Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2014

Baileys logoOverjoyed to see the Baileys (nee Orange) Women’s Prize for Fiction come out early this morning and to recognise a few books that I have actually read and really enjoyed. And even more pleasure in the fact that there is now a list from which I am sure to find more that I might not have been aware of, to add to the ever-growing list.

It may be a women’s prize, but it celebrates diversity across generations, genres, countries and cultures, something that blogging has certainly encouraged as the recommendations and access to what is available out there is no longer limited by geographic borders and what’s on display in bookshops.

BaileysThe 20 titles are selected for excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women (in English) from throughout the world.

The judges had this to say:

“The judges feel that this is a fantastic selection of books of the highest quality – intensely readable, gripping, intelligent and surprising – that you would want to press on your friends, and the judges have been doing just that,” commented Helen Fraser, Chair of Judges. “There was a great deal of talent and exciting writing in the books that were submitted this year and we hope that between now and the announcement of the shortlist on 7th April many readers will want to share the enjoyment we have had with these 20 terrific novels.”

And the longlisted titles are:

Baileys1Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieAmericanah –  Nigerian – My review here 

Margaret AtwoodMaddaddam – Canadian

Suzanne BerneThe Dogs of Littlefield – American

Fatima BhuttoThe Shadow of the Crescent Moon – Pakistani - My review here

Claire CameronThe Bear – Canadian

Lea CarpenterEleven Days – American

M.J. CarterThe Strangler Vine – British – 1st Novel

Baileys2Eleanor CattonThe Luminaries  – New Zealand/Canadian – my review here

Deborah Kay DaviesReasons She Goes to the Woods – British

Elizabeth GilbertThe Signature of All Things – American – my review here 

Hannah KentBurial Rites – Australian

Rachel KushnerThe Flamethrowers  – American

Jhumpa LahiriThe Lowland – Indian/American

Baileys3

Audrey MageeThe Undertaking  – Irish

Eimear McBrideA Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Irish

Charlotte MendelsonAlmost English – British

Anna QuindlenStill Life With Bread Crumbs – American

Elizabeth StroutThe Burgess Boys – American – my review here

Donna TarttThe Goldfinch  – American

Evie WyldAll the Birds, Singing  – British - my review here

So, one month to read a few more from the list – I will definitely be reading Evie Wyld, I have The Goldfinch, but that’s my summer chunkster, so I’m saving that for August, I’d like to read Hannah Kent’s novel Burial Rites set in Iceland and based on a true story, I have mentioned that numerous times to people and not got around to reading it myself yet. I am curious about The Flamethrowers and Fatima Bhutto’s book sounds interesting.

So what titles are you considering?

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is a prolific and engaging storyteller known for the occasional touch of magical realism and an ability to transport her reader into the worlds she creates.

She wrote one of my favourite books Blackbird House, referred to by some as a collection of short stories, the connecting thread running through each story being an old Massachusetts house, the narrative tracing the lives of its various occupants over a span of 200 years. The house bears witness to change through each family’s loved ones and the lives they live inside Blackbird House.

Since that haunting book I have kept an eye out for her work and when I read the premise of this new novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I was more than intrigued. It is set in 1917 New York, when things of a freakish nature fascinated and amusement parks were becoming bigger and bolder in their scope, trying to outdo each other with what they offered the public.

Museum of Extraordinary Things

Professor Sardie is an eccentric French scientist and magician, who came to America seeking his fortune and when we meet him, he has opened a museum of extraordinary living oddities in a room connected to his home on Coney Island, New York. He lives there with his daughter Coralie and Maureen, the woman he has hired to take care of his daughter, herself an extraordinary being, a loving and devoted carer and the victim of disfiguring burns over her face and body.

In addition to the museum, he is constantly thinking up new exhibits and working on bizarre projects in the basement cellar, a den that no one but he has access to.

The story has a dual narrative, firstly from the point of view of his daughter Coralie who becomes part of her father’s exhibit alongside performers including the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. She has been trained since a small girl to withstand extreme cold and secretly swims along the Hudson River to build up her strength.

The second narrative is from the perspective of a young Russian-Ukrainian immigrant, Eddie Cohen, who has drifted away from his father and the Lower East Side Orthodox community where they lived, having fled persecution in their homeland. Leaving his job as a tailor’s apprentice, he first works for a psychic investigator finding missing people and then attaches himself to a photographer leading eventually to work for a newspaper. He too has a fascination with the Hudson River and it is here that Coralie will catch her first glimpse of the young man, she will become fascinated by.

“A motherless boy is hardened in many ways yet will often search for a place to deposit his loyalty and devotion. Eddie had found this in the city he saw as one great and tormented beauty, one ready to embrace him when all others turned away.”

Dreamland Circus, Coney Island, New York  1917

Dreamland Circus, Coney Island, New York 1917

Hoffman writes the story of the lives of these two characters and others, eventually bringing them together, while sharing two significant tragic events in New York’s history in 1911. During one of these events a young woman goes missing and it is this mystery that will ultimately bring the young couple together.

The city and the river are themselves like characters, struggling to live in harmony, with the knowledge that one will eventually encroach on the other and destroy its peaceful surrounding. For now the river is like a refuge and the city a menace that threatens to overthrow its flanks, bringing dark elements to its shores.

Wolf Hudson

The Museum of Extraordinary Things brings New York City and the conditions of 1911 alive. The river, the streets and the changing landscape between them are sketched using all the senses as we step into the lives of characters living on the edge of society trying to survive. We observe those for whom it comes naturally to exploit the weak while witnessing the compassionate few who will risk everything including life itself to do the opposite.

It is a riveting read, transporting us to an era when fantasy and the imagination were sought as a literal means of escape and we look behind the scenes of an extraordinary, freakish world. Spellbinding!

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Write A Book Review, Anyone Can Do It

GyannA little while ago I received a request from Corinne, an inspirational blogger from Mumbai in India, who shares her thoughts on keeping life simple, authentic and holistic at Everyday Gyann.

She recently started another blog called Write Tribe – Motivation and Support for Writers and Bloggers.  Write Tribe sometimes offers books for review to its followers and as Corinne is a loyal follower of Word by Word, she asked if I could write a post on How to Write a Book Review.

Write Tribe

I’m not a rule follower myself, but I decided to share my thoughts on this habit I have been practising for the last two years, as when something becomes a regular habit, there develop patterns. So I wrote 10 tips on writing a book review and then added number 11 which is to ignore the rules!

The Review Notebooks!

The Review Notebooks!

If you would like to read my thoughts on writing a book review, you can read them in Corinne’s three-part series over at Write Tribe, just follow the links below.

How To Write A Book Review – Part 1

How To Write A Book Review – Part 2

How To Write A Book Review – Part 3

Thanks again Corinne for the invitation and I hope this might encourage readers of this blog who might have been considering it, to go ahead and write a review too.

Claire

The Missing One

The Missing OneFellow French resident Rosemary who blogs at Aussie in France, mentioned this book after reading my review of Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo, a novel written in letters, which is also an unravelling of a mystery, where a woman seeks to understand who her mother really was in those years before she was born.

GesternIn Gestern’s book, the mother died when the daughter was only 4 years old, it took her more than 30 years to begin searching.

Lucy Atkins protagonist Kal is 38 years old, the mother of an 18 month old boy Finn and living in England when her mother dies. It is both her death and the discovery of suspicious text messages on her husbands telephone that prompt her somewhat irrational, spur of the moment decision to dig into her mother’s past, the period around her birth, when she lived in North America.

Kal is grieving not just her mother’s death, but a loss she can’t explain, the reason her relationship with her mother was so fraught, what it was she reminded her of that seemed to cause such angst. On an impulse, she runs away from confronting her own relationship difficulties, an escape that carries her to the small island of Spring Tide, near Vancouver to find Susannah, a woman who sent her mother a postcard on the same day every year, a friend she had never ever mentioned.

Orca by Ayman

Orca by Ayman

Lucy Atkins brings an air of tension and menace to the story, as those with knowledge of the questions Kal is asking actively avoid answering to prevent her from finding out. She creates a story with pace and suspense while a captivating back-story recounts to the reader little by little the events that occurred in her mother Elena’s life leading up to her birth.

The author evokes this sense of place well, although for a British woman arriving on a small Canadian island for the first time, she makes few observations relating to its foreignness, we forget that she is in a place where we would likely be noticing many of the differences of a foreign culture, although it might be said that Kali is completely blinded by her grief and outrage, because she makes plenty of decisions that will make the average reader gasp in disbelief. If anything, England felt more foreign and the wildness of Canada described with real familiarity.

Orca by Allia

Orca by Allia

The author uses a dual narrative technique to tell  a little of the back-story of Kal’s mother Elena’s life.  She met her British husband while doing a PhD at a university in California, and as the story will reveal, ended up in Canada.

The narrative around the mother and the sharing of her passion for sea creatures, their unique behaviours, relationships and ways of communicating – did you know that orca whales speak in different dialects? – was a fascinating distraction from the drama of our foolhardy heroine and the not so friendly friend she pursued for enlightenment.

Atkin’s uses various “mystery” devices to create intrigue, like failing to mention characters that would have been present in the narrative and mind of the character, and although this sometimes interrupted my reading occasionally, ultimately I just wanted to continue to know what was going to happen, especially as there was a young child involved!

An Island Floathouse

An Island Floathouse

It was an enjoyable read  even though I was a aware at times of the author pulling strings in the narrative to create effect and had to try to stop myself from expecting that Kal act more sensibly or true to her instinct, as anyone who has ever had an 18 month old baby would likely agree, her journey was indeed just what she needed to teach her some sense.

I took this book with me on a flight to London and it was the perfect in-flight read, no likelihood of dozing with The Missing One, you’ll want to stay awake until its finished.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley and Artwork provided by my children, one who likes to draw, the other who likes to make digital art. Yes, it’s the school holidays!

The Foundling Boy – Le jeune homme vert

Foundling2Thank you to publisher Gallic Books, who noticing that I had recently read The Lost Domain (le Grand Meaulnes) by Alain-Fournier suggested I might also enjoy Michel Déon’s The Foundling Boy. Originally written in French Le jeune homme vert was first published in 1975 and now translated into English for the first time, is beginning to be enjoyed by readers of the English language.

Set in Grangeville, Normandy in the inter-war years prior to WWII, it is a coming-of-age story of the young Jean Arnaud, who starts his life in a basket on the doorstep of Albert, a one-legged war veteran, now a pacifist gardener cum caretaker  and his wife Jeanne, who raise the child as their own.

Jean grows up in the shadow of Michel and Antoinette, children of Antoine de Couseau, an errant landowner whose father built up a fortune, only for his son to slowly lose it all – unsurprisingly as much of the first 200 pages is spent in his company, a man who whenever challenged by his wife or confronted by business decisions, takes to his latest model Bugatti, a car he replaces every year and heads south, following what becomes a well-worn trail via Lyon, Aix, St Tropez to Menton, allegedly to see his grown daughter Genevieve, recuperating in a hospital residence from lung problems.

The visits rarely last longer than a wave from the window before he heads off to enjoy the hospitality and warm sheets of various mistresses en route and this being France of course, the husbands all take it in their stride.

There is a real fascination throughout the novel for unique cars that love to take to the road. I went back to look at the references which I probably glossed over in my first read, now much more knowledgeable about Ettore Bugatti and his racing cars, from the 1923 Type 22 here on the left through many other models to the 1938 57SC Atlantic on the right. And Antoine de Couseau is not the only character whom Jean Arnaud meets, to possess a similar fascination. For being raised a peasant, he has seen many a luxurious interior when it comes to cars.

Jean too, has a love of his bike and travel and will spend four days in London, developing a taste and allure for freedom and adventure and not long after will follow in the footsteps of the writer Stendhal to Milan, Florence and Rome, meeting up with Ernst, a German lad who is following a similar trail in the footsteps of Goethe, his father’s hero – having swapped his son’s copy of Mein Kampf for Goethe’s Italienische Reise (Italian Journey).

Arnauds JourneyThe two young men share adventures, debate philosophical perspectives and encounter the fragility of friendship in the face of prejudice and racism.

Losing everything and having almost become the amoureux slave of a restaurant proprietor, who offers him a job so he can earn enough money to return home, Jean finally returns making the acquaintance of Palfry on his way, only to discover things at home vastly changed.

Throughout all Jean’s experiences, there are the interactions with family, friends, neighbours, villagers and people he meets along the way, it is not enough to accept the wisdom of others, he wants to explore for himself, whether it is the landscapes of neighbouring countries or the social acquaintances of his friend Palfry, a man who gave him a ride in his car dressed as a priest and whom he meets at various stages in his life who teaches him that things are not always as they seem. Ultimately, this searching might also be to understand who he really is, something within him, but that he also seeks outside from those he knows, the mystery of his birth.

“What is certain is that, overnight, Jean Arnaud matured by several years, learning that a priest may also be a plotter, and that without being thieves and murderers men might have to hide from the police because they were defending a noble cause. The world was not built of flawless blocks, of good and bad, of pure and impure. More subtle divisions undermined the picture he had so far been given of morality and duty. “

Fairly early on, it occurred to me that nearly every female character was caricatured as something of an object, the neighbour’s daughter, the house-maids, the women Antoine de Courseau encounters on his travels, even his daughter Geneviève becomes a ‘kept’ woman.

While it is an engaging and entertaining read, that moves along at the rambling, colourful pace of a joy-ride in a Bugatti, it began to feel like a book written for men, for it is they who travel (with the exception perhaps of Geneviève), have adventures, engage in meaningful banter, witty dialogue and to whom much of the advice within is given.

I admit to a moment of despair in being unable to think of one woman with redeeming qualities, that a female reader might relate to, why even the landlady of the Bed & Breakfast in Dover drags the poor 13-year-old youth off to the pub keeping him there till closing, Jean’s first impression of England is certainly one that stays long in his memory.

Jean purchases himself a notebook early on in his journeys and in his letters and notes, we are witness to how he begins to see the world:

I’ve bought myself a notebook where I’ve started making a few notes:

a) Duplicity: absolutely necessary for a life without dramas. You have to harden your heart. I need to be capable, without blushing to my roots, of sleeping with a woman and then being a jolly decent chap to her lover or husband. This is essential. Without it society would be impossible.

I guess, we could just say it is delightfully French and certainly the women are not portrayed as victims, quite the opposite in many cases, but they did make this reader pause for reflection. An eye-opening, memorable journey through the European landscape whilst inhabiting a very French culture and perspective.

Michel Déon inhabits his male characters with pride and indeed enjoys himself so much, he can’t help but put himself into the narrative from time to time speaking with much enthusiasm and familiarity directly to the reader. And with good reason, for it has been said of his young hero that:

“The character of Jean Arnaud has been heralded as one of French literature’s great adolescents, alongside Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, Stendhal’s Julien Sorel and Alain-Fournier’s Augustin Meaulnes.”

les vingt ans

Michel Déon has the last say, as he leaves Jean Arnaud in a military camp on the eve of war, a sealed envelope in his pocket with instructions not to open it unless he is in extreme need, his life full of promise yet hardly begun by telling us not to worry about those things he has not revealed, that here he was a foundling boy and in another book, he will tell the story of how his protagonist becomes a man.

The sequel, The Foundling’s War (Les Vingt Ans du Jeune Homme Vert) is due to be translated into English and published also by Gallic Books. I am intrigued to know what Jean Arnaud makes of life given his experience thus far and how war might change him. Watch this space!

The Crane Wife

The Extraordinary Happens Every Day

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls

You may remember that last year Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls was one of my few 5 star reads for the year, a young adult novel, it told the story of a teenage boy coping with his mother’s illness and his nightly visits from a tree-like monster creating an allegory that captures the angst and silent rage of a fearful boy like nothing I have ever read.

Not only is the storytelling incredible as well as moving, the author was telling a story that another author Siobhan Dowd wanted to tell, but her own illness kept her from doing so. If you haven’t read it, keep an eye out for it, it is a timeless classic.

I had seen a few reviews for The Crane Wife, an adult novel by Patrick Ness that sounded intriguing and when our local English bookstore put the hardcover version of it out in their sale, I snapped it up and immediately stopped everything I was reading to begin reading. Such is the power of words written by Patrick Ness for this reader. He is a writer who deftly uses a touch of magic realism which I like, not to dwell in it all the time, but when used sparingly with purpose to elevate or create a turning point in a story, I find it no trouble to accept.

The Crane Wife is inspired by the Japanese myth of the same name Ness was read in kindergarten by the Japanese-American teacher he adored, in which a sail maker finds an injured crane and helps it and the next day a mysterious woman walks into his life, whom he falls in love with and marries. She tells him, “I can weave you beautiful sails, as long as you don’t watch me weave”. She does so, they grow rich, until he becomes too consumed by greed and curiosity and breaks his promise, only to experience irretrievable loss.

The_Crane_Wife__pentaptych_by_Crooty

The story stayed with the author over the years and then many years later he heard The Decemberists song The Crane Wife 1 which captured the emotion of the story just as he felt it. It was the catalyst to start writing, he was ready to tell the story that had been in incubation for so long. And what a beautiful song, I can’t stop listening to it myself.

In this novel, George wakes one morning to hear a mournful keening come from his backyard and in the freezing temperatures, investigates to find a large crane with an arrow shot through its wing. He assists the crane and then watches it fly off. The next day in his print shop as he is working on his latest obsession, making paper cut-outs from second-hand abandoned books, in walks a woman we come to know as Kumiko, an event that marks the beginning of an artistic and love bound encounter, touching the lives of George, his daughter Amanda and those close to them.

George is in his 40′s and in something of a comfortable rut, amicably divorced, running his small shop with the help of Mehmet, his assistant and alter-ego. His daughter Amanda lives alone with her son Jean-Pierre, her uncontrollable anger having driven out her French husband, despite their still burning love.

Crane Wife

There is much unsaid between characters and that which is communicated, isn’t always done so as it was intended, until Kumiko and George begin to collaborate through their art, work that affects all who see it, accessing those uncommunicative wordless depths and giving them expression. The work affects them all, artists and observers.

It is a story about humanity, how even those who act out of kindness make mistakes, are tempted by greed and suffer tragic consequences. It is also about how a story changes depends on who is telling it, the power of the imagination in creating different perspectives, viewed in the shadow or in the light. Kumiko says,

‘A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’

‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.

‘Yes,’ Kumiko said, seriously. ‘Exactly that. The extraordinary happens all the time. So much, we can’t take it. Life and happiness and heartache and love. If we couldn’t put it into a story-’

‘And explain it-’

‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp. ‘Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never, all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely, would.’

In the beginning I was reminded a little of Nick Hornby, the London novel set in a shop, the banter between employer and employee, the vulnerable, angry young woman, the great dialogue and strong characters that come to life from the very first pages and the immediate interest in what will befall them, wondering what consequences their flaws will make manifest. But then Kumiko walks in, a traveller from afar and I remember this is Patrick Ness, something extraordinary is going to happen, even if it is not immediately apparent.

He writes with compassion and as a reader I trust him, whether it’s tragedy, darkness or exhilaration, he handles it all with responsibility, without resorting to cliché and makes me want to slow read every word.

Coincidentally, yesterday on The Guardian, Patrick Ness participated in the books podcast performing an exclusive short story, an addition to his short story collection for adults Topics About Which I Know Nothing which is to be republished and talked to Claire Armistead about writing short stories and the differences in writing for adults and teenagers.

Armistead thought he was being coy about the differences between young adult (YA) and adult fiction, suggesting YA books had a ‘more cheerful trajectory’ to which he replied:

‘I always say the concerns of a teenage novel tend to be about testing your boundaries and finding out who you are and finding out the limits of yourself and crossing those limits and discovering it hurts or discovering that it’s a new thing that you can be and are, and an adult novel tends to be …about someone whose boundaries are already solidified and the story tends to be about what happens when you are taken outside those boundaries or how those boundaries are limited to you …both make for fantastic stories, intellectual ones, complex ones, the concerns might be different, but it’s not a simplistic thing, that you must be direct in one and indirect in another’ Patrick Ness

Literary Blog Hop Winners!

literarybloghop

Thank you so much to you all for entering and participating in the Literary Blog Hop and visiting Word by Word and thanks to Judith at Leeswammes for hosting it.

I was happy to offer two books that I read very recently and given that I read books by authors from 22 countries last year (What Do We Read?), it seemed appropriate to offer a book that had been translated from a foreign language, alongside a shiny new book just published this month.

Therefore, I am delighted to announce two winners, firstly thanks to the Penguin Group for offering a beautiful copy of Robin Oliveira’s historical novel I Always Loved You.

This book will soon be winging its way to …

I Always Loved You

Jenna Sauber!

And for those who courageously put their name down to read this French literary gem, translated into English, Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report will soon be on its way to…

Le Rapport de Brodeck

Le Rapport de Brodeck

Susanna P!

Thanks again to everyone who visited my blog and was able to enter, happy reading to the winners and thank you to those who have decided to follow Word by Word, I hope you find some good recommendations here.