He Is Mine and I Have No Other by Rebecca O’Connor: Secrets and Lies

Cover imageThis seems to be the year of the novella for me helped along by Madame Bibi who devoted the whole of last month to the form. Set in a small Irish town, Rebecca O’Connor’s He Is Mine and I Have No Other may be short on pages but it’s devastating in its revelation of tragedy, secrets and lies as it tells the story of fifteen-year-old Lani who falls in love with a troubled boy.

Lani lives with her mother, father and grandmother in a house on the edge of town. Every day she watches a boy make his way to the graveyard just above their house where thirty-five orphan girls lie buried, conceiving a passion for him and persuading her best friend to go with her to his school disco. They concoct an alibi for parental consumption, pilfer a few cans and take themselves off – Lani determined to ask the boy to dance. To her amazement he says yes and the two begin to exchange letters – his a little overwrought, hers more prosaic. Already painfully self-conscious, Lani swings from ecstatic fantasies about Leon to a conviction that she’s being laughed at until she discovers that he has a past which marks him out from other boys. Despite the happiness of her mother’s unexpected pregnancy, there are also secrets in her own home, kept tight since her grandmother was Lani’s age.

Lani tells her own story, her narrative occasionally punctuated by short entries from her aunt’s book on the orphans burnt in a convent fire made poignant by their hopes for the future in amongst the neglect and abuse suffered at the hands of their supposed protectors. O’Connor lightens the tone of Lani’s story with a much-needed thread of humour  – her parents call each other ‘mam’ and ‘dad’ but presumably not when the condom broke, thinks Lani, sarcastically; ’the fumes from the aftershave were deadly’ at the school disco which is excruciatingly vivid in its depiction of adolescent awkwardness as the first slow song plays. Lani views boys with deep suspicion as if they’re another species: they smelled, most of those boys. They smelled like they had dirty things on their minds. Lani’s parents’ happiness and concern for her contrast sharply with the misery of Leon’s predicament but there’s no getting away from tragedy in this novel. Prepare to have your heart well and truly wrenched.

That’s it from me until nearly the end of this month. We’re taking to the railways again, leaving for London later today then catching Eurostar to Amsterdam before heading east. The aim is to travel light but no doubt space will be made for a book or three.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson: Never too late to change

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure that I was going to read Meet Me at the Museum. I thought it might be a little too sentimental for my cynical literary heart but a blow to the head which landed me briefly in A & E and left me with a several stitches, a few staples and a very worried partner had me looking for something easy to read. Anne Youngson’s epistolary novella seemed as if it might be just the ticket.

Tina is mourning her best friend, Bella. Many years ago, when these two were schoolgirls captivated by descriptions of the Tollund Man, they wrote to Professor Glob asking him to tell them about this wonderous discovery of an Iron Age man perfectly preserved in Danish peat. His eventual response was a book, The Bog People, and it is to him that Tina addresses her letter knowing that it’s highly unlikely he’s still alive. Tina and Bella had always planned to visit the Silkeborg Museum where the Tollund Man is displayed but the time was never right. Her letter is answered by Anders, the museum’s curator. This slightly clipped if helpful response might have been the end of it but Tina has more questions to ask and soon an exchange, which each of them comes to eagerly anticipate, is established. Married and pregnant at twenty, Tina slipped into the role of farmer’s wife but Bella’s death has left her wondering what might have been had another choice been made. Anders was widowed just over a year ago. There is much that they share and much that divides them. His children are a little distant from him; Tina’s are firmly present in her life. Tina’s home is cluttered with the bits and pieces of generations; Anders’  house is stripped down and plain. As their correspondence deepens they exchange news, advice and confidences.

In a note at the back of her novella, Youngson tells us that she has a picture of the Tollund Man, clipped from an essay by Seamus Heaney in The Times. If you look him up you’ll find a rather peaceful expression on his face in contrast to the violent death that Anders suggests he had as a propitiatory sacrifice. Somehow it sets the tone for this thoughtful novella which steers well clear of the dreaded saccharine. Tina and Anders’ characters are beautifully drawn, their voices kept distinct. Each is enduring a quiet loneliness, each is dealing with grief yet there are unexpected joys to share. They begin to see the world afresh through each other’s eyes but Youngson is careful to lead them slowly through this friendship into an intimacy that neither enjoys with anyone else despite never having met. Her writing is plain and restrained with a lovely recurring metaphor of the undiscovered raspberries of a life not lived:

Another life, I thought, might be like a second pass down the row of raspberry canes; there would be good things I had not come across in my first life, but I suspect I would find much of the fruit was already in my basket

Not the slightly schmaltzy piece of fiction I’d feared at all, then. More a quiet contemplation of the power of love and a reminder that change, should you want to make it, is possible at any stage of life.

Blasts from the Past: The Next Step in the Dance by Tim Gautreaux (1998)

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 in as many hands as I could.

The Next Step in the Dance is one of those novels that inexplicably – to me, anyway – went out of print in the UK for some time. I’m pleased to say that it’s been rescued by Fox, Finch and Tepper, a tiny publisher set up by my lovely local indie bookshop, Mr B’s, and has been reissued sporting a rather fetching jacket.

Set in Louisiana, Tim Gautreaux’ debut is a love story, and a very stormy one at that. Paul Thibodeaux loves nothing more than to go dancing on a Saturday night, happy to return to his job as a mechanic on Monday morning. He adores his smart, beautiful wife, Colette, but she wants more than smalltown gossip and a rundown dance hall for entertainment. Frustrated by Paul’s lack of ambition and tendency to stray, Colette takes herself off to California, swiftly followed by a bereft Paul who then follows her back again.

Doesn’t sound much, I know, but what lifts this book far above a run-of-the-mill domestic novel Mr B's Emporiusm of Reading Delights (sign)is Gautreaux’ vibrant descriptions of the Louisiana landscape and culture. He writes with wit, insight and a compassionate, clear-eyed view of human nature. You don’t have to make your way to Mr B’s to buy a copy – it’s available online – but should you be passing I recommend a visit.

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

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Tipping Point to Killing Me Softly #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.

This month we’re starting with Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point which I’ve never read but I do know that he’s also the author of Blink.

Which leads me to Jean-Dominque Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Bauby was struck down by a massive stroke which left him able to communicate only by blinking. His book is a testament to his absolute determination.

It took me a long time to get around to reading Lucy Wood’s beautifully crafted collection Diving Belles despite having enjoyed Weathering so much. Sometimes whimsical, sometimes unsettling these stories are all about the sea in one way or another.

Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies was a favourite book when I was a child. I’m sure I had no idea at the time that Kingsley had intended it to be a satire on Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

The same can be said of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times which turned out to be a dig at James Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism in its depiction of a schoolmaster with no time for anything but drumming facts into his pupils’ heads. Way beyond my eleven-year-old grasp, although I remember not enjoying it one bit.

James Stuart Mill wrote The Subjection of Women which put forward ideas developed with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill and was published after her death. It argued the case for equality between the sexes, a controversial idea midway through the nineteenth century.

Killing Me Softly is by another husband and wife team but of a very different kind. Nicci French is the name under which Nicci Gerrard and Sean French publish their very successful series of thrillers. I read this when it came out for work but can remember nothing about it. A quick shufti at the publisher’s blurb tells me that ‘it’s a terrifying journey into the heart of obsession’. I’ll have to take their word for that.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from the small change in circumstance that can precipitate our decisions to a thriller about obsession. 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.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Appearances can be deceptive

Cover imageI read Curtis Sittenfeld’s The American Wife on holiday quite some time ago and found it hard to drag myself away from. Those who’ve read it will know that the titular wife is loosely based on Laura Bush which certainly added spice to the reading but the quality of Sittenfeld’s writing would have kept me riveted regardless of that. The same acute social observation and smartly delivered writing marks her first short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It.

In the opening piece, ‘The Nominee’, Hillary Clinton wonders why a journalist to whom she’s extended kindness in the most humiliating of circumstances insists on describing her as unlikable. ‘Do-Over’, which caught the Sunday Times Short Story Award judges’ attention, nicely bookends the collection with its examination of gender in the Trump/Clinton contest seen through the lens of two competitors for a student post. Now middle-aged, their reunion takes a surprising turn for the male candidate. In ‘Gender Studies’ a recently single professor finds herself in an unexpected encounter with a cab driver while ‘The Prairie Wife’ sees a woman driving herself into a fury, constantly checking the Twitter feed of an old acquaintance whose online persona is at odds with her past and longing to spill the beans until a very public revelation touches her. Unusually, rather than referring to a story, the collection’s title is the name of a game devised by a man who encourages his colleague’s wife to disparage their friends for his amusement leading to an embarrassing misapprehension on her part in ’The World Has Many Butterflies’.

The overarching theme of these stories is the gulf between our perception of ourselves and other people, and theirs of us. Characters’ initial impressions are often proven entirely, sometimes comically, wrong: the apparently confident girl from high school days turns out to have been wracked with shyness; a naive young student makes a string of social misjudgments happily corrected in later life; a journalist is surprised by a TV star’s apparent assumption of intimacy between them. Often a relationship which begins with suspicion or downright dislike turns into something else so that we re-examine our own prejudices. Gender is firmly to the fore – women and childcare, expectations of female beauty, distribution of domestic chores – all deftly and effectively handled. Sittenfeld’s last novel, Eligible, was a twenty-first century take on Pride and Prejudice which seems entirely appropriate. Her acute observation, neatly skewering modern social mores with sly, occasionally waspish wit, is a match for Jane Austen’s in this intelligent, satisfying collection.

Happy Little Bluebirds by Louise Levene: A Hollywood romp

Cover imageI reviewed Louise Levene’s The Following Girls here just over four years ago. I loved it – a pitch-perfect satire on ‘70s schoolgirl life whose period detail rang more than a few bells for me. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of that detail in Happy Little Bluebirds, set in Hollywood just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, but the humour undercut with a serious edge makes her new novel equally enjoyable. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off to Bermuda.

Evelyn has a facility for languages. She’s fluent in nine of them including Esperanto. Married to the dour Silas, she’s now a war widow but still lives with her sister-in-law in their mother-in-law’s Woking house. When she’s presented with an assignment helping to keep an eye on the Hungarian film director keen to persuade America into the war, she’s not entirely sure what she’s supposed to do. Off she goes in her drab but serviceable British clothes, only to find that her British contact has disappeared. She catches the Super Chief from New York to Los Angeles, stopping for a makeover in Chicago and seeing spies at every turn. Once in Hollywood, she’s welcomed with open arms by some, sharp-tongued sarcasm by others. Soon she’s caught up in a round of parties, finally meeting Zandor Kiss who has an adaptation of The War of the Worlds in his sights. Kiss’ enthusiasm is welcome but needs to be curbed for the Foreign Relations Committee, keen to keep America out of the war. The once-dowdy Evelyn is settled into her new glamorous life, still somewhat puzzled as to what her job is and wary of watching eyes, when she receives news from home which to others might seem welcome but to her is not.

Happy Little Bluebirds is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through a Hollywood for whom the war is just so much background noise. Letters from her sister-in-law remind Evelyn of the sober events at home but, serious and dutiful as she is, she finds it impossible to resist the delights of California once over the culture shock, not least the matinée idols. Levine has a great deal of fun with the movie industry, mocking the extravagance of the moguls while showing solidarity with the poor put upon writers. The adaptation plans for War of the Worlds are a particular delight and the novel is stuffed full sharp one-liners:

Silas hadn’t cared for it and said so repeatedly while he cleared his plate

 He looked faintly unreal; too smart, too handsome for everyday use

 She’s filled the blasted swimming pool with gardenias again

As with all the best satire, there are serious points to be made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are slipped into the narrative. Altogether a thoroughly entertaining novel and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood. Dentists, a constant motif throughout the novel, finally come into their own.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2018: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of June paperbacks begins with a book from a favourite author. Comprising nine stories, two of them pleasingly lengthy, William Boyd’s The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth ranges from a philandering art dealer who gets his comeuppance to a novelist fleeing eviscerating reviews who bumps into one of his worst maulers and spots an opportunity for revenge. There’s much to enjoy here, not least the thread of humour reminiscent of the comedy in Boyd’s earlier work. Both writing and film feature but it’s the art barbs that are the most satisfying reminding me of the Nat Tate trick he and David Bowie pulled off back in the ’90s. Well worth reading even for those who aren’t short story fans.

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko was one of last year’s literary bestsellers no doubt prompting the re-issue of Free Food for Millionaires which I remember reading and enjoying when it was first published here in the UK eleven years ago. It’s about Casey Han, the daughter of working-class Korean immigrants, whose years at Princeton have left her with a decent education and a set of expensive habits but no job. She and her parents both live in New York but they inhabit very different worlds. ‘As Casey navigates an uneven course of small triumphs and spectacular failures, a clash of values, ideals and ambitions plays out against the colourful backdrop of New York society, its many layers, shades and divides…’ say the publishers. I remember Casey as a particularly endearing character.

Roland Buti’s Year of the Drought tells the story of the Sutters who have farmed the same patch of Swiss land for many years but for whom the events of the long hot summer of 1976 will prove momentous. Thirteen-year-old Gus spends the summer holidays helping his father and his cousin Rudy who has Down’s Syndrome. When a young woman turns up, clad in a long patchwork dress and spouting hippie ideas, Rudy becomes besotted but it’s Gus’ mother who’s the object of Cécile’s attentions. Buti unfolds his story from Gus’ perspective as he looks back on the dramatic events of that summer.

In contrast to the Sutters Josephine’s life is spent almost entirely indoors in Helen Cover image Phillips’ gripping parable, The Beautiful Bureaucrat. Unemployed for many months, Josephine is offered a job by an oddly faceless bureaucrat with a nasty case of halitosis. All she has to do is input the relevant date for each ID-number in a constantly replenished pile of files. When she sees a newspaper listing casualties from a plane crash whose names seem familiar she begins to think about what her work means. Phillips’ strange compelling novella unsettles from the get-go. Not one for readers currently engaged in repetitive, seemingly pointless bureaucratic employment.

That’s it for June’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a longer synopsis for Free Food for Millionaires and to my review for the other four novels should any have snagged your interest. If you’d like to catch up with the first part of the paperback preview it’s here. New titles are here and here.

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson (transl. Saskia Vogel): Balancing the emotional books

Cover imageI reviewed Lena Andersson’s sharply observed, witty novella Wilful Disregard here a couple of years ago. It’s a study in obsession that has you squirming in your seat. Acts of Infidelity sees its main protagonist, Ester Nillson, once again in the grips of monomania, this time for Olof who is performing in her play, Threesome, about a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who becomes involved with another woman. Given the novel’s title, it doesn’t take much to work out how things will play between Ester and Olof.

Ester meets Olof at the first read-through of her play, experiencing a familiar tingling of attraction towards him. She’s a highly accomplished writer: a poet, playwright and intellectual. Intensely cerebral, she’s given to analysing the tiniest detail of their affair, balancing one interpretation against another yet choosing the one which fits her delusion no matter how outlandish or detrimental to herself. Olof is initially quiet about his marriage, blowing hot and cold with Ester, insisting that he and she are not in a relationship long after they have slept together. This is their particular dance: he breaks things off then one of them – often Ester – contacts the other and Olof carries on as if nothing has happened while Ester remains steadfast in her belief that he is on the brink of leaving his wife despite his frequent insistence that this will never happen. As the years roll past – three and a half of them – Ester’s friends become increasingly frantic in their advice, then weary, until one day she takes a decision.

While infused with a sly humour, Acts of Infidelity is altogether more sombre than Wilful Disregard. There’s the odd passing reference to Hugo Rask, the previous object of Ester’s obsession, but it’s clear she’s learned nothing from that experience. Andersson shows no mercy in skewering Ester’s self-deluded conviction that Olof is as besotted with her as she is with him while ‘Let’s get out of here’, Olof said, and proceeded to take a seat in an armchair neatly sums up Olof’s exasperatingly contradictory behaviour throughout their affair. The ‘girlfriend chorus’ listens as patiently as they did in Wilful Disregard, becoming less so as time wears on. This may sound like a rerun, then, but the difference is that sombre tone which makes Act of Infidelity sadly credible. Most of us have known friends in this kind of predicament, although perhaps not quite so extreme as Ester’s. The ending is a relief. Andersson refuses to put the blame squarely on the mistress’ shoulders as society so often does, offering instead – as you’d expect from Ester – a more complicated, nuanced interpretation.

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Home is not necessarily where the heart is

Cover imagePerhaps because I’ve only lived in one country, I’m perennially attracted to the immigrant experience in fiction which is why Elaine Castillo’s debut caught my eye. Set in the Californian city of Milpitas in the early ‘90s, it’s about a Filipino community and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp.

Hero hasn’t spoken to her parents since 1976 when she dropped out of medical school and became involved with the New People’s Army. Never part of their guerrilla attacks, Hero patched up her comrades until she was snatched and incarcerated for two years, leaving her with badly broken hands. Her favourite uncle offers her a home in the States where she’s an illegal and unable to work. Instead, she looks after her sassy seven-year-old niece Roni of whom she becomes increasingly fond. Her aunt is not so welcoming. Paz takes as many nursing shifts as she can, stubbornly intent on Roni’s betterment while Pol works as a security guard, his impeccable surgical reputation useless without accreditation. Paz and Pol come from very different backgrounds: he’s from a wealthy family with connections to President Marcos; she’s from a dirt poor, hardscrabble home. Their mother tongues are not the same; their food preferences differ widely; despite her training Paz holds firm to the old superstitions. Paz proudly stood her ground against the womanising Pol for a long time but he was determined. Now their marriage seems unequal. This is the strained household into which Hero must fit herself, made easier when she meets Rosalyn and finds a second home.

America is Not the Heart is a big, sometimes baggy novel that draws you in after a slowish start. Castillo deftly weaves the benighted history of the Philippines into Hero’s story both through flashbacks and family history. Pol and Paz neatly personify the archipelago’s intensely stratified society, a chasm between their ethnic, social and economic backgrounds which seems impossible to bridge although it’s Paz who’s the breadwinner in their American household. Castillo captures the insularity of a community in which the many signals of where each member sits in Filipino society are present and correct, evoking it particularly vividly in Rosalyn’s fury at her own ignorance when she contemplates moving out of Milpitas. The characterisation is strong – Hero and Rosalyn are polar opposites yet their relationship feels entirely credible. And Castillo writes about sex well, unafraid to use a bit of humour – not an easy feat to pull off as winners of the Bad Sex Award will no doubt tell you. Just one criticism, I could have done with a glossary. Lots of googling interrupted the reading flow for me. That said, Castillo’s debut is entertaining, engrossing and enlightening. Can’t say better than that.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2018: Part One

Cover imageFewer paperbacks than I’d expected for June, which may come as a relief to some of you, but still rather too many to keep to just one post. I’ll start with André Alexis’ The Hidden Keys, a funny, clever and intricately plotted piece of storytelling full of puzzles within puzzles involving an honourable thief, a rich beyond imagining junkie and a treasure hunt. It’s a hugely enjoyable novel, a good old-fashioned caper which twists and turns in a baroque fashion as its many conundrums unfold. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors.

Back in 2001, I was very taken with a novel called Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg. It was a love story, telling of the intense almost visceral affair between seventeen-year-old Flannery and her teacher Anne, ten years her lover’s senior. Pages for Her is its sequel written sixteen years later in which Flannery is married to a bombastic, self-centred yet affable sculptor. She’s surprised to be invited to a conference on women’s writing but as soon as she sees Anne’s name on the schedule, she’s determined to accept. What will happen when these two women meet after so many years? While not as riveting as its precursor, Pages for Her is well worth a read.

Phil Harrison’s The First Day is also about an intense affair beginning when pastor and family man Samuel Orr meets Anna, a young Beckett scholar. When Anna becomes pregnant their affair is made public with disastrous results. Thirty years later their son lives in New York, turning his back on his childhood and family until ‘the past crashes inevitably into the present, and Sam is forced to confront the fears he has kept close for decades’ according to the blurb. That New York lure is undeniable but it’s also an attractive premise.

The past also comes back to haunt in Elanor Dymott’s Silver and Salt, apparently. Ruthie’s father has Cover imagerecently died, prompting her return to his remote Greek villa from which she has been excluded for fifteen years. She and her elder sister settle into a sort of happiness, putting their dark childhoods behind them until the arrival of an English family and their daughter ’triggers a chain of events that will plunge both women back into the past, with shocking and fatal consequences. Devastating in its razor-sharp exploration of a tragic family legacy, Silver and Salt is the story of two sisters, bound by their history and driven to repeat it’ according to the publisher aiming it squarely at the summer reading market with that jacket.

That’s it for the first part of June’s paperback preview. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for The First Day and Silver and Salt, and to my review for the other two should any of them take your fancy. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new titles they’re here and here. Second batch soon…