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I don’t intend to do much prize-shadowing this year.  I intend to continue with my #gapyeartravel reading.   But when I saw the shortlist for the Costa Novel award (to be awarded later today) and realised I’d read most of it, what could I do but complete it and determine which novel would win, were I the sole judge?

If the usual rules hold true, the actual prize will probably go to the one I liked least.  Well, that would be Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I could not finish. It took far too long to slither anywhere, so at the half-way point I slithered elsewhere.  I would, however, award the physical object, Dust Jacket of the Year.  What a beauty!

Reading my review of O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place, I find I wasn’t dazzled by it either, though memory tells me that I enjoyed it more than my review would suggest.  Still I’m not going to overrule myself six months later.

Which leaves me to choose between Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata.  What a contest! Both authors have won the Costa Novel Award previously with  Barry’s The Secret Scripture going on to take the overall Book of The Year Award in 2008. That suggests that the  competition for Lizzy’s award is going to be a close-run thing.  And it is.  My decision will be reached as I write this post!

Let’s take them in alphabetical sequence.

Who would have expected Sebastian Barry to have written a Western? Not me, for sure and so finding myself transported back to the Wild West was the biggest surprise on the shortlist for me.  Barry is known for mining his family’s history, and so Thomas McNulty, the great-uncle who was involved in the Indian wars, makes his appearance in Days Without End.  Not much more is known about the real Thomas, so his tale of gradual transformation from Thomas to Thomasina, and his relationship with John Cole, is entirely fictional, written as a sympathetic response to the coming out of the author’s son.

The historical backdrop, however is anything but fictional, and Barry’s exploration of that ugly time is brutal and unflinching.  Thomas and John find themselves fighting in both the Indian Wars and the American Civil War.  Terms of engagement were different back then, and war crimes were frequent. Barry not afraid to show them. He also demonstrates where the white man could learn from the Native Indians in terms of generosity, compassion and a fluid understanding of gender issues.

Indeed it is the existence of the 19th century Native two spirits that lends credibility to the development of Thomasina.  Yet Barry pushes the plot too far in defence of a 21st century agenda – same sex marriage, adoption by gay couples, opening himself up to a justified charge of anachronism.

That said, Barry’s prose is in a class of its own.  In places, rough around the edges – Thomas isn’t an educated man; his narrative is at times matter-of-fact, at others full of unsentimental heartfelt emotion that brought tears to my eyes.  Descriptions of landscape that you can smell and touch.  Battles are related with an immediacy that have the reader standing sabre to sabre with him.  Simply breathtaking.

And so to The Gustav Sonata and perhaps the saddest character in the quartet of shortlisted novels.

Not that Gustav Perle realises his own sadness.  He suppresses it along with other needs contenting himself to empathise and cater for others.  It’s a pattern established from an early age by his widowed mother, embittered by the outcome of her marriage and the poverty of her widowhood,  and his rich, Jewish and talented school friend, Anton Zwiebel, who wishes to become a concert pianist but is too highly-strung to perform well under pressure.  In adulthood the pattern continues with Gustav becoming a hotellier, always catering for his guests, rather than developing a meaningful relationship of his own.  It’s not until late-middle age that Gustav finds a happy ending and becomes the person he always should have been. A bit of a spoiler there, but I was so happy for him.  Never has a fictional character deserved it more.

A sonata is a musical structure consisting of three main movements: exposition, development and recapitulation. Tremain structures her novel thus. The first section describes Gustav’s childhood in Matzlingen, Switzerland.  The second explains his mother’s embitterment, and, while it does nothing to endear her to the reader, it does explain why she impresses on Gustav the need  “to be like Switzerland. You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.”  The third section repeats many of the rifts of the previous sections though in different chords: the story of Gustav’s father’s heroism in helping refugee Jews from the viewpoint of his lover, Gustav’s continuing generosity to those who need his emotional support, and, finally the recognition of his own nature with some payback from those who have previously taken so much from him.

This is a very smooth and, in places, subtle read.  Tremain infers, frequently through repeated motifs, many drawn from the life and literature of Thomas Mann, who spent many years in exile in Switzerland on account of his Jewish wife.  In addition, the novel taught me things about Swiss history that I did not know.

Can I fault it in anyway?  Only in so far as the names of the main characters might be a subtlety too far.   An English reader would naturally not pronounce the final syllable of Gustav’s surname and would read it as Pearl.  He is, of course, an absolute gem.  Anton’s surname means Onion.  Correspondingly he is the cause of many tears and sorrows.

It’s a minor quibble, and certainly doesn’t stretch my credibility as far as some elements of Barry’s novel.  I’m sorry for that because Days Without End is the novel that bedazzled me while reading.  The Gustav Sonata grew on me while reviewing.  I think that its hidden depths  will better reward further readings. This last consideration tips the balance in Tremain’s favour. She would be the Costa 2016 novel winner if I were making the announcement tonight.

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Today I am celebrating the reclamation of my reading sofa with an illustrated anthology of writing about the pleasures of reading. The German title translates as Read and Let Read. Similarities between the the reader on the dust jacket and myself are entirely coincidental, though as I can slouch once more in my reading nook, I am as happy as the proverbial ….

I hope 2017 proves to be an excellent reading year for us all

There’s a surprising correlation between my 2016 reading statistics and this list.

  • 31% of my reading was in German or translated from German giving 33% of the following list.
  • 48% of my reading was in translation. 50% of this list is.

There are, however, a couple of surprising discrepancies too.

  • 70% of my reading was by new-to-me authors as are 11 of the 12 titles in this list. That’s an amazing 92%!
  • Male:female reading ratio was 56:44.  In my favourite picks it is 25:75.

The conclusion is, I think, that to increase my reading pleasures I must read more new-to-me women authors in translation. I’ll test that theory out in 2017.

But for now, here are my picks of 2016 presented mainly in chronological sequence of reading, to  form a mini-journal of 2016 – a life-changing year for me. Links are to my full reviews.

January: I began what was meant to an alphabetical Adventures Through the TBR reading project. I didn’t get very far, never consciously moving onto B, but I did read 15 titles associated one way or the other with the letter A. The Austrian novel I Called Him Necktie was my favourite of these and also The Most Moving Read of the Year.

February: Time for my annual Peirenathon and the magnificently dark and cruel the Norwegian The Looking-Glass Sisters became my favourite Peirene to-date and Gothic Read of the Year.

March: Time for AyeWrite and Julie Myerson’s The Stopped Heart delivered The Villain of the Year.

June: Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days was the hottest and fieriest read of my #20booksofsummer and her Home Secretary takes my Slimiest Politician of the Year award.  (No mean undertaking given the events of 2016.)

August: Month of the Year: I retired just in time for the Edinburgh Book Festival. So with time on my hands I read lots of great books, 3 of which make this list.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions roared into my consciousness to become the  Zeitgeist Read of the Year.

David Tennant’s reading performances of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train A Dragon series had me in fits of giggles driving to and from Edinburgh, confirming my inner child and my continuing delight in all things alliterative – not just my blog’s name.  They are my Audio Books of the Year.

October: I’ve spent two of the last three months of the year on the road, aligning reading with my destinations. The Munich Art Hoard was a fascinating glimpse into the unexpected moral and legal ambiguities that continue to exist around treasures stolen by the Nazis and taught me to look a more closely at the labels in art galleries. I had an entirely different experience that previous ones when I visited the Städel in Frankfurt after reading it. It is my #gapyeartravel Companion of the Year.

November: From an English book about Germany to a German book about Scotland – #germanlitmonth delivered Fontane’s Beyond the Tweed, a travelogue of his journey around the most famous bits of Scotland in 1858. (They are still the most famous bits btw so the book can still be used as a travel guide.) My Travel Book of the Year and the only book on this list by an author I have read before.

December: I may have been avoiding the Scottish winter in Gran Canaria, but I was deep into my #dutchlitautumn. The Boy is my favourite from among my choices for this and my Psychological Read of the Year.  It would make an excellent book group read; the mother being sympathetically tragic – or is she?

And so to my top 3.  In reverse order:

Back to August, the Edinburgh Book Festival and Helen Ellis’s Southern gothic and hysterically funny short-story collection American Housewife. Some of these ladies could given Myerson’s villain of the year a run for his money. Winner of my Short Story Collection and Comic Book of the Year awards.

In February I read my Most Anticipated Book of the Year.  Volker Weidemann’s The Summer Before the Dark lived up to expectations and resulted in the Gush of the Year.  I even read it twice, the second time in German, for Book Group at the Goethe Institute, where there was a hot debate about whether to categorise it as fiction or non-fiction.  Actually it’s neither. I suppose that makes it my Faction Book of the Year and, because I read it twice in 2016,  my Reread of the Year. It’s also the book that added more books than any other to my TBR  and started a whole new reading stream, making it the Most Influential Read of the Year.

So why is it not my Book of the Year?

In another year, it would have been, but in May  Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar came out of nowhere.  I picked it up to read along with TJ at My Book Strings and was not looking forward it at all.  Holocaust novels not being my reading material of choice. 7 months later and I can only summarise the experience in one word – revelatory – and that’s what makes this the Book Blogger Recommendation of the Year, Classic of the Year and Lizzy’s Book of 2016.

Year end beckons and it time to measure myself against my 2016 reading targets.  These turned out to be ambitious and unattainable but I’m not going to beat myself up about it.  I never got 100% in any exam at school, but I never failed one either.

  •  I read 105 books,  56% of which were taken from the pre-2016 TBR (target was 80%),  31% were either in German or translated from German (target was 40%).
  • I also said I would even the score in The Battle of the Books. Well I culled 278 from the piles, and acquired 100. (Review copies are not included in this score.)  Not enough unfortunately to balance the purchase allowance equation I’d devised for 2016. I bought 25 more than I should have, and was depending on a final cull to bring myself back on target.  It didn’t work out, and you can read more about that over at the TBR Dare website. Books 2 Lizzy 0.  Looks like I’ll have to make this competition best of 5.

Those were the only measurables for this year, and against those I’d give myself a B.

Here are a few more interesting facts.

  • I paid no conscious attention to author gender resulting in a 56%:44% male:female ratio.
  • 48% were works in translation.
  • 70% of the books read were new-to-me authors. I’m quite staggered by that, but, of course, this means that I have a huge backlog of works by favourite authors, which will be addressed in 2017.
  • I read 6 books on Kindle – a 600% increase on 2015 – a paperwhite making all the difference.
  • I abandoned 7 books.
  • The oldest book read was published in 1613. (Dialogue of the Dogs -Cervantes)
  • The longest book was Craig Russell’s The Ghosts of Altona at 540 pages.
  • And my books of the year were …. Come back tomorrow when all will be revealed.

 

 

imageAnd the award for the greatest villian of 2016 goes to ….

Well, there were a few around this year, weren’t there? But in purely fictional terms, there are two to choose from in Julie Myerson’s dual stranded The Stopped Heart: Eddie, the contemporary villain and James Dix, the Victorian one. That’s a bit of a spoiler as both men, at first appear to be knights in shining armour, but …

As for the eponymous stopped heart,  there are several candidates:

a) The contemporary couple, Mary and Graham Coles, who are grieving for their daughters, when they move from London to an old cottage in the Suffolk countryside, hoping for a fresh start

b) The person whose remains are found in their orchard

c) The reader.  Yes, indeed.  If you pick this one up, prepare for some harrowing emotion, heart-stopping suspense, graphic cruelty and violence and, in my case, heartbreak.  I really, really needed those human remains to be someone else.

Something awful has happened to the Coles’s daughters.  What exactly isn’t revealed until a long way into the novel but there are echoes of their fate in the story told by 14-year old Eliza relating to events at the cottage 150 years previously.  In the days when James Dix arrived and made himself indispensable as a farmhand, and as a lothario to the countrygirls, including Eliza.  Remember she’s only 14. Old enough in those days.  However,  relations with James Dix are dangerous, and we’re not just talking about pregnancy.

Eliza’s sister, Lottie, never takes to James.  In fact, she has premonitions about what is to come, and she is also able to see future inhabitants of the cottage.  She sees Mary Coles’s shadow – the suggestion being that the weight of Mary’s grief bleeds through the fabric of time into the past. And that bleeding is reciprocal.

It’s an uncanny idea, and one I’m not comfortable with, but then this is an intensely uncomfortable read.  Not only due to the unrelenting darkness of its main theme, the impossibility of keeping children safe, but also to the insistence of the author to confront the issues eyes-wide-open and take us not only into her character’s lives, but actually into their skins. The structure too is a challenge with switches between past and present signalled only by an empty line, and they are irritatingly fast and furious, particularly at the start.  (A textual representation of time bleeding, I suppose.) Thankfully though, one narrative is 1st person, the other 3rd, and as the stories established themselves, I settled to the pace and found myself as in thrall to Myerson’s storytelling as Eliza was to James Dix.

I realise I haven’t said much about the contemporary villain, Eddie.  Purposely, as I’d like to know if Myerson wrong-footed other readers as she did me.  (Though with hindsight, all the clues are there.) Not that this makes him the villain of the year.  On that score, James Dix stands head and shoulders above the rest.   (He’s a red-headed Victorian, so you know he’s a bad ‘un.) Never have I wished retribution and vengeance on a character so strongly. However I saw the author’s expression when I expressed those wishes at AyeWrite in March.  (I hadn’t finished the novel at that point and, yes, that’s how long ago I read this and I just can’t forget it.) I knew then, justice isn’t the point.  Myerson has drawn a portrait of pure evil, and, the grim news is that evil sometimes gets away with it.

I haven’t revealed my books of the year in gradual fashion before, but when I started compiling the list for 2016, I realised that I still have a goodly number to review.  (Reviewing falling victim to time constraints at literary festival time.) So I shall spend this week putting that right, starting with the short story collection of the year, the hysterically funny read of the year and the best first liner of the year. Contender for my book of the year? Most definitely, although I have yet to make my final decision. (It is a close run thing.)

imageLet’s roll back to the first line of the first story in American Housewife, entitled What I Do All Day.

Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.

It tells you all you need to know about the housewives in this collection.  These ladies are sassy, full of attitude, and not at all ashamed of their status in life. In fact, you could say they are rich housewives on steroids!  As Ellis said at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, “I became a housewife, and realised it was a really good gig.” Taking inspiration from the author, none of her creations want out of their lot in life, and why should they? The home is their castle, and let no-one mistake this, they are the queens of their castles and they will do anything, and I mean anything, to defend them.

In fact, The Wainscoting War is a literal turf war over the decor in the common hallway. When Angela Chastain-Peters moves in, she decides she would like to remodel the hall and advises her new neighbour of such in her first email, ostensibly a thank-you note for a welcome gift. In actuality an opening salvo in the war for dominance. Well how would you interpret the following?

Hi neighbour! Thank you for the welcome gift basket you lefy outside our apartment door. My husband  and I don’t eat pineapples … But we appreciate the gesture.  We gave the pineapples to the super, who said he’d ask his wife to ask you for your recipe for pineapple-glazed ham.  Apparently you make one every Easter that makes the elevator shaft smell like a barbeque. WOW!

The resulting battle between neighbours is laid bare in the email trail that follows.  Petty and catty as it may be, there is a deadly intent in Angela Chastain-Peters that is not to be thwarted.

I’ll mention just one more story in detail, otherwise I’ll find myself re-reading the whole book. In Hello! Welcome to Book Club, a new member is welcomed by the hostess, Mary Beth. The name is a pseudonym, a book club name. At first, this seems like a quaint idea, but as Mary-Beth introduces the other members and their reading tastes, something darker and altogether more desperate emerges. For Mary-Beth is as indiscreet as they come revealing the histories and secrets of each woman.  It’s a one-way conversation. To give you a flavour

Marjorie loves celebrity memoirs. She likes to have Book Club read about beautiful people who remain beautiful people despite life’s little challenges such as bankruptcy, infidelity, alcoholism, and infertility.

You’ve had three out of four of these challenges, haven’t you, dear?

That turns out to be true and not having experienced the 4th is the reason for the new recruit’s initiation into Book Group, because she is there to serve a purpose ….

Contemporary culture such as celebrity reality TV and child beauty pageants are pilloried.  Ellis’s satire is as ruthless as that of her narrators. Laugh out loud funny in places and yet merciless in revealing the darker edges and emptiness beneath exterior surfaces. Other stories (Southern Lady Code and How to be a Grown-Ass Lady) are lists, comprised entirely of tweets from the author’s twitter account @whatidoallday. The final story is one of a writer battling writer’s block.  Interestingly this is something Ellis has struggled with herself.  She has said that becoming a housewife helped her find her voice.  Who would have thought that the 4-letter words I hate – dust, wash, iron – could be such fertile ground for the imagination?

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Helen Ellis at EIBF 21.08.2016

imageYou may have already heard the news from Annabel, but the two of us simply cannot contemplate 2017 without the TBR Dare, now that James has stepped back from hosting it. So Annabel and I have stepped forward.

My dependency on this dare is due to a TBR well in excess of 1500 – go on, let’s round it up to 2000 – which despite my best efforts never seems to diminish.  So the opportunity to clear 30 or so from it in the first 3 months of the year is irresistible.

The full rules of the dare are available on the official TBR Dare website, but to clarify quickly: the dare involves reading only from your TBR as it stands (or falls as my book piles often do) on 31.12.2016 for the first three months of 2017.  As the idea is to have fun, the dare is not draconian, you can make as many exceptions as you will: shorter timescales, review copies, book group reads, etc. You may even buy books.  You just can’t read them until 1.04.2017!

Now I’ve taken the dare for the last 4 years, and I’ve never managed it without an exception or two. I don’t count myself a failure because of that. Nor should you. This isn’t a challenge set up to make us fail.  It’s a dare – dare you discover the neglected treasures you already own? If so, sign up here.  The more, the merrier.