Shortly after I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – one of the more contemporary novels to make the BBC’s Big Read – I was recommended The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse. Not too dissimilar to The Secret History, The House at Midnight told the tale of a group of graduates who spent a heady summer at a country pile in Oxford, and to this day it remains one of my very favourite books.
Shortly after, I read Whitehouse’s second novel – The Bed I Made, but it would be another four years before she was to publish her third – Before We Met. Much like her first two books, Before We Met immediately enthrals its readers as we meet newly-wed Hannah, waiting for her husband Mark at Heathrow as he fails to return from a business trip in New York.
When Mark attempts to explain his absence, a not-entirely convinced Hannah reluctantly starts digging into Mark’s hugely successful business only to discover numerous discrepancies which make her question his past and the secrets he may be hiding.
The pacing of the novel is taught throughout, and Whitehouse expertly keeps her reader in the midst of the action as the mystery of the tale begins to unfold. Well written and face-paced with an intriguing love story at its core, Before We Met is the perfect kind of thriller – and certainly the type to be devoured in one sitting.
Many years ago, when on a gap year before starting university, I travelled around India. My time there was something of a rollercoaster – extreme highs were followed by extreme lows – but almost a decade later the country still holds a very dear place in my heart.
Despite spending some time in India it’s a country that still fascinates me, and thus I adore reading books set in this foreign land. Until the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announced their shortlist, Jhumpa Lahiri is not an author I had previously come across and it was through deciding to read the six shortlisted books that I was to read The Lowland.
Also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Lowland tells the story of two brothers – Subhash and Udayan, who grew up on the suburban streets of Calcutta. Inseperable as children, as they reach adulthood the brothers’ lives take very different paths. Udayan becomes involved in the communist movement sweeping West bengal, while Subhash moves to Rhode Island to study for a PHD, never to return to live in his native country.
A melancholy tale, The Lowland is written beautifully and is an exquisite exploration of how decisions – both big and small – can ultimately change one’s life.
As a frustrated writer myself, I’m always hugely envious when I read debuts as accomplished as Hannah Kent’s – especially given we’re the same age. Set in northern Iceland in 1929, Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover. Ahead of her execution she is sent to a remote farm belonging to the Jonsson family where she is to spend her final days. While staying on the farm she is visited by Reverend Thorvardur Jonsonn (Toti), a young priest who has been appointed to help her to prepare to meet her maker.
Initially both the priest and the Jonsson family have reservations about their involvement with the murderess, but Agnes soon gains their trust and through her meetings with Toti the reader learns the sequence of events that led to the alleged murder and it soon becomes clear that all is not as it first seemed.
Burial Rites is full of beautiful prose and Hannah’s writing is evocative of the remote Icelandic landscape in which the book is set. With a haunting plot and wonderfully written characters I don’t doubt that the judges of this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction have a tough job ahead of them in selecting their winner.
I first came across Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie over a decade ago when I read her debut novel Purple Hibiscus. I soon went on to read the heart-breaking Half of a Yellow Sun a couple of years later. Adichie is a powerful, informative writer and when writing my dissertation on black women writers i reread both of these books in quick succession.
Thus it was a rather long eight years before Americanah was published, however, as is often the case, the wait was certainly worth it. Unlike both Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun – which were set in post-colonial Nigeria and during the Nigerian-Biafran war respectively, Americanah’s opening scene is a summer’s day in Princeton.
The central character of the tale is Ifemelu, and the story intersperses between her childhood and adolescence that was spent in Nigeria – much of it with her childhood sweetheart Obinze – and her time in America where she spent several years as an ex-pat studying, working and falling in love, before returning to her home town.
As teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze were inseparable – and when Ifemelu moves to America to study, Obinze vows to follow her. However, fate is not kind to Obinze and Americanah highlights a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots as the story follows them both as they embark upon their new lives overseas.
Americanah is a beautifully written book. from an author who has brought something fresh to African fiction. For me, the most fascinating aspect of the novel was the political observation of race in America. From relaxing afro hair, to hostility against interracial relationships, to the huge impact Obama’s election had on black people across not only the US but the world at large, Americanah gives its readers an insight into a world where racial prejudice is still at large.
The perfect combination of poetic prose and politics with a love story at its core, Americanah is a truly brilliant book and has reinvigorated my love for African literature.
As both an aspiring writer and an avid reader, I face constant battle over whether to dedicate the little spare time that I have to either reading or writing. That much of the past few months were spent training for the London Marathon has left precious little time for me to indulge in two of my favourite hobbies and consequently the writing of my own novel has, once more, been put on the back burner.
In a bid to get back on track with my own writing I borrowed On Writing by Stephen King – a book that has been praised by Caitlin Moran and recommended by a number of writers – both aspiring and published. Part memoir, part manual, On Writing looks back on King’s experiences as a writer – both good and bad – as he attempts to advise his readers ways in which they can hone and perfect their own writing ability.
I’ve never read any of King’s novels, but On Writing certainly made for a compelling read – the memories of his early years offered a wonderful insight into what made one of the world’s most successful authors. He is honest without being patronising and creates a ‘writer’s toolkit’ for his readers – one that comprises of a reading list, writing assignments, and basic advice on plot, characterisation, the basic building block of the paragraph and literary models.
It’s easy to see why On Writing is often hailed as a bible for budding writers and it has certainly given me some food for thought on ways in which I can improve my own.
As readers of my blog will know, I’m something of an avid reader. On the whole, I tend to read more novels written by women than men, though this is by no means a deliberate choice. Thus when the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announced their longlist just over a month ago, I was surprised to discover I had read just one of the chosen titles – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
For me, the best thing about a new list of books is the opportunity to discover writers you otherwise wouldn’t have read. Much like my endeavour to read my way through the BBC’s Big Read – a challenge that has meant I’ve read a number of books previously not on my radar – the Baileys Prize longlist has brought a number of new authors into the limelight.
And while I don’t imagine I’ll be able to come even close to finishing the 20 longlisted books ahead of the winner’s announcement in June, I will certainly use the opportunity to discover some books I’m yet to read.
Since I’ve been training for the London Marathon, my reading time has been culled; consequently I decided to begin with The Bear by Claire Coleman, one of the shorter books on the list. Inspired by the death of a couple who were killed by a bear when camping at Algonquin Park in 1991, The Bear is narrated by five-year-old Anna who finds herself alone with her brother – two year old Stick – in the Canadian wilderness after a bear attacks her parents in the middle of the night.
As adult readers, the danger the children are in is immediately evident, and the childish narration of the tale adds a huge vulnerability to the story. Cameron cleverly uses Anna’s memory as a way of bringing the family to life and giving the tale a background and the palpable confusion of the narrator adds an element of sheer terror as the children make their way through the woods in search of safety.
Both unique and unsettling, The Bear is a compelling and uneasy read that keeps its reader turning until the very last page. If the quality of the writing and story-telling is consistent throughout the rest of the Baileys Prize, it will no doubt prove to be a twenty-strong long list well worth reading.
Similar to writer’s block, there are times when, as a reader, I seem to hit a wall. This happened recently; I half-heartedly began a number of books but, unable to feign my interest, discarded them within a few days. And for someone whose favourite past-time is reading, it can be hugely frustrating.
Luckily, I was to come across a rather special book that would not only coax me out of my reading slump, but that would restore my love of words and of books.
Robin Black’s debut novel, Life Drawing, is the story of Augustus and Owen who move to the country to leave behind the demons of city life. They buy a barn with the inheritance from an aunt of Owen’s and envisage themselves devoting their lives to each other and their art – Gus as a painter, Owen as a writer.
Life is quiet and uneventful until Alison Hemmings, a recently divorced mother of one moves into the neighbouring barn, which has remained desolate, until now. A bond between the two women forms and they soon become each other’s closest confidant; unearthing past secrets that are long since buried.
The arrival of Alison’s teenage daughter Nora – both pious and passionate – changes the dynamic of the three neighbours and causes a sequence of events to unfold that lead to the novel’s climatic ending.
Masterfully written with exquisite prose, Life Drawing is compelling to its very last page. Black creates a world of both love and sorrow that is so full of suspense it is almost tangible. So beautiful was Life Drawing that I had to slow my reading pace towards its end to savour every last page. It truly is the perfect debut.
After reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – a big book by anyone’s standards – I vowed that the next novel I read would be a quicker read; and one that didn’t result in back ache from lugging its weight around. Thus, I chose Apple Tree Yard, a thriller by Louise Doughty generating much praise on Twitter.
The story begins when Yvonne Carmichael, an eminent geneticist in her early 50s, has a chance sexual encounter with a mysterious stranger in the House of Commons when she is there to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee. The prologue warns the reader how the affair will end – with the central character cross-examined in the dock of the Old Bailey as an accessory to murder – and the tale follows Yvonne as her life begins to unravel.
An angry undertone is evident throughout the novel as themes of violence against women, gender inequality and the consequences of a single drunken mistake are woven together to create the undoing of a happily married middle-aged woman.
The initial suspense the prologue affords Doughty is maintained throughout the novel, which is both cogent and eloquently written. The finest kind of page turner, Apple Tree Yard will have you gripped from start to finish.
I first heard of Donna Tartt many years ago. Newly graduated, I was interning at Bloombsury when someone recommended I read her debut novel, The Secret History. I was to later discover it was on the BBC’s Big Reads and indeed I thoroughly enjoyed it when I finally got around to reading it, some months after my internship at Bloomsbury ended.
Tartt later went on to release My Little Friend, after which there was an eleven year wait before The Goldfinch was published last year. As expected with such a heralded author, the book was met with high critical acclaim and so I swiftly added it to my Christmas wishlist. And so it was that having finished The Shock of the Fall, and knowing I needed something seriously good to follow it that I began Tartt’s third novel.
There is always the fear surrounding a long-awaited book that it simply won’t live up to its hype; though any concern that this would be true of The Goldfinch was swiftly abated.
Narrated by Theo Decker, the story opens in an Amsterdam hotel before moving back fourteen years to the day his mother dies, when Theo is on the cusp of manhood. They are visiting the New York Metropolitan Museum and are in separate rooms when a bomb goes off, killing Theo’s mother instantly. Theo returns home, having removed The Goldfinch – his mother’s favourite painting – from the debris of the museum, expecting to find his mother at their apartment only to be faced with the stark reality that she is dead.
What follows is the slow disintegration of life as Theo knows it. Initially looked after by the Barbours – a wealthy yet dysfunctional family of a classmate, he also befriends a local antiques dealer – the hugely likeable Hobbie, whose business partner also died in the explosion. Just as Theo adjusts to life with the Barbours his wayward father turns up with his new girlfriend in tow; and instructs Theo he’ll be moving to Las Vegas with them. In Vegas he meets Boris – a Ukrainian outsider with whom Theo develops a deep friendship and a penchant for both Russian vodka and illegal drugs.
The novel follows Theo as he passes from boyhood to adulthood, returning to his native New York. The painting of the Goldfinch remains at the very forefront of his mind – both as a thing of beauty and a constant reminder or his mother and is indeed the one constant in his life right until the novel’s last page.
At 770 pages or thereabouts, The Goldfinch is no quick read. Carrying it around with me proved endlessly tiresome but I simply could not put it down. So engrossed was I towards its climatic end that when on a tube home, rather than getting off at Baker Street I found myself in Pinner – five stops from Watford and somewhat dazed and confused.
Both astonishing and profound, The Goldfinch has been hailed by many as a modern masterpiece, and it is quite abundantly clear to see why.