Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2018: Part One

Cover imageLots of paperbacks to anticipate eagerly this April which is when, I hope, we can expect spring to take off here in the UK  unless there’s another little winter reprise. For no reason other than my own convenience, I’ve divided this month’s preview geographically into America then Europe which is where all the titles are either set or originate.

I’m starting with one which attracted a good deal of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods when it was first published. Julie Buntin’s Marlena follows naïve fifteen-year-old Cat who finds herself becoming best friends with her neighbour when she moves to a new town in rural Michigan. Cat and Marlena make the town their own, partying like there’s no tomorrow until Marlena is found drowned in nearby woods. Decades later Cat is still trying to come to terms with her past. ‘Alive with an urgent, unshakeable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull ourselves back from the brink’ say the publishers a little dramatically.

Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy is set in New York where twenty-three-year-old Alice settles after leaving London. There she becomes obsessed with a Japanese writer she meets online whose life seems to echo her own. ‘As Alice closes in on Mizuko, her ‘internet twin’, realities multiply and fact and fiction begin to blur. The relationship between the two women exposes a tangle of lies and sexual encounters’ according to the publishers putting me in mind of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story.

Cherise Wolas’ The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is also about a writer and comes garlanded with praise from A. M. Homes. A rising literary star, Joan becomes distracted when she falls in love. Neither she nor her lover wants children but Martin’s surprised delight when she becomes Cover imagepregnant results in her keeping the child. ‘Decades later, when she is finally poised to reclaim the spotlight, a betrayal of Shakespearean proportions forces Joan to question every choice she has made’ say the publishers enticingly. Very much like the sound of that.

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss Laird Hunt’s fiction before now – he’s written six novels besides The Evening Road. Set in 1920s Indiana, Hunt’s odyssey follows two women through a searing summer’s night on which a lynching is to take place: one white, making her way to what she sees as a show; one black, travelling in the opposite direction. Hunt very effectively shows us both sides of this sorry story, each told by women who have more in common than they might imagine. It’s quite riveting: shocking at times, very funny at others, and vividly memorable.

In Tell Me How This Ends Well, David Samuel Levinson takes us to an anti-Semitic America in 2022 as the Jacobson family gathers for Passover in Los Angeles. Each of the three adult children is in the midst of a crisis, blaming their father for his mistreatment of them. Believing that he has their mother’s death in his sights, they begin to plot against him hampered by their own resentments and petty squabbling. ‘Tell Me How This Ends Well presents a blistering vision of near-future America, turning the exploits of one very funny, very troubled family into a rare and compelling exploration of the state of America itself’ say the publishers.

I’m ending this first paperback selection with a book from my 2017 books of the year list: Victoria Redel’s Before Everything. Five women, friends since school, come together when one of Cover imagethem is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

That’s it for April in America. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to learn more, or to my reviews for The Evening Road and Before Everything. If you’d like to catch up with April’s new titles they’re here. Europe next week which will defiantly kick off with a British title because we’re still European

All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman: The story of a family

Cover imageLike that old joke about buses, after not reading a novel by a New Zealand author in a very long time I’ve read two in just over a month – first C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel and now Fiona Kidman’s All Day at the Movies. I remember reading a post at Word by Word about Kidman in which Claire mentioned that she was little known outside New Zealand and Australia which seems a shame. With luck this story of a family, spanning over sixty years, will bring her writing a little more attention, here in the UK at least.

Irene Sandle has taken a job in the tobacco fields. A widow who spent the war working in her local library and raising six-year-old Jessie, she‘s unused to the sheer hard graft of manual labour but determined to reclaim her independence. Fending off the foreman’s attentions, she’s won over by the small acts of kindness of another, gentler man. After a disaster in which Bert is killed, Irene finds it expedient to accept the bullying Jock, marrying him and having three more children. When Irene dies, her neighbour steps neatly into her shoes, turning her face away from Jock’s abuse and dealing out her own cruelty. Jessie takes off, heading for the city, then Belinda is taken in by Jock’s sister leaving Janice and Grant at the mercy of Jock and Charm, a misnomer if ever there was one. These four will lead very different lives: Jessie building a glittering journalistic career; Belinda marrying her first love and becoming a documentary maker; Janice running from the man she thought would save her from Jock, and Grant searching for a new identity, distancing himself from his toxic upbringing.

A family saga is a very old-fashioned structure but if handled well it can be immensely satisfying, and Kidman does it beautifully. Beginning in 1952 and ending in 2015, this engrossing novel follows the four siblings down the disparate roads they choose or are taken down, bringing them back to the root of what has formed them, while offering snapshots of New Zealand’s story along the way. Themes of racism, violence and abuse run through the novel, all explored with admirable humanity. Even the less sympathetic characters are well-rounded with backstories compassionately told.  It took me a little while to get into as a multitude of characters were introduced but after the first few chapters I was hooked. This is such an accomplished novel, thoroughly absorbing with all its loose ends neatly tucked in. Like C. K. Stead, Kidman is a mature author with an extensive backlist which I’m looking forward to exploring.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Living or merely surviving?

Cover imageI’m sure most of you have already heard of The Immortalists. It’s been everywhere in my neck of the Twitter woods, not something that always bodes well. It’s been on my own radar for so long I can’t even remember how it got there but I suspect it was the very clever hook on which Chloe Benjamin has hung this glorious, engrossing novel which explores what it is to be human wrapped up in a piece of good old-fashioned storytelling.

It’s 1969. The tailoring business his immigrant father set up has prospered under Saul Gold while Gertie has channelled all her ambition into her children. Captivated by the idea of a fortune-teller who can forecast the date of her clients’ death, eleven-year-old Daniel Gold takes his three siblings off to see her. Klara is nine, already learning the tricks of her future trade from one of New York’s once-celebrated magicians; Varya is thirteen, self-consciously on the cusp of womanhood and Simon is just seven, still babied by his strong-minded mother. Each of the children will react differently to the sentence the fortune-teller passes on them. Simon will shrug off the responsibility of the business which it’s assumed he will take on when Saul drops dead, defying his mother and taking off to San Francisco. Klara goes with him, determined to break into the male world of magic with her daring Jaws of Death trick. Daniel will seek a safer life as a military doctor sparing young men from combat, unable to shrug off the guilt at the burden his siblings bear thanks to him. Varya becomes a scientist, researching ageing and battling the OCD which imprisons her in much the same kind of cage as the monkeys who are part of her research. The day of their sentence will be etched in all their minds, setting up barriers within the family and dictating their attitudes to life and what remains of it.

Benjamin’s novel explores themes of family, love, religion and grief within the framework of the overarching question: how would you live your life if you knew when you were going to die? Would you choose to live it to the full, or would you keep yourself as safe as you could? In other words, would you choose to live or merely to survive? Each of the four Golds’ stories unfolds separately, interwoven and overlapping on the rare occasions they meet, as they move inexorably towards their appointed date. Benjamin takes us into the four worlds they inhabit, particularly vividly evoking the joyous liberation of ‘80s San Francisco before AIDs rears its ugly head. It’s an immensely skilful piece of storytelling, peopled with well-rounded characters and Benjamin knows how to turn a striking phrase. The hook is undoubtedly that fortune-teller, a trope which has the makings of a clever thriller and there is a thread of suspense in each of the siblings’ stories but Benjamin’s novel is very much more than that, managing to be entertaining, moving and though-provoking all in one compassionate, satisfyingly immersive novel.

Books to Look Out for in April 2018

Cover imageFewer new April titles have snagged my attention than I’d hoped, although there were so many at the beginning of the year that may not be such a bad thing. I’ll start with the Gun Love by Jennifer Clement, author of the impressive Prayers for the Stolen, published in the UK a few years ago. Fourteen-year-old Pearl lives in the front seat of a wrecked car in a Florida trailer park while her mother lives in the back. Under the driver’s seat sits a gun given to Margot by her boyfriend, a regular visitor to the back seat. ‘Gun Love is a hypnotic story of family, community and violence. Told from the perspective of a sharp-eyed teenager, it exposes America’s love affair with firearms and its painful consequences’ say the publishers. I remember circling Prayers for the Stolen for some time, expecting unremitting grimness given that it was about kidnapped girls but it surprised me, and I’m hoping for the same with this one.

Diana Evans’ Ordinary People is set in South London, far from Pearl and Margot’s trailer park. Melissa is sinking after the birth of her baby while Michael fails to remain faithful to her. Further out into the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their children until the death of his father seems to pull the carpet from underneath him. ‘Set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s historic election victory, Ordinary People is an intimate, immersive study of identity and parenthood, sex and grief, friendship and aging, and the fragile architecture of love’ say the publishers enticingly.

Sarah Françoise’s Stories We Tell Ourselves is about another marriage in trouble, or perhaps a whole series of them. Joan and Frank have spent three decades in an unfinished house in the French Alps. Frank is involved in an epistolary affair with his German ex-girlfriend, and Joan is losing patience but it’s Christmas. They’re about to be visited by their three children, all wrestling with their own relationship difficulties. ‘Written with a rare precision and insight, the author explores the thorniness of familial love and its capacity to endure with warmth, wit and disarming honesty’ say the publishers, a promise which if it’s fulfilled could result in an Cover imageentertaining read.

No prizes for guessing the subject matter of Joanna Walsh’s Break.up but what’s interesting is the way in which Walsh approaches her subject, apparently blending fiction with essays on all manner of things according to the blurb. Walsh’s book is rooted in the idea that the internet has resulted in ex-partners becoming near inescapable. After an affair conducted mostly online, her narrator travels across Europe relying purely on chance to shape her journey. ‘From Rome to Budapest, Freud to Foucault, algorithms to nostalgia, this is a stimulating, original work which dismantles what we know of love, and how we make art from it, and finds a new form and language for the way we love now’ say the publishers. Walsh writes both fiction and non-fiction so may well be able to pull off what sounds like an ambitious piece of writing. She’s also the person behind #ReadWoman.

Lucy Wood’s lovely first novel, Weathering, was a 2015 favourite for me. I still haven’t got around to reading her much-praised collection Diving Belles and Other Stories but that hasn’t stopped me lusting after her new one, The Sing of the Shore, comprising stories set in Cornwall. ‘These astonishing, beguiling stories of ghosts and shifting sands, of static caravans and shipwrecked cargo, explore notions of landscape and belonging, permanence and impermanence, and the way places can take hold and never quite let go’ according to the publishers. Weathering was striking for its gorgeous, lyrical writing raising expectations for more of the same.

Cover image I’m ending with Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century, one of the lengthiest titles I’ve come across in some time. The lure here is its Berlin backdrop and its translation by Jamie Bulloch whose work I’ve come to admire. A wolf crosses the border from Poland into Germany, making its way to Berlin. Schimmelpfennig’s novel traces the lives of the people whose path the wolf crosses, from the construction worker who photographs it to the woman who burns her mother’s diaries on a Berlin balcony. ‘Those who catch sight of the wolf see their own lives reflected, and find themselves searching for a different path in a cold time. This first novel of Germany’s most celebrated contemporary playwright is written in prose of tremendous power and precision’ say the publishers which sounds very promising.

That’s it for April’s new titles. A click on any title that takes your fancy will lead to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: A novel in three parts

Cover imageI suspect Lisa Halliday’s debut is a Marmite book. It depends on whether you’re happy with the idea of a novel which encompasses two discrete narratives rounded off with a brief final section in which neither is overtly brought together or not. Bear with me, this is a tricky book to write about but if I wasn’t hugely impressed by it I wouldn’t even be trying. Perhaps it’s best to think of Asymmetry as a meditation on the state of the world wrapped up in two absorbing stories.

Set in 2003 shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the first of Halliday’s three narratives sees Alice sitting outside trying to read a book and wondering if she’ll ever write one herself. She’s joined by a stranger, a man much older than her, who she recognises. He’s the celebrated author, Ezra Blazer, and she’s an editorial assistant. These two begin an affair which lasts several years in which Alice visits Ezra daily, holidays at his island retreat and occasionally plays nursemaid. Alice continues to live frugally in her tiny flat, slightly embarrassed by Ezra’s fits of largesse. One night when Ezra is beset by chest pains, unable to reach the best heart man in New York, she takes him to the ER where he glimpses real life.

The second section takes us to Heathrow in 2008 where an Iraqi-American economist with dual nationality is detained by the border authorities. Amar is on his way from Los Angeles to Iraq to see his brother, planning to spend several days with an old journalist friend in London before continuing his journey. Caught up in the limbo of detention with little in the way of communication from officals, Amar muses on his life and the state of the country in which his brother has chosen to live despite its dangers.

The third section is Ezra’s Desert Island Disc interview, recorded on Valentines’ Day in 2011, which ranges freely around his childhood, his army days and his love life.

The word ‘audacious’ is a favourite term for novels which step outside the norm and I’d usually avoid it but this time I think it fits. It is audacious to start your first novel with a fragmented narrative in which a multitude of extracts from other texts are interwoven then switch to an entirely different story which seems to have little to do with the first winding the whole thing up with an interview but somehow it works, and quite resoundingly so. The links that exist between the narratives are thematic: war, religion, politics, power, privilege and the lack of, love and mortality. Sober stuff then, but Halliday lifts the tone of her novel with humour – Ezra’s weakness for puerile jokes is a particular delight – and vivid, intelligent writing. It’s decidedly idiosyncratic, a novel which will make you think hard. This review has hardly done it justice but I hope if you’ve stuck with me so far that you’ll give it a try. Who can resist a book which prefaces its first section with a quote from Martin Gardener’s wonderful The Annotated Alice:

We all lead slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death…

Letti Park by Judith Hermann (Transl. by Margot Bettauer Dembo): Quiet and thoughtful elegance

Cover imageThis is the third book I’ve read by Judith Hermann. Like Alice, the first, Letti Park is a collection of short stories comprising seventeen pieces, some just a few pages long. All three books are characterised by the delicacy of their writing but unlike the stories in Alice which are linked by the theme of loss and grief, these stories don’t lend themselves to easy analysis which is not to say they fall short in comparison, just that they’re harder to describe.

Hermann’s collection ranges from a group of people storing a delivery of coal, wondering about the precocious motherless four-year-old who arrives on his bicycle, to a daughter reluctantly visiting her father caught up in his own mental illness and unable to express an appreciation of her thoughtfulness, to a woman whose relationship with the therapist a friend has recommended long outlasts the friendship. In ‘Some Memories’ a lodger is disquieted by her elderly landlady’s tale of a long ago swimming accident on the eve of her holiday, worried about her landlady’s decline  A woman catches a frightening glimpse of another world when on a holiday her partner has advised against in ‘The East’. In ‘Mother’ a woman takes on the duties of a daughter when her best friend dies prematurely and becomes part of a distant family much to her children’s annoyance.

These are not stories in which a great deal happens. Memories are examined, epiphanies are experienced, encounters with strangers or people from characters’ pasts quetly change lives. Much is left unsaid, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions: a man mentions video footage of a trip taken with a friend; a woman observes the controlling behaviour of the partner of someone who was once lively and in charge of their life. All this is expressed in elegantly understated prose: The champagne is ice-cold, and for Ada it turns the afternoon into something that hurts behind the ears, hurts in certain places in her body where, she suspects, happiness is hiding. This is a fine collection, thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s one that I’d been looking forward to very much and it didn’t disappoint.

Blasts from the Past: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (transl. Alfred Birnbaum) (1989)

Cover imageThis is 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 have the BBC to thank for introducing me to Haruki Murakami’s work. Someone picked A Wild Sheep Chase for Radio 4’s A Good Read way back in my bookselling days and I was intrigued by their description of it, as were many other listeners: we sold shed loads of this wacky novel by a writer hardly anyone in the UK had heard of at the time. It was actually published in Japan in 1982 but not translated into English until 1989.

A Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive is pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark after pinching an image from a postcard sent by a friend to illustrate some copy. The sheep has been spotted in the photograph by a shady character called ‘The Boss’ who has threatened our unnamed narrator with some very nasty consequences if he fails to track it down. Things become increasingly surreal as the narrator fixes the sheep in his sights on a trail that leads him from Tokyo to the snowy peaks of Hokkaido where he comes face to face with his quarry. There’s a good deal more to it than that but this is a book impossible to encapsulate in just a few words which is part of its charm. I read it with increasingly delighted astonishment. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd, it’s excellent.

It’s well over twenty years since I read A Wild Sheep Chase but I can still remember the excitement of discovering Murakami, gobbling up everything I could find by him. As for A Good Read, it’s still going strong and still well worth listening to for recommendations.

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