July - December 2017

July 2017

Graham Swift: Mothering Sunday (2017) 160 pages

It is 30 March 1924. Jane Fairchild, orphan and maid to the rich Niven family, has no mother to visit on this beautiful spring  Mothers' Day. Paul, only surviving son and heir of the Sheringham estate, is soon to marry the rich Emma Hobday. Meanwhile, he has arranged to meet Jane for a last secret tryst. They've been lovers for years. It’s the first (and last) time Jane sees Paul’s bedroom...

It may just be Swift’s best novel yet (The Guardian) 

Graham Swift (born 4 May 1949), is an English writer, whose 1996 book LastOrders won him the then Booker Prize. Both this book and his 1983 novelWaterland have been filmed. His themes are the play of history and story in our lives.

Swift describes events long in the past in a way that gives them intense and permanent presentness.  (Sophie Gee, The New York Times, 2016)
Swift’s empathic, far-reaching, ever so slightly eccentric melancholy is gorgeous just as it is. (Stacey d' Erasmo, The New York Times, 2012)

August 2017

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping (2005) Faber & Faber 224 pages

Now hailed as a contemporary American classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and Lucille, two orphaned sisters growing up in the mean-minded community of Fingerbone, who find themselves in the care of Sylvie, the remote and enigmatic sister of their dead mother. Steeped in the imagery of a bleak and loveless landscape, this is a coming- of- age novel like no other and a powerful meditation on loss, loneliness and transience.

'I found myself reading slowly, then more slowly--this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.' Doris Lessing

September 2017

Rudyard Kipling: Kim (1900) Wordsworth's Classics 272 pages

Kipling's acclaimed novel is set in the India of the British Raj at the end of the 19th century, in troubled times for British foreign policy with 'The  Great Game' of Anglo-Russian rivalry in central Asia afoot and the second Anglo-Afghan war (1878-81) still vivid. This is the historical backdrop to the adventures of the eponymous hero, Kim,  a young boy of white parentage, but so untamed and sunburned, he could be taken for Indian. As such, Kim represents the meeting of east and west, one of Kipling's obsessions, and it is Kim's ethnic duality which is not only crucial to the central quest of the spy-thriller strand of the novel, but also to what Kipling wanted his readers to understand about the India of his childhood. 
The greatest thing written on India by any Englishman (E.M. Forster)
Kim still stands as a masterpiece (John Gross, The Telegraph, 2002)
India leaps from the pages (Amazon Reader review)

Moving on from modern controversy over Kipling's imperialist views, he can still be recognized for his gifts as a writer and the genius of his story-telling, which won him such fame, celebrity and extraordinary financial reward in his lifetime (it is said he earned the equivalent of £7 million for the one poem,The Absent-minded Beggar, which money he then gave to the War Office). Born in Bombay in 1865, he died in 1936 after an eventful life. In 1907, at the age of 42, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the first English-language writer to receive the prize and its youngest recipient to date. 

October 2017

Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (1962) (Fourth Estate, 576 pages)

The landmark novel of the Sixties – a powerful account of a woman searching for her personal, political and professional identity while facing rejection and betrayal.
In 1950's London, novelist Anna Wulf struggles with writer’s block. Divorced with a young child, and fearful of going mad, Anna records her experiences in four coloured notebooks: black for her writing life, red for political views, yellow for emotions, blue for everyday events. But it is a fifth notebook – the golden notebook – that finally pulls these wayward strands of her life together.

Widely regarded as Doris Lessing’s masterpiece and one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, ‘The Golden Notebook’ is wry and perceptive, bold and indispensable.

November 2017

Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) translated from the Czech by Michael Heim (Faber and Faber, 320 pages)

In this novel - a story of irreconcilable loves and infidelities - Milan Kundera addresses himself to the nature of twentieth-century 'Being'. In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. We feel, says the novelist, 'the unbearable lightness of being' - not only as the consequence of our private acts but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.
Juxtaposing Prague, Geneva, Thailand and the United States, this masterly novel encompasses the extremes of comedy and tragedy, and embraces, it seems, all aspects of human existence. It offers a wide range of brilliant and amusing philosophical speculations and it descants on a variety of styles. In this classic novel Kundera draws together the Czechoslovakia of the Prague Spring and the Russian invasion, the philosophy of Nietzsche, and the love affairs of a number of heartbreakingly familiar characters.

December 2017

Gary Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story (2011) Granta Books, 272 pages

In a near future  functionally illiterate America, social collapse threatens. But don't tell that to poor Lenny Abramov, proud author of what may well be last diary ever.  Born into a high tech world, Lenny prefers the tactile feel of the paper back. But even more than books, Lenny loves the cute but cruel Eunice Park. When riots break out in New York's Central Park, the city's streets are lined with National Guard tanks, and. ..predatory creditors. In a time without standards or stability,  Lenny vows to convince his fickle new love that treasuring our humanity is the highest goal of all.

Other books on our long list for July-December, 2017 

J P Delaney: The Girl Before (2017) 416 pages

The architect: control-freak Edward Monkford; the house: 1, Folgate Street - minimalist, high tech surveillance, décor beyond pale, yet with a definite Gothic vibe as its creepy body-count history slowly reveals. The house- rules for the carefully chosen female tenants: think Fifty Shades of Grey. Continuing The Girl thriller format, this page-turner jumps between the stories of the doomed Emma, who once lived in the house, and Jane, who lives there now. 

JP Delaney (aka Tony Strong) is an Oxford author who lives in Beckley, has worked in advertizing and has published under another name.

George Orwell: Essays (2000) Penguin Classics 496 pages

One of the most thought-provoking and vivid essayists of the twentieth century, George Orwell fought the injustices of his time with singular vigor through pen and paper. In this selection of essays, he ranges from reflections on his boyhood schooling and the profession of writing, to his views on the Spanish Civil War and British imperialism. The pieces collected here include the relatively unfamiliar and the more celebrated, making it an ideal compilation for both new and dedicated readers of Orwell's work.

Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing (2016) Knopf Publishing Group, 320 pages

This New York Times best-seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, born in  eighteenth-century Ghana and separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver and destined for a life of riches in a castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle's dungeons to be sold alongside thousands of others into the Gold Coast's booming slave trade, from where she is shipped off to America. Here, her children and grandchildren are raised in slavery. Meanwhile, Effia's descendants suffer centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. From the plantations of the South, to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up to the present day, Homegoing vividly captures real-life immediacy, showing how the memory of captivity can be written with blood into the soul of a nation.(adapted from Amazon)

Elizabeth Taylor: Angel (1957) 256 pages

For fifteen-year old Angel, writing stories is a way of escaping into a world of romance. She sends a draft of her first novel, The Lady Irania, to publishers Brace and Gilchrist who are certain the novel will be a success, despite its overblown style. But they are curious as to who could have written such a book, imagining that some old lady will present herself at their offices. Nothing can prepare them for the determined, humourless young woman who sits before them now. Neither is there anything to suggest how quickly her first fame will be lost...

Deft, accomplished and somewhat underrated (Hilary Mantel)
Sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit (Rosamund Lehmann, author.)  
I envy any reader coming to her for the first time (Elizabeth Jane Howard) 
Funny and moving (Sam Jordison, Bookblog, The Guardian 2012)

Often aligned with Jane Austen, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor was born in Reading in 1912 and died in Buckinghamshire in 1975. A film was made of her 1971 book Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and French director, Francois Ozon, made a 2007 film of her book Angel of The Real Life of Angel Deverell

R.L. Stevenson:  Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes (1876) 72 pages. Non-fiction. Kidnapped (1886) Penguin Classics 304 pages

The breath of adventure blows through Stevenson's writing, some 25 years before Kipling's Kim, in the shape of this non-fiction travel piece by a great author who was as influential in his non-fiction writing as in his perennially popular classics such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Which British writer to choose from the late Victorian period for the sense of adventure? Stevenson or Rudyard Kipling? Rider Haggard, HG Wells or Joseph Conrad? 
“I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers. (…)  The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints."  (Travels with a donkey)

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of his earliest published works and is considered a classic of outdoor literature(Amazon) 

The adventure continues with Kidnapped, which brought Stevenson fame and celebrity. It continues to be popular with readers of all ages. Writers  as diverse as Henry James, Borges, Graham Greene and Seamus Heaney have expressed admiration for Stevenson's narrative brio and his ability to write in the moment. This is a deceptively simple novel, in which the plot is masterfully controlled, the language pared to the bone and where the suspense 'leaves one almost breathless with excitement and admiration'(Robert McCrum). If you don't even know the storyline of this classic, read it soon. 

Jane GardamOld Filth (Trilogy 1) (2004) re-issued by Abacus publishers 2014 272 pages

Long ago, Old Filth was a Raj orphan - one of the many young children sent 'Home' from the East to be fostered and educated in England. Jane Gardam's novel tells his story, from his birth in what was then Malaya to the extremities of his old age. In so doing, she encapsulates a whole period from the glory days of British Empire, through the Second World War, to the present and beyond.  

Jane Mary Gardam OBE (2009), FRSL, (born 11 July 1928) is an English writer of children's and adult fiction. She has won numerous literary awards, including the Whitbread Award twice.

Ivan Turgenev: First Love (2008) OUP, 304 pages

This collection brings together six of Turgenev's best-known `long' short stories, in which he turns his exceptional skills as a story-teller to a study of power in politics and love on the Russian steppes. His writing is now much praised for its clarity, simplicity and sly touches of humour. An excellent way in to the reading of Russian literature.

Robert Seethaler: The Tobacconist (2017) translated from the German by Charlotte Collins 240 pages

A coming-of-age novel set in 1937 Austria. The troubled 17-year-old Franz Huchel leaves his quiet home town for an apprenticeship with a Viennese tobacconist. The city is heavy with threat: there are bombs in the park and Nazis on the Ringstrasse, but the shop remains a locus of reason, where, with Sigmund Freud as a daily customer, the teenager hopes to find some kind of answers amid the horror.

There is a sharp quirkiness to the story (The Guardian)

It’s a novel about whether, faced with a world of which we have little understanding or control, we turn inwards or outwards, whether we create a haven or wade into the chaos (The Financial Times)

Robert Seethaler was born in Vienna in 1966. He is the author of five novels, including the internationally acclaimed A Whole Life, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy (pub in instalments 1873- 77) 848 pages (Wordsworth Classics)

Anna Karenina is one of the most loved and memorable heroines of literature. Her overwhelming charm dominates a novel of unparalleled richness and density.
Tolstoy considered this book to be his first real attempt at a novel form, and it addresses the very nature of society at all levels- of destiny, death, human relationships and the irreconcilable contradictions of existence. It ends tragically, and there is much that evokes despair, yet set beside this is an abounding joy in life's many ephemeral pleasures, and a profusion of comic relief.

Louise Erdrich: The Round House (2013) 384 pages

ln the US, the native American can still fall into the no-man's land between Tribal and Federal law. Louise Erdrich turns this dire reality into a powerful human story in her novel, in which a Native American woman is raped near a sacred tribal round house. For her husband and 13 year-old son, Joe, seeking justice becomes almost as devastating as the crime.
The urgency of Joe's account gives the action the momentum and tight focus of a crime novel (Sunday Book Review, The New York Times, 2012)

Miss Erdrich's confident use of (tribal) legends is canny; her (...) characters are on quests we all know, from the past and from deep inside ourselves. (The New York Times, 1984, about her first book, Love Medicine)

Hailed in the US as a Native-American To Kill A Mockingbird, and winner of the US National Book Award, The Round House is Louise Erdrich's undeniable - and unmissable – masterpiece (Amazon)

Louise Erdrich (born June 7, 1954) is an American author, whose novels feature Native American characters and settings. She is herself half Chippewa. Her first book, Love Medicine, won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Flannery O'Connor: A Good Man is Hard to Find (2016) Faber & Faber, 208 pages (perhaps to be read alongside Faulkner's A Rose for Emily)

These ten classic stories are masterful depictions of the underside of life, deep in the American South. O'Connor's luminous insight into the reality of evil has such sharp-edged compassion for human weaknesses, that her writing acts as a salve to twenty-first century hurts.

'She's horrifyingly funny . . . It's that cool, removed style combined with very black stories.' Donna Tartt

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West (2017) Riverhead Books, 231 pages

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, two young people notice one another. They share a cup of coffee, a smile, an evening meal. They try not to hear the sound of bombs getting closer every night, the radio announcing new laws, the public executions.

Eventually the problem is too big to ignore: it's not safe for her to live alone, she must move in with his family, even though the young couple are not married and that too is a problem. Meanwhile, rumours are spreading of strange black doors in secret places across the city, doors that lead to London or San Francisco, Greece or Dubai. Someday soon, they must seek out one such door, joining the multitudes fleeing a collapsing city.

From the Man Booker-shortlisted author of The Reluctant Fundamentalistcomes a journey crossing borders and continents. Exit West is a love story from the eye of the storm.

Aldous HuxleyBrave New World (1932) Vintage Classics 2007, ed Margaret Atwood 288 pages

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone in his ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress...

Set in London in the year AD 2540 (632 A.F.—"After Ford"), the novel anticipates developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning that are combined to profoundly change society. Huxley answered this book with a reassessment in an essay, Brave New World Revisited (1958), and with Island (1962), his final novel. 

Something to think about ...

EM Forster: A room with a view (1908)

Jane Smiley: A Thousand Acres  (1951)

Adrienne Rich: The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977

Widely read, anthologized, interviewed and widely taught, Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was for decades among the most influential writers of the feminist movement and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than a half-dozen of prose. Her constellation of honours includes a National Book Award for poetry forTonight, No Poetry Will Serve, a MacArthur Foundation  grant in 1994, and a National Book Award for poetry in 1974 for Diving Into the Wreck. That volume, published in 1973, is considered her best work (adapted from Amazon)

The Dream of a Common Language explores the contours of a woman's heart and mind in language for everybody--language whose plainness, laughter, questions and nobility everyone can respond to. . . . No one is writing better or more needed verse than this. (Boston Evening Globe)

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire (2000) Penguin, 256 pages

The American poet John Shade is dead: murdered. His last poem, Pale Fire, is put into a book, together with a preface by Shade's editor, Charles Kinbote, who has all the signs of a high-end psychopath. As his wildly eccentric annotations become ever more uncontrolled, Kinbote reveals perhaps more than he should. 

Nabokov's darkly witty, richly inventive masterwork is a suspenseful whodunit, a story of literary rivalry and a glorious literary conundrum.

William Boyd: Stars and Bars (1985) Penguin, 348 pages

This is a no-holds-barred satire of a culture clash deep in the heart of the American South, by one of contemporary literature’s most imaginative novelists.
A recent transfer to Manhattan has inspired art assessor Henderson Dores to shed his British reserve and adopt the breezy American manner. But when Loomis Gage, an eccentric millionaire, invites him to appraise his collection of Impressionists, Dores' plans quite literally go south. He finds himself stranded in a remote mansion in the Georgia countryside, a scape-goat of the bizarrely anglophobic Gage family, who give him bad food and threaten his life. On top of this, he has to deal with some alarmingly hostile competing art dealers. When he finally escapes back to New York City–sporting only a cardboard box– he is unwittingly fast on the way to becoming a naturalized citizen. 

Tim Winton: Cloudstreet (1991) Picador, 448 pages

'Cloudstreet' is the name of a ramshackle house of former glories on the wrong side of the tracks, a place teeming with memories and ghosts of its own. 
Dogged by separate misfortunes, two families flee to the city and find a kind of haven in this great sighing structure. Together they roister and rankle in a house that begins as a roof over their heads and becomes a home for their hearts 
In this fresh, funny novel, Tim Winton weaves the threads of lifetimes, of twenty years of shouting and fighting, laughing and grafting, into a story about acceptance and belonging (adapted from Amazon).

Imagine Neighbours being taken over by the writing team of John Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez and you’ll be close to the heart of Winton’s impressive tale’ (Time Out)
A fragmented, hilarious, crude, mystical soap opera. In a rich Australian idiom, Winton lets his characters rip against an evocation of Perth so intense you can smell it (Sunday Telegraph)

Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1982) Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, W&N 2014 288 page

Set in the deep American South between the wars, The Color Purple is the classic tale of Celie, a young black girl born into poverty and segregation. Raped repeatedly by the man she calls 'father', she has two children taken away from her, is separated from her beloved sister Nettie and is trapped into an ugly marriage. But then she meets the glamorous Shug Avery, singer and magic-maker - a woman who has taken charge of her own destiny. Gradually Celie discovers the power and joy of her own spirit, freeing her from her past and reuniting her with those she loves.

This novel won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. Adapted into a film and musical of the same name.