Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Booker Prize 2015: The longlist

The Man Booker Prize 2015 longlist

If you follow lots of book blogs and/or book-related Twitter accounts, I'm going to apologise in advance since this is probably the 8000th post you've seen about this... In a lunchtime announcement that seems to become the focus of more excitement every year, the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize was revealed today.

The 13 books included in this year's 'Booker dozen' are:

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Chimes by Anna Smaill
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

This list didn't particularly excite me when I first saw it (but a lot of that sort of response is, I know, about not seeing anything you've already read, and/or hoped would be nominated, on the list). But it's good to see such a diverse list of nominees - and there's three books here I'd never even heard of prior to the announcement.

I've been contemplating A Little Life for a while: its inclusion here has pushed me a bit further towards reading it sooner rather than later. The Chimes, The Illuminations and Satin Island have likewise been hovering around the edges of my to-read list - I'm still not decided on any of them, but there's bound to be lost of reviews popping up soon, which will hopefully help me make up my mind. I'll withhold judgement on the books and authors I'm less familiar with until I know a little more about them, but I think it's fair to say I'm not really interested in the novels by Robinson, Enright and Tyler.

I didn't want to put together my own longlist - it would, obviously, only have been full of books I've already read, and it's not as if I've read anywhere near widely enough to have a good awareness of what else might be eligible. But for what it's worth, I think Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers would have been more than worthy of a nod, and my dream longlist would also have included The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood, The Well by Catherine Chanter, and The Curator by Jacques Strauss.

What do you think of this year's Booker longlist, and will you be reading any of the books?

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Monday, 27 July 2015

This week's links: 27 July 2015

These are my favourites from the past week:
1. Fitted | Moira Weigel | The New Inquiry. This is brilliant on fitness, the FitBit, confession, privacy (lack of), isolation, competition, addiction...
2. Taylor Swift Is Not Your Friend | Dayna Evans | Gawker
3. The Guardian's Weekend magazine short story special 2015. This is a bit of a cheat, as I haven't read all the stories yet, but I thought it was worth flagging up nevertheless. The authors are Jonathan Coe, Will Self, Tessa Hadley, Sheila Heti, David Sedaris, Nina Stibbe and Dave Eggers. 

The rest of the articles and things:
The book stuff:

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

What to buy in the HUGE Kindle Summer Sale

So there's a big Kindle summer sale on at the moment, with a surprisingly good selection of books. When I got round to looking at it I realised several of my favourite books of 2014 are included, so I couldn't pass up the chance for a recommendations post. Below are my top picks from the sale - it's on until the end of August.

Kindle Summer Sale

Top recommendations:

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry - £2.19 A man ups and leaves his life in London, and, through a case of mistaken identity, finds himself accepted into a community of outcasts living in a country house. From there the book turns into a quietly mysterious, haunting, beautifully written story about human nature and self-discovery. It's not for those who want a lot of action or a neat ending, but it's atmospheric and eerie and... I just really loved it, just buy it. (Full review)

A Lovely Way To Burn by Louise Welsh - £1.49 This is a dystopian tale about a near-future London; but if that's something that would normally put you off, it's also a thrilling mystery with lots of twists, full of vivid description, surreal details and a great main character. It's the book equivalent of watching a gripping, energetic film. (Full review)

Her by Harriet Lane - £1.99 Often mistakenly described as a psychological thriller (not surprisingly since a quote on the cover calls it that... but you'll be disappointed if that's what you expect from it), Harriet Lane's second novel is actually an incredibly subtle, clever, nuanced character study about two women and the hidden connections between their lives. (Full review)

The Three by Sarah Lotz - £1.49 If you're after something ultra-compelling and/or terrifying, this is the one to go for. It's sort of horror, sort of sci-fi, sort of a thriller. Four planes crash and the only survivors are three children, who seem oddly... changed. An unputdownable tale of suspense follows, told through the experiences of several characters. (Full review)

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell - £1.49 This was Mitchell's first novel - and it's his best, in my opinion. Like Cloud Atlas, it's basically a series of interlinked stories, set in different places and different ages, but it's somehow more than the sum of its parts, and all of the narrators/narratives are just as fascinating as the others. I read this a couple of years ago and could barely stand to tear myself away from it. (Full review)

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh - 99p THE ~beach read~ of last summer, this is a lot better than it's often given credit for. About a bored fortysomething woman who begins a risky affair with her stepdaughter's boyfriend, it delves deep into its characters' emotions and drags you into their mistakes to nail-biting effect. (Full review)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson - £1.99 If you've never read this, you should. That's it.

I've read these and thought they wrere just okay, but felt they were notable anyway:
Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe - £1.99
The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland - 99p
Sophia's Secret by Susanna Kearsley - 99p

I've read these and I didn't like them, but lots of other people do:
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides - £1.99
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray - £1.99

I haven't read these, but they sound good/have had lots of praise elsewhere:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - 99p
Carol by Patricia Highsmith - £1.99
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith - £1.89
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng - £1.19
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - £2.59
The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig - 99p
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - £1.99
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver - £1.99
Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler - £1.69
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman - 99p
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk - £1.99
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer - £1.99
Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn - £1.99
The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen - £1.99
I Murdered My Library (Kindle Single) by Linda Grant - 99p

I haven't read these, but they look like good holiday/rainy-day reads (some of these are part of a series):
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman - 99p
The Girl Who Couldn't Read by John Harding - £1.49
The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir - £1.49
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson - £1.99
The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan - £1.99
Heresy by S.J. Parris - 99p
In the Woods by Tana French - £1.49
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe - £1.99
A Gathering Storm by Rachel Hore - £1.49

There's over 600 books in the sale and I went through the list very quickly, so I'm sure there's plenty of good stuff I've missed. As ever, please comment if there's anything amazing I've overlooked!

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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Review: The Blue by Lucy Clarke

The Blue by Lucy ClarkeThe Blue (30 July 2015) by Lucy Clarke

The Blue is Lucy Clarke's third novel, following The Sea Sisters (known by the more elegant title Swimming at Night in the US) and A Single Breath. The stories are not officially connected, but might be considered a loose trilogy: they each have the tone of a thriller, but with softer edges; a big focus on secrets (usually someone lying about their past); a bit of a love story somewhere in the background; but most prominently and memorably, they demonstrate a romantic attachment to the idea of wanderlust and to an impossibly picturesque ideal of travelling, with colourful, richly described locations featuring just as significantly in the story as the characters. Even A Single Breath, which wasn't explicitly about travelling per se, involved a journey to a far-flung place and a lot of scenic description.

While The Sea Sisters was about siblings and A Single Breath about a newly married couple, in The Blue, Clarke turns her attention to a friendship. The major relationship in this story is between Lana and her best (in fact, only) friend Kitty. They have known each other since the first year of high school, where Lana was the archetypal artistic misfit and Kitty her social lifeboat - the two of them bonded over the loss of their mothers at a young age. Flashbacks to various key points in this friendship are what anchor the story and give their characters some solidity.

Lana and Kitty - the former escaping from a murkily difficult relationship with her father, the latter from a failing acting career and nascent alcoholism - pool their savings, pick a location (the Philippines) at random, and set off travelling. This is more or less where the beginning of the story finds them: Lana falls in the street, a man stops to help, and then they meet his friends, the crew of a yacht named The Blue. The two women instantly fall in love with the group's romantic, semi-nomadic way of life - everyone pays what they can towards the upkeep of the yacht, and decisions are made democratically; their days are spent travelling around virtually undiscovered islands, swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing - and, in the quick and convenient way of events in books, they move into an empty cabin. But it's not long before it becomes evident that things aren't quite as idyllic as they seem aboard The Blue. With seven people living in close quarters on a cramped ship (and relationships between them ostensibly forbidden), tempers swiftly fray and cracks appear in Lana and Kitty's new 'perfect life'.

The Blue by Lucy Clarke (US)Naturally, all of this builds up to a death, which we know about from the flash-forward prologue: it depicts a body floating in the sea as a yacht (guess which one) is steered away, 'the truth... already drifting out of reach'. (Though as the ending proves, Lana and Kitty's falling-out, one's betrayal of the other, is treated as more significant, and is the real axis on which the story turns.) The travel element is more about observing the beauty of 'exotic' places, appreciating nature and being free from the shackles of ordinary life - dull jobs and emotional baggage - than it is about immersing oneself in a different culture or actually understanding another country, making it a perfect fit for the 'beach read' genre because, despite the glamour of the characters' adventure, it's really about tourism, not engagement. (As I said in a recent post, I wished I could teleport myself to a deserted beach to read it). And a romance inevitably develops, but it's handled well, doesn't happen instantly and is a believable progression for the characters involved - to the point that I even found myself feeling emotionally invested in the outcome of that particular subplot...

There's a handful of genre authors I regard as masters at what they do - F.G. Cottam for ghost stories; Erin Kelly for crime; Kate Morton for her particular (often emulated) brand of part-historical fiction/buried-secrets mystery. Lucy Clarke has now crept onto this list with her blend of travelogue, thriller and relationship drama. I don't expect to get any real surprises with her books - I know they will likely always be the same kind of thing, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable to me. Advance quotes about The Blue praise it as 'the ultimate holiday read', 'a perfect summer read', and they're exactly right - it's engrossing, the characters are interesting, the plot zips along, and its portrayal of an escape from the mundane, life at sea and island-hopping is vivid enough to serve as an armchair holiday, even if you don't have a deserted beach to accompany it.

I received an advance review copy of The Blue from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Monday, 20 July 2015

This week's links: 20 July 2015

This time, I'm bullet-pointing these links. (I think the previous spaced-out layout lost something in the transition from Tumblr to blog...)
Book reviews and things:

Sunday, 19 July 2015

What to read in July & August 2015

Books to read in July and August 2015
Books to read in July and August 2015 2

The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood - 2 July
‘On a forested island off the coast of Istanbul stands Portmantle, a gated refuge for beleaguered artists. There, a curious assembly of painters, architects, writers and musicians strive to restore their faded talents. Elspeth Conroy is a celebrated painter who has lost faith in her ability and fled the dizzying art scene of 1960s London. On the island, she spends her nights locked in her blacked-out studio, testing a strange new pigment for her elusive masterpiece. But when a disaffected teenager named Fullerton arrives at the refuge, he disrupts its established routines. He is plagued by a recurring nightmare that steers him into danger, and Knell is left to pick apart the chilling mystery. Where did the boy come from, what is 'The Ecliptic', and how does it relate to their abandoned lives in England?’

Muse by Jonathan Galassi - 2 July
‘Paul Dukach is heir apparent at Purcell & Stern, one of the last independent publishing houses in New York. Thanks to his boss, the flamboyant Homer Stern, Paul learns the vagaries of the book world: how to work an agent over lunch and swim with the literary sharks at Frankfurt book fair; how to marry flattery with criticism when combing over the manuscripts of brilliant, volatile authors. But though things can be shaky in the age of conglomerates and ebooks, Paul remains obsessed by one dazzling writer: poet Ida Perkins, whose outsize life and audacious verse have shaped America‘s contemporary literary landscape, and whose longtime publisher happens to be Homer's biggest rival. When Paul finally meets Ida, at her secluded Venetian palazzo, she entrusts him with her greatest secret – one that will change all of their lives forever...’

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell - 2 July (Reviewed here)
‘Lois and Carly-May are just twelve years old when they're abducted, driven across the country, and imprisoned in a remote, isolated hunting lodge for two months. That summer, under the watchful gaze of their kidnapper, they form a bond which will never be broken. Decades later, both Lois and Carly-May have built new lives and identities for themselves. Increasingly haunted by the devastating experience that shaped both their lives, the two women are drawn together again in a world that both echoes and falsifies their beautiful, terrible story.’

Bitter Fruits by Alice Clark-Platts - 2 July
‘The murder of a first-year university student shocks the city of Durham. The victim, Emily Brabents, was from the privileged and popular set at Joyce College, a cradle for the country's future elite. As Detective Inspector Erica Martin investigates the college, she finds a close-knit community fuelled by jealousy, obsession and secrets. But the very last thing she expects is an instant confession. The picture of Emily that begins to emerge is that of a girl wanted by everyone, but not truly known by anyone - except for Daniel Shepherd: fellow student, ever-faithful friend and the only one who would do anything for her... ’

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase - 2 July
‘Hours pass differently at Black Rabbit Hall, the Alton family's country estate, where no two clocks read the same. Summers there are perfect, timeless, and not much ever happens. Until, one stormy evening in 1968, the idyllic world of the four Alton children is shattered. Decades later, Lorna and her fiancé wind their way through the countryside searching for a wedding venue. Drawn to a beautiful crumbling old house she hazily remembers from her childhood, Lorna finds a disturbing message carved into an old oak tree by one of the Alton children. She begins to realise that Black Rabbit Hall's secret history is as dark and tangled as its woods, and that, much like her own past, it must be brought into the light...’

The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton - 2 July
‘On 24th November, Yasmin and her deaf daughter Ruby arrive in Alaska. Within hours they are driving alone across a frozen wilderness, where nothing grows, where no one lives, where tears freeze, and night will last for another fifty-four days. They are looking for Ruby's father. Travelling deeper into a silent land. They still cannot find him. And someone is watching them in the dark...’

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas - 2 July (Reviewed here)
‘Great Aunt Oleander is dead. To each of her nearest and dearest she has left a seed pod - which might be deadly, but might also contain the secret of enlightenment. Not that anyone has much time for enlightenment. Fleur, left behind at crumbling Namaste House, must step into Oleander's role as guru to lost and lonely celebrities. Bryony wants to lose the weight she put on after her botanist parents disappeared, but can't stop drinking. And Charlie struggles to make sense of his life after losing the one woman he could truly love. A complex and fiercely contemporary tale of inheritance, enlightenment, life, death, desire and family trees, The Seed Collectors is a 'treasurehouse of detail' revealing all that it means to be connected, to be part of a society, to be part of the universe and to be human.’

Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman - 7 July (Reviewed here)
‘Georgia, Charlie and Alice each arrive at Harvard with hopeful visions of what the future will hold. But when, just before graduation, a classmate is found murdered on campus, they find themselves facing a cruel and unanticipated new reality. A charismatic professor who has loomed large in their lives is suspected of the crime, and the unsettling questions raised by the case force the three friends to take a deeper look at their tangled relationship. Their bond has been defined by the secrets they’ve kept from one another, and over the course of the next decade, they must reckon with their own deceits and shortcomings, each desperately in search of answers and the chance to be forgiven.’

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson - 16 July
‘Inspired by the surreal accounts of the explorer and ‘man of a million lies’ Marco Polo, Imaginary Cities charts the metropolis and the imagination, and the symbiosis therein. A work of creative non-fiction, the book roams through space, time and possibility, mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife; seeks to move beyond the clichés of psychogeography and hauntology, to not simply revisit the urban past, or our relationship with it, but to invade and reinvent it; examines the city from global macrocosm to the microcosm of its inhabitants’ perspectives; and rethinks the ideas of utopias and dystopias, urban exploration, alienation and resistance.’

Under Ground by S.L. Grey - 16 July
‘The Sanctum is a luxurious, self-sustaining survival condominium situated underground. It's a plush bolt-hole for the rich and paranoid - a place where they can wait out the apocalypse in style. When a devastating super-flu virus hits, several families race to reach The Sanctum. All have their own motivations for entering. All are hiding secrets. But when the door locks and someone dies, they realize the greatest threat to their survival may not be above ground - it may already be inside...’

Armada by Ernest Cline - 16 July (Reviewed here)
‘Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure. But there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe. And then he sees the flying saucer...’

Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra - 28 July
‘Alley Russo is desperately trying to make it in the grueling world of New York publishing, but like so many who have come before her, she has no connections and has settled for an unpaid magazine internship while slinging drinks on Bleecker Street just to make ends meet. That’s when she hears the infamous Walker Reade is looking for an assistant to replace the eight others who have recently quit. After surviving an absurd three-day “trial period” involving a .44 magnum, purple-pyramid acid, violent verbal outbursts, brushes with fame and the law, a bevy of peacocks, and a whole lot of cocaine, Alley is invited to stay at the compound where Reade works, and finds herself alone in the Colorado Rockies at the mercy of a drug-addicted literary icon who may never produce another novel...’

The Blue by Lucy Clarke - 30 July
‘Lana and her best friend Kitty leave home looking for freedom - and that’s exactly what they find when they are invited onto The Blue, a fifty-foot yacht making its way from the Philippines to New Zealand. Manned by a young crew of wanderers, The Blue is exactly the escape they are looking for and the two quickly fall under its spell, spending their days exploring remote islands, and their rum-filled nights relaxing on deck beneath the stars. Yet paradise found can just as quickly become lost. Lana and Kitty begin to discover that they aren’t the only ones with secrets they’d rather run from than reveal. And when one of their new friends disappears overboard after an argument with the other crew members, the dark secrets that brought each of them aboard start to unravel.’

Into the Valley by Ruth Galm - 4 August
Into the Valley opens on the day in July 1967 when B. decides to pass her first counterfeit check and flee San Francisco for the Central Valley. Caught between generations and unmarried at 30, B. doesn’t understand the new counterculture youths. She likes the dresses and kid gloves of her mother’s generation, but doesn’t fit into that world either. Beset by a disintegrative anxiety she calls “the carsickness,” she travels the bare, anonymous landscape, meeting an array of other characters—an alcoholic professor, a bohemian teenage girl, a criminal admirer. B.’s flight becomes that of a woman unraveling, a person lost between who she is and who she cannot yet be.’

Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes - 4 August
‘A fresh, honest, and darkly funny debut collection about the flaws that make us most human. A woman takes a job selling sex toys rather than embark on the law career she pursued only for the sake of her father; another realises she much prefers the company of her pit bull to the neurotic foreign fling who won’t decamp from her apartment; a daughter hauls a suitcase of lingerie to Mexico for her flighty, estranged mother to resell, wondering whether her personal mission - to come out - is worth the same effort; and Barbara, a young woman with a love of sex, navigates her high school’s toxic, slut-shaming culture with open eyes. Fearless, candid, and incredibly funny, Lauren Holmes is a newcomer who writes like a master.’

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips - 13 August
‘In a windowless building in a remote part of town, the newly employed Josephine inputs an endless string of numbers into something known only as The Database. After a long period of joblessness, she's not inclined to question her fortune, but as the days inch by and the files stack up, Josephine feels increasingly anxious in her surroundings-the office's scarred pinkish walls take on a living quality, the drone of keyboards echoes eerily down the long halls. When one evening her husband Joseph disappears and then returns, offering no explanation as to his whereabouts, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread. As other strange events build to a crescendo, the haunting truth about Josephine's work begins to take shape in her mind, and she realises she must penetrate an institution whose tentacles seem to extend to every corner of the city and beyond.’

Man on Fire by Stephen Kelman - 13 August
‘John Lock has come to India to meet his destiny, on the run from the quiet desperation of his life in England. He has come to offer his help to a man who has learned to conquer pain, a world record breaker who specialises in feats of extreme endurance and ill-advised masochism. Bibhuti Nayak's next record attempt - to have fifty baseball bats broken over his body - will set the seal on a career that has seen him rise from poverty to become a minor celebrity in a nation where standing out from the crowd requires tenacity, courage and perhaps a touch of madness. As they take their leap of faith together, and John is welcomed into Bibhuti's family, he learns more about life, and death, and everything in between than he could ever have bargained for.’

Bitter Almonds by Lilas Taha - 13 August
‘Omar is an orphaned Palestinian born into chaos and driven by forces beyond his control to find his place in the world. He has only one thing to hold on to: a love that propels him forward. Nadia is young and idealistic. Her attempts to be oblivious to the bleak reality in Damascus are thwarted by her cowardly brother. Will she be able to break out of her traditional social mould to create her own destiny? Heartbreaking and moving, Bitter Almonds is about displacement and exile, family duty and honour, and the universal feelings of love and loss.’

We Don't Know What We're Doing by Thomas Morris - 18 August
‘A young video shop assistant exchanges the home comforts of one mother-figure for a fleeting sexual encounter with another; a brother and sister find themselves at the bottom of a coal mine with a Japanese tourist; a Welsh stag on a debauched weekend in Dublin confesses an unimaginable truth; and a twice-widowed pensioner tries to persuade the lovely Mrs Morgan to be his date at the town's summer festival... Set in Caerphilly, a diminished castle town in South Wales, Thomas Morris' debut collection offers vivid and moving glimpses of the lost, lonely and bemused. By turns poignant, witty, tender and bizarre, these stories detail the lives of people who know where they are, but don't know what they're doing.’

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman - 25 August
‘A woman known only by the letter A lives in an unnamed American city with her roommate, B, and boyfriend, C, who wants her to join him on a reality show called That’s My Partner! A eats (or doesn’t) the right things, watches endless amounts of television, often just for the commercials -particularly the recurring cartoon escapades of Kandy Kat, the mascot for an entirely chemical dessert - and models herself on a standard of beauty that only exists in such advertising. Meanwhile B is attempting to make herself a twin of A, who hungers for something to give meaning to her life, and becomes indoctrinated by a new religion spread throughout a web of corporate franchises, which moves her closer to the decoys that populate her television world, but no closer to her true nature.’

Up Against the Night by Justin Cartwright - 27 August
‘Frank McAllister has become wealthy in England, where he has lived for thirty years. He has a house in Notting Hill, a house in the New Forest, and a house near Cape Town, but more and more he feels alienated in England. Meanwhile, Frank's Afrikaner cousin, Jaco, has become moderately famous on YouTube for having faced down a huge white shark. He is now in America, where he has joined the Scientologist movement. His chaotic and violent life spills over on to Frank, and they are drawn into a world of violence and delusion that will threaten the whole family.’

Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay by William Boyd - 27 August (Reviewed here)
‘As a girl, Amory Clay discovers a passion for photography that will irrevocably shape her future. A spell at boarding school ends abruptly and she begins an apprenticeship in London, photographing socialites for fashionable magazines. But Amory is hungry for more and her search for life, love and artistic expression will take her to the demi monde of Berlin of the late 1920s, to New York of the 1930s, to the Blackshirt riots in London and to France in the Second World War where she becomes one of the first women war photographers. Her desire for experience will lead Amory to further wars, to lovers, husbands and children as she continues to pursue her dreams and battle her demons.’

Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson - 27 August
‘Adam Johnson takes you into the minds of characters you never thought you would meet - a former Stasi prison warden in denial of his past, a refugee from North Korea unsettled by his new freedom, a UPS driver in hurricane-torn Louisiana looking for the mother of his son. These are tales of love and loss, natural disasters, the influence of technology, and how the political shapes the personal. Tender, wry, utterly compelling, they show us humanity where you might least expect it.’

I meant to publish this post before July even began, so it's very, very late... But - better late than never.

There's a few here I've already read. Of those, the one I loved the most - and am most keen to recommend - is Benjamin Wood's The Ecliptic. Set partly on a Turkish island retreat for artists, partly in 1950s/60s London, it's a story about the hard work of creating art, and more broadly a story about love and madness. I thought it was cleverly structured and beautiful and just really, really riveting. It might be the only 'buzz book' I've read this year that was 100% worth the hype.

There's also plenty here I'm looking forward to reading - some I hadn't heard of before I started piecing together this list. I've just started The Blue by Lucy Clarke and, although I wish I could teleport myself to a deserted beach to read it, it's so far fulfilling my expectations of being a brilliantly absorbing summer holiday read. I'm also excited about Gonzo Girl (written by Hunter S. Thompson's former assistant), Imaginary Cities, Into the Valley, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Barbara the Slut and Other People and You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.

I'm sure there's some I've missed (I left out the Harper Lee book on purpose because... a) I'm not interested in it, b) come on, everyone in existence is aware that it's come out) - let me know what you're reading right now or looking forward to in the near future!

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Sunday, 12 July 2015

This week's links: 12th July 2015

Recommendation lists for books coming out in the second half of 2015 have started popping up lately... (I was planning to do a July/August post this week, but being ill all weekend scuppered that.) Some good ones:
The Millions' list - Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview - is pretty comprehensive.
Bookmunch's '50 Books we’re looking forward to in the second half of 2015': Part one, part two, part three, part four, part five (or the full list).
Vulture recommends 8 Books You Need to Read This July.
Also good, though not quite fitting in with the above - the Guardian's somewhat-misleadingly-titled Best holiday reads 2015, with 50+ authors, critics etc recommending the books they'll be reading this summer.
Book reviews and lists:
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Monday, 6 July 2015

On Amy Winehouse and Amy


Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

Look, I can't review this from a detached viewpoint. I can't reliably assess its effectiveness as a documentary as though it might have been about any subject, someone I had little prior knowledge of. I can only review it from the perspective of an Amy Winehouse fan.

But not a super fan. I mean; I loved her, but I didn't follow her. I haven't read all there is to read about her; I haven't watched every documentary that was made. I never got involved with fan forums or anything like that. I never wanted to go down the YouTube rabbit hole of whatever candid footage of her there is to pore over. When she died my love for her remained suspended, and I continued to appreciate her primarily through her music, as I always had. Out of a mixture of respect and reverence and fear, I've never wanted to know too much about my heroes. But this, this felt important. I needed to see this.

Amy is a devastating film.

There are few 'talking heads': the interviewees' words are almost always played over footage of Amy or bird's-eye panoramas of her beloved London. This can be a disconcerting film, one designed to make you uncomfortable in more ways than the obvious - for example, there are a few silences that seem to go on for too long. The segments that would be, out of context, funny - such as a sequence in which Amy pulls a series of bored and disgusted faces while an inane interviewer, off-screen, blathers on about Dido - are not so much tinged with poignancy as saturated with it; it's impossible to laugh. A phone message left for ex-manager Nick Shymansky, in which she says she will love him unconditionally, 'until the day my heart fails and I drop down dead', is breathtakingly prescient, haunting to a sickening degree.

Her screen presence is so alive and vivid. I've heard those words many times about celebrities and actors and whoever, but I don't think I've ever really known them to be true until I saw this film. There are points in Amy when it's honestly impossible to believe that she's dead. The first of many times I wept was during an early performance, a pitch for a record label, of 'I Heard Love is Blind'. I'd seen it before, and yet framed like this it made me feel like my heart would burst. How could something so vital and elemental ever disappear?

There is a very strong sense of 'the present' in this film, that at every stage you are there, living that moment. This is a powerful thing, though not a good one, because it creates a horrible, nauseating tension, like being inside a vehicle bound for an inexorable crash.

A lot of coverage of Amy has focused on the idea that it seeks to hold someone, perhaps everyone, responsible for what happened to her. (Her father, Mitch, has spoken out against it. It's not hard to see why: he comes across terribly.) I wouldn't exactly say that the film tries to apportion blame, but how can you tell a story like this without implicating anyone? Even us, the fans. The people who want to see this documentary four years later, with all our morbid curiosity.

The word that comes up again and again in so many reviews I've read is 'complicit'. Amy makes the viewer complicit in the tragedy of Amy's story. This is particularly the case towards the end. The footage of Amy's last, disastrous, aborted tour, as she refuses to perform and the crowd stops cheering and starts jeering her, switches between official footage and recordings that must have been made by fans in the crowd with their phones. These are people who've paid to see her specifically, not random passers-by or festivalgoers, but they start throwing out abuse anyway, and you're placed there among them. You're reminded how hard it could be to continue to be a fan of someone who kept fucking up, kept getting further away from what had made them brilliant in the first place. You see clips of TV personalities making jokes at her expense, so desperately unfunny you wonder how anyone could have laughed. But people did laugh, and few of us who loved her would've stood up and told them to stop.

As the film approaches its end it becomes more harrowing. The sequences - increasingly frequent, depressingly similar, as the film goes on - of paparazzi harassing her, almost knocking her over and shouting 'cheer up', are grotesque. But, again, paparazzi don't exist in a vaccum. The demand wasn't just fed by those laughing at her, but by people like me, who desperately wanted her to be okay, but also wanted pictures and new music.

There is a tricky dichotomy at work here - Amy indicts the way the media pursued her, her management pushed her; how people around her used her, and the public treated her mental and physical decline as tabloid entertainment. But of course there are ways in which it is doing the same things, showing us uncomfortably intimate footage, spinning a story out of it that may not exactly be 'entertainment' but is certainly entertainment, as genres go. This film wouldn't be what it is if we didn't have those awful paparazzi videos, if people, often supposedly her friends, hadn't so often stuck a camera or a phone in her face even at her lowest ebbs.

Amy is a complicated, honest portrait, and it doesn't shy away from showing anyone and everyone was at fault. But despite all the talk of blame, I don't think it gives any single answer. It made me angry at how little some of those who were meant to be close to her did to actually help her, seeming somehow to believe she was capable of coping alone when she was fading and failing right in front of their eyes. But a few days later I found myself wondering how differently I would have acted had I been in their shoes. How much can you help someone? How much can you give someone? How do you judge whether your 'help' is doing more harm than good?

I felt like I knew her - one of those phrases that always sounds stupid when said, even though it feels true. I felt we were similar - likewise. it sounds arrogant to say about someone so talented, ridiculous to say about a very famous person, bizarre to say about an addict. But nevertheless true. From Amy I learned we even took the same antidepressants, at one point. I'm the same age as her. The age she was. Should have been.

I've written about it before, I think (I can't bear to read back over any of it right now) but one reason I felt so much about, and for, Amy and her music was that Back To Black came into my life at a very specific point, when I was in a terrible relationship. I lived the story she tells in those songs. A woman falls in love with an unsuitable man. The man breaks it off, goes back to his ex-girlfriend. Then the man comes back. I believed at the time that this was a fated happy ending. It was really the start of a relationship that would prove to be abusive and destructive. Sure, we didn't take heroin, I didn't marry him, he never went to prison, the similarities were never that obvious. But it was abusive and destructive all the same. Laid out on screen this seemed clearer, the parallels more uncanny, than ever.

It is hard for me to parse Amy and Blake's relationship. Because at the time I saw it as this great tragic love affair - because I saw it as a parallel to my own, so of course I had to, of course I had to root for them to be together, to be happy, against all odds - how else could I see it? Everyone who has been in a doomed relationship knows that 'us against the world' feeling; how it's more intoxicating than anything. And it is so hard even now to divorce myself from that. When I see them together on the screen, there it still is, alive somewhere deep: that hope that these images aren't frozen in time, after all, that they can be rewound and reshaped into some other ending.

But I got to grow past it, the years that took -the years it took simply to acknowledge how awful it had been and stop fooling myself. Amy never did. She was in another relationship when she died, and Blake already had a baby with another woman, but she continues to be defined by it, partly because of the widespread (and confirmed correct) belief that he introduced her to hard drugs, partly because their relationship inspired the classic songs on Back To Black. Even in death she is very much defined by it. This doomed love and what it drove her to. That is the saddest thing, of course, that she won't ever be allowed to move on.

When the narrative reached the inevitable point of Amy's death, I literally collapsed sobbing - loudly, embarrassingly, inconsolably.

When the film ended I felt the loss of Amy all over again.

Her talent shines out of the screen so fierce and bright that near the end, when Tony Bennett says she deserves to be counted among the greats, I wanted to snarl, out loud, of course she fucking does. How absurd that it would even need to be said.

You know that space when you have just been heartbroken - the numbness - when you can't remember how to care about anything else - when food and books and things you normally enjoy seem like alien objects - when you feel you will spit at anyone who expects you to care about any banal, routine thing, because what could be bigger - what could matter more - than this pain - what could ever matter again? That is how I felt after I left the cinema and went home to bed.

Amy is a devastating film.

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