Award nominated, Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Furious Hours

Starting off the New Year with a book from that NetGalley backlog I said that I was trying to deal with.  I try to only have one non-fiction book on the go at once, and this one is one I kept meaning to get around to – and in fact even started a while back and then got distracted by the arrival of a bunch of non-fiction library book holds and I forgot about it.  But it made the final of the non-fiction category of the Goodreads awards* which jogged my memory and gave me the push I needed to come back to it.

Cover of Furious Hours

So Furious Hours is Casey Cep’s first book and it tells the story of an Alabama serial killer whose trial caught the eye of Harper Lee.  The first part of the book tells you about the frankly astounding story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, who was suspected of killing members of his family – and who was then killed at the funeral of one of his alleged victims.  And just to add to what is already an eye-popping story, the killer was defended at the murder trial by the same lawyer who had previously defended Reverend Maxwell when he was accused of murder.  The second part of the book is about Harper Lee – the author of To Kill a Mockingbird – who took attended the trial with a view to writing her own true crime book about it, in the same way that her friend Truman Capote wrote the story of the Clutter family murders in In Cold Blood.  Now as you probably know, until the (somewhat controversial) publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee famously had only one published book – so you know a bit about how that went for her, but that’s only really part of the story, and Cep takes you through Lee’s life that lead her to that point and beyond.

Both of the stories told here are absolutely fascinating, and if I have a complaint about the book it’s that they feel like two separate stories for a long time.  When I first picked up the book I had picked up on the Harper Lee element of the story and was surprised when the start of the book didn’t mention her at all.  But having now read the whole thing, I understand why it was structured like that and that you need to know one story fully to understand the other and I’m not sure I could have come up with a way of integrating the two that wouldn’t have been just far too confusing.  So it requires you to read the blurb properly (bad Verity) to understand what you’re about to read – and then to go with it because it will all make sense in the end.

As well as the Goodreads awards, this was a nominee for the Baillie Gifford prize (which was won by another former BotW The Five) and made a lot of end of year lists – including Barack Obama’s – so it’s well worth a look if you like true crime or books about authors and that sort of thing.  As previously mentioned, my copy came from NetGalley, but Furious Hours is out in hardback at the moment – with the paperback due in April in the UK.  You should be able to get hold of a copy from any bookshop with a reasonable non-fiction section.  It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook from Kobo and Audible.

Happy Reading!

*Alongside previous BotW Catch and Kill – in fact there were a lot of books on that shortlist that I fancy reading – but they were all beaten by Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis, which given my experience with Girl, Wash Your Face I don’t think I’ll be reading!

Award nominated, historical, literary fiction, Prize winners, reviews

Book of the Week: The Underground Railroad

I am not a reader of Award-Winning Books.  See my posts here and here for proof of this — and I don’t think the situation has improved much in the last two years.  But some times you hear so much buzz and chatter about a book that you have to check it out.  Particularly when you luck into a copy of said book.  And Colson Whitehead’s the Underground Railroad was one of those books.  I’d heard everybody on the Bookriot podcasts that I listen to talking about how excited they were for something new from Whitehead – and then about how brilliant it was.  It kept popping up in lists of hotly anticipated books.  It was an Oprah Bookclub pick.  It was on President Obama’s summer reading list.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
I apologise for my lousy photography, but I really like the cover – with the train tracks snaking around.

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave on a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia.  Life is more terrible than you can imagine, especially for Cora who is an outcast among her fellow Africans.  When Caesar, a recent arrival at the plantation suggests that they escape together, they take a terrifying risk to try and get to the Underground Railroad.  But it doesn’t go according to plan, and Cora’s journey is fraught with dangers as there are hunters after them, dogging their every move.  In Whitehead’s world the railroad is real – actual trains in tunnels under the southern states with a network of drivers and conductors ferrying runaways to safety.

This is such a powerful book.  It’s beautifully written, but oh so difficult to read – I’ve had to take it in bite-sized chunks so that I can digest it properly – but it’s worth it.  It makes you confront harsh and terrible truths about what people have done to each other and are capable of doing to each other.  But it’s also compelling and personal and page turning and clever.  Whatever I say here, I won’t be able to do it justice.  I still haven’t finished digesting it and I’m going to be thinking about it for some time to come.  It’s going to win all the awards – and it deserves to. It’s already won the National Book Award in the US and is editor’s Number 1 Book of the Year.  In years to come it’s going to be on English Literature syllabuses.  Well, well, well worth your time.

I would expect this to be somewhere prominent on a table or on a front facing shelf in bookshops.  It’s in hardback at the moment – and you can get it from Amazon (out of stock at time of writing, which says a lot), Waterstones and Foyles and on Kindle and Kobo.  It might make it into the supermarkets, but I’d be surprised.  The paperback is out in June.  I’m off to read some more of Whitehead’s work.

Happy reading.

Award nominated, Book News, books

The Man Booker Longlist

You’ll remember a few weeks back I spoke about my poor record with Booker-nominated books and their authors and my pledge to do better. Since then I’ve read one of the Muriel Spark’s from my backlog and then got distracted by upcoming new releases and #Sunathon.  Well today the Booker Longlist is out and I thought I’d check whether this year’s nominees increase my hit rate!

As five of the list haven’t been published yet, I think I can be forgiven for not having read them, and there’s one book on here that I actually already had on my to read list (but not the pile!) and that is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, who is one of three authors on the list who I’ve read books by.  And I need all of those three (the others are Siri Hustvedt and David Nicholls) to make the shortlist because it would really improve my record, with no extra effort from me.  Of the other authors, I’ve got an Ali Smith waiting to be read – and I really should read some David Mitchell.  As for the rest, I need to go away and read about them and read some reviews and decide which I might want to read and then wait for the Kindle discounts to come around!

The Longlist in full:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour  by Joshua Ferris

The Narrow Road to the Deep North  by Richard Flanagan

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

J  by Howard Jacobson

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Us by David Nicholls

The Dog by Joseph O’Neill

Orfeo  by Richard Powers

How to be Both  by Ali Smith

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

Award nominated, books, Classics, Prize winners, The pile

Award-winning books

I read a lot of books.  I have read a lot of books.  I like to think I read widely and across a lot of genres. But I have not read a lot of award-winning books.  Why is this – and what am I going to do about it?

In researching this article, I printed myself out a list of the winners and nominees of the Booker and the Orange/Bailey’s prize and the winners of the Costa awards.  I settled down with a pink highlighter to mark up what I have read.  There is not a lot of pink on the lists.  But there are a lot of books that I think I should have read – and others that I would like to read, but have never got around to.

What do I mean by not a lot?  Well, I’ve read seven books from the list of Booker winners and nominees – yes, just seven. Of that seven, two are winners (Ghost Road and Wolf Hall), one I studied at A-Level (The Handmaid’s Tale), two have been read in the last month (Mrs Palrey at the Claremont and Loitering with Intent) entirely coincidentally and the remaining two have been read in the last year as well (Good Behaviour and Restoration).  You may have noticed from that little list that I have only read two books from the last 20 years of Booker nominees.  Now considering that I think of myself as a book person, I’m a bit ashamed of myself.

The Handmaid's Tale and Restoration
Handmaid was one of my A-Level books (the battered cover is from my schoolbag!), whilst Restoration is a more recent acquisition

There are some authors on the list where I have read some of their other works – just not the prize-winning ones, people like Muriel Spark, Nina Bawden, Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh and David Lodge.  But there are some authors where, despite their reputations and in some cases multiple entries on the list, I haven’t read any of their books – let alone the prize-winning ones.  People like Salman Rushdie (although I listened to some of Midnight’s Children when Radio 4 serialised it when I was about 14), Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge and Ian McEwan to name a few.  There are some who I have books by on the Kindle waiting to be read – two of this year’s list including the winner – that I haven’t got around to because there’s always something “better” there as well.

So what’s my problem?

Well, I think it’s partly in my head – I think they’re going to be boring and hard-going.  My mum used to read the Booker winner every year – a habit she gave up when she got stuck while reading Ben Okri’s Famished Road.  I can remember her saying that there was no point in reading something you didn’t enjoy, that she hadn’t enjoyed the last few winners and she wasn’t going to force herself to read them just because they were winners anymore.  I think this has stuck with me – I avoid them because they’re award winners or nominees, even if the blurb on the back makes them look interesting – I think it’s a trick.

A shelf of books
My collection of pretty Designer Virago books – and a couple of other VMCs by award nominees

Now I am starting to get over this – the two nominated books I’ve read in the last month, I’ve enjoyed – and I didn’t know they were nominees when I picked them out and read them.  In fact I was surprised when I found out – because they were interesting and funny.  I’d also like to thank Virago for their role in this – they keep turning out attractive looking reissues of intelligent (and often funny) women’s fiction.  I have half a shelf of their Designer hardbacks – many of which I’ll admit I first picked up because they looked beautiful – and I have a lot of their paperback Modern Classics too.  They are widening my horizons.

The other issue – that I can think of anyway – is the size of the to-read pile and the Goodreads challenge, both of which mean I often go for books I know I can read quickly so I can get them off the pile.  I leave long books and “difficult” books on the shelf – favouring short ones and “light” fiction.

A pile of books
As you can see, there are a few books by nominated authors waiting to be read

Writing this has made me feel a bit embarrassed – and very ill-read.  So. I’m going to try harder. I’m going to try to do better.  I’m going to try to improve my hit rate with prize winners and prize-winning authors.  I’ll start by working my way through the books on the to-read pile that are award nominated or written by prize winners.  And to make sure that I do do better and read these books that I say I will – I’ll keep you posted too.

Help me on my way by recommending me your favourite prize-winning or award nominated books in the comments below.