Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2016

Cover imageSeveral jewels to look out for in August’s paperback crown, starting with one of the best books I’ve read this year: Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back. It’s the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with her daughter. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. That may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Lucia Berlin would have been all too familiar with the seamier side of work, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. She died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of her stories which draw heavily on her own life, was published last year to enormous and well deserved acclaim. There’s a striking immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from the graphic, panicky tooth extraction of ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’ to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation in ‘Unmanageable’. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Without wanting to be a proselytising zealot, I’ll just say that this collection played a large part in converting me to the pleasure of reading short stories.

Written in a lighthearted, mischievous style Grégoire Delacourt’s The First Thing You See is Cover imageentirely different but succeeds in delivering quite a punch. When he hears a knock at his door, twenty-year-old Arthur Drefuss hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure as she is on-screen. Of course it’s nor Ms Johansson who, it turns out, didn’t like the idea of this book at all, managing to delay its publication for quite some time. Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness in this fable-like novel which puts our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire in an unflattering spotlight. It’s a little gem.

I’ve yet to get my hands on the following four starting with Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. Anais, the main protagonist of Fagan’s debut, The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with this one which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.

I tend not to be a fan of historical novels, either, but Naomi J. Williams’ debut Landfalls has a very attractive structure. Set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785 on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery returning four years later, it’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay, where tragedy hits, to St Petersburg. It all sounds very ambitious but if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.

The Private Life of Mrs SharmaMy last August choice is here thanks to Naomi’s description of it as ‘as close to perfect as it gets’ over at The Writes of Women. In Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, Renuka keeps the household afloat while her husband works in Dubai. All seems on track for her aspirations to the New Indian Dream until she finds herself chatting to a stranger, wondering if it might not be time to shrug off the calls of duty a little. The publishers describe it as ‘a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity, from a dramatic new voice in Indian fiction’ but you might like to take a look at Naomi’s review.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first three, to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis for the next two and to The Writes of Women for Naomi’s review of the last one. And if you want to catch up with August’s hardback delights they’re here and here.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: The ties that bind stretched too far

Cover imageMuch lauded by the likes of Peter Carey and Colum McCann, Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone is a nuanced portrait of a family trying to cope with the emotional depredations caused by not one but two of its members grappling with mental illness. It follows the family from its beginnings when Margaret and John meet at a party in 1960s London to the present day and a new start.

Almost two years after that first meeting, Margaret returns from visiting her parents in America to find that John has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. This is not his first episode of mental illness: he suffered a breakdown when he was a student at Oxford but has told Margaret nothing about it. Undeterred and in love, Margaret marries him gritting her teeth in the face of his mother’s chilly welcome into the family.  We first meet her seventeen years after that London party, living in a small New England town. She and John have three children: Michael, the eldest, precocious, endlessly talkative but inward looking; Celia, the sharply intelligent middle child in alliance with Michael against Alec, the butt of his older brother’s constant barbs. They live in a rented house – their belongings in storage in England until John’s American assignment is finished – and holiday in a borrowed cabin in Maine. When a second job in the UK comes to an end, the family is uprooted again but Michael begs to return to London, apparently to complete his schooling with friends. While Michael is in England, John’s health spirals into a catastrophic decline. As the family struggles to recover from this crushing blow, it becomes clear that Michael is bedevilled by his own illness. Having begun with a painful loss, the novel ends on a note of hope with a new start and the hope of recovery.

Haslett narrates his novel through the voices of the five family members, flitting back and forth over the decades since Margaret and John first met. Each character’s voice sings out strongly, offering their own insight into the family’s story and the ways in which John’s and Michael’s illnesses have played into their lives and relationships. Alec is uncomfortable with intimacy, Celia works as a youth counsellor and convinces herself that her partner will leave her while Margaret finds herself cast in a caring role after years of denial. Haslett’s writing is striking: ‘I’m not a doll in the house of my mother’s imaginings’ thinks the young Margaret, a continent away from home. The loneliness of mental illness is captured vividly in John: ‘The monster you lie with is your own. The struggle endlessly private’. The quiet divvying up between siblings is beautifully caught in Alec’s relationship with Celia: ‘We monitored each other’s responsibility for the family, watchful for any sign of defection, as though we were on a desert island together, each surreptitiously building an escape raft that the other occasionally burned’. Michael’s increasingly manic sections are darkly funny, becoming sharply poignant as his illness takes hold and his medication fails. It’s a carefully layered construction, both wrenching and convincing. Those of us blessed with good mental health should count our lucky stars.

The Girls by Emma Cline: Time for girls to become women

Cover imageThe Girls is another one of those novels about which there’s been a good deal of brouhaha – lots of Twitter love and advance anticipation for months – but like The Nest and The Essex Serpent, similarly lauded to the skies, it succeeds in living up to all that hype. I’m going to have to think about putting my sceptical hat into storage if this carries on. As you may already know, Emma Cline’s debut is loosely based on the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son – and her friends in 1969.

One day in a Californian park, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals, her attention snagged by the dark-haired one she will later know as Suzanne. Evie’s parents have recently divorced and her unquestioning love for her mother has soured into adolescent scorn. She and her best friend Connie are inseparable but Evie is tired of her prosaic smalltown life. When Evie spots Suzanne, thrown out of the local supermarket, she seizes her chance and finds herself invited to a summer solstice party. Soon she’s is a frequent visitor to the dilapidated ranch where the charismatic Russell holds sway over a collection of runaways, living off the donations of rock star Mitch Lewis and whatever they can filch from the town. When Russell’s ambitions to secure a record deal are thwarted, the mood at the ranch changes. The violence Evie has briefly seen but excused to herself becomes more tangible. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back on the events of 1969 as she watches an old friend’s young son and his besotted girlfriend.

The strength of Cline’s novel lies in her portrayal of adolescent girls on the brink of discovering their sexual power, vulnerable and constantly judging themselves and other women by the way they look. Their awkwardness, self-absorption and craving for the slightest sliver of recognition is painfully caught: ‘We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.’ Lonely and eager, Evie is ripe for Suzanne’s attention – her uncritical adulation tinged with desire all too believable. Cline wisely keeps her as a bit-player at the ranch, engaging our sympathy and making her a credible witness. The murders are foreshadowed with enough suspense to make it gripping but this is a character-driven novel – the killings and their immediate aftermath take up very little of it. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me – a few too many similes – but that’s a small criticism. As Evie looks back on that summer, watching Sasha subsume herself in Julian’s scant regard, hoping for another glimpse of the sassy young woman who emerged briefly in his absence, you long for all young girls to shrug off their girlhood and become women, happy in their own skins, regardless of who looks at them.

My 2016 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logoIt’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.

Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

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The Book of Memory                     Undermajordomo Minor              The Long Room

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Exposure                                            Under the Visible Life               My Name is Lucy Barton

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What Belongs to You                   The Cauliflower                         The Gun Room

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The Essex Serpent                           The Crime Writer                     The Tidal Zone

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Books to Look Out For in August 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThe first selection of August titles I have my eye on were all about the USA. This one ranges further afield, heading south first with Clancy Martin’s Love in Central America. Brett embarks on a passionate, destructive affair with her husband’s friend which sees her slipping away for weeks with her lover and blacking out in hotels. Brett knows what she’s doing but finds it impossible to stop. Included in the publisher’s blurb is this sharp little quote – ‘Cheating on your husband is like doing cocaine… …It’s rarely a pleasure, but try quitting’ – which is enough to sell the novel to me, and that is such a stylish jacket.

Off to Spain but still in the land of relationships, Gonzalo Torné’s Divorce is in the Air sees Joan-Marc telling his estranged second wife all about his past, beginning with the breakdown of his first marriage and the holiday that was meant to save it. As the story of his life unfolds in a series of flashbacks we learn of his first sexual encounter, his father’s suicide and his mother’s breakdown. Described by the publisher as ‘an unapologetic exploration of memory, nostalgia, romance, the ways in which the past takes hold – a powerful portrait of a man struggling with his illusions about life and love’ this is the first novel by Torné to be translated in to English and sounds very promising.Cover image

Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers takes us to Antarctica where Róisín and François meet for the first time. Róisín is from an Irish hamlet, passionate about science. François was raised by his beautiful young mother, unable to turn her back on her past. Their stories unfold separately, joining only when a comet is visible in the sky. ‘Theirs are stories filled with love and hope and heartbreak, that show how strangers can be connected and ghosts can be real, and the world can be as lonely or as beautiful as the comets themselves’ say the publishers in a somewhat overblown blurb. There’s a great deal of pre-publicity hoo-ha about this one which doesn’t always bode well but both the setting and the parallel story idea appeal.

Cover imageAnd finally, on surer ground, Joan London’s The Golden Age takes us to Australia where thirteen-year-old Frank Gold’s family have escaped Second World War Hungary. Frank is sent to the eponymous hospital shortly after they arrive, diagnosed with polio. There he meets and falls in love with Elsa, scandalising the staff. Meanwhile Frank’s parents struggle with finding their way in this strange new place, so different from the country they’ve fled. ‘With tenderness and humor, The Golden Age tells a deeply moving story about illness and recovery. It is a book about learning to navigate the unfamiliar, about embracing music, poetry, death, and, most importantly, life’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed London’s previous novels very much so have high hopes for this one.

That’s it for August’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with part one here it is. Paperbacks soon…

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: Living in uncertain times

Cover imageI’m something of a Sarah Moss fan having thoroughly enjoyed the closely linked Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children,  set in the nineteenth century, and Names for the Sea, her account of her year spent in Iceland. Her writing draws you in: it’s imaginative, witty and she knows how to spin a good story. The Tidal Zone leaps forward two centuries from her last novel to the present day when Adam gets a call from his daughter’s school. Miriam has been found collapsed and not breathing. Now resuscitated, she’s about to be rushed to hospital.

Adam is a stay-at-home father and has been since Miriam was born fifteen years ago. He has a part-time job teaching at the local university, while his wife Emma is a GP, caught up in working sixty hours a week with little energy left over for anything else. After her collapse, Miriam spends the next two weeks in hospital enduring a battery of tests – scared but determinedly hiding it under a stream of lacerating sarcasm. She’s a bright, articulate teenager, fully equipped with the well-developed, self-righteous political awareness that goes with that particular territory. Adam keeps the household afloat, taking the increasingly resentful eight-year-old Rose to school and spending all the hours he can at Miriam’s side while Emma continues to work, reaching for her daughter’s notes the minute she arrives at her bedside. It is, of course, every parent’s nightmare. Adam picks at his Coventry Cathedral project in the hope of distraction whenever Emma insists he goes home. His father’s arrival from Cornwall brings a little air into this claustrophobic situation, distracting the increasingly angry Miriam with the story of his search for a better life back in 1960s America. Slowly but surely the family begins to understand that life will be different in future. All the old certainty has been undermined, shown to be an illusion, and now they must learn to live with the opposite.

Beginning in the traditional fashion with ‘once upon a time’ when Miriam is conceived – Adam tells us his own story, interspersing it with both his father’s and the history of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt in the city’s bombed ashes. One phone call throws all the cards in his world up into the air, the constant background hum of parental anxiety turned sharply up. It’s not long before guilt rears its head in the shape of genetic inheritance, augmented by the radio’s  litany of violence done to children in less fortunate countries. Moss’ writing is compassionate, sensitive and clear-eyed but she is careful to underpin Adam’s narrative with a wry humour, steering it well clear of the maudlin. She has a brilliantly sharp eye for characterisation. Adam and Emma are good middle-class parents who resist cries for junk food, carefully explain how the world works to their eight-year-old and tolerate the barbs of their fifteen-year-old. Both Rose and Miriam are beautifully caught at their particular ages: Rose’s incessant demands for a cat together with her resentment at the attention given to Miriam and Miriam’s political idealism, cloaked in an adolescent cynicism which hides a new-found vulnerability, ring out loud and true. This is not an easy subject to handle without becoming sentimental or melodramatic but Moss succeeds beautifully, presenting a nuanced portrait of a family going about their business, juggling the multitude of things that need to be juggled to keep the show on the road, suddenly thrown into a chasm of uncertainty with which they must learn to deal. If I have a quibble it’s that the Coventry Cathedral sections interrupted the narrative flow in the middle a little, but that’s a small criticism. Another triumph, then, and, with its medical theme, surely bound for an appearance on next year’s Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist, just as Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children did before it.

Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers: Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Cover imageThis is the second novel I’ve read in a year in which traditional gender roles are reversed within a marriage – Andrew Miller’s The Crossing saw Tim decide to stay at home and look after their child while Maud continues her work in clinical research – and I’ve since read a third, Sarah Moss’ superb The Tidal Zone (review to follow soon). Three in a year might seem a high score but you’d think over a decade and a half into the 21st century it would be a more ubiquitous and therefore unremarkable theme. Coincidentally, Jane Rogers’ Eleanor – like Maud – is engaged in medical research as is Conrad. The difference between them is that while Eleanor is a star in her particular sphere, Conrad’s work has stalled.

When Eleanor returns from spending the weekend with her lover she‘s expecting to find Conrad at home, back from his conference in Munich. At first she’s almost relieved, setting about making the house looked lived in despite the fact that Conrad is all too well aware of Louis. As the hours pass, anxiety slips in. Eleanor speculates about Conrad’s absence – perhaps he met someone at the conference, maybe he has his own affair to distract him upsetting as that may seem. The truth is very different: Conrad has fled Munich, convinced he’s seen the young animal rights activist who’s been stalking him, and headed for Rome. Spooked and anxious, he gets off the train in Bologna, worried that Maddy has seen him boarding it. With no suitcase and very little money, he books into a hotel, roaming the Bologna streets aimlessly for several days. One evening lost, feverish and hallucinating he is saved by the kindness of a stranger who takes him in. Eleanor and Conrad spend their time apart revisiting memories of parenthood, thinking about the role each has played in the other’s life and how they have arrived at a point in their relationship where they are so far apart.

Through Eleanor and Conrad’s alternating narratives, Rogers presents a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is intensely involved in her work while Conrad much preferred taking care of their four children when they were young, pushed into his organ transplant research by Eleanor and increasingly unhappy in it. Eleanor’s relationship with her children is distant, Conrad’s close. Neither of them talk to each other. Conrad’s abrupt absence and the crisis it precipitates forces Eleanor to reassess their relationship but Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution. The novel’s secondary theme of animal experimentation is neatly stitched in, with arguments deftly rehearsed on both sides. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read. Not the first novel by Rogers I’ve read but it’s prompted me to think I should seek out more.