Category Archives: Random thoughts

Books to Look Out for in September 2018: Part One

Cover imageMy heart sings with joy at the prospect of several books in September’s publishing schedules. You’ve probably already heard of at least one of them: Kate Atkinson’s Transcription whose announcement made my literary year. Wartime spy, Juliet Armstrong, has moved on from MI5 to the BBC ten years after she was recruited in 1940 but finds herself confronted with her past. ‘A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence. Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy’ say the publishers and, having already read it, I’d say they’re right. Still mystified as to why Atkinson didn’t win all the prizes for A God in Ruins.

Hard to follow that, I know, but I’ve learned to prick up my ears when a new Sarah Moss is announced. In Ghost Wall, Sylvie is spending the summer with her parents in a Northumberland hut where her father is intent on re-enacting Iron Age life. ‘Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Bodies of Light and The Tidal Zone.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends was a surprise inclusion on my 2017  books of the year list. The more I read it the more it grew on me. Her new novel, Normal People, follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly.

Nihad Sirees’ States of Passion sees a Syrian bureaucrat seeking shelter in an old mansion where he hears stories of an all-female society, passions and subterfuge set against the backdrop of the golden age of Aleppo. ‘Sirees spins astonishing literary beauty out of this tangled web of family secrets, and he writes with great humour and warmth about the conflict between past and present in this surprising and unique novel about a lost world’ according to the publishers.

Catherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval Cover imagewhich must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, setting the bar a tad high. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for the first batch of September’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye. Part two also anticipates some stonkingly good titles although perhaps none to equal Transcription

Books to Look Out for in August 2018: Part Two

Cover imageIn contrast to the first batch, this selection of August titles has its feet planted firmly in the US. Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side is set in New York City where Nora and her husband live happily until a terrible incident takes place, shaking Nora’s confidence and dividing the neighbourhood. ‘With an unerring and acute eye that captures beautifully the snap and crackle of modern life, Anna Quindlen explores what it means to be a mother, a wife and a woman at a moment of reckoning’ according to the blurb. Quindlen has always seemed somewhat underrated here in the UK.

I very much enjoyed Seth Greenland’s I Regret Everything a few years back so have hopes for The Hazards of Good Fortune. Set during the Obama presidency, it’s about a wealthy philanthropist who tries to lead a moral life but finds himself entangled in a prosecution which will have dramatic consequences in terms of race and privilege. ‘At times shocking, but always recognizable, this captivating tale explores the aftermath of unforgivable errors and the unpredictability of the court of public opinion. With a brilliant eye for character, Greenland creates a story that mixes biting humor with uncomfortable truth’ say the publishers.

I’ve never got around to reading Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity, daunted by its door-Cover imagestopping size, but that hasn’t stopped Lost Empress catching my eye. Nina Gill is taken aback when her brother inherits the football team she’s quietly been keeping afloat. Meanwhile, Nono DeAngeles is setting about an audacious crime having deliberately got himself banged up in Rikers Prison.Without knowing it, or ever having met, Nina and Nuno have already had a profound effect on each other’s lives. As his bid for freedom and her bid for sporting immortality reach crisis point, their stories converge in the countdown to an epic conclusion’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing although it’s another doorstopper.

Cherise Wolas’ The Family Tabor sounds a little more straightforward. Harry Tabor is about to be honoured as Man of the Decade in recognition of his work with the many Jewish refugees he’s helped to settle in America. Years ago, Harry uprooted his own family taking them across the States from Connecticut to the South West. ‘Wolas examines the five members of the Tabor family as they prepare to celebrate Harry. Through each of their points of view, we see family members whose lives are built on lies, both to themselves and to others, and how these all come crashing down during a seventy-two-hour period’ according to the blurb which sounds highly entertaining.

J M Holmes’ How Are You Going to Save Yourself is about four young men who’ve grown up together but have drifted apart in adulthood as they try to cope with society’s expectations, family pressures and their own self-images. Described as ‘both humorous and heart-breaking’ it’s ‘a timely debut about sex, race, family and friendship’, apparently which sounds good to me.

Cover imageMy last choice for August is from the author of a book I enjoyed very much: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan all about black American jazz musicians in 1940s Europe. Washington Black sounds very different. The eponymous eleven-year-old is chosen as a personal servant to one of the brothers who have taken over a Barbados sugar plantation, a man obsessed with the idea of flying which results in disaster for him. ‘From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life’ according to the blurb. That jacket alone should win a prize.

That’s it for August’s new novels. A click on any that have caught your eye will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks shortly…

My 2018 Man Booker Wish List

Almost time for the 2018 Man Booker judges to announce their longlist to readers, not to mention publishers, waiting with bated breath to see if their favourites are amongst the chosen few. This year’s a special one. As I’m sure you all know, It’s the prize’s fiftieth anniversary which has been celebrated with a string of events, culminating in the coronation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient as the Golden Man Booker ten days ago. There’s also been a little celebration over at Shiny New Books where contributors have been writing about their own favourites.

Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the 2018 Man Booker judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2017 and 30th September 2018 and have been written in English. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Tuesday 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews apart from the ones I haven’t yet posted:

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Sugar Money                                   The Ninth Hour                        A Long Way from Home

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The Immortalists                         From a Low and Quiet Sea             White Houses

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The Life to Come                                         Putney                              All Among the Barley

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Transcription                                     Bitter Orange                Now We Shall Be Completely Free

 

It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September – I’m reasonably sure that Patrick deWitt’s French Exit would make my cut and William Boyd’s Love is Blind is due in September– but I’m sticking to novels I’ve read. And if I had to choose one? That would be Kate Atkinson’s Transcription but no doubt the judges will disagree with me on that yet again.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Books to Look Out for in August 2018: Part One

Cover imageMuch jostling for position at the top of August’s list of new titles, three of which I’ve already read but not yet reviewed. I’m starting with Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free which is up there up there alongside Ingenious Pain and Pure, his two best novels for me. Set in Somerset just after the turn of the eighteenth century, it’s about Captain John Lacroix whose health has been so devastated by the disastrous campaign against Napoleon in Spain that he goes on the run rather than return to the front once recovered. ‘Taut with suspense, this is an enthralling, deeply involving novel by one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers’ say the publishers and I’d have to agree.

Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You is also set in Somerset, this time in 1970s Weston-Super-Mare where ten-year-old Eustace finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher. Lessons of another kind are learned when Eustace enrols on a holiday course in Scotland, apparently. ‘Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives’ according to the blurb. I’ve long been a fan of Gale’s writing, going right back to The Aerodynamics of Pork in the ‘80s.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley is also a coming-of-ageCover image novel with much to say about the dangers of nostalgia and nationalism. Set on a Suffolk farm in 1933, it’s about Edie, to whose family the farm belongs, and Constance, who arrives from London to record the area’s traditions and beliefs. Edie finds herself attracted by their visitor’s sophistication but it seems Constance may have a secret or two. I’m a great fan of both At Hawthorn Time and Clay but Harrison’s surpassed herself with this one.

Claire Fuller’s previous novels Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons were a delight and I’m pleased to report Bitter Orange turns out to be one too. In the summer of  1969, Frances is drawn into a relationship with her fellow tenants of a crumbling country mansion: ‘But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever’ says the blurb, neatly setting the scene.

I’m ending this batch with the winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award of which I’ve Cover imagelearned to take notice. Described as a darkly comic thriller, Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square is about Jean Mason whose friends and acquaintances tell her she has a doppelgänger. Jean sets about tracking down her likeness, becoming obsessed with this other woman who has been seen haunting Bellevue Square. ‘A peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants–the regulars of Bellevue Square–are eager to contribute to Jean’s investigation. But when some of them start disappearing, she fears her alleged double has a sinister agenda. Unless Jean stops her, she and everyone she cares about will face a fate much stranger than death’ according to the publishers. As is often the case with Canadian books, I first came across this one at Naomi’s excellent Consumed by Ink blog.

That’s it for the first selection of August’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you wish to know more. Second instalment soon but not before my Man Booker wishlist…

My One-Hundred-Book Library

We all love lists, don’t we. They’re  irresistible to bookish nosy-parkers like me and once we’ve seen one it’s hard not to start putting together our own version, perhaps first in our own heads but before long committing them to screen beckons. So it was with Paula’s My One-Hundred-Book-Library way back in May, then I noticed that Annabel had had a go. It seemed rude not to join in but I’ve taken my time putting mine together. Here are Paula’s rules:

a) You may add up to 100 books (fiction or non-fiction) to your figmental collection.

b) Titles may be added or removed at any point, but the number of individual books on your virtual shelf must never exceed 100, i.e. one in, one out. Alternatively, you may set the size of your library at (for instance) 50 or 30. The choice is entirely your own.

c) You can include an author’s collected works (or a series) on your shelf provided it has at some point genuinely been published in a single volume.

d) This isn’t meant to be a list of great titles or the most highbrow books you have read. Indeed, your choices don’t have to be particularly well-known. Please include only published works (it doesn’t matter if they are out of print) that have been significant to you in some way during your life. Books holding your most powerful memories.

e) Please include a link back to Paula’s post.

Cover imageI’ve stuck by them as best I can although I think I may have cheated with c). Here then, in no particular order, are my 100 books, some with links to reviews.

  1. Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson
  2. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  3. What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt
  4. Talking to the Dead – Helen Dunmore
  5. Plainsong – Kent Haruf
  6. A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (transl. Charlotte Collins)
  7. The Dark Room – Rachel Sieffert
  8. Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout
  9. Late Nights on Air – Elizabeth Hay
  10. The Bird Artist – Howard Norman
  11. U. S. A. – John Dos Passos
  12. Wise Children – Angela Carter
  13. The Next Step in the Dance – Tim Gautreaux
  14. Brooklyn – Colm Tóibin
  15. That They Might Face the Rising Sun – John McGahern
  16. Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey
  17. Any Human Heart – William Boyd
  18. The Rotters’ Club – Jonathan Coe
  19. Mãn – Kim Thúy
  20. Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin
  21. Before Everything – Victoria Redel
  22. Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
  23. Last Hundred Years trilogy – Jane Smiley
  24. The Cutting Room – Louise Welsh
  25. The Story of Lucy Gault – William Trevor
  26. Weathering – Lucy Wood
  27. The Crow Road – Iain Banks
  28. Shotgun Lovesongs – Nickolas Butler
  29. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay – Michael Chabon
  30. Home at the End of the World – Michael Cunningham
  31. Virtual Light – William Gibson
  32. The Last Banquet – Jonathan Grimwood
  33. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  34. Wait for Me, JackAddison Jones
  35. The Nakano Thrift Shop – Hiromi Kawakami (transl. Allison Markin Powell)
  36. Measuring the World – Daniel Kehlmann (transl. Carol Brown Janeway)
  37. The Vintner’s Luck – Elizabeth Knox
  38. Ingenious Pain – Andrew Miller
  39. The Story of My Teeth – Valeria Luiselli (transl. Christina MacSweeney)
  40. Charming Billy – Alice McDermott
  41. The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
  42. Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor
  43. Tender – Belinda McKeon
  44. Brightness Falls – Jay McInerney
  45. Anatomy of a Soldier – Harry Parker
  46. Spill Simmer Falter WitherSara Baume
  47. A Manual for Cleaning WomenLucia Berlin
  48. White Houses – Amy Bloom
  49. The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck (transl. Susan Bernofsky)
  50. A Meal in Winter – Hubert Mingarelli (transl. Sam Taylor)
  51. Astrid and Veronika – Linda Olsson
  52. A Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami (transl. Alan Birnbaum)
  53. White Hunger – Aki Ollikainen (transl. Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah)
  54. Monte Carlo – Peter Terrin (transl. David Doherty)
  55. Life a User’s Manual – Georges Perec (transl. David Bellos)
  56. Close Range – Annie Prolux
  57. The Book of Lights – Chaim Potok
  58. Another Brooklyn – Jacqueline Woodson
  59. The Submission  – Amy Waldman
  60. So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell
  61. Crossing to Safety  – Wallace Stegner
  62. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You  – Louisa Young
  63. The Book of Salt – Monique Truong
  64. Morality Play – Barry Unsworth
  65. The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt
  66. Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi
  67. Our Magic Hour – Jennifer Down
  68. Strandloper – Alan Garner
  69. Monsieur Linh and His Child – Philippe Claudel (trans. Euan Cameron)
  70. Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
  71. From a Low and Quiet Sea – Donal Ryan
  72. The Trick is to Keep Breathing – Janice Galloway
  73. A Fine Balance– Rohinton Mistry
  74. Mrs Bridge – Evan S. Connell
  75. One Clear Ice-cold Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century – Roland Schimmelpfennig (transl. Jamie Bulloch)
  76. El Hacho – Luis Carrasco
  77. The End We Start From  – Megan Hunter
  78. Moonstone – Sjón (transl. Victoria Cribb)
  79. The Fatal Tree – Jake Arnott
  80. The Refugees  – Viet Thanh Nguyen
  81. The Nix – Nathan Hill
  82. Commmonwealth  – Ann Patchett
  83. The Lauras – Sara Taylor
  84. The Republic of Love – Carol Shields
  85. Back to Moscow – Guillermo Erades
  86. The Power of the Dog  – Thomas Savage
  87. 10:04 – Ben Lerner
  88. Sworn Virgin  – Elvira Dones (transl. Clarissa Botsford)
  89. Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany
  90. The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber

 

  1. Stet – Diana AthillCover image
  2. Being Mortal – Atul Gawande
  3. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop – Lewis Buzbee
  4. Quiet – Susan Cain
  5. The Novel Cure  – Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin
  6. The Thoughtful Dresser – Linda Grant
  7. Names for the Sea – Sarah Moss
  8. Motherless Daughters – Hope Edelman
  9. The Spirit Level – Kate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson
  10. Land’s Edge– Tim Winton

Some of the above are so important to me that they’ll remain a constant on my list but others I consider essential today may well end up at the charity shop in a couple of years which probably reflects my background working with the shiny and new. Perhaps I’ll come back to it in a year or two and see what’s changed.

How about your library? Which books do you feel particularly attached to?

Four Days in Amsterdam, Fourteen Days in Central Europe and Three Books

John Betjeman statue (St. Pancras International)We’d already decided on another central European railway jaunt this year then Eurostar announced its new London to Amsterdam service. The idea of arriving in a city dear to both of us without setting foot on a plane was irresistible so we decided to extend our holiday to include a few days there. John Betjeman was kind enough to see us off from St Pancras International.

Gorgeous weather meant we spent most of the time outside, in contrast to our Christmas visit a few years ago. I’ve been to Amsterdam many times during most seasons but never in June when the gardens are at their best. Amsterdammers manage to get cottage garden flowers to grow in the tiniest of cracks in the cobbles outside their home. There was an abundance of climbing Hollyhock (Amsterdam)roses, wisteria and greenery everywhere but my favourite was the good old-fashioned hollyhock.

Sunday was spent wandering around Hortus Botanicus and on Monday morning we took ourselves off to the Vondelpark, a haven for bird life with its many lakes and wild areas including a couple of storks busy feeding their four young. The afternoon’s treat was tea at the Tassen museum taken in one of their elegantly decorated rooms overlooking the Herengracht canal. Our only other bit of culture was Our Lord in the Attic, a remarkable hidden Catholic church built within a merchant’s canal house at a time when Amsterdam proclaimed its religious tolerance but could not be relied upon to practice it.

Art Nouveau frontage (Leipzig)On to Leipzig the following day, a stone’s throw away from Dresden which we visited on our last railway holiday. Lots of Arts Nouveau and Deco to ogle here, run through with arcades full of ritzy shops, and some lovely green spaces to explore around the city. Leipzig’s slice of culture was the Grassi, a complex of three museums. We only managed to see the applied arts section – so extensive, beautifully organised and rich in treasures that it could give the V & A a run for its money but, mystifyingly, we had it almost to ourselves.

Next stop Görlitz on the Polish/German border where Wes Anderson shot much of The Grand Budapest Hotel using the interior of the vast Görlitzer Warenhaus department store as a stand-in for Gorlitzthe Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. Unlike Leipzig, Görlitz escaped the devastation of WW2 bombing. It’s a little gem of a town much beloved by film-makers, from Quentin Tarantino to Jackie Chan. Inevitably it’s been dubbed Görliwood, I suspect by the local tourist board.

Our first Polish city was WrocƗaw whose name Botanical gardens (Wroclaw)sounds nothing like it looks to an English-speaker’s eyes. WrocƗaw is one of many central European cities razed to the ground in WW2 but, like Dresden, it’s been meticulously and beautifully restored with jaw-dropping architectural delights at every turn. It’s also home to botanical gardens that put Amsterdam’s in the shade plus an exquisite Japanese garden on the edge of town.

We lost around 14°C between WrocƗaw and Poznań which was something of a Craftsmen's cottages, Rtnek (Poznan)relief. Poznań’s grand square is a little smaller than WrocƗaw’s but its row of colourfully decorated craftsmen’s cottages marks it out. Every day at noon two mechanical goats emerge from beneath the town hall clock next to the cottages and butt horns twelve times to mark the hour. A chilly wind blew a light drizzle in our faces at the appointed hour but being British we’re used to that kind of thing and we were determined not to miss the show.

House of Nicolaus Copernicus (Torun)Our penultimate stop was Toruń which, like Görlitz, emerged from WW2 miraculously unscathed. It’s a small medieval walled city stuffed with Gothic and Gothic Revival red-brick architectural gems including the supposed birthplace of Copernicus (or Copper Knickers as we used to call him, sniggeringly, at school). H and I were both somewhat taken aback to find that it’s twinned with Swindon. Apologies to any Swindon-based readers but if you look to the left you’ll understand.

Our last two days were spent in Warsaw. The first thing we sawPalace of Culture and Science (Warsaw) when we walked out of the station was Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science looking oddly anachronistic and slightly menacing next to the many gleaming skyscrapers but still the tallest building in the city. As the museums close on Tuesdays and we’d arrived on Monday, we chose the Museum of the History of Polish Jews over the Warsaw Rising Museum and wished we hadn’t. Overwhelming multimedia and short quotes displayed without context resulted in an exhibition which lacked any coherence. Not a patch on the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I learnt nothing from it I didn’t already know.

We spent Tuesday ambling around the old town, beautifully restored after its WW2 bashing, and loafing in the stylish Café Bristol. After nearly three weeks away we were both ready for home and wondering if Mischief would still recognise us, let alone be pleased to see us. Then I remembered that we’d be arriving almost precisely at feeding time.

 And the books? Three of the six I took hit the spot:

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley, a perceptive, small town novel about a bright young woman whose future is clouded by family complications.Cover image

Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching tells four very personal stories of New York from the points-of-view of Robert Mapplethorpe, Edmund White, Walt Whitman and Robert Moses the urban planner who shaped the modern metropolis.

Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade, a heart wrenching, beautifully written story of a young boy’s love for an older woman.

Thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me through this very long post, and to H who planned the whole adventure and who’s already thinking about another. Back to books and brevity on Friday…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in July 2018

Cover imageTwo titles were in tight competition for the top of this short list of July paperbacks, so tight that I’ve decided to take them in alphabetical order. Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists is one of those books surrounded by the kind of social media brouhaha that so often promises the world but delivers a pale imitation. This time, however, the hype is entirely justified. Benjamin hangs her glorious, engrossing story on a very clever hook: how would you live your life if you knew which day you were going to die? Her book follows four siblings each of whom deals with the knowledge in very different ways having gained it from a fortune-teller when they were children. Exploring themes of family, love, religion and grief, it’s an entertaining, compassionate and satisfyingly immersive novel.

Runner-up by an alphabetical whisker is Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home which follows the Bobs family, who have moved to Bacchus Marsh in an effort to escape Titch Bobs’ overbearing father, and their neighbour Willie Bachhuber who finds himself navigator in the Bobs’ attempt to win the inaugural 6,500-mile Redex Trial in 1953. Carey tackles themes of identity, racism, sexism and Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people, all framed within the context of a riveting piece of storytelling with a rich vein of humour running through it.Cover image

Zipping over to France for the next two novels the first of which is Sophie Divry’s Madame Bovary of the Suburbs. It’s always a risky business when an author writes their own version of a much-loved classic but Divry acquits herself beautifully with this story of M.A., born in the 1950s to parents who’ve lifted themselves up a notch in the world. Hers is an unremarkable life – college, career, love, family, adultery, retirement then a fall – but Divry delivers it in perceptive and insightful prose, laced with a gentle humour.

Jane Delury’s The Balcony is set on a small estate just outside Paris and explores the lives of the people who have lived there over the last century, from a young American au pair who falls for her boss to the Jewish couple in hiding from the Gestapo. ‘The stories of those who have lived within the estate have been many and varied. But as the years unfold, their lives inevitably come to haunt the same spaces and intertwine, creating a rich tapestry of the relationships, life-altering choices, and fleeting moments which have kept the house alive through the last hundred years. . .’ say the publishers rather long-windedly but it’s an interesting idea.

Cover imageMy last July paperback choice is Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body about a daughter’s attempts to understand her mother’s life after she’s found dead at the foot of her stairs. It’s structured along the lines of a medical report, apparently. ‘What emerges is a picture of life lived in the shadows, as well as an attempt to discover how and why her mother died. To make sense of her own grief Laura must piece her mother’s body back together and in doing so, she is forced to confront a woman silenced by her own mother and wronged by her husband’ according to the blurb which sounds intriguing.

That’s it for July’s paperbacks. A click on either of the first three titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the last two, and if you’d like to catch up with July’s new titles they’re here.

Books to Look Out For in July 2018

Cover imageBack from my travels (more of which next week) with a look at July’s nicely varied bunch of new titles taking in Native American culture, Indonesian customs and genre-defying Icelandic fiction to name but a few disparate themes. Quite some time ago, having spent several holidays in the Four Corners area of the US, I went through a phase of reading Native American fiction which is what attracts me to Tommy Orange’s There There. It revolves around the Big Oakland Powwow, following several celebrants not all of whose intentions are good. Described as ‘a propulsive, groundbreaking novel, polyphonic and multigenerational, weaving together an array of contemporary Native American voices into a singularly dynamic and original meta-narrative about violence and recovery, about family and loss, about identity and power’ it sounds both ambitious and enticing.

Philippe Claudel’s The Tree of the Toraja also explores cultural traditions, this time through the experience of a filmmaker fascinated by the Indonesian custom of interring the bodies of deceased infants in the trunks of trees which grow to encase them. On his return to France he finds that his dearest friend is dying. ‘Like the trees of the Toraja, this powerful novel encloses and preserves memories of lost loves and friendships, and contains the promise of rebirth and rebuilding, even after a terrible tragedy’ say the publishers of what sounds like a very personal exploration of death and our attitudes to it. Claudel’s writing is often very beautiful, as measured and contemplative as his filmmaking, so hopes are high for this one.

They’re also high for Philip Teir’s The Summer House which sees Erik and Julia taking their children off to the west coast of Finland for what may well be their last family holiday. Erik has just lost his job while the presence of Julia’s childhood friend and her charismatic environmental activist husband throw a further spanner in the works. ‘Around these people, over the course ofCover imageone summer, Philip Teir weaves a finely tuned story about life choices and lies, about childhood and adulthood. How do we live if we know that the world is about to end?’ say the publishers. I enjoyed The Winter War very much a few years back.

It’s the gorgeously written Moonstone that’s whetting my appetite for Sjón’s Codex 1962 in which a character is fashioned out of clay carried in a hatbox by his Jewish fugitive father in WW2 Germany. The woman his father meets in a smalltown guesthouse nurses him back to health and together they mould the clay into the shape of a baby. It’s not until 1962 that Joseph enters the world, growing up with a rare disease which will attract the attention of an Icelandic geneticist fifty-three years later. ‘At once playful and profoundly serious, this remarkable novel melds multiple genres into a unique whole: a mind-bending read and a biting, timely attack on nationalism’ say the publishers of this beautifully jacketed novel

Jordy Rosenberg’s debut Confessions of the Fox also features some eye-catching characters. A professor has stumbled on an obscure manuscript telling the story of Jack Sheppard, a transgender carpenter’s apprentice who fled his master’s house and Bess Khan who escaped the draining of the fenlands. These two find themselves caught up in a web of corruption at the centre of which is the Thief-Catcher General. ‘Jack and Bess trace the connections between the bowels of Newgate Prison and the dissection chambers of the Royal College, in a bawdy collision of a novel about gender, love, and liberation’ say the publisher which puts me in mind Cover imageof Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree, setting the bar very high indeed.

Still in London, but moving on several centuries to the 1970s, Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney explores the relationship between a twenty-five-year-old composer and the nine-year-old daughter of the man with whom he hopes to collaborate. ‘It is not until years later that Daphne is forced to confront the truth of her own childhood – and an act of violence that has lain hidden for decades. Putney is a bold, thought-provoking novel about the moral lines we tread, the stories we tell ourselves and the memories that play themselves out again and again, like snatches of song’ say the publishers of a novel that could prove to be unsettling reading.

A M Homes takes us to twenty-first-century America with her collection of short stories, Days of Awe. These thirteen pieces explore ‘our attachments to each other through characters who aren’t quite who they hoped to become, though there is no one else they can be. Her first book since the Women’s Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven, Days of Awe is another visionary, fearless and outrageously funny work from a master storyteller’ say the publishers. Looking forward to this one very much.

Jen Beagin’s Pretend I’m Dead brings this selection geographically full circle to the Four Corners and Taos, New Mexico where twenty-four-year-old Mona hopes to make a fresh start along with sundry other truth seekers. ‘The story of Mona’s journey to find her place in the world is at once fearless and wonderfully strange, true to life and boldly human, and introduces a stunning, one-of-a-kind new voice in American fiction’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some entertainment combined with a little trip down the memory lane of holidays past with this one.

That’s it for July’s new titles. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

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.

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…