Recent Reading: More award nominees and a timepass

by Sunita

Well, the Booker prize winner was announced last week. Now I know how people who disliked The Sellout felt last year. I loved The Sellout and didn’t mind that a US author won. This year half the shortlist was made up of US authors (writing very US-focused novels) and the best known, most garlanded author’s book won (George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo). Eh. Never mind. The longlist was awesome and I found new authors and novels I really enjoyed, and in looking for other longlist readers I stumbled across a couple of reading groups on Goodreads and blogs I didn’t know about.

I read two National Book Award longlist novels (neither made their respective shortlists), another Booker nominee, and one of the Goldsmith shortlist books:

Hate U Give coverThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This seemed to be the It Book of its season, at least it was all over my Twitter feed and there were lots of feature stories about it in the press. I don’t read much YA so I didn’t put it on my TBR, but then I put a library hold on it out of curiosity and it came in right around when the NBA longlist was announced. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It feels like a debut; the structure is quite transparent, the plot goes pretty much the way you think it will, and if you’ve been paying attention to the many protests since Trayvon Martin’s killing some of the set pieces will look familiar (although they’re well written and integrated into the characterizations and storyline). The characters provide a little too much symmetry: there is a bad cop and also a good cop, a bigoted white teenager and an oblivious but trying-to-learn white teenager, good mothers and bad mothers. But the authorial voice is terrific, and the protagonist gives readers an important window into various aspects of middle- and working-class (and lower) African American life. The characters are quite nuanced and there’s something unaffected and fresh about the telling of the story, and it’s an important story to tell and tell well. Thomas does.

A Kind of Freedom coverA Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. This is another NBA longlist nominee and also a debut novel. Sexton tells the story of a New Orleans family across three generations, switching back and forth across the generations chapter by chapter. The first is narrated by Evelyn, who is often overshadowed by her younger sister Ruby but who finds love with Renard right before he goes off to fight in World War II. The second story is about Evelyn and Renard’s daughter, Jackie, who is trying to make a life for herself and her young son in the crack-plagued 1980s. She and her husband love each other but that’s not enough to keep them safe and secure. The third generation is represented by TC, Jackie’s son, who has just been released from prison in post-Katrina New Orleans. He wants badly to reestablish himself and be present in his new child’s life. The previous generations all play roles in their children’s and grandchildren’s stories, and you get a real sense of familial continuity and commitment. It’s a tough novel to read in many ways; it’s sad and it should make you angry that in some ways Evelyn and Renard seemed to have more opportunities and fewer obstacles than their children and grandchildren (some members of each generation do well but they aren’t the POV characters). It’s a story of how social structures change their shapes but not their effects, but it’s also a story of love and perseverance. I’m sorry this didn’t make the shortlist, because it’s ambitious and unusual.

Elmet coverElmet by Fiona Mozley. The last Booker longlist nominee I wanted to read (it also made the shortlist). This was an unknown before it was nominated, and it’s a debut novel by a PhD student who lives in northern England. It tells the story of a father and his two teenage children, who live in the woods and have limited and ambivalent relationships with people in the rest of the world. The story is set in the present day but (as you might guess from the title) has a timeless quality to it. The narrator is Daniel, the son, who can be a keen observer at one point and almost unbelievably obtuse at others. The first half of the novel sets up the family relationships, how they got to where they are, and who they each are, and then the second half resolves the various threads that have been set in motion. The ending is completely over the top and the book as a whole doesn’t really hang together, but it’s interesting and original despite the flaws and the verging-on-clichéd setup.

A Line Made by Walking coverA Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume. Baume’s second novel made the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist, and I can see why. The story covers a few months in the life of Frankie, a 25-year-old art student who suffers from depression. After a breakdown she moves into her late grandmother’s cottage in the Irish countryside, and the story follows her day to day experiences. Frankie sees the world as a series of art projects (installations? examples? I’m not sure what word to use), but she has great difficulty producing her own art. Baume gives the reader an unflinching, intimate portrait of what it is like to be one kind of depressed person. You’re in Frankie’s head all the time, and you feel for her, but at no point did I feel the need to run away from her story. On one level it’s inexpressibly sad, but on another it’s so illuminating. Every depressed person is different, and there are many ways in which depression manifests, but this felt absolutely like one of them. There’s no obvious trigger for Frankie’s condition, most of her friends and family are sympathetic and supportive, and she learns about herself over the course of the summer she stays in the cottage. But there’s no easy fix, and at the end of the novel I wasn’t sure if she was “better.” I really wanted her to be, but it could go either way. It’s a remarkable novel.

Caliban's War coverCaliban’s War by James S.A. Corey. This is the second novel in Corey’s Expanse series, and it provided me with a much-needed break after the Mozley and Sexton and during the Baume. In Indian slang, a “timepass” piece of entertainment is just that, something that keeps you pleasantly occupied and distracted without taxing your brain too much. I found this installment better than Leviathan’s Wake. The writing and plotting are stronger and the women really come into their own here. Bobbie the ultra-capable Martian Gunnery Sergeant; Avarasala, the loving wife and grandmother and ruthless high-level UN bureaucrat; and Naomi, the ship’s Executive Officer, all play major roles and take no crap from the men they are forced (or choose) to deal with. The novel is long but cinematic and moves along at a brisk pace, and the overarching storyline progresses in interesting ways.

Right now I’m reading Less by Sean Andrew Greer, which is just as charming and well-written as the reviewers say. It reminds me a bit of Stephen McCaffrey, although I’m not sure why (apart from the obvious). I’ll report back when I’m done.