Category Archives: Five Books I’ve Read

Five short thematically linked reviews

Five Novellas I’ve Read

I’m sure there’s going to be more than one of these posts, particularly  given Madame Bibliophile Recommends’ novella a day back in May 2018 , then this year’s selection lengthened my tbr list. The first task is to define a Cover imagenovella, something which varies from reader to reader, but for the purposes of this post I’m setting the limit at 200 pages which some may think is strict, others over-generous. Here, then, are the first five of my favourite novellas, all with links to a review on this blog.

I’ve sung the praises of Kent Haruf many times here. His writing exemplifies the stripped down yet beautiful style I most admire. Plainsong is the book I often mention when talking about him but for this post I’ve chosen his last novel, Our Souls at Night, a tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow.  Widowed and in their seventies, Louis and Addie have lived on the same block for years although they barely know each other. One day, tired of long, lonely nights, Addie knocks on Louis’ door and puts a proposition to him: she wants him to spend his nights in her bed. As Addie and Louis tell their stories, holding hands in the dark, we learn that neither of their lives has been quite what they’d hoped or expected them to be. Sweetly melancholy, this is one of the loveliest books I’ve read. If you haven’t yet come across Haruf, I hope I’ve persuaded you to get yourself to a bookshop and seek out his work pronto.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street is a fine example of the kind of Irish writing for which I have a weakness: elegant, understated and suffused with a quiet melancholy. Spanning almost sixty years, Costello’s debut begins, and ends, with a funeral. Left motherless at seven, Tess is a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education She longs to leave the family farm, training as a nurse then following her sister to America where she settles in New York City. Always a little outside of things, her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly; Tess’s sudden bright Cover imagemoments of empathy and understanding shine out from it like a beacon.

Towards the end of Academy Street Tess says ‘I could fit my whole life on one page’. The same could be said of Andreas Egger, the subject of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (expertly translated by Charlotte Collins), who leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience.

Like Eggers, the protagonist of Luis Carrasco’s fable-like El Hacho has spent much of his life in one place and is determined to stay there. Curro was born and raised on the Spanish olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He lives in the old family home with his wife, farming the land alongside his brother but this year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. Jean-Marie is determined to escape their arduous life leading Curro to make an arrangement that will cost him dear. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut, strikingly poetic at times yet stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

At first glance, I took Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (translated by Eric Selland) to be one of those books lit on by shoppers at Christmas who can’t think what to get their feline-loving friends but it turned out to be a thoughtful, rather lovely piece of fiction. It’s narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home, leading a quiet life, occasionally seeing friends and helping their landlady. Shy and a little skittish at first, their neighbour’s cat begins to visit them. The couple welcome her, making a little bed for her, and play with her, mindful of her need for privacy, but when their landlady tells them that she plans to sell the house, they know they must move. The beauty of this book is its elegant understatement punctuated by insights into the narrator’s life expressed in prose which is often very beautiful and a little melancholic.

Any novellas you’d like to recommend? Please feel free to quibble with my definition.

Five Books Translated from French I’ve Read

Since I’ve been blogging my reading habits have changed a little. I’m still reaching for the bright shiny new thing, a habit picked up in bookselling, but it’s now more likely to be short stories or Cover imagesomething in translation than it once was. Not that I’m claiming to read as widely as I should but exposure to the blogosphere has led me to broaden my scope a little for which I’m very grateful. Here, then, is a small sample of novels translated from French that I’ve particularly enjoyed, all with links to full reviews on this blog.

Written in carefully controlled, quietly understated prose Her Father’s Daughter is Marie Sizun’s first novel, published when she was sixty-five. The eponymous daughter is just over four years old when the novel opens, living in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother. When her father returns from the war, she finds herself shut out from her parents’ loving reunion. Worse, her father is appalled at her spoilt ways, insisting she learns how to behave and resorting to hitting her when she fails to do so. The child turns in on herself then decides to become the daughter her father wants her to be. All seems well, but when she reveals a secret her world explodes all over again. This is a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and engrossing, and all the more so for knowing that it’s autobiographical.

Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo begins with a description of a photograph from a local Swiss newspaper: three young people – two men and a woman – bathed in sunlight, wearing white and holding tennis racquets. One of the men in the 1971 cutting is named as Monsieur P. Crüsten, enough to begin to reconstruct a story for the archivist daughter of the woman in the photograph who died when she was four. Hélène’s newspaper advertisement in Libération elicits a reply from M. Crüsten’s son, Stéphane, who identifies the third man as his godfather. A correspondence begins between these two, now middle-aged but still left with aching gaps in their own stories. This beautifully constructed novel is a detective story without a detective. Gestern leads her readers down a few blind alleys until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are finally pieced together while delicately unfolding Stéphane and Hélène’s. The overall effect is to draw you into both stories until you’re desperate to know what happens.

Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz is set in Paris with the odd foray to Brooklyn. Cover imageAhmed becomes aware of something awry when a few drops of blood fall on to his balcony. Using his keys, he enters his neighbour’s apartment to find a particularly grisly murder scene. The hunt for Laura’s murderer takes in a Muslim/Jewish rap band, an ultra-orthodox Jewish Rastafarian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, bent coppers, illicit sky-blue pills and the beginning of a love story. Clues are strewn along the way, clicking the scattered parts of the plot pleasurably into place. The novel has a nice vein of sly wit running through it but its forte is its sharp social observation, taking a scalpel to modern society and its many disparate elements including a well-aimed pop at religious fundamentalism.

Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook is about Rose who, at the age of one hundred and five, has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. When she’s mugged by a young man she suspects is from a comfortable middle-class home she decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. There’s a lot of knockabout humour amidst the activities of the various despots Rose encounters making this a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

Cover imageCombining elements of a blockbuster thriller with sophisticated literary debate, Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story is a fiendishly smart piece of writing. Delphine meets a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation at a party, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about her life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching her every move? An absolutely gripping piece of fiction which really is unputdownable.

 Any novels translated from French you’d like to recommend?

Five Canadian Novels I’ve Read

I follow a couple of Canadian bloggers whose recommendations often hit the spot for me – Naomi at Consumed by Ink, in particular. Frustratingly, many of the books she reviews aren’t Cover imagepublished here in the UK. I know I can get them via Amazon but I’ve sworn off them until they treat their staff like human beings. I do have hopes of visiting Canada one of these days and it’s clear I’ll need at least one extra suitcase for the trip home. In the meantime, here are five favourite Canadian novels I’ve managed to get my hands on, two with links to full reviews.

Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air is set in the summer of 1975. Harry has returned from his Toronto television job with his tail between his legs and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who occupies the late-night slot. Dido is the object of a great deal of quiet desire at Yellowknife’s radio station staffed by a collection of misfits and blow-ins. Nothing much happens in the novel aside from a summer canoe trip with four of the characters but it draws you in with its wistful tone and gorgeous descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. Hay acquaints her readers intimately with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care about them deeply. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

The Republic of Love is my favourite of the late lamented Carol Shield’s novels. It’s a thoroughly satisfying love story in which Fay – a folklorist with a particular interest in mermaids and impossibly high romantic expectations based on her ideas about her parents’ relationship – and Tom – a talk-show host with what can only be charitably described as a chequered romantic past – try to find a way to be together. The schlock potential here is high but Shields is far too sharp an observer to fall in to that trap with the result that the book is both wry and touching. Not a prize winner, but an absolute delight.Cover image

Margaret Atwood is arguably the best known of Canada’s contemporary novelists. The Heart Goes Last may not be the obvious choice from her prodigious list of novels but it’s the one that brought me back to her work after a long break. In the nearish future a homeless couple signs up to a project in which they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts and embroiled in a plan that will blow the lid off the scheme’s increasingly sinister goings on. Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers into this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. What took me by surprise was how funny it is – almost to the point of being a caper – but lest you think this is dystopia-lite, Atwood’s novel has some very serious points to make.

Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life is about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Mahsa is the child of an Afghan woman and an American man who wins a scholarship to study music in Montreal. Katherine, the child of a white mother and a Chinese father, carves out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with a passionate determination. When these two meet, an indissoluble bond is formed. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing.

Cover imageWith great wit and humanity, Rohinton Mistry’ A Fine Balance explores the effects of the state of emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India through a cast of vividly drawn characters. Determinedly clinging to her independence, recently widowed Dina sets up as a seamstress, recruiting two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, and taking in Maneck, a student, as a lodger. What begins out of economic necessity eventually becomes an arrangement between friends, each with a demon to defeat: Dina must conquer her fear of losing her rent-controlled flat to help Ishvar and Om who in turn must cope with the fallout from stepping outside the caste system. Even the privileged Maneck is troubled by his father’s apparent rejection. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart.

Any books by Canadian authors you’d like to recommend?

Five Novels I’ve Read About Friendship

Cover imageThere’s a multitude of books focussing on love of the romantic variety and just as many on love of the familial kind but platonic love not so much. We talk about relationship breakups but not the breakup of a friendship although they can be almost as heart breaking, and for many, friends constitute family. Below are five novels I’ve read which sing the praises of friendship, all with links to full reviews. Perhaps because I’m a woman all my choices revolve around female friendship, or maybe there are fewer books written about the male variety.

Emily Gould’s Friendship seems the obvious place to start. Bev and Amy met when they were both working in publishing. They console each other, messaging constantly through the day keeping each other up to date on the minutiae of their lives and meet frequently. Everything changes when Bev becomes pregnant after a half-hearted one-night stand with a particularly obnoxious colleague. Bev and Amy are immensely appealing and believable characters, struggling to deal with the enormous change which threatens to engulf the bond that has been the only sure thing they’ve had to cling to as they navigated their way through their uncertain twenties. A smart, funny book with something serious to say about growing up and the value of friendship, and it has a lovely ending.

The two eponymous pals in Rachel B. Glaser’s savagely funny yet heart-warmingly poignant Paulina & Fran are a little more mismatched than Bev and Amy. Paulina rampages around the campus of her New England art school in a fury of contempt towards her fellow students while the more conventional Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life. Surprisingly, these two hit it off, curling their lips at the world, becoming bosom buddies overnight and bonding over their hair problems. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over aCover image line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other. Glaser’s depiction of this tortured friendship resists any saccharine sentimentalisation, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory.

Sally Rooney’s award-winning Conversations with Friends takes friendship a few steps further with Frances and Bobbi – once lovers – who are drawn into an older couple’s orbit, meeting their friends, attending dinner parties, bumping into them at Dublin’s arts events then invited to join them in France for a holiday. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, then Frances takes an initiative which leads to an affair with Nick. Rooney smartly captures the awkwardness of young adulthood. She has a knack of making the most mundane observations both interesting and amusing. This isn’t a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably.

Katherine and Mahasa, the two friends in Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life, are faced with far greater challenges than Frances and Bobbi. These two very different women meet through their mutual love of music which binds them together in an enduring friendship. This is an intensely romantic novel at times – there are four love stories running through it but the most powerful is the platonic fifth. Echlin paints a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women, able to withstand all that’s thrown at them from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour. A memorable, beautifully written hymn to friendship.

Cover imageThe same can be said of Victoria Redel’s Before Everything in which five women, friends since school, come together when one of them 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.

Any books about friendship you’d like to recommend?

Five Irish Books I’ve Read

Cover imageThe heading for this post could just as easily be 10, 15 or even 50 Irish books I’ve read. So much of the quietly elegant, understated writing I admire turns out to be by Irish authors. Their work is often tinged with more than a little melancholy, perhaps only to be expected given their country’s history. Below are five of the best Irish books I’ve read, just one with a link to a full review on this blog.

William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault begins in the troubled year of 1921. Three men appear in the grounds of Lahardane to burn the house down. Springing to the defence of his English wife and their daughter, Lahardane’s Protestant owner Everard Gault fires his shotgun meaning only to frighten the trespassers but wounding one of them. The young man’s family will have nothing of Everard’s pleas for forgiveness. For their own safety, the Gaults must leave Ireland, an idea that eight-year-old Lucy finds unbearable. She runs away, determined to make her mother and father stay. Believing Lucy to be dead, her heartbroken parents turn their backs on their beloved home. When Lucy is found alive, they can’t be traced and her life becomes one of atonement for the wrong she feels she’s done them. Infused with an aching sadness, The Story of Lucy Gault typifies Trevor’s novels: slim, elegant, often spare, each word carefully chosen.

John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun is a little cheerier, unlike much of his fiction. Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small Irish lakeside community on a farm subsidised by Joe’s writing. The small dramas and quiet satisfactions of everyday life fill their world: visits from their neighbour and dear friend the incorrigibly inquisitive Jamesie; lambing and selling their calves at the cattle mart; trips to town to pick up supplies and local news. This gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, capturing both place and time beautifully. The quiet restraint that characterises much of McGahern’s writing is a delicate counterpoint to the sometimes lyrical sentences that bejewel his work.

I was going to pick a different Colm Tóibin novel from Brooklyn which has received so Cover imagemuch exposure thanks to the excellent film adaptation but it’s my favourite of his and I kept coming back to it. Unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, Eilas Lacey emigrates having heard of the many employment opportunities on offer in New York. She gets a job in a department store, takes up evening classes and tries to keep her desperate homesickness at bay. Shortly after she becomes involved with Tony Fiorello, she’s summoned back to Ireland by news of a family tragedy, hastily agreeing to a secret marriage before she leaves. At home, egged on by her mother, she finds herself falling in love with Jim Farrell, ignoring Tony’s letters and telling no one about him. The Irish American world is a small one, however, and it’s soon clear that Eilas must make a choice. Written in Tóibin’s spare yet eloquent prose, Brooklyn is a triumph, one which I didn’t expect to be matched by the film until I saw Saoirse Ronan as Eilas. She seemed born for the part.

Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday takes place during the space of one day, as you might expect from its title, but it encapsulates decades of memories as a successful Northern Irish playwright thinks of her friend Molly whose Dublin house she has borrowed while Molly is in New York. Molly is a celebrated actress, feted for her stage performances. As our unnamed narrator struggles with writer’s block she remembers shared times with Molly, her thoughts often returning to their mutual friend Andrew. We know it’s Molly’s birthday from the book’s title but the full significance of the date slowly becomes apparent as our narrator muses on writing, friendship and identity, while wondering why Molly never celebrates her birthday. Madden’s writing is beautifully honed, as elegantly understated as all three of the previous writers.

Cover imageBelinda McKeon’s Tender begins in 1997 and ends in 2012, three years before the resounding referendum vote in favour of equal marriage in Ireland. Catherine and James instantly click when James returns from Berlin to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. He’s tactile and outgoing, loudly pontificating on everything and everybody yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long everyone is convinced they’re a couple but eventually James tells Catherine he’s gay. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told with unhappy results. Tender is a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate, and extraordinarily intense at times. Another Irish triumph.

Any books by Irish authors you’d like to recommend?

Five Novels I’ve Read About Immigrants

Cover imageI’ve travelled a reasonable amount but I’ve never lived anywhere except my own country. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fascinated by the immigrant experience. There’s been a wave of fiction exploring the plight of refugees recently but all except one of the five novels below are about choosing to move to country rather than fleeing one. I’ve written about several of them before but have only reviewed one on this blog for which there’s a link.

Abudulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea seems to capture beautifully how it feels to be exiled from your own country. Told not to reveal his ability to speak English by the man who sold him his ticket, an elderly asylum seeker finds himself blurting out a sentence to his kindly social worker when she tells him she has found an interpreter. When he learns the interpreter’s identity, Saleh realises that they are already bound together by an intricate series of events which brought about the downfall of Latif’s family and his own imprisonment. Written in delicately evocative prose, By the Sea unravels the complexities of Saleh and Latif’s past offering hope of redemption.

Also set in the UK, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is about a group of young Indian men sharing a house in Sheffield. Sahota vividly depicts the precarious lives of these economic migrants, worked like dogs on a building site by day and returning to sleep in squalid conditions at night. Sahota unfolds each of their histories at the beginning of his novel so that we come to understand the events that have brought them to the UK. Woven through the narrative is the Cover imagestory of a British Sikh woman who decides to defy both the law and her family in the face of what she sees as injustice. It’s a remarkable novel, although sadly not one that those who believe immigrants to be scroungers and layabouts are likely to read.

Skipping across the Atlantic to the USA, Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans explores the lives of a disparate set of immigrants scattered across the country, all with a connection to Tara Kumar visiting from Madras. Lavi is her fifteen-year-old niece – all hormones and crushes. Shantanu is the uncle, illegally in the US and entangled in his boss’ criminal web while Madhulika is the friend whose arranged marriage is floundering. The novel is set in 2005, sufficiently distant from 9/11 for its full effects to be felt on anyone with a brown skin, many of whom find themselves regarded with even more suspicion than they did before. There’s the odd jarring note but Viraraghavan manages to keep control of her many stories weaving them into a rich tapestry of immigrant life.

The son of working-class Cuban immigrants, Oscar Hijuelos explores both first and second generations’ experience through Lydia, a New York cleaning lady, in The Empress of the Splendid Season. Anyone who passes her on the street might think of her, if they notice her at all, as just another dowdy drudge but Lydia has a very different view of herself. After a quarrel with her father when she was sixteen, she left the trappings of a well-to-do family in Cuba but has never relinquished her sense of superiority. From her ambitions for her children and her cherished memories of her youthful beauty to her tentative feelings of friendship for one of her kindly employers and the uncovering of the secrets of others, Lydia’s story is told through a series of closely linked vignettes in this tender portrait of a woman who refuses to accept her second-class status.

 Cover imageJhumpa Lahiri turns the first generation/second generation perspective on its head in The Namesake through the lens of Gogol Ganguli whose parents arrive in Massachusetts from Calcutta in the early days of their arranged marriage. Out in the world, pursuing his career as an engineer, his father happily adjusts to life in America but his mother does not, staying at home, missing her family and bring her son up as an Indian rather than an American. Lumbered with the name of his father’s favourite writer, Gogol finds himself torn between the expectations of his parents and becoming a part of the American world in this empathetic, funny novel about conflicting loyalties and identity.

Any books about immigrants you’d like to recommend?

Five Novels I’ve Read About Books

This one’s inevitable, isn’t it. What reader can resist a novel about other readers, or if you’re an old bookseller like me, about booksellers? They’re an anorak’s delight.  There’s a librarian in the mix, too, albeit it a rather eccentric one. Here are five books about books, then, the first two with links to a longer review.

Cover imageSet in the near future, Robin Sloan’s  Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore playfully meshes the old reading world with new technology in a quirky edge-of-your-seat story of bookish folk. Clay Jannon works the night shift at the eponymous book store, logging its few customers, most of them oddly attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Curiosity aroused, Clay sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, in a story that encompasses a fifteenth-century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour. I loved it.

Charlie Hill’s Books lampoons everyone in the book trade, adding a swipe at performance artists for good measure. It begins in Corfu where Lauren, a professor of neurology, and Richard, an independent bookseller, both witness the sudden death of a woman reading a manuscript by bestselling author Gary Sayles. As Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome spreads, Lauren seeks Richard’s help in investigating it. Meanwhile, preparing for the launch of his new novel, Sayles is suckered by two performance artists and the Cover imagePeople’s Literature Tour is born. Liberally scattered with book titles, authors’ names and in-jokes, Books combines the humour and pace of Jasper Fforde’s fiction with the satire of Channel 4’s Black Books.

I’m sure some of you will remember Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a bestseller set in Barcelona’s ‘cemetery for lost books’ where, aged ten, Daniel finds the book that will intrigue him, bedevil him and ultimately shape his life – The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carfax. On his sixteenth birthday, Daniel sees a stranger smoking a cigarette from his balcony, instantly recognising a scene from Carfax’s novel. I read this for work expecting to grit my teeth as it was a much-hyped flavour of that particular month but I loved it. Both gripping and very atmospheric.

Delving back into reading past, Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things is a booky highlight. It’s set in the Arcade, a rambling New York bookshop – suspiciously like the legendary Strand – staffed by a bunch of eccentrics who are joined by eighteen-year-old Rosemary, fresh from Tasmania. When she opens a letter offering a ‘lost’ Melville manuscript the fun begins. Hay’s novel is an appealing, enjoyable yarn of thwarted love and literary detection. Not a literary Cover imagetriumph, but it had me engrossed.

And now to that librarian. She’s the protagonist of Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love who finds a young man locked in the library overnight – surely a bibliophile’s dream – and treats him to a passionate, if slightly scolding, soliloquy about her colleagues, the Dewey Decimal system and bookish conspiracies while unwittingly spilling the beans about her yearning for a young researcher. A thoroughly entertaining, if quirky, read which led me to Divry’s much more conventional Madame Bovary of the Suburbs.

Any novels about books you’d like to recommend?

Five Novels I’ve Read About Food

Cover imageFood features prominently on my agenda of pleasures in life, often overlapping neatly with travel, another priority for me. Naturally, I’ve spent many hours ogling cookery books with their gorgeous pictures of artfully arranged meals but I’m not averse to word pictures of food in fiction either. Here are five favourites which should get you salivating if you have a similar predilection. All but one have links to longer reviews if your appetite’s been whetted.

Kim Thuy’s slim, beautifully expressed Mãn is a love story, a work of aching nostalgia and a glorious celebration of language and food. It’s about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know – a match made for security rather than love. Her husband is older than her, a cafe owner who serves up soup and breakfast to émigrés longing for their families and a taste of home. Quietly and carefully Mãn introduces more dishes until the café becomes a restaurant, growing into a cookery school, then a book is published and a TV show made. She finds herself fêted, a quiet celebrity not only in Canada but in France where the Parisians eagerly attend her book signings. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella. It’s a quiet triumph – the kind of book that can be read and re-read many times. Kudos to Sheila Fischman for such a sensitive translation of a book in which the nuance of language is paramount.

With its gentle prose and quietly lyrical evocations of food, Mãn reminded me of Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. The story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ Vietnamese cook, it’s a very different book but it shares the same lightness of touch and gorgeous delicacy in its use of language. In 1934 Binh is faced with a choice: accompany his employers to America, remain in France where he’s cooked for his ‘Mesdames’ for five years or return to Vietnam from which he fled in disgrace. Deliciously vivid descriptions of food are threaded through Binh’s thoughts and memories as he tries to decide what he should do, unfolding both his own story and that of the two eccentric women whose literary salon is about to be disbandedCover image

N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter keeps us in Paris with the story of the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier who died the year after Binh was faced with his decision. It’s an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life – his wife desperate to have a dish named after her as the great man has done for so many others – Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Kelby’s novel recounts the trials and errors of the quest for a dish worthy of the wife Escoffier has adored for decades despite his passion for another woman.

In Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, we first meet the orphaned five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723 enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. He’s rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential throughout his life. He’s the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he’s a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Despite his many interests and responsibilities, he never loses his culinary curiosity. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is.

Cover imageIt was a toss-up between Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter for my fifth foodie title, both excellent novels set in restaurants. In the end, I plumped for Danler’s book, a twenty-first century Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Tess begins her training in what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, subjected to endless snipey backchat, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. Eventually she’s singled out by Simone, revered for her esoteric knowledge and expertise. Tess also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity, but finds herself drawn into the orbit of these two and their dangerous games. Danler writes beautifully about food in this thoroughly engrossing, acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

Any novels about food you’d like to recommend?

Five Australian Novels I’ve Read

Given that I nicked this idea from Kim over at Reading Matters, an Australian blogger, albeit one living in the UK, it seems Cover imageonly fair to round up five books I’ve read by Australians. I should say I’ve read considerably more Australian fiction than that but these are five novels I’ve particularly enjoyed. The last three are linked to a full review.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon begins on a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century with a strange and ragged figure dancing out of the bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with indigenous Australians. At first his eccentricities are greeted with amusement but as the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment they see as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aboriginal people, lie? Every word counts in this slim, dazzlingly vivid novella.

Most British readers would probably name Peter Carey if pushed to come up with an Australian author. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed all Carey’s novels but one stands out for me, so good I’ve read it three times: the 1988 Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda. The gawky, misfit, son of a preacher, Oscar Hopkins stumbles upon a method of paying his way through his theology studies, becoming an obsessive but successful gambler, convinced that he’s following God’s will. Equally the misfit, Lucinda Leplastrier, unexpectedly in possession of a large fortune and the proprietor of a glassworks, is well aware of the scandalous nature of her gambling addiction. When these two meet on board a ship bound for Australia, they form an unlikely bond which results in a calamitous misunderstanding as both wager their futures on a fantastical glass church. Set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century colonialism Oscar and Lucinda is a wonderfully witty, vibrant pastiche of a Victorian novel.

Romy Ash’s Floundering begins with Loretta swinging by her parents’ home to pick up her twoCover image sons who she’d left on their doorstep a year ago because ‘things just got complicated’. They’re on the road for days: what’s needed along the way is shoplifted; they sleep in the car; the heat is suffocating; insects bite mercilessly but Tom, who narrates the novel, manages to remain cheerful although increasingly uneasy and at times downright scared. He and his older brother bicker while Loretta – never to be called Mum – chivvies them, often hungover, sometimes drinking at the wheel. They finally arrive at a campsite where Loretta slowly unravels, the heat bounces off everything and their next door neighbour can’t stand to have little boys around. Things go from bad to worse. Through Tom’s voice, Ash manages to capture the panicky fear of an eleven-year-old unsure of what his increasingly chaotic and unpredictable mother will do next.

Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: the titular Sara’s seventeenth-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000. In 1957, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the only extant de Vos painting which has been in the de Groot family for centuries. Marty de Groot’s investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student turned conservator who – decades later – will become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career celebrated in an exhibition which will have the de Groot’s painting as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner is delivering the work himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. Smith deftly weaves the story of the painting and its creator through Ellie and Marty’s narratives, linking all three satisfyingly together in this entertaining literary page-turner.

Cover imageI’ll end this with a novel that I hope grabbed more attention in Australia that it seemed to here in the UK. Jennifer Down’s debut, Our Magic Hour, follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else while her partner tries to take care of her. Down’s novel is a masterclass in elegant understatement. Her writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into her circle making the loneliness of her life all the more wrenching but it can also be very funny: This could easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak book but Down steers it neatly clear of that. The result is a very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Any Australian novels you’d like to recommend?

Five Short Story Collections I’ve Read

This is an idea I spotted it over at Kim’s Reading Matters blog and thought I’d pinch it having  enjoyed digging out books I’ve loved for my Blasts from the Past series so much. The plan is to periodically post five short thematically linked reviews, kicking off with short story collections.

There was a time when I pushed short stories firmly away, making the occasional exception for collections by favourite writers who’d not produced a novel for a while. Then I found myself picking up linked sets of stories until eventually I became persuaded that it might be worth reading a collection for its own sake. I very much doubt that short stories will take precedence over novels for me but it seems I’ve gone some way along the road to conversion. Excellent reading while travelling, too.

Cover imageHere are five of my favourite collections, all but one with links to a full review.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is one of the first linked collections I read, way back at the turn of the century. Melissa Bank’s book follows Jane Rosenal through the trials and tribulations of being newly grown up in America, from sex, love and relationships to navigating the workplace. Smart and funny, these stories are hugely enjoyable.

The stories in Anna Noyes’ Goodnight, Beautiful Women are also linked, sharing the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are all recurring themes. Noyes’ women are entirely believable, their lives unfolding in carefully crafted yet immediate prose – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean.

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women draws heavily on her own rackety, vivid life which ended in 2004: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. There’s an immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from a graphic, panicky tooth extraction to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Her observation is sharp and her matter-of-fact economy makes its impact all the more striking.

Written with a clear-eyed sensibility and perception, the thirteen stories that comprise The Virginity of Famous Men explore themes of fame, loneliness, love, family and marriage. From a woman’s reflections on marriage to a handsome movie star and the strangeness of sleeping with a man who so many desire, to a young man who may finally have emerged from the Cover imageshadow of his father’s celebrity, Christine Sneed’s collection demonstrates a keen yet empathetic awareness of the messiness of human vulnerability often leavened with a dash of humour.

Viet Thanh Nguyen fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Written over a period of twenty years, the eight stories that make up Nguyen’s The Refugees  explore the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative pieces which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic.

Any short story collections you’d like to recommend?