Paperbacks to Look Out for in February 2019: Part One

The looming dank dullness that is February here in the UK has been brightened by the prospect of some paperback goodies, beginning with Jen Beagin’s smart, funny debut, Pretend I’m Dead, one of my books of 2018. Twenty-four-year-old Mona cleans houses for a living and falls hard for a junkie, taking herself off to Taos, New Mexico when he disappears. Nothing much happens in Beagin’s novel: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing.

Whisper it, I’ve yet to read anything by John Boyne but so many people whose opinion I trust seem to rate him highly that it’s time I did and A Ladder to the Sky seems as good a place to start as any. An aspiring novelist’s chance encounter with a celebrated author in a Berlin hotel leads to an opportunity. The story that Erich tells him catapults Maurice to his own literary fame, but once there he needs another idea and he has no scruples about where it comes from or how he gets it. One critic described Maurice as ‘a bookish version of Patricia Highsmith’s psychopathic antihero Tom Ripley’ which sounds very promising to me

In Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil a bright young man, raised in Washington DC by his conservative Nigerian parents, keeps his sexuality secret from all but his dearest friend. When Niru’s father discovers the truth, Meredith is too caught up in her own troubles to support him. ‘As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding towards a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine’ say the publishers which sounds harrowing but the premise is an interesting one.

I’m hoping that Katy Mahood’s Entanglement will offer a little light relief after that. One day in Cover image2007, Charlie locks eyes with Stella across a Paddington platform, and thinks he may know her. Mahood’s novel turns back the clock to the ‘70s tracing the thread that links the lives of four characters, seemingly unknown to each other. ‘In rhythmic and captivating prose, Katy Mahood effortlessly interweaves the stories of these two families who increasingly come to define one another in the most vital and astounding ways. With this soaring debut, she explores the choices and encounters that make up a lifetime, reminding us just how closely we are all connected’ say the publishers putting me in mind of David Nicholl’s One Day and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

That’s it for February’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other three should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new titles, they’re here and here. More soon…

My Coney Island Baby by Billy O’Callaghan: Love in the afternoon

Cover imageRegular readers may have noticed I’ve a weakness for Irish writing. It was that and the premise of Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby that attracted me to it. Two lovers, engaged in a long affair, meet for an afternoon once a month, a welcome interval in their humdrum marriages. Now each is faced with a crisis that threatens this relationship which has become so precious to them both.

On a bleak November afternoon, Michael and Caitlin battle their way against the wind to a Coney Island hotel. They’ve snatched afternoons like this for twenty-five years since Michael met Caitlin in a bar, escaping the awful grief at the loss of his baby son. Caitlin was already married, still cherishing dreams of becoming a writer and publishing the occasional short story. These two clicked and have continued to do so, telling each other their stories as lust dwindles a little, although never completely, and love grows. Now they’re in their late forties and age is overtaking them. Shortly after they meet, Michael tells Caitlin that his wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later in the afternoon she tells him her husband is in line for a promotion that will take him to Illinois. They both know these monthly meetings may be about to end unless they make an irrevocable decision.

For those seconds of a summer’s afternoon, easy in one another’s arms, they were entirely who they wanted and needed to be.

O’Callaghan’s novel takes place during a single afternoon, switching perspective from Michael to Caitlin. Their stories unfold in such a way that we come to know these two intimately: Michael thinks of the Irish island he left when he was sixteen, and his son whose death indelibly marked his marriage; Caitlin remembers her ambitions to become a writer, and the stepfather whose sudden departure left her and her mother alone again. There’s an elegiac tone to O’Callaghan’s prose coupled with a timelessness which suits his subject beautifully. It’s a novel that quietly  draws you in, engaging sympathy for these two lovers who face the end of the only relationship in which they’ve truly felt themselves.

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman: The Big Chill reprised

Cover imageThe Gunners is built around a structure that rarely fails to attract me: a group of people, once friends as children or young adults, are brought together by an event which affects them all. Weddings and funerals are a favourite trigger for this kind of reunion and in the case of Rebecca Kauffman’s novel it’s a funeral just as the friends enter their thirties. The five remaining members of the group that dubbed themselves the Gunners are brought together by the suicide of the sixth who none of them had heard from since she left the group aged sixteen with no explanation.

Mikey is the only one of the five who stayed close to their Ohio childhood home town. Jimmy has long since moved into finance making enough money to have a palatial summer home nearby to which he’s invited the other four for a lavishly catered meal. Sam has flown in from Georgia and appears to have taken to religion; Alice arrives with her girlfriend, as loud and tactless as ever while Lynn and her partner make up the party, both musicians now running an AA group. These five who have been friends since they were six years old are only loosely in touch, having drifted apart after Sally’s unexplained departure. There’s a great deal of catching up to do but overarching it all are two questions: why did Sally not only desert the Gunners but determinedly avoid contact with Mikey, once her best friend, and why did she take her own life.

If you’re of a certain age you may well have seen The Big Chill which has one of the best opening sequences I’ve seen, complete with the Marvin Gaye’s sublime ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ playing over it. Shortly after starting The Gunners, I was struck by what a good film it would make, then I realised it had already been made. This is not to criticise the novel which I thoroughly enjoyed. Kauffman’s charactericisation is strong, the flitting back and forth between childhood memories to adult reunions deftly developing each of them. Secrets are revealed, and if the two big questions are not entirely answered it doesn’t detract from the novel merely reflecting what might well happen in real life. This is a satisfying, often poignant read. There’s not a huge amount of bite to it but once I’d settled into The Big Chill vibe I was more than happy to enjoy the ride.

Books to Look Out for in February 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe second part of February’s preview wanders around all over the place rather as I’d like to be doing at this dank, drear time of the year here in the UK. I’m beginning the tour in Paris in 1929 with Whitney Scharer’s gorgeously jacketed The Age of Light which tells the story of renowned photographer Lee Miller and her stormy relationship with the Surrealist, Man Ray. ‘The Age of Light is a powerfully sensuous tale of ambition, love, and the personal price of making art. In this immersive debut novel, Whitney Scharer has brought a brilliant and pioneering artist out of the shadow of a man’s story and into the light’ according to the publishers.

We’re moving on to Thailand with Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which tells the story of a disparate set of the city’s inhabitants through the history of one building, A nineteenth century missionary longs for New England; a 1970s jazz pianist attempts to subdue the building’s ghosts and a young woman gives swimming lessons in a near-future submerged Bangkok, apparently. I’ve always had a soft spot for this kind of structure but I’m slightly deterred by the dystopian thread.

Off to Sydney’s working-class suburbs for Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats which tells the story of an Italian immigrant family whose misfortune coincides with the Tampa Affair which saw over four hundred refugees stranded off the Australian coast. Antonio is forced into early retirement after an accident at work, his dreams of a better future for his family shattered. ‘Manipulated by the media and made vulnerable by his feeling of irrelevance, Antonio commits an act that makes him a lightning rod for the factions that are bitterly at odds over the Tampa Affair and the “immigrant question”’ according to the publishers. The Tampa Affair took place in 2001 but this novel sounds sadly relevant today.

Former US Army medic Nico Walker’s Cherry is set in Cleveland Ohio where two students meet and fall in love in 2003. When Emily is called home, her lover joins the army leaving for Iraq after they hurriedly marry. He returns stricken with PTSD and a drug habit which turns into heroin addiction. When Emily becomes addicted, too, the couple’s attempts at a normal life collapse and he turns to bank robbery. ‘Hammered out on a prison typewriter, Cherry marks the arrival of a raw, bleakly hilarious, and surprisingly poignant voice straight from the dark heart of America’ say the publishers.

I’m ending February’s preview with a novel that I suspect will be bittersweet for me, on the eve of the dreaded Brexit. Robert Menasse’s The Capital is a satire on the European Commission as Cover imageit nears its fiftieth anniversary. The plan is to put Auschwitz at the celebration’s centre but while some members welcome the idea others most emphatically do not. Meanwhile, a murder investigation has been suppressed at the highest level in Brussels. ‘The Capital is a sharp satire, a philosophical essay, a crime story, a comedy of manners, a wild pig chase, but at its heart it has the most powerful pro-European message: no-one should forget the circumstances that gave rise to the European project in the first place’ according to the publishers. I couldn’t agree more with that last sentiment. Still hoping for a miracle…

That’s it for February’s preview of new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye, and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Katalin Street by Madga Szabó (transl. Len Rix): The past is another country

Cover imageI’ve yet to read The Door, Madga Szabó’s best known novel, and I made the mistake of reading Iza’s Ballad on holiday, failing to give it the quiet attention it needed. Nothing to distract me from Katalin Street, enjoyable or otherwise. First published in 1969, it explores the aftermath of the Second World War through three families, neighbours on the eponymous street with its lovely views of the Danube.

Henriette Held arrives on Katalin Street in 1934 when she’s six years old. There are two strange girls in what’s to be her bedroom and a slovenly woman standing in the hall with her mother. Later she joins the girls and a boy in the garden. This is Henriette’s introduction to Irén, Blanka and Bálint, her new neighbours. The beautifully behaved Irén couldn’t be more different from her sister Blanka, always in trouble yet much-loved, while Bálint is the quiet centre of their small group. Henriette’s father is Jewish, the holder of a gold medal for bravery won in the Great War which protects him until the German occupation in 1944 when he and her mother disappear on what should have been a day of joy, the day of Irén and Bálint’s engagement. Bálint’s father does all he can to protect Henriette but a horrible coincidence of circumstances results in her murder. When the war is over, the city finds itself under a different occupation. Irén becomes a teacher, following in her father’s footsteps; Bálint becomes a doctor working in the same hospital where Blanka finds work as an administrator but he’s returned from the war a changed man and is later imprisoned. By 1968, Katalin Street has long since been converted into social housing but still maintains its lure.

Szabó’s novel begins with a section anchoring it in Katalin Street before briefly visiting an unnamed island where Blanka lives with her husband and his family. From there, she arranges her narrative around a succession of significant dates, telling her characters’ stories from different perspectives. I found it a little difficult to get into at first but once the more linear narrative took off the story flows easily. Henriette continues to appear after her death, regularly visiting Katalin Street and its scattered denizens, dismayed at the changes time and events have wrought in them. It’s a technique that could easily have backfired but Szabó handles it beautifully, even injecting a little humour as Henriette’s parents regress horribly when they encounter their own parents in the afterlife. A quiet aching melancholy runs through this beautiful expressed novel, a yearning for a lost world, and its ending is heart-wrenching. Given that it was published in 1969 when Hungary was still a communist country, I wondered how that had effected Szabó’s writing of it: how much of what she wanted to say was explicit, how much was left to the reader to infer.

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan (transl. George Miller): Silence is not always golden

Cover imageI read Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story around this time last year and knew it would be one of my books of the year. I was delighted, then, when I spotted Loyalties on the publishing horizon. It tells the story of a young boy, caught up in the fallout from a bitter divorce, and explores the ties of silence that bind society together in a sometimes mistaken loyalty.

Hélène is a teacher with her eye on Théo. He’s too quiet for a twelve-year-old boy, seems exhausted much of the time and has only one friend. She’s convinced he’s being abused, just as she was as a child when she was subjected to systematic beatings by her sadistic father. She begins an investigation, first through official channels then stepping over the line. Théo spends alternate weeks with his mother and father. His mother is consumed with an entrenched hatred while his father slides into a deep depression. Théo has found an escape, drinking with his friend Mathis in the hope of obliterating his pain and anxiety. Meanwhile Mathis’ mother, Cécile, has discovered that her husband has an online identity that fills her with horror. In this brief novella, de Vigan examines how children can lose their way when the adults around them have lost theirs.

De Vigan tells her story from the perspectives of her four main characters giving a first-person immediacy to both Hélène and Cécile, one caught up in her own history the other reeling back from the discovery of her husband’s vile opinions. Silence and compromise are the themes here: Cécile has allowed herself to be remodeled into the person her husband wants her to be; Mathis can’t reveal Théo’s father’s condition because it will humiliate his friend and Hélène’s mother failed to step in to prevent her beatings. Théo’s situation is heart-wrenching, caught between two adults, more parent than child to one of them. De Vigan’s writing is as pinpoint sharp as ever but my expectations were sky-high after Based on a True Story which was breathtakingly good, not a description I use very often smacking as it does of hyperbole. Unfair to make that comparison given how very different in style and subject the two novels are, but inevitable, I’m afraid.

Books to Look Out for in February 2019: Part One

Cover imageFebruary’s surely the dullest month of the year in my part of the world although, thankfully, not in the publishing schedules, as I hope you’ll agree. Lots of promising titles to look forward to beginning with Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day which is about two couples who meet in their twenties. Thirty years later Alex and Christine’s evening is interrupted by a phone call: Zach has died and Lydia is distraught. Instead of uniting them in grief, Zach’s loss opens up a well of anger and bitterness between the remaining three, apparently. Hadley’s narrative moves back and forth between past and present, always an attractive structure for me.

In Steve Sem-Sanberg’s The Tempest, the past is also revisited thanks to a bereavement. Andreas returns to the house in which he grew up on an island just off the Norwegian coast. Memories surface and secrets are uncovered as he sorts through his late foster father’s belongings. ‘Rich in shimmering echoes from Shakespeare’s play, Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Tempest is a hypnotic portrayal of the inherited guilt that seeps through generations, haunting an island overgrown with myths’ say the publishers which sounds ambitious but intriguing.

I’ve managed to get ahead of myself and have already read Frances Liardet’s We Must Be Brave which carries on the pleasing theme of flitting between past and present revealing secrets. It opens in 1940 with the discovery of a child fast asleep at the back of a coach full of Cover imagefrightened women fleeing the bombing of Southampton. Ellen, the childless wife of a first world war veteran, takes Pamela home, surprised at the love awakened by this five-year-old girl whose loss reminds her of her own past. It would have been easy to descend into schmaltziness with this kind of story but Liardet steers well clear of that while still conveying its poignancy. I’ll be posting my review next month.

As you can guess from its title, Yara Rodrigues-Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist also has one foot in the past. A young woman whose mother has left her homeland struggles to find a way to feel comfortable with herself by exploring her family history. ‘Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity’ says the publisher, promisingly. I’m often drawn to the theme of immigration, inventively explored here by the sound of it.

There’s a promise of twists in Joan Silber’s Improvement which sees Kiki, settled in New York after travelling the world, worried about her niece’s relationship with her partner. When Reyna decides to put her four-year-old first, the repercussions are more profound that she might have expected.’ A novel that examines conviction, connection and the possibility of generosity in the face of loss, Improvement is as intricately woven together as Kiki’s beloved Turkish rugs and as colourful as the tattoos decorating Reyna’s body, with narrative twists and turns as surprising Cover imageand unexpected as the lives all around us’ say the publishers.

I’m winding up this preview with a book that was first published in 2015: Janice Galloway’s short story collection, Jellyfish, comprising sixteen stories which explore sex, parenthood, death, ambition and loss. Stuff of life, then. After reading Galloway’s memoirs and her novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, I’m eager to get my hands on this one.

That’s it for the first part of February’s preview. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Part two soon…

Six Degrees of Separation – from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to The Tax Inspector #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I’m sorry to say that I remember the film, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, rather than the book which is set in Lyme Regis, one of my favourite seaside towns, and explores the position of women in nineteenth century society.

Taking my lead from Fowles’ title, Patrick deWitt’s French Exit is a caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classes, which takes its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their ancient cat

Small Frank is one of the most memorable literary cats I’ve come across, only rivalled by the hairless therapy cat all done up in its ‘festive jumper’ in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You in which a mother leaves her family when he’s a little boy.

Another son wrestles with his resentment at the mother who he believes deserted him when he was a child in Nathan Hill’s The Nix, a panoramic view of American politics from the ‘60s onwards, in which Samuel is forced to come to Faye’s aid when she is accused of being a terrorist.

Russell Banks’ The Darling also explores the fallout from the radical politics of the ’60s and ‘70s together with the machinations of American foreign policy through Hannah Musgrave who has been in hiding after taking part in acts of terror many years ago.

The Larkins in H. E. Bates’ The Darling Buds of May couldn’t be further from such goings on although they do manage to seduce a tax inspector away from his official duties with the joys of rustic life.

Which brings me neatly to Peter Carey’s The Tax Inspector which I have to confess I haven’t read but I gather it’s about a dodgy family business facing an audit.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an early postmodern novel set in Dorset to a second-hand car dealers’ just outside Sydney. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Doing the dirty work

Cover imageI couldn’t resist the blurb for Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men,  My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, sharp blackly funny novel.

It’s not the first time Korede’s dealt with her sister’s victims. She meticulously cleans Femi’s flat, wraps his body and puts it in the boot of her car before disposing of him in the river, just like the other two. Ayoola looks on while Korede labours away, only helping to carry Femi when cajoled into action. She’s shocked, claiming self-defence, but within days she’s slipped back into her usual routine. Korede and Ayoola are the antithesis of each other: Korede is plain, practical and responsible, in line for promotion to head nurse; Ayoola spends her time loafing around, posting on social media and beguiling men with her gorgeousness. When she visits the hospital for the first time, curious to meet the man with whom her sister is clearly smitten the inevitable happens. Will Tade be Ayoola’s fourth victim? How can Korede protect them both?

Braithwaite’s debut is a caper with a sharp edge. Told in Korede’s wry voice, it’s punctuated with snapshots of the bullying, corrupt father prepared to let a colleague get his hands on his fourteen-year-old daughter in order to seal a deal. Korede’s apparently unbreakable bond with her sister is based on protectiveness and love. If men don’t come out of this very well, too easily led by beauty and quick to resort to violence, neither do women who gossip, judge each other and trade looks for money and status. Braithwaite delivers all this with a mix of almost slapstick comedy and sharp wit coupled with a page-turning pace. A smartly inventive debut, already bound for 2019’s books of the year list for me. I wonder what Braithwaite will come up with next.

Blasts from the Past: Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney (1992)

Cover imageA very happy 2019 to you! I’m starting my posting year with the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I fell in love with this book to such an extent that I remember sending H off for a walk into the lovely Corsican maquis on his own so that I could finish it. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler The Bonfire of the Vanities is seen as the quintessential yuppie novel but for me Brightness Falls summed up the folly of the ’80s very much better and with a great deal more humanity. It was the first in a trilogy which continued with The Good Life, a grave disappointment after Brightness Falls, and finished with Bright, Precious, Days which fell somewhere in the middle of the two in literary terms. All three follow Corinne and Russell Calloway.

Corrine and Russell are a glittering New York couple, in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seems possible if you are young, bright and fearless. To their friends, they epitomize the perfect marriage but when Russell becomes caught up in an audacious plan to take over the publishing company in which he is the rising editorial star, things begin to fall apart. The adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of the deal take its toll on both Russell and Corrine, just as the excesses of the ’80s have taken their toll on many others in New York City, from their close friend Jeff, now in detox, to the homeless crack addicts on every street corner. With the knowledge gained from her job as a stockbroker, Corrine begins to realize that the heady days of the rising Dow must surely come to an end. The reckoning finally comes on 19 October 1987 when the bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash.

I reviewed Bright, Precious, Days in the midst of the 2016 election campaign which seems a world away now. McInerney has said that he has no intention of extending his trilogy into a quartet but I can’t help wondering how Corinne and Russell would be faring under the current regime.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?