Daughter of Eden – Chris Beckett

The third, and feels like the final, book in Beckett’s Eden series. Daughter of Eden takes place so far into Eden’s future that the earlier characters have firmly passed into mythology. He also still has something to say about human nature,and our need to believe in something. Through the characters he introduces he frames religious wars as the ridiculous ideas that they are,

But no one else looked at it that way. How can you ask if the story is true or not, if you’re in the story yourself?

I find it interesting that for the last two books he has focussed on female characters, with the surrounding male characters being two-dimensional at best. The women avoid the nurturing trap as well, and instead are powerful characters who have ambitions and leadership skills, despite the way that the society created on Eden has limited them. And the importance of the relationships between those women is central to this world.

I liked how the story was brought full circle without taking the easy escape. Of course Earth would eventually return, but how that was resolved was imaginative.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki has spent his entire adult life in the shadow of the expulsion from his friendship group in his late teens. Now in his mid-thirties, he is given the impetus to go and find out what has happened to his friends since then, and why they cast him out.

This was not what I expected, and every twist took this in a different direction. Throughout though, I found myself rooting for Tsukuru and hoping that he would be satisfied with the outcome of his pilgrimage. It also offers a view on contemporary Japanese life, with the ordinary everyday, and social structures, being visible alongside the emotional journey Tsukuru has to travel. Of course he doesn’t really take ownership or drive, but I am learning that that is typical of Japanese literature. He at least makes his own decisions about his life in the end, and any lack of resolution is balanced against the complete absence of any clarity at the start.

The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

Guylain Vignolles is an unlikely central character in a book. He lives a reclusive life, with a job he hates and few friends. But he has one saving grace: he reads. Not only novels at home for pleasure, but aloud, without invitation on his morning train ride. This has gained him a small following, and along with his lunchtime friend’s habit of alexandrines, gives this lightweight novel an pleasantly pseudo-intellectual feel, perfect for Sunday morning reading.

He stumbles through life, guided by instincts and the colourful characters he finds himself alongside. There are a few bumps, and echoes of an earlier traumatic incident, but mostly he is just bumbling through life with Roger, his goldfish, for company. Until….

Of course a change has to be made for their to be any story to hand on Guylain, but his ordinary life is what makes this book so readable. Well worth a lazy morning with tea.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Alderman’s The Power well-deserves its place in the Bailey’s Shorlist. An Atwood-style utopian/dystopian future. I did though have a little less respect for the Atwood quote on the front cover when the acknowledgements make it clear that she mentored Alderman. I’m very keen for writers in a genre to mentor upcoming writers, but then providing public feedback seems misleading.

Onto the book though: I like the concept, a reversal of all gender-based power. It places misogyny into context, whilst questioning just how much is due to essential shared human nature, with the flipping of the power merely changing who abused it.

I found the introductory letters confusing, until I read the epilogue letters as well, at which point the whole story clicked into much clearer context. The setting of the main book is a near-future science fiction, in which all women have gained a new life and death power. We follow four characters, and see how the changing world shapes them. Each central character is given depth, and has their own voice throughout. Their stories twist together and apart through this, done perfectly smoothly.

A must-read, and my favourite so far to win the Baileys, although as a science fiction fan I may be biased!

Is anyone else reading from the shortlist?

The Emperor of the Eight Islands – Lian Hearn – read by Paul English

I had this as an audiobook, read chapter-by-chapter as I took the train to and from work. Each day I lost myself in a mythical Japan, where Shikanoko finds his powers and influence within the Islands rises and falls. A strongly mythical setting, magical powers are real, and as important for influence as military powers. Spirits truly haunt, and fate plays a strong part in the direction of the characters.

This last part was one of the most frustrating parts of the book for me. Used to more active protagonists, heroes who fate repeated drops into the right place and time, again and again seem to lack decisiveness, and makes the novel more of a blocking piece than dependent on the characters.

But I will read the rest of the Tale of Shikanoko, to discover what happens to all these intricate, well-written characters.

One – Sarah Crossan

One is a very adventurous book. Its the story of two conjoined twins, as they grow into themselves, told entirely in verse.

I like poetry, and this was well-paced, short poems interspaced with longer to move the story along. The choice to only ever hear one twin’s voice was well-chosen, giving us a view of Grace as her own person alone, even as she is never apart from Tippi.

As young adult fiction it shows two girls with difficult lives making choices and growing to share lives with others and move into the difficult word of alcohol and sex. I think it stood up well as a book without the final dilemma they are faced with. That dilemma was handled well, with the choices well-framed and the unexpected ending bringing a tear to my eyes.

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

If this wasn’t quite so short and one of the Bailey’s prize shortlist, I would have given up on it. A deary introspective look at Neve’s relationships First Love never really offers love, just an understanding of why she can’t share it fully.

I’m not sure why this was shortlisted, and am glad it was from the library and therefore easy to return.

The Sport of Kings – C. E. Morgan

I’m not sure quite what I expected from The Sport of Kings, but this wasn’t it. It is a great American Novel in that tradition, a look at Kentucky social structures and racism, and a commentary on family relationships.

My teenage years reading horsey books proved valuable here, as I had a basic understanding of the breeding of Thoroughbreds, and how American horse farms can work. But at every section I was left struggling to keep up as the setting changed dramatically, especially with the first cut to Allmon. And I didn’t understand any of the Interludes or what they where adding to the story.

I still read it compulsively though, letting the threads pull the story together to a coherent whole, and appreciating how early foreshadowing was tied up in the last section of the book. It is clearly a well-structured book, with character depth and development. We see whole generations moving through the community, and social changes as history carries old practices away.

A well-written book, and although not one I would have chosen myself, the sort of book that is worth reading to gain perspective, even if the writer’s aims are at times opaque. As I am trying to read the women’s prize, the focus on me throughout much of this was disappointing, as was Morgan’s decision to publish with her initials rather than first name.

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

Having cast aside The Lesser Bohemians, I picked The Dark Circle out of my library bag in its place. This was much more readable, written in a conventional third-person style, moving between points of view as the plot develops.

I appreciated the perspective on the dawning days of the NHS, and how rationing, waiting lists and condemnation of patients was always part of the culture. But the NHS itself was not the subject, far more how the circle of friends at the centre of this novel drew together, and each coped with and recovered from, their time in the institution. How they each managed in the prospect of death, and how ultimately each of them left.

It is a “coming of age” story, but one with a difference, in that the trial these young people pass through is one of its time. And the writing gives a perspective on that time, and a connection to the characters that makes the whole situation heartbreaking.

Very well-written, and a good selection of a slightly unusual subject-matter.

Unfinished: The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

This was not a good start to my Baileys challenge: I got 20 pages in and the writing style and subject were just irritating me. Skipped to page 100 and the writing style was the same breathless internal monologue, so I gave up. This one just wasn’t for me, so back to the library it goes.