Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

Maggie O’Farrell at Blackwell’s, Oxford

There’s a chance you’re aware that Maggie O’Farrell has a new novel out – I may have mentioned it. She is doing a series of events promoting the books, one of which was a talk at Blackwell’s in Oxford with Sarah Franklin. I hadn’t organised myself to get hold of a ticket, but then my amazing friend Sam ended up having a spare ticket and invited me along – what luck!

I’ve seen Maggie O’Farrell talk about her work before, but it was still great to hear her in conversation about her new book. Sarah Franklin was a great interviewer and their talk was fascinating – I wish it had been recorded so I could share it with you here. Luckily the event was live-tweeted on the Tinder Press feed, so you can get a taste of the conversation there. Maggie talked about her inspirations for the novel, and how a few ideas for it slowly grew over several years, and finally came together to form This Must Be The Place. She is a charming speaker and it was a great relaxed evening; I even summoned the courage to ask a question!

The event started with Maggie reading from the opening of the novel, which was lovely – I always appreciate hearing an author read their work as it was meant to sound. And the evening ended with an informal signing – I got another first edition hardback of Maggie O’Farrell’s signed, which was great, and got to tell her how much I loved the book and the evening. A success!

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Maggie O’Farrell reading from This Must Be The Place
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Another signed Maggie O’Farrell for the collection (of two so far…)

Can We Take a Minute to Appreciate the New Maggie O’Farrell Hardback?!

I recently reviewed Maggie O’Farrell’s new book This Must Be The Place, after the publisher kindly sent me a lovely review copy. It was a very attractive review copy, but my hardback copy arrived today from Wordery, and my goodness it is beautiful. Whoever came up with and executed its design deserves all the awards. Here it is:

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The printed cover is just lovely – it reflects the various countries featured in the novel, but also looks beautiful. Well done Tinder Press!

New Maggie O’Farrell! ‘This Must Be The Place’

I first started reading Maggie O’Farrell when the lovely Georgina Moore from Headline sent me a copy of her 2013 novel Instructions for a Heatwave. I fell in love with it and subsequently read two of O’Farrell’s earlier novels (The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and After You’d Gone). Now that I’ve read her brand new novel, This Must Be The Place, I am convinced that Maggie O’Farrell is like a fine wine, improving with age. I liked After You’d Gone (which was her first novel) but found it a little unpolished; Esme Lennox was better; and her two most recent novels are even better than that. Each has been more rich and complex than the last, and it is wonderful to see O’Farrell’s writing develop over time. That said I still plan to read some more of her earlier work, because I know it will still be great.

review copy courtesy of the publisher
review copy courtesy of the publisher

This Must Be The Place centres around Daniel Sullivan and his family. There are multiple timelines and chapters from multiple perspectives, but don’t let this complexity put you off. O’Farrell joins everything together with a common thread and the chapters are organised in such a way that each bit of the story leads into the next, and you don’t get lost or confused. It reminded a bit of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, in which multiple narrators present their version of the same story; here, a similar technique is used to create a rounded picture of a shared life. Daniel’s life is inextricably mixed up with those of his family members, and this web of lives is beautifully described. No one is completely alone, and everything that happens has some sort of ripple effect, demonstrating that family life is shared and nothing – and no one – is isolated within it. Even when the family are spread out across countries, their life is always connected.

The importance of family is an important theme in This Must Be The Place; the importance of family despite all the bad things. This novel is filled with imperfect relationships that felt true to life, full of ups and downs over the years and the small (and sometimes big) dramas of everyday life. Daniel’s story is slowly unfolded and developed, as is that of his wife Claudette, who, suffice to say, has had a rather interesting life. The fact that she used to be a film star and is now effectively a recluse, with the media not knowing if she is even still alive, could be a bit high concept; but O’Farrell tells her story with sympathy and enough feeling that we can see some of the complexity of Claudette and the situation she finds herself in, and although she has had a remarkable life, she still seems quite down to earth. Her story shows that when it comes to relationships and making the right choices, nothing is ever as simple or easy as you’d like it to be, and it is hard to please everyone. I admired her bravery and determination to choose her own life. I also loved the family home she creates in the wilds of Donegal – remote enough for her to remain hidden, and a wonderful place for the children to grow up. Daniel’s attachment to it (especially in the scene where he returns after having been away) is wonderful and epitomises the importance of time and place that is evident throughout the novel. He is American, and this isn’t where he came from, but it is most certainly his home. Similarly Claudette has made the place her own home, even though it is far away from her family in Paris. I suppose the point is that you must find your own place in the world, no matter how hard that might be.

This Must Be The Place is a very rich, immersive, and emotionally intelligent novel that will appeal to a lot of different readers. There is great universality here as well as the details of specific lives. I found the characters empathetic and relatable, believable as real people. Maggie O’Farrell has produced another winner, and I would recommend this book very highly.

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Published by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline, in May 2016. My thanks to the publisher for kindly sending a review copy.

Purchase from Foyles here.

WWW Wednesday: I’m finally joining in with a meme!

WWW Wednesday is the brainchild of ‘MizB’ over at Should Be Reading. Every Wednesday loads of book bloggers join in and I’ve enjoyed reading their posts, so thought I would finally get involved. The rules are very simple: all you have to do is answer three questions.

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

So here goes:

1.  I am currently reading Hild by Nicola Griffith. It is published on 24th July 2014 by Blackfriars, an imprint of Little Brown, and was very kindly sent to me early so that I could review it. It’s about 500 pages, and I’ve been reading it for over a week now, which isn’t usually a good sign for me – but I’m really enjoying it. It’s a huge hardback and really annoying to take to work with me, so I haven’t been reading it at lunch, which has slowed down my pace. I’m devoting lots of evenings to it though, and so far I love it. It is a fictionalised account of the life of St Hilda of Whitby, who lived in the middle of the 7th century. She was the niece of King Edwin of Northumbria and from a very early age was declared to be a ‘seer’ due to her connection with nature and her way of noticing things that others didn’t. From this dually privileged position she witnesses the upheavals of England and the intricacies of court life, all whilst trying to grow up and be a normal child. So far in my reading she’s only thirteen years old and it’s already very exciting and dramatic, so I can’t wait to see what the rest of the book holds.
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2.  I recently finished reading The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik, which I reviewed here. It covers a day in the life of the teenage Johanne. She wakes up to find her mother has locked her in her bedroom, and rather than trying to escape spends the day musing over her relationship with her mother, recent events in her life, and her new relationship with a young man named Ivar. Johanne and her mother are both quite, shall we say, odd individuals and have a very complicated relationship. Johanne is very religious, but is also preoccupied with images of violent sexuality, which burst out of the text and surprise the reader. I found The Blue Room to be one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read, and I can’t say I actually enjoyed it – although the writing is excellent, and I think Orstavik is a very brave writer.

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3.  I’m actually not 100% sure what I’m going to read next – I have a few choices! I think it will probably be After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell. Headline have recently reissued O’Farrell’s entire back catalogue with gorgeous new covers in the style of her latest novel, Instructions for a Heatwave (which I loved and review here). Mary-Anne at Headline kindly sent me a copy of After You’d Gone as her recommendation of which O’Farrell book I just had to read after I commented on how gorgeous the new covers were on Twitter (thank you Mary-Anne!). I’ve only read Heatwave and The Disappearing Act of Esme Lennox, so I’m very eager to read more and #discovermaggie (the official hashtag).

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I would love to hear your answers to the WWW Wednesdays questions!

 

 

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

2006 paperback cover. Image: headline.co.uk
2006 paperback cover. Image: headline.co.uk

After last week’s Maggie-fest, I went home, picked up my copy of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and read it in two days. It’s not very long, and my copy has quite wide set print, but I read it so quickly mostly because it was compulsive. It is, simply, an amazing book. Examined once the book is finished, the story is actually quite complicated and ‘sweeping’, but it is written quite simply and sensitively, taking in great emotions and drama but never – not once – being melodramatic or sensationalist.

The narrative I found to be almost dream-like at times, as it flits effortlessly between Esme in the 1930s, Iris in the mid 2000s, and Kitty’s stream-of-consciousness narrative from within her Alzheimer’s-riddled mind (also in mid 2000s). O’Farrell’s choice to give Kitty Alzheimer’s in her old age is the perfect device to demonstrate the importance of memory and perception within the wider story, as well as the ways in which we interpret our present lives.

Esme is a character so beautifully drawn that she could almost be analysed as if she were a real person. We see her in childhood, and in old age, with her fateful adolescence in between. Her experiences of early life in India – as well as the typhoid outbreak and the death of her ayah – reminded me very much of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden (one of my all-time favourites). Though Mary is completely abandoned and Esme remains with her family, both are taken away to a completely different life without being given a choice, and are expected to adapt to a new world that they do not understand at all. Esme’s ‘problem’ is that she is stubborn, independent, and defiant. She refuses to be bored, and this refusal dictates her entire life.

Mental health and societal perceptions of it are crucial to this story. In 1930s Edinburgh, a woman could be locked away for being deemed ‘difficult’ by male relatives, and left to languish in a psychiatric hospital. But it is not just these thankfully now outdated views that are examined. In the modern day narrative of Iris and the elderly Esme, mental health still has its stigmas. Iris’ stepbrother Alex cannot believe that she is taking on this ‘mad old woman’ who is apparently her great aunt. There is a mistrust of ‘madness’ and a fear of it, but also, it seems to me, a lack of understanding. Alex represents the view that it is best left alone.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is one of those deceptively simple books that stays with you long afterwards. It is a book that Maggie O’Farrell fans tend to really love, and I am not at all surprised. Brava, Maggie, brava.

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Published in 2006 by Headline.

Maggie O’Farrell Fever: The Heatwave Is Here!

This week sees the publication of the first book from Tinder Press, which is very exciting in itself; what’s even more exciting (I know) is the fact that it is the new novel by the much-loved Maggie O’Farrell. Instructions for a Heatwave is her sixth novel and the first of hers that I have read, although the interest and enthusiasm exhibited by dedicated fans for her novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox has got me reading that one now too. Personally I loved HeatwaveI reviewed it before Christmas and had to fight to stop myself gushing about how much I loved it.

In 1976 a heatwave struck Britain, halting life in its tracks and making people behave strangely. Robert Riordan goes out to buy the paper one morning and does not come back. His disappearance prompts his three estranged, grown up children to come home to their mother Gretta (a wonderfully drawn character that Maggie describes as ‘tragi-comic’), and their complicated and emotional relationships are reexamined in the light of their father’s mysterious disappearance. The three children, Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife are each given their own chapters and are depicted with enough depth of feeling as to almost make the reader feel as if they are real people.

To celebrate the publication of Instructions for a Heatwave, the amazing team at Tinder Press organised a host of events. On Tuesday 26th, excited fans (including me of course!) gathered at Waterstones Piccadilly to hear Maggie in conversation with The Observer’s Elizabeth Day, herself an admittedly huge fan of Maggie’s work. I already had a proof of the novel but I bought myself a lovely big hardback for Maggie to sign; it is a beautiful book, inside and out.

Gorgeous hardback!
Gorgeous hardback!

Maggie read beautifully from the book, and then sat down to a Q&A session with Elizabeth Day, taking questions from the audience as well. I’m always saying how interesting it is to hear an author talk about a book that you loved, and this occasion was no exception. To hear an author read their own work aloud is also fantastic, as you hear how it is ‘meant’ to sound, how it was first conceived of. Maggie has a lovely speaking voice and she read clearly and with great character, entertaining the audience and bringing this fantastic book and its characters to life.

Maggie couldn't help but laugh with the audience at the subtle humour in her novel
Maggie couldn’t help but laugh with the audience at the subtle humour in her novel

Elizabeth Day was a wonderful host and, having met Maggie before, created a lovely relaxed atmosphere in which discussion came easily. The audience was enraptured. When asked about feminism and gender issues, both in the novel and in real life, Maggie spoke of how feminism is ‘common sense’ to her and that she kept the radical feminist movement of the 1970s in mind when she wrote the character of Claire, Michael Francis’ wife, in the sense that Claire may have heard about these issues and was probably thinking about them when dealing with her troubled marriage and trying to create a place for herself in the world.

I was rather pleased by Maggie’s answer when Elizabeth Day asked her what she thought about being pigeonholed as a writer of ‘women’s fiction’ that was only about domestic life; Maggie argued that all life is really about family, as they are a crucial influence on us throughout our lives. In her research for Heatwave she read many books about families, and even found herself reading Hamlet – as she pointed out, that too is a story about a family.

Then came the inevitable discussion about the character of Aoife, the youngest sibling. She lives far away from the rest of her family in New York, and her life is something of a mystery to them. Her biggest secret is that she is not able to read, something she keeps from every single person in her life. To the reader it soon becomes clear that Aoife has dyslexia, as she describes how letters seem to move and change in front of her eyes. But of course Aoife lives in a world that does not yet recognise her condition, and she feels there must be something wrong with her. Her predicament creates, Maggie said, an interesting relationship between Aoife and the reader, as we know she is dyslexic but she does not. The reader is also the only one to share Aoife’s secret and this creates a deep sense of sympathy with her. To me she was the most real,  the most engaging, the most likeable. When asked why she chose to give Aoife dyslexia, Maggie’s answer was twofold: her son was diagnosed with dyslexia while she was writing the novel; and also that because Aoife is the youngest she felt that she needed some kind of curse or burden, like the youngest children often do in fairytales. This added, for me, an extra spark to Aoife’s character, and further marked her out as special in some way.

Maggie O'Farrell in conversation with Elizabeth Day
Maggie O’Farrell in conversation with Elizabeth Day

The next night it was the official launch party for Instructions for a Heatwave. After a long day at work I was ready to collapse on the sofa, but made my way over to a townhouse on Fitzroy Square for what turned out to be a really great evening. In two high-ceilinged green rooms, publishing bods, as well as authors, journalists, bloggers, and members of Maggie’s family (including her three adorable children) milled around and chatted, drinking champagne and white wine and eating yummy little canapes that were presented on a variety of impractically shaped platters (one was like a giant ruler, another was like a flight of stairs…). Having met Headline publicist extraordinaire Georgina Moore at the Waterstones event, I went over and said hello, and was introduced to two fellow bloggers, both called Amanda, from book blog One More Page and fashion and lifestyle blog The Women’s Room. It is always great to meet fellow bloggers and hear their perspectives on the book in question. The Women’s Room is more of a fashion blog but Amanda was really enthusiastic about Heatwave and very eager to hear more about book blogging, and I was happy to pass on my knowledge.

Mary-Anne Harrington, Tinder Press editor, congratulates Maggie
Mary-Anne Harrington, Tinder Press editor, congratulates Maggie

Mary-Anne Harrington from Tinder Press made a great little speech about Maggie and her work, and congratulated both the author and the publishing team for all their hard work. Maggie was then persuaded to come up and say a few words, and she was very gracious in accepting praise and very grateful that we had all turned out for the event. Then it was time for a splash more wine, and lots more mingling. I was lucky enough to chat to the lady of the hour, as well as Georgina and Sam Eades from Tinder Press, and Emily from editorial at Headline. Everyone was so welcoming and happy to be there, and the party had a great feel to it and plenty of chatter that I’m sure could be heard outside. Well done Tinder for organising such a great event!

Maggie O'Farrell thanks everyone for their support and for coming to the event
Maggie O’Farrell thanks everyone for their support and for coming to the event

I loved reading Instructions for a Heatwave, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the press events this week. Meeting Maggie and the amazing team at Tinder Press has been a joy, and has added an extra layer of appreciation for the work they do. I cannot wait for the Tinder Press launch party, to which most of the authors will be coming (amazing!!), and for the individual events to promote each title. Congratulations to Tinder and Maggie O’Farrell for a job well done.

Thanks Maggie!
Thanks Maggie!

Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

2013 Tinder Press edition (image: goodreads.com)
2013 Tinder Press edition (image: goodreads.com)

Instructions For A Heatwave is the sixth novel from the extremely popular Maggie O’Farrell, one of the titles from new imprint Tinder Press, and the first of her books I have read. O’Farrell was yet another one of those authors I had always heard good things about but for some reason had never actually read. To be honest I think part of the reason for that was because all the covers of her previous novels were a bit girly and swirly and pink, and that put me off a bit. They were clearly romantic and emotional and while that isn’t bad, they just seemed a bit fluffy. Think of that what you will.

Tinder Press is a new imprint from Headline, with all of its little collection of new titles coming out in 2013. The catalogue is beautiful, consisting of a set of postcards with the details of each book on them. Firstly the cover of Instructions For A Heatwave got my attention – it is generally rather pleasing, but also, crucially, looked modern and intelligent, probably because it doesn’t look like a cover I’ve seen before. The plot description was simple but also very appealing – a husband and father walks out on his family for no apparent reason; the estranged children come back to their mother, and secrets and drama unfold. Knowing O’Farrell’s reputation but never having taken the plunge with her, I was intrigued, and requested a copy.

I’m not going to say too much about this novel. From the start I loved O’Farrell’s writing; simple and honest, but beautiful too. I particularly liked the way she shifted perspective from one character to another within one scene, so elegant and smooth, so easy and graceful that you barely notice and when you do you are impressed and pleased. Her descriptions – of people, moods, emotions, thoughts and particularly places – are exceptionally beautiful and well thought out. Nothing here is generic or cliched.

Aoife flips a page over, realises that she hates this photographer’s work, that she met the man once and he was an arrogant pig. She eyes the long form of her brother [lying on the floor].

‘You OK?’ she says.

‘Mmmnnng,’ Michael Francis says, or thereabouts.

His face is pressed to the rag rug in what was once his sisters’ bedroom. It is, he suddenly sees, the best place in the world to be.

Those of you who have read her previous work probably know this, but O’Farrell really does understand all the complexities held within families. We feel a vast sum of emotions towards each family member and our history is always, always present, no matter how deep down or far back. O’Farrell lays everything bare; she is unafraid of the truths of family relationships, no matter how difficult. The relationships between siblings I found particularly moving and expertly crafted. Youngest (and most ‘difficult’) sibling Aoife, I fell in love with.

I did not want to reach the end of this book. It is one of the few I have awarded five stars on GoodReads, and I am certainly going to read more of O’Farrell’s work. I am so, so happy I chose this book – shows just how important covers are! Seen opaquely, the end could be thought of as a little too neat; but really there are a lot of questions still unanswered. You are left pondering it all for a long time after the book is closed.

*

Published in hardback in February 2013 by Tinder Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.