Literary Prizes

The Finding of Martha Lost – Caroline Wallace

Posted in Books about Books, Literary Prizes on March 10th, 2016 by admin – Be the first to comment

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Publication Date – 10th March 2016

Publisher – Doubleday

The Finding of Martha Lost is a glorious, glittering kaleidoscope of a novel with vivid, magical characters popping into view with each turn of the page. In this tale of objects, feelings and relationships lost and found, there is the most beautiful backdrop of characters who wouldn’t look out of place in the Commedia dell’Arte with Martha Lost making an excellent Columbine/Pierrette or perhaps, in more modern times a scatty Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

So, where is the exotic setting for all this magical mayhem – why, Lime Street Station, Liverpool of course! Under the grime and the soot, there’s a world of humour and whimsy but not without its undercurrent of sadness. Martha’s Mother with a most definite capital M, ensures that Martha remains tied to the station, like the Liver Birds chained to the Royal Liver Building.

Caroline Wallace’s novel is a veritable smorgasbord with lots to delight the reader – The Beatles, a Roman Soldier on the 17.37 from Chester, lemon drizzle cake, the Heatwave of 1976 and last but not least Kevin Keegan who may have tugged on my heartstrings in the mid 70s with his curly locks…

I like to conclude reviews by stating similarities between the book in question and others but Caroline Wallace’s novels defy categorisation. In the immortal words of Dana, this really is “all kinds of everything”.

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The Book of Summers – Emylia Hall

Posted in Dual Time Frame, Literary Prizes, Proofs on April 27th, 2012 by admin – 6 Comments

 

Title:   The Book of Summers
 
Publisher:   Harlequin
 
Imprint:   HarlequinMIRA
 
Pub Date:   May 29, 2012
 
ISBN:   9780778314110

My Rating = 4 stars

I seem to have had a few Proustian moments with this novel  as different smells and sounds brought me back to my youth just as the protagonist explores her past via her own book, The Book of Summers.  Admittedly my own past was somewhat less eventful and less traumatic than that of Beth Lowe but I really enjoyed the atmosphere of nostalgia, the memories of summers past and, I think, despite the sadness, a certain optimism about the future all of which added up to an enjoyable read for me.

The “summers” of the title are the seven vacations which Beth spent with her mother, Marika, in Hungary.  In the present-day narrative, thirty year old Beth is leading a very quiet, almost reclusive life, working in an art gallery in London, but the tranquillity is fractured when her father makes an impromptu visit bringing with him a parcel which, once opened, lets loose all the memories Beth has tried so hard to suppress.  The Book of Summers is the scrapbook memoir which Marika had compiled over the seven summers Beth enjoyed with her in Hungary – memories of hot dry summers, bathing in ponds, first love, wandering in the wilds – all of which form a sharp contrast with home, a rather dreary Devon with a quite depressed Dad who can’t really compete with the exotic wild whirlwind created by Marika.

Of course, such idyllic days were bound to be disrupted and you really feel for the young Beth/Erzi.  Her only hope of closure as an adult is to relive those days via the Book of Summers.

Once, when she was trying to explain why she’d returned to Hungary, Marika said, Sometimes if you don’t go backward, you can’t move forward.

This is an impressive, evocative debut which will transport the reader to another time, another place.  I’m looking forward to reading more from this talented young writer.

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Gold – Chris Cleave

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Literary Prizes, Proofs on April 5th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

Published
07/06/2012

Publisher
Sceptre

My Rating – 5 gold stars!

I am not particularly interested in sport, neither as participant nor spectator so if I hadn’t been swept away by Chris Cleave’s previous writing, it is doubtful that I’d have picked up a novel with 3 Olympic cyclists as key characters.  Anyone who passes over Gold for this reason is passing up on the chance of a whirlwind of a reading experience so don’t let those miserable memories of despotic PE teachers put you off and give your brain a gentle work out in the process.

So, let’s set the (Olympic..) record straight, this is not a novel about sporting superhumans, even though they are pretty impressive…we dig deep and discover what makes real people tick when faced with adversary, when illness of a loved one brings you to your knees and you’re powerless to do anything but hope that your child is one of the 9 in 10 who survive.

Gold focuses on the experiences of five main characters – 8 year old Sophie who is fighting leukaemia, her parents Jack and Kate, Olympic cyclists preparing for the London games alongside their friend/rival Zoe and trainer Tom.  All of the adults are nearing the end of their current careers and have one last shot at Olympic Gold whilst Sophie has the hardest fight of all, the battle to stay alive whilst undergoing aggressive treatment which lowers your defences even further.  She uses her imagination and love of Star Wars to harness the Jedi force – anything which encourages a fighting spirit and a positive attitude is going to aid her in the ultimate battle – to stay alive.

From the opening pages, I was fully engaged and committed to this story.  Cleave doesn’t pull on our heartstrings by thrusting sugary-sweet, put upon characters on the reader, they’re all flawed, fully fleshed and make the same mistakes as the rest of us mere mortals.  Sophie’s story is presented in gritty technicolour – there’s no soft focus when she experiences the side effects of chemo or as her last hair falls out.  Kate and Zoe have diametrically opposed public personas when it comes to the media – Kate is the people’s princess,  Zoe, the wicked witch with a touch of glam.  I loved how we are drip-fed snippets of their back stories to explain how they are what they are in the present day.  Tom the trainer has made these cyclists his focus and his family for so many years but now he has to acknowledge the ravages of time and take another path, one which will put less stress on his dodgy knees. Jack seems to be slightly at a loss, a bit piggy in the middle at times.

I was most pleasantly surprised by Gold – my only criticism is to do with the marketing of the novel rather than the novel itself.  The whole device in the blurb about how this is where we normally tell you what the book is about  but we’re not going to tell you because you don’t really need to know.  For goodness sake, tell them what it’s about and stop the superior self-importance. 

Gold is probably the closest I’m going to get to the Olympics but, more importantly, if we all had an ounce of the fighting spirit displayed by young cancer patients like Sophie, we’d all be winners.  Thank you Mr Cleave for a story well told.

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The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

Posted in American Fiction, Literary Prizes on August 7th, 2011 by admin – 8 Comments

I first heard about The Sisters Brothers when it recently made it onto the Man Booker Longlist – perversely enough, it was all the mutterings about it not being a suitable nominee plus some irresistible cover lust which made me even keener to read it.

Firstly, a word of warning…this is not a pretty novel, it’s set back in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush when men were men and horses didn’t have whisperers.  There are scenes of cruelty, to both animals and humans,  so best to move on if this would detract from your reading enjoyment.

It is 1851, the Californian Gold Rush is in full swing and our narrator, Eli Sisters, hired killer, is accompanying his older brother Charlie on an eventful journey from Oregon to Sacramento, to track down and kill one Hermann Kermit Warm.  Their quest has an epic feel to it as they encounter a range of wild and wonderful characters en route, think Don Quixote meets the Coen and Blues Brothers with a dash of Cormac Mc Carthy thrown in for good measure.  Yet, it doesn’t seem derivative and ends up being a really fresh, original piece of work – defying categorisation.

Eli is a psychopath with a (slight) conscience and therein lies the conflict between the brothers.  Even as he relates their latest killing in his usual deadpan tone, you know his heart is no longer in it and he longs for a different life, even suggesting opening a store – Charlie is not particularly open to the idea…  Their story is compelling but unsettling, dark but humorous and so cinematic, you can just visualise their adventures rolling onto the big screen.

A very special novel which will entertain a wide range of readers including those biblio-butterflies who like a change of genre every now and then.

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Far to Go – Alison Pick

Posted in Dual Time Frame, Historical Fiction, Literary Prizes on August 4th, 2011 by admin – 7 Comments

One of the longlisted novels for the Booker Prize 2011,  Far to Go is certainly attracting a lot of attention from readers and all with good reason -  it’s a refreshing look at a period of history which should never grow stale in our minds no matter how many years go by.

The main focus of the novel is on the Bauers, a young, secular Jewish family living in Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia which has been invaded by Germany.  Pavel, a wealthy factory owner, Anneliese, his stunning, self obsessed wife and their six year old son, Pepik flee to Prague hoping to leave the ominous shadow of the Nazis behind them.  Marta, their dutiful Gentile governess, accompanies them, not so much out of duty but because they’re all she’s got – she doesn’t hold Jews in the highest regard but, like a lot of ordinary Europeans caught up in the war, she  probably wouldn’t be able to tell you why.   Eventually, all hopes are lost apart from those pinned on little Pepik who is sent on the Kinderstransport to the UK, hoping to be reunited with his family and Marta after the war.

Despite having studied WWII as part of  my History O Level course (many, many moons ago..) my knowledge has remained rather sketchy until recently when I have had the good fortune to read some excellent fiction set during this period.  Reading about the Bauers and their efforts (including bribery) to get Pepik out of Czechoslovakia will enlighten readers about the Kinderstransport and the heartache of separation albeit for a greater good, or what they thought was a brighter future… 

As well as educating the reader, this novel also achieves a more balanced view of events as the narrator who divulges the Bauers’ fate and who also holds their fate in her hands, is a Gentile with no political aspirations.  Marta, the governess, is more concerned with looking after Pepik and protecting him from the growing anti-semitic feeling which is gripping Sudetenland.  She has little in common with her conniving adulterous lover, Ernst, who hopes to gain financially from Pavel’s downfall.  Still, she’s no saint either and self-preservation is at the forefront of everyone’s mind be they Jew or Gentile, Czech or German.

What I love about Far to Go is its simplicity and unpretentiousness – the characters are flawed, real flesh and blood creations who find themselves in the most surreal of situations and whilst they aren’t always the most likeable they are all the more credible as a result.  Yes, it’s a story which will affect you emotionally but it doesn’t dwell on sentimentality and presents the truth in simple prose, in black and white.  The one minor difficulty I did have was getting into the rhythm of the story as several narrative strands are introduced very quickly, almost on top of each other – the story of the Bauers set in 1939, a contemporary storyline whose narrator remains a mystery until later and also letters written by Jewish parents to the children they sent to the UK.   However, this is just a minor quibble for me and it quickly becomes a compelling, coherent read.

Alison Pick has carved a fresh, fictional work out of the past experiences of her Czech grandparents who fled to Canada following Hitler’s invasion of their native country.  It’s a fitting tribute to all those who did not survive and those children who were never reunited with their parents.

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The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale

Posted in Dual Time Frame, Literary Fiction, Literary Prizes on January 26th, 2011 by admin – 13 Comments

Angels, apes, soldiers, scientists, Mahler, love, relationships, militant atheists, terrorists – phew, I dread to think what Nigel Farndale fits in his man-bag, considering the amount of material he manages to fit into this, his Costa Award shortlisted novel.   Thankfully, I am not a minimalist, definitely not in my home and most certainly not in my reading life, so I became quickly engrossed in The Blasphemer.

The novel has multiple layers, it’s a dual time-frame narrative with one story set in war-torn France in 1917 involving the desertion of one Andrew Kennedy from his regiment, the other story set in contemporary England where Andrew’s great-grandson Daniel, a lecturer in Zoology, is perhaps guilty of deserting his wife.  Usually, with these split narrative novels, I find myself much more drawn to the historical rather than the contemporary plot but, with The Blasphemer, I found myself enjoying each narrative equally, okay, if pushed, the gripping accounts of life on the front line at Passchendaele, edged it for me, but only slightly…  As if the two meaty storylines weren’t enough to carry, Farndale has included many thematic threads such as atheism, duty, what it means to be brave, ever-evolving relationships as well as the mystery of a missing Mahler symphony.

I know that the “busyness” of the different themes/topics has proved irksome for some readers but for me it works as the author’s hand is in firm control at all times yet not so heavy as to seem intrusive.  I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by The Blasphemer as I expected a much more superficial story, indeed it was one of the few recent novels I found myself discussing with my husband, particularly the notion of bravery versus cowardice and how quick folk are to judge.  So, it’s a most definite thumbs up from me and I look forward to reading more by this author.

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Foster by Claire Keegan

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Literary Prizes on January 19th, 2011 by admin – 2 Comments

Wow! What an absolutely beautiful, scintillating gem of a book – 96 pages of pure perfection.  If I was to recommend a book to all of my friends, both avid and reluctant readers, it would be this, described as a “long, short story” rather than a novella.

Winner of the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award in 2009, Claire Keegan has excelled herself here, in a long story which was originally published in a shorter form, in The New Yorker.  Without giving away too much of the plot, our narrator, an unnamed young girl, is taken by her father to a farm in Wexford to be “fostered” out to the Kinsellas for the summer months while her mother gets ready for the birth of yet another child.  The impression given is that the girl comes from a near-impoverished background with a father who is a loafer and a mother who strives to keep their heads above water.  Therefore, she is thrown into a totally alien environment amongst strangers – yes, its rural, farm setting is similar to her own home but there the similarities end.

Foster is too short to be a coming of age story but it is certainly a “coming of awareness” story in that our narrator’s view of the world is vastly expanded in the space of one hot summer, and we don’t have many of those in Ireland, I can tell you!   I loved the fact that it’s not a sterotypically Irish tale of woe and misery – of course, alcohol does feature but in the context of a wake at which it is the norm to toast the deceased.  Instead it’s a timeless tale of rural Irish life in which the bleatings of the outside world are somewhat muffled.  Indeed, apart from a passing reference to the death of one of the strikers (the H Block Hunger Strike in the early 80s), you would think you were in a bygone era.

The writing is exquisite, so simple, yet carrying such underlying emotion and meaning.  I stand in awe of a writer who can capture the essence of rural Ireland and the story of a young girl’s engagement with the world in so few words.  Small is indeed beautiful and I wholeheartedly recommend this story to all readers.

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Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Literary Prizes on December 2nd, 2010 by admin – 4 Comments

I am a married, white female, more into Indie rather than Hip Hop in my youth, so according to the law of averages/preconceptions, I shouldn’t have enjoyed Coconut Unlimited at all but, contrary as ever, it ended up as one of my favourite reads in November.  This is one of the joys of receiving a wide variety of novels to review – many thanks to Quartet Books for sending this gem my way.

Our narrator, Amit, is a bit of a misfit, an Asian youth on whose narrow shoulders are placed the weighty expectations of his ambitious parents.  He attends an almost exclusively white private school in Harrow where he and his pals, Anand and Nishant are subjected to daily tirades of racial abuse from both pupils and teachers.  They’re equally estranged from the local Asian community and are dubbed “coconuts” – brown on the outside but white on the inside.  The boys decide to adopt a completely different approach, neither white not Asian, worshipping instead at the shrine of Hip Hop – a route which is somewhat encumbered by the fact that they don’t actually know of that many Hip Hop artists and are reduced to swiping old cassettes from relatives to record from the elusive vinyl. 

Amit’s mother would much prefer that he bought a nice, sensible pair of jeans from C&A (cringe..) rather than the ludicrously baggy hip hop style – cue memories of my own dear mother despairing of my teenage penchant for black clothing, black eyes and gravity defying hairstyles held together with cheap gel and occasionally a sugar and water mixture…

Nikesh Shukla is an author, film maker and performance poet and you can feel his energy in the rhythmic pace of this coming of age tale – I would love to hear him reading aloud from this novel with its insistent beat and Asian influences which combine to create a nostalgic, enthusiastic record of teenage angst and aspirations.  You won’t be able to resist smiling (wryly perhaps..) as you are reminded of the exhuberance of youth, the fashion faux pas, that teenage intensity and the conflict of one minute thinking you’re going to conquer the world and the next, being overwhelmed with self-doubt.  I loved this debut novel which is a very strong contender for the Costa First Novel Award – off to listen to my tapes now… ;-)

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Article about the Impac Literary Award

Posted in Literary Prizes, Proofs on April 12th, 2010 by admin – Be the first to comment

Have you read any of these or have any TBR?

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