Category Archives: Random thoughts

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2020: Part Two

Cover imageUnlike the first part of April’s paperback preview, I’ve read none of the following six titles. I’ll begin with the one that tempts me most – Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter set in Oslo where the eponymous waiter works at the city’s grandest restaurant. Our waiter knows his clientele well, tending to their every whim while watching their various shenanigans. ‘Exquisitely observed and wickedly playful, The Waiter is a novel for lovers of food, wine, and of European sensibilities, but also for anyone who spends time in restaurants, on either side of the service’ say the publishers which sounds just great A vicarious dining experience to enjoy until we can all go back to the real thing.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman in Trouble is one of those books of which I’m a little wary. It was all over my neck of the Twitter woods last summer which could well mean just a literary flash in the pan but its premise is an appealing one. Toby Fleishmann is about to launch himself into his longed-for single life when his ex-wife disappears leaving him in sole charge of his familial responsibilities and impelled to solve the mystery of what has happened to her, while wondering if their marriage was not quite how he saw it. ‘A blistering satirical novel about marriage, divorce and modern relationships, by one of the most exciting new voices in American fiction’ say the publishers.

I’m not entirely sure about Tim Lott’s  When We Were Rich either but, once again, its premise is an appealing one. Six people gather on a London rooftop on Millennium Eve to watch the fireworks on the Thames. All seems rosy as the economy booms but mass immigration from Eastern Europe is causing rumbles of discontent and religious fundamentalism is making itselfCover image known. How will these six weather the challenges ahead? ‘Sad, shocking and often hilarious, it is an acutely observed novel of all our lives, set during what was for some a golden time – and for others a nightmare from which we are yet to wake up’ say the publishers. Apparently, this new novel sees the return of characters who first appeared in White City Blue, a novel I read but about which I can remember nothing.

I’m also a little doubtful about Mary Loudon’s My House is Falling Down which sees a marriage under strain when Lucy falls in love with Angus. Lucy is determined not to deceive her husband but is shocked by his reaction to her affair. ‘Infused with her trademark precision, clarity and dark humour, Mary Loudon’s searing, highly-charged novel My House is Falling Down is a fearless exploration of what infidelity means when no one is lying, and how brutal honesty may yet prove the biggest taboo in our relationships’ say the publishers which suggests an original take on the somewhat hackneyed theme of middle-aged infidelity.

A multitude of bloggers whose opinions I trust sang the praises of Ray Robinson’s The Mating Habits of Stags when it was first published last year although it hadn’t appealed to me at first sight. After a violent act, widower Jake is evading capture on the wintery Yorkshire moors musing about his beloved wife and the child that is not his. His actions will change the friend who is devasted by the news of what he’s done forever. ‘As beauty and tenderness blend with violence, this story transports us to a different world, subtly exploring love and loss in a language that both bruises and heals’ according to the publishers.

After all those doubts, I’m ending on a more positive note with the winner of this year’s Portico Cover imageprize – Jessica Andrews’ debut, Saltwater which follows a young woman from her Sunderland working-class home to the seductive delights of London where she’s won a university place. Lucy finds the transition from one life to another overwhelming, never quite losing her feelings of being an outsider and eventually fleeing to her late grandfather’s cottage in Ireland. ‘Lyrical and boundary-breaking, Saltwater explores the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the challenges of shifting class identity and the way that the strongest feelings of love can be the hardest to define’ according to the publishers. I do like the sound of this one which puts me in mind a little of Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking.

 That’s it for April’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attentions and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch it’s here, new titles are here and here. Lots to keep us all entertained and take our minds of things a little this month. Stay safe, and keep washing your hands.

Books to Look Out For in April 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThis second instalment of potential April goodies begins with Kirstin Innes’ Scabby Queen which spans over half a century following the career of Clio Campbell who kills herself three days after her fifty-first birthday whereupon she becomes a posthumous heroine for our age. Taking in the miners’ strike, an anarchist squat, the Genoa G8 protests, the poll tax riots and Brexit ‘Scabby Queen is a portrait of a woman who refuses to compromise, told by her friends and lovers, enemies and fans’ according to the publishers which sounds very promising to me.

Set in Japan, Stephanie Scott’s What’s Left of Me is Yours has an intriguing premise: the employment of an agent to seduce a spouse in order to provide grounds for divorce in the employer’s favour. Based on a real case, Scott’s debut tells the story of one such agent who falls in love with his target. She moves in with him after her divorce, unaware of what he’s done. Truth will out, though, as it so often does. Wakaresaseya, as it’s known, is a thriving industry in the Japanese underworld, apparently.

Gangsters are feature in Juan Pablo Villalobos’ I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me narrated by a Mexican student with the same name as its author. He’s about to take up a scholarship in Spain when he’s kidnapped in a bookshop and tasked with inducing the daughter of a corrupt politician to fall in love with him in order to save his cousin’s life. ‘Exuberantly foul-mouthed and intellectually agile, this hugely entertaining novel finds the light side of difficult subjects – immigration, corruption, family loyalty and love – in a world where the difference between comedy and tragedy depends entirely on who’s telling the joke’ says the blurb which sounds splendid to me.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection How to Pronounce Knife is about the daily lives of refugees and immigrants, from an ex-boxer turned Cover imagenail salon worker to a mother and daughter harvesting earthworms by night. ‘Uncannily and intimately observed, written with prose of exceptional precision, the stories in How to Pronounce Knife speak of modern location and dislocation, revealing lives lived in the embrace of isolation and severed history – but not without joy, humour, resilience, and constant wonder at the workings of the world’ promise the publishers of what sounds like an excellent set of short stories. That title, alone, is enough to make me want to read this one.

C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is one of those debuts garlanded with so much praise from literary household names it must feel like a mixed blessing for a new author. So much to live up to. In this case Sebastian Barry, Emma Donoghue and Daisy Johnson are just three of the writers who love Zhang’s book. The story of two orphans carrying their father’s body on their backs as they walk through a bleak landscape looking for somewhere to bury him, it’s described asa sweeping adventure tale, an unforgettable sibling story and a remarkable novel about a family bound and divided by its memories’. I have to confess, it’s that catalogue of starry names that’s swung this one for me.

Which may also be the case with Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviours, much praised by Sarah Moss, one of my favourite authors. Seven-year-old Nainora Flores is saved from drowning by sharks prompting his impoverished family to see it as a sign from the Hawaiian gods but as he and his siblings grow up, economic reality bites and they’re forced to look for work on the US mainland. ‘With a profound command of language, Washburn’s powerful debut novel examines what it means to be both of a place, and a stranger in it’ according to the publishers.

Cover ImageI first came across Dorthe Nors when I read her novella, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Her crisp, plain style coupled with an undercurrent of humour hit the spot for me. I’m hoping for more of that with her short story collection, Wild Swims, which seems to be all about not quite connecting or choosing not to connect by the sound of it. ‘Dorthe Nors shines a light into forgotten corners and conjures darkness where it’s least expected. Her characteristic sharpness and sense of humour is ever-present, catching us when the melancholy threatens to come too close. Love, cruelty, friendship, and loneliness are all here, in these stories that brim with life’ promise the publishers whetting my appetite further.

That’s it for April’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attention and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

 

Books to Look Out For in April 2020: Part One

Cover imageI’m beginning to sound like a broken record, although in a good way, introducing yet another preview as full to bursting with potential goodies beginning with Anne Tyler’s Redhead By the Side of the Road billed as ‘an offbeat love story’. Micah sounds a bit of an eccentric. Odd yet fondly regarded by family and friends, he’s quite content with his life until his partner tells him she’s to be evicted because of a cat. Then a teenager knocks on his door claiming to be his son further discombobulating him. ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road is an intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who sometimes finds those around him just out of reach – and a love story about the differences that make us all unique’ say the publishers. A new Tyler is always cause for celebration for me.

Haleh Agar’s debut, Out of Touch is also about ambivalent family reunions by the sound of it. A woman is knocked down by a man who visits her in hospital, bringing her flowers in apology together with the letter she dropped when she fell. Her brother has received the same letter in New York telling him that their estranged father is dying and wants to see them both. ‘With sharp wit and sensitivity, Out of Touch is a deeply absorbing story about love and vulnerability, sex and power, and the unbreakable bonds of family’ say the publishers promisingly. Quite a lot of brouhaha in my neck of the Twitter woods over this one and it does sound intriguing.Cover image

There’s a good deal of that surrounding Naoise Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times, which is about Ava, fresh from Dublin and teaching rich children English in Hong Kong, Julian, a banker who pays Ava a good deal of sexual attention but little of any other kind, and Edith, a lawyer who likes to take Ava to the theatre and listens to what she says. ‘Politically alert, heartbreakingly raw, and dryly funny, Exciting Times is thrillingly attuned to the great freedoms and greater uncertainties of modern love. In stylish, uncluttered prose, Naoise Dolan dissects the personal and financial transactions that make up a life and announces herself as a singular new voice’ say the publishers. I do like the sound of stylish, uncluttered prose.

Nicolas Mattieu’s And Their Children After Them follows a young boy over four summers, beginning in 1992 when fourteen-year-old Anthony steals a canoe, an act which will lead him to his first love, apparently. He and his friends are desperate to escape their small town which is caught in nostalgia and decline. ‘Winner of the Goncourt Prize and praised for its portrayal of people living on the margins of French society, Nicolas Mathieu’s eloquent novel Cover imagebecomes a mirror for the struggles of society today’ according to the blurb.

Elizabeth Ames’ The Other’s Gold follows a set of friends from young adulthood into later life, a catnip structure for me. Four students, all with childhood demons to face down, become roommates in their first year. Each of the four will make a dreadful mistake as they move from their wild student days into motherhood. ‘The Other’s Gold reveals the achingly familiar ways our life-defining turning points prompt our relationships to unravel and re-knit, as the women discover what they and their loved ones are capable of, and capable of forgiving’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.

Ilaria Bernardini’s The Portrait narrows the focus to just two people. A well-known author is horrified when her prominent lover is struck down with a massive stroke, finding a way into his family home by commissioning his wife to paint her portrait. These two women become entranced with each other, apparently, sharing the stories of their lives while one sits and the other paints. ‘…as the portrait takes shape, we watch these complex and extraordinary women struggle while the love of their lives departs, in an unforgettable, breathless tale of deception and mystery that captivates until the very end’ according to the publishers which sounds excellent to me.Cover image

Grief is also a theme for my last choice, Conor O’Callaghan’s We Are Not in the World about a man trying to escape the pain of a long drawn out affair by taking a job driving a truck through France in the company of his twentysomething daughter, unkempt and disturbed. ‘As the pair journey down the motorways and through the service stations of France, a devastating picture reveals itself: a story of grief, of shame, and of love in all its complex, dark and glorious manifestations’ according to the blurb. Given that it was praised to the skies by the likes of Donal Ryan and John Banville, I’ve no idea how I managed to miss O’Callaghan’s debut, Nothing on Earth, but I did.

That’s it for April’s first instalment of new novels. Quite a promising selection, I hope you’ll agree. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that take you fancy. More soon…

 

My Wishlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

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The Language of Birds                        Good Day?                                 A Stranger City

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The Hiding Game                                 Starling Days                             The Dutch House

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Olive, Again                                          Body Tourists                                    Adults

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The Warlow Experiment                    Say Say Say                                    Weather

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There Was Still Love                     Right After the Weather          Coming Up for Air

There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.

What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?

Paperbacks to Look Out For in March 2020: Part One

March looks like another great month for paperbacks which will either please you or make you groan at the prospect or yet more additions to the TBR, or perhaps both. I’m beginning with a book many of you may well have already read but I’ve yet to do so. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other surprised and delighted many last year by winning the Booker Prize. The judges chose to call it a tie with The Testaments, something which Margaret Atwood graciously acknowledged while managing to suggest that Evaristo ought to be the sole winner, or at least that’s how I chose to interpret her speech. It tells the story of twelve very different characters, most of them black British women.Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible’ promise the publishers. Evaristo’s Mr Loverman was an absolute joy raising my hopes for this one.

Letitia Colombani’s The Braid tells the story of three, rather than twelve, very different women all of whose lives intersect unbeknownst to each other. Smita is a Dalit, an untouchable, determined that her six-year-old will have a better life. Giulia works for her father in Sicily, preparing hair for wig makers in a family business whose finances are revealed to be precarious. Sarah is a partner in a Montreal law firm who hides her cancer diagnosis, scheduling her treatment to fit in with work. All three of these women change their lives for the better on their own terms in this heartening fable-like story.

Set in rural Malaysia, We, the Survivors tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy. When the staff of the fish farm he manages succumb to cholera, Ah Hock turns to an old friend for help. On the night Keong has arranged to meet his Bangladeshi contact, Ah Hock is horrified to find that he’s armed with a knife. Aw’s writing is contemplative and perceptive, his characters well drawn and convincing.

Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK.Cover image

It was its Berlin setting that first attracted me to Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From a German Building Site, an irresistible backdrop for me. Duncan’s debut follows a couple in their mid-thirties who have left Ireland for Germany. Paul is a structural engineer refurbishing a building in the old East Berlin while Evelyn is waiting to start a job in a Cologne museum. As the project nears its end, tempers on site become dangerously frayed, crises flare and Paul feels himself increasingly out of kilter, grappling with a language which constantly eludes him. Written in spare, elegant prose, this beautifully crafted novella is wonderfully atmospheric.

That’s it for this first part of March’s paperback preview. A click on any title that catches your eye will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new novels they’re here and here. Second instalment soon…

Books to Look Out For in March 2020: Part Two

Cover imageI often look for a theme on which to hang these posts and seldom manage to find one but this is one of those rare occasions. All the titles that have caught my eye for this second March instalment seem to be about women, marriage and relationships, or both beginning with Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours in which a daughter is determined to unearth the secrets of her difficult father who is dying. Alex grills her mother who thinks about her stormy married life while fending off her daughter’s incessant questions. Alex’s brother has kept himself firmly out of the proceedings while his wife has a meltdown which seems to involve buying huge amounts of lipstick. ‘As each family member grapples with Victor’s history, they must figure out a way to move forward – with one another, for themselves and for the sake of their children’ according to the blurb. Given that it’s by Jami Attenberg, I’m expecting some sharp writing.

Daughters are the subject of Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow which is to be published for the first time here in the UK. Much acclaimed in the States at its 2011 publication, Jones’ novel explores the friendship that grows between two half-sisters only one of whom knows that they share a father. ‘Elegant and wise, compassionate and profound, this is an unforgettable novel from the winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction’ according to the blurb. It’s a very promising premise and although I wasn’t such a fan of An American Marriage as the Women’s Prize for Fiction judges it certainly impressed me.

Frances Leviston’s The Voice in My Ear is all about women, by the sound of it – ten of them, allCover image called Claire, all leading very different lives and all living in their mother’s shadow, apparently. ‘With startling insight and understanding, Frances Leviston offers a frighteningly perceptive slice of contemporary womanhood. In forensic, indelible prose that is often bleakly funny, The Voice in My Ear reveals a brilliant new voice in fiction – and invites us to consider our own place in the relationships that define us’ say the publishers. Very much like the sound of that, particularly as Leviston’s a poet and I’ve a weakness for novels by poets.

Pauline Delabroy-Allards’s debut, All About Sarah tells the story of just two women who embark on a tumultuous affair – the eponymous Sarah and the woman she meets at a New Year’s Eve party. While Sarah is something of a hellraiser her thirtysomething lover leads a more constrained life, working as a teacher while raising her daughter alone. ‘Sarah enters the scene like a tornado. A talented young violinist, she is loud, vivacious, appealingly unkempt in a world where everyone seems preoccupied with being ‘just so’. It is the beginning of an intense relationship, tender and violent, that will upend both women’s lives’ say the publishers of a novel which took literary France by storm, apparently.

The blurb for Sarah Butler’s Jack & Bet reminds me a little of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack with its story of a very long marriage. After seventy years together, Jack and Bet plan to see out their old age in their flat but their son wants them safe and sound in a residential home. A friendship with a young Romanian woman seems to offer a solution that would suit them all but Bet has a secret that must be dealt with first. ‘Tender, moving and beautifully told, Sarah Butler’s Jack & Bet is an unforgettable novel about love and loss, the joys and regrets of a long Cover imagemarriage, and the struggle to find a place to call home’ according to the publishers. I rather like the sound of this one.

Ryan and Emily are at a very different stage from Jack and Bet in Hannah Persaud’s The Codes of Love. With successful jobs and a lovely home, theirs is a happy marriage as long as they stick to the rules. When freewheeling Ada comes along, both Emily and Ryan find themselves drawn to her unbeknownst to each other, apparently, reminding me of Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me and Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, both of which I loved.

Well known in Ireland as a newspaper columnist, playwright and memoirist, Hilary Fannin’s name was new to me until her first novel, The Weight of Love, started popping up on my Twitter timeline. Shifting between 2017 and 1996, Fannin’s novel follows Robin and Ruth whose marriage is haunted by Robin’s friend Joseph with whom Ruth had a brief, passionate affair before she and Robin got together. ‘An intimate and moving account of the intricacies of marriage and the myriad ways in which we can love and be loved’ say the publishers promisingly.

I’m winding up March with Hannah Vincent’s She-Clown and Other Stories which explores theCover image lives of women – some ordinary, some extraordinary – trying to cope with the many demands put upon them, apparently. ‘Women in these stories are exhilarated to discover the joy and surprise of other women’s company, they make bold sexual choices and go on night-time excursions. As grandmothers they give their grandchildren unsuitable presents’ say the publishers of what sounds like an excellent collection, and a particularly appropriate one with which to end this preview in which women have played a starring role.

As ever, a click on any of the titles that take your fancy will lead to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Books to Look Out For in March 2020: Part One

Cover imageMarch is full to bursting with potential treats. Hard to know where to start although the title I’ve chosen isn’t one I’m eager to read but I know vast numbers of others are, not that they can have failed to notice its appearance on the publishing horizon. Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light is the third in her trilogy which charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, ‘portrayed with passion, pathos and energy as politician, fixer, husband, father, subject and as a man who both defied and defined his age’ according to the publishers. I’m not saying I’ve no intention of reading it – H has popped his copy of Wolf Hall on my TBR pile – but I’m not champing at the bit. Don’t @ me as we say on Twitter.

My eager anticipation was saved for Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger, whose debut I loved, which I read pretty well as soon as it turned up. Inspired by a true story, this new one is very different from The Mountain Can Wait, taking us from a young French girl’s suicide in 1899 to a toymaker in 1950s Norway to a present-day journalist in Canada, all of whom share a connection which becomes clear at the novel’s end. The blurb calls it ‘a bold, richly imagined novel about the transcendent power of storytelling and the immeasurable impact of every human life’ and I have to agree. Review to follow soon.

Evie Wyld’s third novel, The Bass Rock follows three women whose lives are linked to the eponymous rock in Scotland. In the early eighteenth-century Sarah flees accusations of witchcraft; newly-married Ruth arrives just after the Second World War and Viv makes a discovery about Ruth’s past while clearing out her parents’ house in the present day. ‘Each woman’s choices are circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men in their lives. But in sisterhood there is the hope of survival and new life. Intricately crafted and compulsively readable, The Bass Rock burns bright with anger and love’ say the publishers. I’ve yet to get around to reading All the Birds Singing but I remember being struck by the writing in Wyld’s first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice.

If The Bass Rock has much to say about women, James Scudamore’s English Monsters seems to be about men, specifically those who’ve endured boarding school, something H has described asCover image preparing you well for prison. Max is sent away aged ten, plunged into a world of arcane rules and punishments compensated for by the companionship of new friends. Several decades later, a long-buried secret surfaces bringing them back together. ‘Spanning several decades, English Monsters is a story of bonds between men – some nurturing, others devastating. It explores what happens when care is outsourced in the name of building resilience and character, and presents a beautiful and moving portrait of friendship’ according to the publishers. It’s an unusual subject and an interesting one for me.

Last year, two titles by Israeli authors made it on to my books of the year lists – Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar and Etgar Keret’s Fly Already – which is what drew me to Emuna Elon’s House of Endless Waters in the hope of another interesting piece of Israeli fiction. After his mother dies, Yoel begins a search for the truth after seeing footage of her in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum with a small child that’s not him. His quest reveals a dark history of the city they both fled where Jewish children were hidden from the Nazis often at great cost. Much acclaimed in Israel, apparently.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening is about a much smaller domestic tragedy and its aftermath. A Dutch family is devasted with grief at the loss of their son, draining his ten-year-old sister’s world of curiosity and delight as she becomes caught up in disturbing fantasies. ‘A bestselling sensation in the Netherlands, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s radical debut novel is studded with images of wild, violent beauty: a world of language unlike any other’ according to the publishers. Harrowing, I’m sure, but it does sound remarkable.

Lightening the tone, Janos Szekely’s Temptation follows Bela, left at birth in a Dickensian children’s home by his mother who takes herself off to Budapest. Aged fourteen, Bela is caught stealing shoes and his mother is forced to reclaim him. He finds himself a job in a grand hotel, manning the lift and meeting all manner of people from revolutionaries to beautiful heiresses. ‘A picaresque classic with a rich vein of bawdy humour, Temptation is an under-appreciated masterpiece of twentieth-century fiction. Rich, varied and endlessly entertaining, the novel creates a stunning panorama of Hungarian society through the travails of its singularly charming hero’ according to the publishers which sounds just the ticket to me, bringing to mind Wes Anderson’s wonderful movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Cover imageI was delighted when Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier popped up on my Twitter timeline. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Everett who has a prolific backlist, most of it not published here in the UK. His writing is often very funny, more than a little off the wall as seems to be the case with this one. The death of Not Sydney Poitier’s mother leaves him orphaned at eleven but with lots of shares in a successful company whose owner adopts him. Everett’s novel follows Not Sydney as he navigates a world which can’t quite place him. It’s described by the publisher as ‘a hilarious and irresistible take on race, class and identity’ and if past performance is anything to go by it’ll be a treat, although possibly of the Marmite variety.

That’s it for March’s first instalment. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any have taken your fancy. More soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThe first batch of February’s paperback goodies didn’t set foot outside America but this second instalment starts in the heart of Europe with Robert Menasse’s The Capital, something of a bittersweet read for me given my country’s Brexit shenanigans. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club, sadly no longer a possibility. Like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Set in West Berlin during the summer of 1989, Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man follows eighteen-year-old Ralf who is enjoying a summer of freedom until he discovers something about his family which turns his life upside down. ‘As old Cold War tensions begin to tear his life apart, he finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, forced to make impossible choices about his country, his family and his heart’ according to the publishers. Regular readers may have noticed that a Berlin backdrop is catnip for me

It was its Berlin setting that initially attracted me to Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun. In 1923 newly divorced Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets a young dealer, apparently respectful of his expertise and eager for his assessment of a painting he wants to sell. Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clark’s engrossing, perceptive novel explores the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Narrow Land is about the marriage between two artists – one acclaimed, the other not. The summer of 1950 was one of many Edward Hopper spent with his wife, Josephine, on Cape Cod but this year a ten-year-old German war orphan, traumatizedCover image by war, has come to stay with their neighbours. Written in Hickey’s subtle yet precise style, unshowy and often appropriately painterly, it’s a pleasingly nuanced novel which I enjoyed very much.

Back to Europe for Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian which is something of a doorstopper, the kind I’d usually avoid, but Zadie Smith has praised it to the skies so I think I might have to give it a try. It follows a young Palestinian from the Middle East to Paris during the First World War. ‘Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War’ say the publishers. Apparently, Smith has never spoken of a student in such glowing terms in the fifteen years she’s taught.

I’m not entirely sure about Sadie Jones’ The Snakes, either, having failed to see what so many others did in The Outcast, her much-praised debut. Bea and Dan have rented out their flat for a few months and driven to France where they plan to visit Bea’s brother at his hotel. When they arrive, they find Alex alone and the dilapidated hotel empty. The arrival of Bea and Alex’s rich parents makes Dan wonder why he’s never met them before. All of which may not sound very exciting but ‘tragedy strikes suddenly, brutally, and in its aftermath the family is stripped back to its rotten core, and even Bea with all her strength and goodness can’t escape’ say the publishers intriguingly. We’ll see.

Cover imageI’d also dithered about my last February paperback, Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Hadley’s writing but her books are set in a world that can feel a little too cramped for me however the premise of this one appealed. It follows a group of late middle-aged friends whose lives are blown apart and put back together in a very different way after one of them dies suddenly. Despite its small canvas, I enjoyed this latest offering with its hope of change and new beginnings emerging from the pain of grief and loss.

That’s it for February. A very satisfying month. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for any that have taken your fancy. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment of paperbacks it’s here, new titles are here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2020: Part One

Cover imageFebruary’s packed with enough paperbacks to stave off the miseries of a Northern hemisphere winter, several of which I’ve already read and can heartily recommend. I’ll begin with Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, a slice of metafiction in which a writer comes across the notebook she kept in 1978, the year she arrived in Manhattan fresh from Minnesota, planning to write her first novel. As S. H. reads her journal, she contemplates the version remembered by her sixty-two-year-old self and how often it differs from the twenty-three-year-old’s account. As ever with Hustvedt, her book is stuffed full of literary allusions, ideas and erudition but it’s also playful in its early stages before taking a darker turn.

Memories play a large part in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise which sees Sarah and David fall obsessively in love in their first term at a performing arts school where teachers and students become dangerously close. Twenty years later, the students’ lives remain marked by what happened in the secret, enclosed world of their school. ‘Captivating and brilliant, Trust Exercise is a novel about the treacherous terrain of adolescence, how we define consent, and what we lose, gain, and never get over as we navigate our way into adulthood’s mysterious structures of sex and power’ say the publishers promisingly. I enjoyed Choi’s My Education very much and like the sound of this one.

Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set in 1993 when the eponymous Paul is a bartender in a university town gay bar, studying queer theory by day, but he has a secret. ‘Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Women’s Studies major to trade, Paul transforms his body at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco – a journey through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure’ promise the publishers which sounds wildly ambitious but well worth investigating.

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

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Lost Children Archive has something to say about America’s dark heart. The first book written in English by Valeria Luiselli, it’s a response to the journeys made through the most dangerous terrain by those hoping to find their way across the Mexican border, many of them unaccompanied children. On their way from New York to Arizona, a family stops in motels where the parents fight quietly, convincing themselves their children can’t hear. The closer they come to the border, the more they hear about the migrant children, many about to be deported. Compassionate and often beautiful, Lost Children Archive is an impressive achievement although less immediate than Jeanine Cummins stunning American Dirt which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Sunday Times Young Writer Award shortlisted Stubborn Archivist also tackles the theme of immigration. A young woman whose mother has left her homeland struggles to find a way to feel comfortable with herself by exploring her family history. ‘Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity’ says the publisher whetting my appetite.

Back to love which never runs smoothly, at least not the more interesting literary variety. In Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby two lovers are engaged in a long affair, meeting for an afternoon once a month, a welcome interval in their humdrum marriages. Now each is faced with a crisis that threatens this relationship which has become so precious to them both. O’Callaghan’s novel takes place during a single afternoon, switching perspective from Michael to Caitlin. It’s a novel that quietly draws you in, engaging sympathy for these two lovers who face the end of the only relationship in which they’ve truly felt themselves.

Cover imageI loved Jen Beagin’s sharp, funny Pretend I’m Dead but was a little surprised to find she’d written a sequel. Two years after the love of her life disappeared, Mona’s becoming more intimate with her clients and not necessarily in a good way. Vacuum in the Dark follows Mona from client to client, all of whom have their own darkness to shoulder. It’s considerably bleaker than Beagin’s first novel: the humour still sardonic and off the wall but less slapstick. I did wonder if Beagin was pushing her luck with a sequel but she manages to carry it off. Best quit while you’re ahead, though.

That’s it for the first instalment of February’s paperback delights. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. And if you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels, they’re here and here.

Books to Look Out For in February 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of February’s new titles begins with one I’m eagerly anticipating although a novel set against the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War wouldn’t usually appeal. Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll is based on the German legend of the eponymous trickster, born in an ordinary village but destined to expose the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools, apparently. ‘With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time’ say the publishers. I’m not at all sure about that but I’ve yet to read anything by Kehlmann I’ve not both enjoyed and admired.

If the historical setting of Tyll is a little outside my literary territory, thrillers are practically on a different continent but I enjoyed A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple, a favourite holiday read in Palma, a few years back. With Independence Square, Miller returns to Ukraine where his bestselling first novel, Snowdrops, was set, a country whose turbulent recent history he covered as a journalist. Once a senior diplomat in Kiev, Simon Davey spots a woman on the Tube he’s convinced is the person who unwittingly brought about his downfall and decides to follow her. ‘Independence Square is a story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. It is a story about corruption and personal and political betrayals. It is a story about where, in the twenty-first century, power really lies’ say the publishers. William Boyd is a fan, apparently.Cover image

Not entirely sure this one is up my street either but the stories that make up Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro were apparently inspired by her stint at the lovely Mr B’s Emporium here in Bath. Her pieces are speculative ranging from a musician who befriends a flock of birds to two newlyweds inhibited by a large, watchful stuffed bear in their lives. I wonder if it’s the Orvis bear which disappeared mysteriously from outside our local branch. ‘Stories that start like delicate webs and finish like unbreakable wire traps’ according to Neil Gaiman.

I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every book by Colum McCann I’ve read but I’m an admirer of his writing. His new novel, Apeirogon, sounds extremely ambitious. It follows the friendship of two men – one an Israeli, the other a Palestinian – both of whom have lost their daughters – one killed in a suicide bomb attack, the other shot by a border guard. ‘Colum McCann crosses centuries and continents, stitching time, art, history, nature and politics into a tapestry of friendship, love, loss and belonging. Musical, muscular, delicate and soaring, it is a book for our times from a writer at the height of his powers’ promise the publishers. Finger crossed for this one.

Cover imagePetina Gappah’s Out of the Darkness, Shining Light sounds just as ambitious as Apeirogon, following a procession of sixty-nine Africans carrying the remains of a white man 1,500 miles to the sea so that he can be buried in his own country. The body is David Livingstone’s but Gappah concentrates on the funeral procession, apparently, giving voice to his cook and three of his most devoted servants. ‘Their tale of how his corpse was borne out of nineteenth-century Africa – carrying the maps that sowed the seeds of the continent’s brutal colonisation – has the power of myth’ say the publishers of what sounds like a novel that deserves the rather over-used description ‘epic’. I still haven’t got around to Gappah’s short stories despite being so impressed by The Book of Memory back in 2015.

Painted on a much smaller, twentieth-first century canvas, Luke Brown’s Theft sees a journalist granted an interview with a cult author who welcomes him into her London home. There he meets Sophie, celebrated for her controversial political views. Meanwhile, his sister has disappeared after their falling out over their dead mother’s house. Paul‘s life becomes increasingly fraught as he travels back and forth between his rundown northern home town and the Nardinis’ rather grand London house in what the publishers are describing as ‘an exhilarating howl of a novel’. Couldn’t resist that line.Cover image

My final choice is Ben Halls’ The Quarry which offers a small twist on state-of-the-nation fiction in the form of a collection of interlinked short stories rather than a straightforward novel. Set on the eponymous West London estate, Halls’ stories explore contemporary masculinity and changing gender roles through a diverse set of working-class men, apparently. That state-of-the-nation theme is catnip for me and this take on it sounds intriguing.

That’s it for February’s new fiction. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attention, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…