Live a Little by Howard Jacobson

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Howard Jacobson’s previous novel, Pussy, was a hastily written response to the election of Donald Trump. I can’t help but feel he could have left his new novel, Live a Little, to brew a little longer too. 

Things begin promisingly enough: Beryl Dusinbery is to all intents and purposes a wicked old woman near the end of her life. She fancies herself as a filicide, or at least claims to have named her sons Pen and Sandy after Pentheus and Tisander (figures from Greek mythology who were both murdered by their mothers, Agave and Medea respectively). 

Shimi Carmelli is an elderly bachelor much sought after by the widows of north London as his hands are steady enough for him to do up his own flies (which is lucky, given how frequently he needs to urinate). He uses a deck of cards to predict the future to Jewish widows every Friday night in a Chinese restaurant in Finchley Road. 


Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has achieved that rare feat, in her second novel Starling Days, of writing a convincing novel about depression which manages, miraculously, not to be in itself depressing. Her success is partly due to the fact that her protagonist, Mina, is not flattened by her despair and remains alive enough to become fascinated by another woman, Phoebe, her husband’s best friend’s sister. When Phoebe asks her to say something about herself, Mina considers what she might voice:

I want to run my tongue along the dent in your collarbone that your top has made visible. Nope. Sometimes I want to die and sometimes I want to buy a box of tomatoes and stand by the fridge eating them out of a paper carton and I don’t understand how I can hold both desires. Nope.

But Mina is brave enough to pursue this relationship, perceiving that it may transform her life.


The Travelers by Regina Porter

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In the opening chapter of Regina Porter’s The Travelers, a small dozing girl drifts into the deep end of a pool whilst her grandfather is preoccupied. She doesn’t drown in the end, just as Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s granddaughter didn’t drown in John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. Porter has nonetheless managed to compress a span of 60 years into one novel whereas it took Updike four Rabbit novels to cover 30 years. Porter follows two families, one black and one white, from the 1950s to Barack Obama’s first term as President. This is an ambitious undertaking with a large cast of characters and, although a cast list is provided, it takes a while to establish exactly who’s who in the different strands of the story that will ultimately all overlap.

The Travelers is ultimately a frequently painful novel of great depth and lyricism.”


Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson

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It can be quite easy at the moment to feel like we live in dystopian times which is why this month we were in the mood for fiction that is anything but. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, our June choice, has been described by the novelist Tracy Chevalier as “irresistible, a perfect mix of wistfulness and joy, substance and froth.” As much as we like a fizzy escapist novel, it is the grit that really makes all the charm of Miss Pettigrew so pleasurable. We were intrigued to learn that the book’s author Winifred Watson had to wrangle with her original publisher Metheun to get it published in the first place: she had made her name writing steamy rustic romances (of the kind mocked in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm) and they were not at all sure about this adventure with a nightclub hostess that was more cocaine and comedy than passionate romance in a rural setting.


The Women's Prize for Fiction 2019

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The Women’s Prize shortlist of 2019 was one of our favourites for years. Kate Williams, the chair of judges, has revealed that the panel deliberated for four hours to choose a winner. The eventual winner, Tayari Jones for her fourth novel An American Marriage, said “I think, in these times, we need women’s voices more than ever,” and we could not agree more.

Our money was on Madeleine Miller’s Circe, which regular readers know we were bowled over by last month. We felt that Miller’s scholarly classicism combined with her hyper-engaging prose style would once again prove a hit with the judges (her first novel, The Song of Achilles won what was then called the Orange Prize in 2012).

We also thought Pat Barker was in with a shout for Silence of the Girls, her 14th novel, which similarly offered a feminist slant on a Homeric epic.


The Heartland by Nathan Filer

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The Heartland, by Nathan Filer, who won the Costa Prize for his novel The Shock and the Fall, might be the most terrifying book published this year. It opens by putting the reader in the position of a schizophrenic patient being forcibly medicated against his will. The patient believes the medication contains poison but Filer (a former psychiatric nurse) must nonetheless administer it, apparently for the patient’s own good. 

His powers of empathy as a writer are such that this opening section had me physically recoiling, and anyone who has ever felt they are going mad will find resonance in these pages. The case studies are compelling as well as frequently heartbreaking and are enough in themselves to make The Heartland worth reading.  

Filer’s mission is bigger, however, than wanting his readers to identify with those suffering from schizophrenia.