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First Novels

I often find that when reading through the oeuvres of my favourite contemporary writers, I often do not begin with their first books.  Whilst I do not make this choice intentionally, I find it fascinating to read later efforts, and then go back to the beginning to see how a particular author’s style has changed over time.  With that said, I thought I would showcase five first novels by some of my favourite contemporary authors, all of which (aside from the McGregor) I read when already familiar with a lot of their other work.

  1. Like by Ali Smith (1997) 9781860493171
    ‘There’s Amy and there’s Ash. There’s ice and there’s fire. There’s England and there’s Scotland. Ali Smith evokes the twin spirits of time and place in an extraordinarily powerful first novel, which teases out the connections between people, the attractions, the ghostly repercussions. By turns funny, haunting and disconcertingly moving, Like soars across hidden borders between cultures, countries, families, friends and lovers. Subtle and complex, it confounds expectations about fiction and truths.’
  2. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2004)
    The Namesake is the story of a boy brought up Indian in America. ‘When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…’ For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply ‘BABY BOY GANGULI’. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss… Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. Elegant, subtle and moving.’
  3. 9780747561576If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (2002)
    ‘On a street in a town in the North of England, ordinary people are going through the motions of their everyday existence – street cricket, barbecues, painting windows… A young man is in love with a neighbour who does not even know his name. An old couple make their way up to the nearby bus stop. But then a terrible event shatters the quiet of the early summer evening. That this remarkable and horrific event is only poignant to those who saw it, not even meriting a mention on the local news, means that those who witness it will be altered for ever. Jon McGregor’s first novel brilliantly evokes the histories and lives of the people in the street to build up an unforgettable human panorama. Breathtakingly original, humane and moving, the novel is an astonishing debut.’
  4. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)
    ‘This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts. At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.’
  5. Everything You Know by Zoe Heller (1999) 9780141039992
    ‘The women in Willy Muller’s life are trouble. His mother insists he eat tofu. His dopey girlfriend, Penny, wants him to overcome his personal space issues – while Karen, his other, even dopier, girlfriend, just wants more sex. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter, Sophie, wants him to finance her husband’s drug habit. But it’s his youngest daughter, Sadie, who’s giving him the biggest headache. Just before committing suicide three months ago, she sent Willy her diaries. Poring over the record of her empty life, he feels pangs of something unexpected …remorse. But isn’t it a bit late for such sentimental guff? Set in London, Hollywood and Mexico, Everything You Know is a supremely witty take on love, death and the age-old battle of the sexes.’

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One From the Archive: Five Star Reads – Zoe Heller and Truman Capote

In January of this year, I was lucky enough to read some incredible books.  A lot of them, in fact, received at least four stars.  I thought that it would be a good idea to group two of the most standout books from the list together, and I wholeheartedly urge everyone to run to their local bookshop or library and pick up a novel by Zoe Heller or Truman Capote, particularly if you have never read either before.

Let us begin, then, with Zoe Heller’s incredible novel, Notes on a Scandal.  I was so excited to start reading Heller’s work, and as she had been on my ‘must read’ list of authors for several years already, I thought that I would purchase one of her novels.  I chose this one just because its title intrigued me, and because it was in stock on my favourite Abebooks retailer’s shop.  (NB: I do not have the pretty edition featured, but am instead the owner of rather a lovely orange Penguin Celebrations edition.)

The narrator of Notes on a Scandal, Barbara Covett, is a retired schoolteacher of history, who is living with and trying to protect her friend and previous colleague, pottery teacher Bathsheba Hart.  Sheba, as she is more commonly known, has been accused of ‘indecent assault of a minor’ after having an affair with one of her teenage pupils.  Barbara’s narrative voice is enticing, and it has been crafted so well.  She has been given a voice which could so easily belong to a real woman.  Its thought patterns are complex, and its tone is dry in some places and witty in others.

Throughout Notes on a Scandal, Heller raises a lot of moral questions.  She builds up her characters and scenes with an artist’s eye, and the pivotal twist is so clever, and so believable.  Heller is certainly one of the best author discoveries which I feel I have made in a while.  I would not hesitate to call her one of my favourite contemporary authors based solely upon this novel.

‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ by Truman Capote

Secondly, let us discuss Truman Capote’s first novel, the wonderful Other Voices, Other Rooms.  I received this beautiful Penguin edition for Christmas, and was longing to begin it immediately.  I have absolutely adored all of Capote’s novels which I have read to date, from the delightfully quirky Breakfast at Tiffany’s to his glorious short stories.  I had such high hopes for this novel, particularly when I read its premise:

“… [it] is a story of hallucinatory power, wholly conjuring up the Gothic landscape of the Deep South and a boy’s first glimpse into a mysterious adult world.”

The Southern Gothic is one of my absolute favourite genres, and Capote has done wonders with it here.  He is a wonder at building places and characters; his beautiful descriptions make each one of his scenes so very vivid, and his characters seem to come to life immediately, quickly fleshing out into both recognisable and believable figures, who linger in the mind for a long while.  Idabel Thompkins, the ‘fiery redhead’ of the novel, is based upon Harper Lee, Truman Capote’s best childhood friend.  It goes without saying that Idabel was, of course, my favourite character.  Other Voices, Other Rooms is a gorgeously written, sumptuous and rich novel, and I found myself reading it very slowly in order to savour the beautiful prose and story.  Capote is an author who deserves a wide reading audience, and I would – and will – recommend this book to all.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Five Star Reads: Zoe Heller and Truman Capote

In January of this year, I was lucky enough to read some incredible books.  A lot of them, in fact, received at least four stars.  I thought that it would be a good idea to group two of the most standout books from the list together, and I wholeheartedly urge everyone to run to their local bookshop or library and pick up a novel by Zoe Heller or Truman Capote, particularly if you have never read either before.

Let us begin, then, with Zoe Heller’s incredible novel, Notes on a Scandal.  I was so excited to start reading Heller’s work, and as she had been on my ‘must read’ list of authors for several years already, I thought that I would purchase one of her novels.  I chose this one just because its title intrigued me, and because it was in stock on my favourite Abebooks retailer’s shop.  (NB: I do not have the pretty edition featured, but am instead the owner of rather a lovely orange Penguin Celebrations edition.)

The narrator of Notes on a Scandal, Barbara Covett, is a retired schoolteacher of history, who is living with and trying to protect her friend and previous colleague, pottery teacher Bathsheba Hart.  Sheba, as she is more commonly known, has been accused of ‘indecent assault of a minor’ after having an affair with one of her teenage pupils.  Barbara’s narrative voice is enticing, and it has been crafted so well.  She has been given a voice which could so easily belong to a real woman.  Its thought patterns are complex, and its tone is dry in some places and witty in others.

Throughout Notes on a Scandal, Heller raises a lot of moral questions.  She builds up her characters and scenes with an artist’s eye, and the pivotal twist is so clever, and so believable.  Heller is certainly one of the best author discoveries which I feel I have made in a while.  I would not hesitate to call her one of my favourite contemporary authors based solely upon this novel.

‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ by Truman Capote

Secondly, let us discuss Truman Capote’s first novel, the wonderful Other Voices, Other Rooms.  I received this beautiful Penguin edition for Christmas, and was longing to begin it immediately.  I have absolutely adored all of Capote’s novels which I have read to date, from the delightfully quirky Breakfast at Tiffany’s to his glorious short stories.  I had such high hopes for this novel, particularly when I read its premise:

“… [it] is a story of hallucinatory power, wholly conjuring up the Gothic landscape of the Deep South and a boy’s first glimpse into a mysterious adult world.”

The Southern Gothic is one of my absolute favourite genres, and Capote has done wonders with it here.  He is a wonder at building places and characters; his beautiful descriptions make each one of his scenes so very vivid, and his characters seem to come to life immediately, quickly fleshing out into both recognisable and believable figures, who linger in the mind for a long while.  Idabel Thompkins, the ‘fiery redhead’ of the novel, is based upon Harper Lee, Truman Capote’s best childhood friend.  It goes without saying that Idabel was, of course, my favourite character.  Other Voices, Other Rooms is a gorgeously written, sumptuous and rich novel, and I found myself reading it very slowly in order to savour the beautiful prose and story.  Capote is an author who deserves a wide reading audience, and I would – and will – recommend this book to all.