake arms herself. The intruder turns out to be a racing pigeon with a broken wing. Jake telephones the owner:

The man sighed. ‘Pop her in a shoebox, keep her warm and watered. If she makes it through the night she’ll tell you when she’s well enough to fly home.’

He hung up.

‘Dickhead,’ I said to the pigeon. Any shoes I bought came in a plastic bag. I took another look at the bird, saw that its bottom eyelid had closed and its head was slack on its neck, and that talking to the man on the phone, I’d squeezed it too hard and now it was dead.

Jake takes the pigeon down to the shore to give it a burial at sea:

…she went further and further out and then sank, like the sea had swallowed her. I hummed the song from Titanic.

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that a very good book is one you want to read again; one that you know hasn’t yielded everything it’s got on first reading. As soon as I’d finished All the Birds, Singing, I wanted to start reading again. I wanted to start reading again to put the story together in chronological order, to spot all the clues that Wyld gives us as to what is killing Jake’s sheep, and to revel in such a well written story.

All the Birds, Singing is a great book. I can see why its supporters were very vocal about its lack of inclusion on last year’s Booker Prize longlist.

 

 

Thanks to Evie Wyld for the review copy in return for a fair review.