British author David Mitchell is one of my absolute favourite contemporary writers and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a superb novel. The writing is exquisite, the setting and historical background fascinating and the story riveting. A must read. The story is set at the end of the 18th century on Dejima, a sandbank in the bay of Nagasaki, Japan. A Dutch trading post and for two hundred years Japan’s only point of contact with the outside world. Clerk Jacob de Zoet is sent to Dejima by the Dutch East Indies Company to address a serious case of corruption.
Javier Marías is one of Spain’s most prominent writers. Regularly tipped as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, he is also a respected translator of important English language literature, a journalist and a publisher. A literary heavy weight, in other words. His latest book, The Infatuations is the first philosophical murder mystery I’ve come across. There are no nail-biting chases through dark forests, no mutilated bodies floating in the sea, the action is almost exclusively cerebral. Or, as Boyd Tonkin of The Independent newspaper called it: ‘A thinking person’s murder mystery.’
I have been holding off writing about the Norwegian publishing phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard until the other day, when I picked up the first volume in English translation and realised how well it travels. The press are awash with, mostly raving, reviews of his autobiographical novels and interviews with the author. Zadie Smith has said she needed them ‘like crack’. Should you read them?
Stoner has become somewhat of a publishing sensation over the past eighteen months, topping bestseller list in Holland, France, Italy, Spain, Israel and, more recently, in the UK. Written by American John Williams in 1965, Stoner barely made a mark at the time. A few favourable reviews and 2000 copies sold was all there was to it. Somehow, miraculously, nearly 50 years later, the novel has been given a second lease of life, and is now a shining example of a ‘word-of-mouth’ bestseller.
Wow, what a novel! Rarely have I read such an emotionally charged, foreboding book. A truly gripping tale, seething with rage. The Woman Upstairs is the story of single, 42 year-old Nora Eldridge, ‘the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway’, a kind, dutiful primary school teacher who has put aside her artistic ambitions to care for her sick elderly parents. A woman who, in her own words, obediently eats all the greens while the ice cream for dessert slowly melts away. Enter the Lebanese-Italian Shahid family. The family of Nora’s dreams: Reza the beautiful, charming child, Skandar the handsome, intelligent husband and Sirena the glamorous, successful artist wife…
Another long forgotten but fabulous novel is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner from 1987. We meet two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, life-long loyal friends, soul mates, occasional competitors and mutual supporters. If you’re in the mood for a contemplative, tightly and exquisitely written novel, reach for Crossing to Safety.
Over the past year or so I have stumbled upon two brilliant books, which, strangely enough, have a great deal in common. The first one, Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell, was featured on BBC Radio 4’s excellent programme Open Book. I read it in one gulp and it immediately joined my favourite-books list.
You need a bit of patience to get into this book, Ford’s slow paced writing takes some getting used to, but do persist, it is a brilliant read. Canada is a profoundly moving and disturbing story about growing-up, deceit and survival, written by one of the giants of American contemporary literature, the Pulitzer Prize winning Richard Ford. Read full Review
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize winning book Half of A Yellow Sun was a magnificent read, a beautiful love story against the backdrop of the Biafran war, a terrible conflict I vividly remember from my childhood as totally incomprehensible…until I read this book. A truly amazing novel. Adichie casts the net wider in Americanah which spans three continents: America, Africa and Europe. Our heroine Ifemelu grows up in Nigeria’s capital Lagos with a mother lost to religion and an unhappy, underachieving father.
Machine gunner and poet? Two absurdly contradictory roles. Kevin Powers is both, as well as an extremely talented author. A Michener Fellow of Poetry from the University of Texas at Austin, Powers served as a machine gunner in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004 and 2005. His novel The Yellow Birds, inspired by his own experiences of war, is a superb book, heart wrenching, moving and beautifully written. Read full Review