Excellent new books are arriving thick and fast and capturing our hearts on a ridiculously quick turnaround. Some of the recent ones capturing our imagination, and *drawing* us in are discussed below…
Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays (Michael Joseph)
Already a big fan of books set in Toronto, and Elan Mastai’s Toronto-set romance ‘The F-Word’ or ‘What If?’ I came to this debut novel as a more than interested party. I was not disappointed. It’s a time-travel romance which trips along, throwing us into the moral dilemmas of becoming a ‘chrononaut’. The big concept on which the book hangs is that this world is not the way things were meant to work out. Tom, our protagonist has blundered, to a large degree, and destroyed our intended gleaming techno utopia. The voice of the narrative would suit fans of Douglas Coupland and shines with an intense investment in life. There are a broad cast of characters which help to orient the reader to the shifting ideas introduced by time travel. Some handy stylised recaps also fight the need to draw diagrams. It’s a thoughtful, clever and immersive novel but one which also touches on some dark edges of life. These elements introduce difficult ethics for the reader but mostly the tone is comic and life-affirming.
Birds Art Life Death, Kyo Maclear (Fourth Estate)
This memoir is a blur of genres, taking in nature writing, reading diary, reflections on creating art and insights into the mysterious patience needed for bird watching. Maclear is a novelist, picture book writer and artist who is grieving. Again, reflecting life in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, Maclear begins to take walks with a musical friend and keen birder:
The musician was a serious birder. I belonged to the vast numbers, satirised by Portlandia, who knew nothing about birds and thought mostly of them as a decorative motif….What did I know of live birds? What did I know of the wild world, and what did it know of me? (23)
In a patient and meditative path through a year, Maclear develops an attuned sense of birds and the unique experiences that come from bird watching. Not least, the ways that new technologies trigger birdwatchers themselves to become flocks attracted by rare sightings and prospective exotic feathered fly-pasts. The illustrations of the birds are wonderful and much more absorbing than the above quotation might hint.
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury)
Another debut, this time from a seasoned short-story writer. This has been much anticipated and really throws out the rule book on what fiction is doing. Inspired by the real-life historical events surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s mourning for the loss of his eleven-year-old son Willy, the book is a bricolage of quotations from histories and biographies interwoven with a slapstick farce narrated through numerous voices from beyond the grave. We are thrust into the mid-nineteenth century and the midst of the American civil war, but via the voices from the graveyard. To these the President is more likely to be ‘Mr Polk’ or ‘Mr Tyler’. The spirits who leave their ‘sick-boxes’ to bring us their stories are puzzled by Lincoln’s presence and seek to understand him and their own precarious status. The novel is reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) and Saunders’ work is similarly dramatic. Given this, and the numerous characters that are sketched, the audiobook is just as highly anticipated! This isn’t a smooth and easy read, but it’s highly rewarding as the gradual accumulation of life stories take you off in multiple directions. All graveyards should have a Saunders adaptation. For an extract of Saunders’ novel, take a look here.
Ross Raisin, A Natural (Jonathan Cape)
Probably the best representation of football in fiction I’ve read. There are a few strong contenders in this category, ranging from JL Carr, through David Peace and even the best sections of Sebastian Faulks A Week in December…yet, this is something else. The depiction of diverse masculinities, of a struggling Northern former non-league football club and the community that support, watch and shout abuse their way is cleverly etched. In less capable hands this could be a caricature, but the fiction here feels true to life and shows dispassionate empathy for a broad range of characters. The acknowledgements intimate the nature of the research Raisin has conducted, and the necessary obscuring of these inspirations. Having said all this, it also transcends its subject and should hold the attention of anyone interested in contemporary British fiction.
Whatever Happened To Interracial Love? Kathleen Collins (Granta)
These posthumously published stories are a real discovery. Another glimpse into American life, but this time in the voices of strong Black female protagonists aligned with the civil rights movement and its aftermath, those ‘years of hope and days of rage’. Collins’ other life as a filmmaker seems to influence her experiments in these stories, as she cuts between characters and splices scenes together quickly to foreshorten narratives. Whole worlds exist within these tales. They appear eerily prescient today in that they explore how people have previously sought to bridge divides in America. Whilst the colour line is still an active issue, the increasing tensions make reading the risks and the hopes embodied in Collins’ characters a rewarding read.
Virgin And Other Stories,
April Ayers Lawson (Granta)
I love short stories, and it seems that readers who shop in Grasmere share this. Some of our regular best-sellers are books of short stories. Lawson’s stories are studied and cool, but as involving as any I’ve read. Her narrators are by turns funny, self-assured and then, through their confessional acts, self-reflective. The build up of detail is sometimes luxurious, commenting on the weather, the architecture, fashions and bodies with the same artistic eye, and painting the frameworks that hold these tentative emotional lives together. The compressed experimentation of one story in particular is worth beholding [‘Three Friends in a Hammock’]. The entangled story peels away from the setting and gathers up a venn-diagram of interpersonal memory. Other stories in the collection are more expansive but share the careful development of scene and sentence. Incidentally, Laura Waddell’s review at Glasgow Review of Books, ‘Sexy, Existential, Cool‘ is worth a read for a good story by story reflection.
So many more to come in the upcoming weeks too… at present I’m loving Donna Morrisey’s The Fortunate Brother…
I’m conscious that we promised a series of posts on last year’s favourite reading. Suffice to say we don’t like to rush into such reviews, and as an act of rebellion broadly targeted at the calendar, further thoughts on 2016’s best books will follow at a future date.
— Will Smith