If you are in the mood to broaden your horizons with a fresh new author, the newly announced longlist for the Guardian First Book Award is an excellent place to start. Although this is a British prize, the nominees are not limited by geography.
Of the fiction nominees Guardian editor Kate Allardice said,
“…we’ve got novels like The Art of Fielding, a popular and critical hit earlier this year, alongside lesser known titles such as The China Factory,” said Allardice. “One criticism of new writing is often that it doesn’t engage with contemporary events or recent history, but something like The Yellow Birds, a very raw, visceral account of the Iraq war written by a young soldier, shows this can be done. Judging a prize like this, you do very quickly become aware of trends and foibles. Semi-autobiographical novels seems to have given way to whimsical child narrators. The one on our longlist which might seem to fall into this category is Kerry Hudson’s novel Tony Hogan Brought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, but the voice is so fresh and the writing so energetic that we felt it needed to be included“.
The China Factory (M)
by Mary Costello
It is hard not to compare Irish writer Mary Costello to Alice Munro or William Trevor – that’s how good she is. Written with similar exquisite understatement, her stories take big events in ordinary lives and make them seem both commonplace and extraordinary. In her review of this first collection of stories written over many years, Anne Enright wrote “This is a writer unafraid of the graveside, or the bedside, of filling the space of the story to the brim … The slow leaking of love out of a relationship is described in particular and terrible banality … There is a kind of immaculate suburban sadness in many of these tales.” A triumph for small Dublin publisher The Stinging Fly Press.
by Patrick Flanery
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Absolution tells the intertwined stories of novelist Claire Wald and academic Sam Leroux, a Cape Towner who left for the US but has returned in order to write Wald’s biography. Flanery is superb on the violence of a society still deeply ill at ease with itself, where wealth remains divided along racial lines.
The Art of Fielding (M)
by Chad Harbach
Named one the top 10 Books of 2011 by the New York Times, Harbach’s novel of love and doubt, baseball and Herman Melville, tells the story of brilliant shortstop Henry Skrimshander. A genius in the field, he’s recruited to play for Westish college’s team the Harpooners, and enjoys a dizzying ascent to tie the record for consecutive errorless games before he misfires a throw and discovers he is fallible.
Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (M)
by Kerry Hudson
Phew, what a mouthful – but this ungainly title captures the energy and quirkiness of 31-year-old Hudson’s semi-autobiographical first novel. We follow the peripatetic upbringing of young Janie Ryan and her fiercely loving but desperately wayward mother Iris, both descended from a line of mouthy Scottish fishwives, in a tour of B&Bs and dismal half-way houses from Aberdeen to Yarmouth. “Gritty” is an overused adjective to describe these tales of triumph-over-adversity, but while the narrative arc might be familiar, it’s written with such verve and originality it is impossible not to be won over
The Yellow Birds (M)
by Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds, by young Iraqi veteran and poet Kevin Powers, is a visceral, sometimes raw, but utterly riveting account of the experiences endured by 21-year old Private Bartle and 18-year-old Private Murphy, serving their first tour in Tal Afar. This harrowing, devastating story of friendship, humanity (and the loss of it) and the consequences of war more than lives up to the pre-publication excitement surrounding it
The Lifeboat (M)
by Charlotte Rogan
1914, and newly-wed Grace Winters is adrift in a lifeboat with 39 strangers after the ocean liner taking her and her husband to New York was shipwrecked. This might seem a conventional story of love between the classes and high-octane nautical drama, familiar from the many fictions inspired by the sinking of the Titanic, but by focusing on the immediate aftermath of the disaster, this becomes a much darker more thought-provoking novel. We’ve all wondered how we might behave in a life-threatening situation, the lengths we would go to survive, and the sort of people we would – and wouldn’t – want to have around. Charlotte Rogan’s impressive debut makes those questions disquietingly gripping and real.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers (M)
by Katherine Boo
This painstakingly researched, vividly written study of a group of slum-dwellers living in squalor in Annawadi, Mumbai, was described by Amit Chaudhuri in the Guardian as a “classic of contemporary writing”. Boo is a Pulitzer-prizewinning New Yorker journalist, and her account of Indian slum life is is beautifully constructed, unsensational, unjudgmental and deeply felt: the result of years of careful witnessing and subtle thought. Her achievement has been compared to Orwell’s in The Road to Wigan Pier. According to the New York Times, “she makes it very easy to forget that this book is the work of a reporter”
Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (M)
by Susan Cain
This smart, thought-provoking book argues that extroverts are overvalued in a modern world that admires their chatty self-assurance, while overlooking their tendency to narcissism and thoughtlessness. Cain, whose own story is part of the book, believes that the habit of misunderstanding and undervaluing introverts – the contemplative and quietly well-informed – is a structural error with far-reaching social consequences. Reviewing it in the Guardian, Jon Ronson thought it “so persuasive and timely and heartfelt it should inevitably effect change in schools and offices”
The Origins of Sex (M)
by Faramerz Dabhoiwala
The “first sexual revolution” didn’t happen in 1963 but more than 200 years earlier, according to this revelatory book from an Oxford history don. Dabhoiwala reconceptualises a central aspect of society, arguing that sex was a fundamental part of the Enlightenment, and that between the middle of the 17th century and 1900 thinking about sex changed completely. Dabhoiwala’s explanation takes in the rise of cities, the explosion of print, religious toleration, celebrity and philanthropy. Reviewing it in the Guardian, John Barrell described it as “an informative, wide-ranging book that is also compellingly readable”.
Sandstorm: Libya in the time of revolution (M)
by Lindsey Hilsum
Hilsum was reporting for television in Libya when Gaddafi met his end. Her terrifically written book is both a knowledgeable account of the process of change, and a history of Libya under Gaddafi: his initial appeal, his brutality, previous attempts to overthrow him. Chris McGreal wrote: “Hilsum, in her masterful account, draws on pre-revolutionary visits to Tripoli, where she encountered a fearful and sullen population, as well as her reporting of the uprising and more recent research to produce an account with historical depth to match dramatic reportage”
by Sarah Jackson
This year’s reader nomination is a volume of poetry. Arranged in four sections, the collection shuttles the reader between infancy and adulthood in poems that are tender and haunting. Reviewer R042 said the collection “stunned me in a way that a great book should – this doesn’t have to be through great incident, or wit, but sometimes just the sheer power of the way in which something is expressed”.
( please note that the book descriptions listed above are all from the Guardian First Book Award site)