The Book Oscars 2016

Seeing as the Oscars are almost upon us it seems like the perfect time to conduct my own little awards ceremony.  Sadly I’ll have to make do without the extravagant dresses and tearful acceptance speeches, but what it lacks in drama it will more than make up for with amazing books!  By happy accident, it’s almost exactly a year since I launched Girl, Reading, so in true awards tradition I had a year’s worth of contenders to look back on.  It was difficult but I’ve finally whittled them down to a selection of worthy winners – see if you agree with my choices!

Best Leading Male – Dr. Finlay Logan (Devotion by Ros Barber)

You’ll be hard pushed to find a more finely wrought study of grief than this: Finlay Logan is so completely real that he could be any one of us if our lives happened to take a wrong turn.  The level of emotional depth captured here is so utterly authentic you’ll have a hard time convincing yourself that he’s actually fictional.

Best Leading Female – Grace (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon)

One of this novel’s strokes of genius is the use of a child narrator; like all children, Grace can be devious and occasionally unkind, but she possesses a perspicacity that eludes most of her adult counterparts.  By the end of the book I absolutely adored her, and I feel she’s going to stick long in my mind.

Best Supporting Character – Ganesha the elephant (The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan)

This is quite probably the first (and last) time a literary award has been bestowed on an animal, but I couldn’t resist!  I have a massive soft spot for elephants anyway, but little Ganesha goes above and beyond elephantine expectations, proving to be not just an adorable companion for the titular Inspector but a formidable sidekick in the fight against crime.

Best Cover Design – Devotion

devotion

There was no competition in this category for me – this cover is arresting and memorable, sinister yet beautiful, and captures perfectly the novel’s themes of grief, torment and the fragility of the human mind.  I love it.

Best Debut Novel – Belonging by Umi Sinha

If you read the review of this book I posted a few weeks ago you’ll know how this unassuming, un-hyped novel caught me off guard.  The quality of the writing is sublime, the themes universally relevant and the emotional insights piercing – I really, really wish this book had received more of a fanfare because it deserves every plaudit it gets.  Read it now and discover a new author that (I hope) everyone will be talking about in the not too distant future.

Best Novel – A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

This was the hardest winner to choose by far as I’ve read so many phenomenal books in the last year, but in the end I kept coming back to this.  What gives the book its impact is the extraordinarily delicate balance of genuine pathos ad deliciously black humour.  It takes real skill to make a reader laugh and cry – literally – at the same time, but this novel managed it.  It’s been almost a year now since I read it and I’m still moved when I think about it; there are many vignettes that are as clear in my mind as if I read them yesterday, proof surely that the author has worked her magic well.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think – who would your winners be?

 

 

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“Devotion” by Ros Barber – review

If you were being crushed by the unshakeable weight of a profound grief and you were told it could be taken away forever by a pioneering neurological procedure, would you take that opportunity?  Can the spiritual side our existence be defined by the laws of chemistry, biology and physics?  And what are the implications of a world where apparently undesirable mental states such as guilt, grief and even extreme religious views can be “cured”?  “Devotion” explores all these questions and many more besides; I found the reading of it a pretty intense emotional and intellectual exercise in the best possible sense.  You will need to have your brain well and truly engaged to get the most out of it, but the rewards are there if you do.

I really don’t want to say too much as regards the plot, as to give away any spoilers would completely derail the journey on which the story takes you, so instead I’ll simply set the scene.  Finlay Logan is a psychologist mourning the death of his daughter Flora in a tragic accident.  April is a teenage girl who blew up a bus full of students in the name of God.  Both are tormented by some traumatic – and downright hideous – events in their past, and when Dr. Logan becomes professionally involved in April’s case he realises that the mental and emotional experiences of this unfortunate girl might actually have a significant bearing on his own crumbling life.  Dr. Gabrielle Salmon is a neurologist to whom he turns for help; her extraordinary claim is that she is able to provide the experience of a direct connection with God through electrical stimulation of the brain, and that such an experience can permanently transform the lives of previously troubled individuals.  At first Logan is sceptical, but the question is already planted in his head, and the reader’s: does God have to be an external entity in order to be real?  Can He legitimately be made to feel as real to us as other emotional sensations whose existence we would never dream of denying, such as love and compassion?  From this initial proposition the novel casts its intellectual net wider and wider until the very nature of reality itself is called into question, and we are left wondering if reality is in fact just a construct of our own minds.

If this is all starting to sound like a philosophy essay I can promise you the book doesn’t read that way.  There are big philosophical questions looming undoubtedly, but there is also a story, an engaging and also very sad one about just how thoroughly grief can dismantle a human life.  Logan has a son, a wife and friends who are all in turn affected by his emotional demons, and it’s their story too.  What is more, despite the fact that on paper the subject matter sounds somewhat depressing, the author’s hypnotic and exquisite prose elevates even the most awful moments into something profound and beautiful even while the events themselves are ugly.  Ros Barber is a poet as well as a novelist and it shows.  I can’t imagine enjoying this story so much in anyone else’s hands; on every page there were turns of phrase that made me catch my breath they were so perfect.  Even if the synopsis doesn’t grab you, read it for the writing because her style is sublime.

Ultimately, the idea on which this tale hangs is not a remote and fanciful hypothesis.  In the author’s skilful hands it all suddenly seems completely plausible.  “Devotion” is actually set at an indeterminate point in the near future, a “post-Dawkins” world that has seen a gradual shift in attitudes towards science and religion; but really it could be almost any day now.  On the one hand science is the voice of reassurance, and for Logan it might just be the only thing that can help him get to where he wants to be.  On the other hand there is a faint air of menace in the apparent ease with which minds can be altered at the drop of a hat, electronically poked into supposed spiritual enlightenment.  All too recognisable too is the push to medicate against everything, even emotion itself; the drug Logan takes in order to alleviate his suffering does indeed dull the pain but also sends him into a mental stupor.  In a way the central conceit is simply the next logical step along a road that already feels familiar.

It’s been a few days now since I finished this novel and I’m still thinking about it; I have the feeling I’m going to carry on thinking about it for some time to come.  Many of the more profound questions the author declines – quite rightly – to answer; how we respond to the startling, and potentially controversial, ideas in this mesmerising book is left very much up to us.

Spotted! The new books catching my eye right now…

Unbelievably it won’t be long now until the autumn publishing schedule kicks off and the biggest names in books bring out their latest offerings ready for (whisper it) Christmas.  Just before we get there though, I thought I’d share with you a few gems – or rather potential gems – that have caught my eye and will be making their way onto my TBR pile over the coming weeks.

  • “The Marriage of Opposites” by Alice Hoffman

The first book of hers I tried was her latest, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things”.  Having fallen head over heels in love with it I went straight back for more and was astonished to discover just how many novels she’s written over the years.  As a new fan arriving incredibly late to the party, I’m extremely excited to try this next book; I imagine her many well-established fans will feel the same.

  • “Belonging” by Umi Sinha

So this looks like it’s right up my street!  It’s a debut novel and, according to my internet noseyings, is a multigenerational story that flits back and forth between England and India and ranges from the nineteenth century to just after the First World War.  The cultural impact of British Imperialism is a fascinating and occasionally disquieting subject, and it looks as if this book might explore what it meant to be part of a family that spans continents during that period of history.  There’s nothing like discovering a new author via their debut novel so I hope this lives up to expectations.  Also, the cover is gorgeous!

  • “Season of the Rainbirds” by Nadeem Aslam

I’ve been a fan of his ever since I read “Maps for Lost Lovers”, but the one novel I haven’t yet read is this one.  It’s not a new book but rather a reissue of his first novel, originally published in the early 1990s and due for rerelease in September.  I expect many of you out there will have come across it already seeing as it’s been around a long time, but I’m still very excited to catch up on this book that I’ve somehow missed.  If you’ve never tried this author before perhaps now is the time to give him a go!

  • “Devotion” by Ros Barber

I thought “The Marlowe Papers” was one of the cleverest things I’ve read in a long time, not least because of its insanely ambitious construction.  A 400 page novel written entirely in verse?  How many authors would attempt a feat like that?!  And once you’ve got over being mesmerised by the pitch-perfect poetry, you realise it’s also as gripping as any thriller you can name.  So I was super-excited when I heard she had another novel pending; vastly different from the previous one in almost every respect from what I can gather, but I have no doubt it will be equally amazing.