Category Archives: Reviews

Eight Days in Portugal and Two Books

It’s been quite some time since H and I went to Portugal even though we love it there. After skirting around the southern Alentejo, years ago, we’d promised ourselves we’d visit the area properly one day and this year we finally got around to it. I rarely write about the places we stay but the lovely Monte da Fornalha is so idyllic it deserves a sentence or two. Its gorgeous garden alone, full off artfully placed divans and comfortable seats in which to lounge, lit by lamps and candles at night, would be enough mark it out as special but the rooms – both public and private – are absolutely delightful, too, decorated with originality and flair. The overall effect is of casual, boho elegance thrown together with ease although a great deal of careful thought has clearly gone into it. Breakfasts were a treat, too. There’s nothing like being offered a persimmon ripe off the tree, carefully chosen by Fornalha ‘s generous owner, Orlanda. A blissful place.

Just as well as with temperatures in the low 30s on the first day we weren’t up for anything much beyond loafing, reading and a slow amble through cork and olive groves, looking at the fading vines whose fruit went into the delicious wines we drank with supper. I’ve always loved Portuguese wines but they’re hard to track down in the UK.

Our nearest town was Borba, the smallest of the three marble towns as they’re known. Marble is mined in the area and, despite its lack of grandeur, Borba is almost entirely built from the stuff. Even the kerbing stones are made of it. Close by is a second marble town – Estremoz, whose Saturday market we visited before nipping up to its pousada which incorporates the castle’s marble keep. For those who don’t know Portugal, pousadas are hotels sited in historic buildings, usually quite grand but happy for nosy tourists like us to enjoy a coffee which we did in the lovely cloistered garden. Vila Viçosa is the third marble town. Its palace, built by Jaime IV, Duke of Bragança in the sixteenth century but now a pousada, is quite breath taking in its splendour for what is essentially a small mining town, although its grand facade fronts a building just one room deep.

We did manage to drag ourselves away from Orlanda’s beautiful garden for a few days out further afield., My favourite was a trip to the pretty spa town of Castelo de Vide, its hill crowned with a carefully restored castle as are so many in this area close to the border with Spain. It’s also home to the oldest synagogue in Portugal, deep in the maze of streets of the medieval town, now a beautifully presented museum. After a steep climb up to the old city walls, we were rewarded with impressive panoramic views. At the much smaller and even prettier Marvão the views were just as spectacular, well worth the scramble up to the top. We drove back to the guesthouse through back roads, many lined with trees sporting autumn colours against a background of green, very different from the parched countryside surrounding the marble towns.

My other favourite day out was spent in Évora, a substantial hill town, topped by the remains of a Roman temple, quite busy with tourists like us but nevertheless unspoilt. Close to the temple, the Sao Joao Evangelista church has a magnificent tiled interior, mostly blue and white, some arranged to tell biblical stories but, interestingly, those close to the altar were more abstract, suggesting a Moorish influence. We wandered around the cobbled streets then into a park filled with peahens and their chicks. On the drive back to what I was beginning to think of as home, I spotted some black pigs rooting around in a cork grove no doubt looking for acorns.

And the books? More reading than usual on this holiday, but only two really stood out for me. I first spotted Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn on Naomi’s blog, Consumed By Ink. It’s the occasionally funny, often poignant story of the ups and many downs in a seventy-year marriage which begins just before the Second World War when Harry goes off to the North African front leaving Evelyn in London. It reminded me of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack. Sally Rooney’s Normal People is also about a relationship, both different and similar to Harry and Evelyn’s. Rather like Conversations with Friends, I began it unsure whether I’d like it, not least because it kept popping up on almost every prize list going, but I grew to love this story of two young people from very different backgrounds whose on-again off-again relationship begins when they’re at school. Both Connell and Marianne seem as incapable of leaving each other alone as they are of  articulating their feelings to the other.

It was raining the day we left the lovely Monte de Fornalha which made our departure a whole lot easier not to mention preparing us for real life back home here in the UK. No more persimmons for breakfast for us. It’s back to muesli.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in November 2019

A mere handful of November paperbacks after a very satisfying two-part new title preview, but all four look pretty enticing to me beginning with Walter Kempowski’s Homeland which opens in 1988, the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A journalist living in West Berlin is commissioned to write a piece about the former East Prussia where he was born in 1945 as refugees fled the Russian advance. ‘Homeland is a nuanced work from one of the great modern European storytellers, in which an everyday German comes face to face with his painful family history, and devastating questions about ordinary Germans’ complicity in the war’ say the publishers.

Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room is about a woman whose fate was also decided by the Second World War. Hedy Lamarr, as she came to be known, fled the Hitler regime and landed up in Hollywood where her beauty secured her future. A scientist by training, Lamarr had learnt secrets about the Nazis at the side of her Austrian arms dealer husband and had devised an idea to help defeat them. ‘A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionised modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece’ according to the publishers. It sounds a little improbable but intriguing nevertheless.

Poverty is the enemy in Alessandro D’Avenia’s What Hell is Not, set in Sicily where seventeen-year-old Federico is asked to help at a youth club in a destitute neighbourhood controlled by the Mafia. While the children of Brancaccio lack Federico’s privilege, their spirit and will change his life forever, apparently. ‘Written in intensely passionate and lyrical prose, What Hell Is Not is the phenomenal Italian bestseller about a man who brought light to one of the darkest corners of Sicily, and who refused to give up on the future of its children’ says the blurb which sounds distinctly cheering.

One man looks set to make a difference in a negative way in Jeffrey Lewis’ Bealport which sees a financier buying the New England factory where his favourite shoes are made. The sale will have a profound effect on the people of Bealport for whom the factory provides both livelihood and community. ‘Bealport is a portrait of a place, at once sympathetic, mordant, unsparing, comic, tragic and universal, and of a way of life that is passing. It is a novel of a town, and to no small degree of every town in America and beyond’ according to the blurb which sounds right up my street.

That’s it for November’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have taken your fancy, and if you’d like to catch up with new titles, they’re here and here. If past performance is anything to go by there will be very few books to look out for in December, but you never know…

Books to Look Out For in November 2019: Part Two

Cover imageBack from Portugal – more of which next week – with part two of November’s preview which has its feet firmly placed in Europe with one novel set in Norway, two in Germany, one in France and two in the UK. Let’s work our way south, starting in a remote small town in northern Norway where a single mother has forgotten her young son’s birthday. Hanne Orstavik’s Love follows the separate journeys of Jon, as he sets off to sell lottery tickets for his sports club, and Vibeke, who heads off to the local library and a fairground, in what the publishers are calling ‘an acknowledged masterpiece of Norwegian literature’, and they’re quite right. Gorgeous jacket, too. Review to follow.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s  The God Child takes us to Germany where Taiye Selasi Maya grows up aware of her parents’ difference. One Christmas her cousin arrives, spinning stories about Ghana, colonialism and its fallout, awakening Maya to the reasons why her parents might be the way they are. When, as a young woman, Maya is reunited with her cousin in Ghana, she finds him troubled. ‘Her homecoming will set off an exorcism of their family and country’s strangest, darkest demons. It is in this destruction’s wake that Maya realises her own purpose: to tell the story of her mother, her cousin, their land and their loss, on her own terms, in her own voice’ say the publishers of what they’re calling ‘a brave reinvention of the immigrant narrative’ which sounds right up my alley.

We’re staying in Germany for Amanda Lee Koe’s Delayed Rays of a Star in which a photographer captures Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl in a single photograph at a Berlin party in 1928. Koe’s novel follows the three women through their careers and private lives. ‘In the murky world these women navigate, their choices will be held up to the test of time. And the real question is, how much has anything changed? This fierce and exquisite debut Cover imageabout womanhood, ambition, and art, played out against the shifting political tides of the twentieth century, introduces a mesmerizing new literary talent for our times’ according to the publishers which sounds very tempting to me.

Heading across the border to France for Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe about the daughter of a  poor family in Sainte-Bazeille who displays a remarkable talent for cooking when she grows up, even dreaming in recipes. An acknowledged genius in the kitchen, the Cheffe is intensely private, refusing to reveal the name of her daughter’s father when she gives birth.  Despite the sucess of her restaurant, her relationship with her daughter becomes so fraught it threatens to destroy her career, apparently. I have a weakness for novels set in restaurants and about food hence the appeal of this one.

Off to London for Jane Rogers’ Body Tourists set in a small private clinic. The bodies of the teenage poor are being used to rejuvenate the old and rich willing to pay the price. ‘It’s an opportunity for wrongs to be righted, for fathers to meet grandsons, for scientists to see their work completed. Old wine in new bottles’ according to the publishers. Not entirely convinced about this one. I usually avoid dystopian fiction but Jane Rogers is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, not least her last novel, Conrad and Eleanor back in 2016.

Cover imageI’m finishing this second part of November’s preview with Scarlett Thomas’ welcome return to adult fiction, Oligarchy, set in an English boarding school where the daughter of a Russian oligarch is finding it hard to fit in. Then her friend disappears plunging her into a dark world. It seems a very long time since The Seed Collectors so hopes are high for what the publishers are calling a ‘fierce new novel about power, privilege and peer pressure’.

That’s it for November’s new titles. A click on any that take your fancy will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Good old-fashioned storytelling

Sometimes I need a glorious bit of good old-fashioned storytelling, something to bury myself in and distract myself from the world and its woes. Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House, is exactly that. It’s the story of an unusual, beautiful house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world.

When Cyril Conroy takes his wife to see the Dutch House, she’s appalled, convinced they’re trespassing. Its walls are lined with grand portraits of the Van Hoebeeks, the family who commissioned this mansion full of light but now in disrepair. Having quietly built up a property management business, Cyril has bought the house, presenting it as a gift to Elna but she’s never happy there. One day she disappears, or so it seems to Danny, her eight-year-old son. Cyril rarely speaks of her again leaving Danny and his sister Maeve to puzzle over what has happened to her. Maeve takes over the mothering of Danny who idolises her. One day, Cyril introduces them to a small, neatly turned out woman who will eventually become their stepmother bringing her two daughters with her. Andrea adores the Dutch House, but not her stepchildren, throwing them out when Cyril dies. Over the years, Maeve and Danny return, parking just across the road, seemingly unable to resist the house’s lure. Maeve remains the lynchpin of Danny’s life. He takes up his place at medical school to please her but once qualified builds a property business, just like Cyril. He marries and has two children but Maeve remains single, living not so very far from the Dutch House. One day, Danny is called to the hospital and what he finds when he gets there will both change and disconcert him.

John Irving popped into my head several times while reading this novel. Using the device of the Dutch House, Patchett explores the history of a family who have been both obsessed and shaped by this gorgeous piece of architecture. Themes of motherhood, privilege, obsession and communication, or the lack of it, run through the Conroys’ story, told from the perspective of Danny who seems intent on replicating his father’s life even if he doesn’t realise it, self-knowledge not being his strong suit.

She might have packed her disappointments away in a box, but she carried the box with her wherever she went

Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well-crafted absorbing and satisfying.

Bloomsbury Publishing: London 2019 9781526614964 337 pages Hardback

That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to Portugal to explore the Alentejo and probably read a book or three.

Books to Look Out For in November 2019: Part One

Cover imageI’m relieved to say there are sufficient attention-grabbing titles for a two-part November preview, although there’s no contest as to which one tops my list. As fans will already know, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again sees the return of Olive Kitteridge. Olive is both the star of the show and a bit player in these closely linked stories set in the small town of Crosby. The ‘spiky, obdurate and disarmingly human anti-heroine Olive Kitteridge [returns] for a fine chronicle of late love and generational division, set in the coastal Maine community that Strout has made her own’ promise the publishers and they are entirely right. Review to follow next month.

From a book by a thoroughly seasoned writer to a debut with Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses set in 1950s San Diego where newlywed, Muriel, works as a waitress picking up tips from the denizens of the Del Mar racetrack but unwilling to split her winnings with her husband. It’s Lee’s brother who Muriel wants to share her good luck with but he’s patrolling the Las Vegas casinos where he meets and falls in love with Henry. ‘Through the parks and plazas of Tijuana and the bars and beaches of San Diego, On Swift Horses mesmerisingly charts the journeys of Muriel and Julius on their separate quests for freedom, new horizons and love’ say the publishers. Very much like the sound of this one.

Moving west, Daniel Handler’s Bottle Grove begins with a wedding in a forest followed by what sounds like a raucous party. ‘Set in San Francisco as the tech-boom is exploding, Bottle Grove is a sexy, skewering dark comedy about two unions–one forged of love Cover imageand the other of greed–and about the forces that can drive couples together, into dependence, and then into sinister, even supernatural realms’ say the publishers. I’m a little worried about that mention of the supernatural but I like the setting and the promise further on in the blurb that everyone has a secret.

Parties are on the agenda in Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food, which begins on New Year’s Eve when writer, Bunny, finally falls to pieces. Once admitted to a classy New York psychiatric hospital, Bunny refuses all meds and instead begins to write a novel about her fellow patients and what’s brought about her own breakdown. ‘Rabbits for Food shows how art can lead us out of-or into-the depths of disconsolate loneliness and piercing grief. A bravura literary performance from one of America’s finest writers’ according to the publishers. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Kirshenbaum before but this does sound interesting.

I enjoyed Ben Lerner’s 10:04 very much when I read it back in 2015 but didn’t get on at all well with Leaving the Atocha Station. The Topeka School is about Adam Gordon, a senior at Topeka High School in 1997, who seems to be good at just about everything but whose efforts to include the class loner end disastrously. ‘Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is a riveting story about the challenges of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a startling prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the tyranny of trolls and the new right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men’ says the blurb which sounds extraordinarily ambitious to me.

Cover imageI’m finish with a book by the only British author in the batch – Sara Hall’s collection, Sudden Traveller which comprises seven stories whose settings range from Turkey to Cumbria. ’Radical, charged with a transformative creative power, each of these stories opens channels in the human mind and spirit, as Sarah Hall once more invites the reader to stand at the very edge of our possible selves’ say the publishers rather grandly. Jon McGregor has sung her previous work’s praises as has David Mitchell and Jessie Burton. I think it’s about time I read some of her stories.

That’s it for the first part of November’s preview. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that’s snagged your attention. Part two soon…

Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen (transl. Don Bartlett): ‘This is a city so small everyone has the same shadow’

Cover imageNorway is the one Scandinavian country I’ve yet to visit, slightly put off by reports of ruinous expense and rain, although I’m sure I’ll go at some stage. It’s part of the reason I was attracted to Lars Saabye Christensen’s first instalment of a planned trilogy, Echoes of the City, set in post-war Oslo where he was born. Opening in 1947, Christensen’s novel takes us to the Fagerborg district where the Red Cross have established a department, telling the story of the city’s emergence from war time austerity through the Kristoffersen family and their neighbours.

Ewald Kristoffersen works for an advertising agency while his wife Maj looks after their seven-year-old son. Jesper’s a little difficult. Restless and given to sudden inexplicable tantrums, he’s a year late starting school. Ewald tends to avoid spending time alone with him if he can, preferring to call in at the Hotel Bristol with his colleagues where the melancholy Enzo plays piano, but when Maj volunteers for the local Red Cross he has no choice. Maj has a talent for accounts and is soon elected treasurer raising hopes that the family might be shunted up the telephone waiting list so that they are no longer summoned upstairs to Fru Vik’s. Maj and Fru Vik have a slightly uneasy relationship. Fru Vik is a little withdrawn, still mourning her husband, but Maj needs her to look after Jesper now and again. When Jesper starts school, he finds it hard to make friends until Jostein, the butcher’s son, deaf thanks to a trolley-bus accident, sits next to him. Jesper begins to ‘hear’ for Jostein and a friendship begins. Over the next few years Jesper will display a talent for the piano, fostered by Enzo, Fru Vik will find a companion despite a good deal of opposition and uneasiness, Maj will shine as the Red Cross treasurer and Ewald will discover just how much he loves his family.

Let us continue, not that there is any rush; on the contrary, we have plenty of time. But to those who wish to accompany us, please adjust to our pace

Echoes of the City begins with a prologue which sees Jesper about to set off to sea on September 22nd, 1957, the day after Norway’s King Hakkon died, then winds back to 1947 as Christensen takes up the Kristoffersens’ story, appending Red Cross meeting minutes to the end of each chapter. It’s a structure that works better than I thought it might at first, providing a backdrop of social history to the lives of Fagerborg’s inhabitants. Christensen’s narrative slips from character to character with ease, while keeping its focus on the Kristoffersens. It’s infused with a gentle, affectionate humour – the Red Cross ladies are a wee bit put out when gratitude for their help is unforthcoming, Jesper is utterly horrified at finding his father naked in all his fatness – coupled with poignancy as the characters’ stories unfold.

As promised in the prologue, this is slow storytelling, carefully constructed, and all the better for it. These are people we come to know and want to meet again. It’s a novel that reads like a love letter both to Oslo and the Red Cross whose role was so important in helping the city pick itself back up again. I’m already looking forward eagerly to the second instalment but in the meantime Grant at 1streading’s blog has recommended The Half-Brother to bridge the gap.

Maclehose Press: London 2019 9780857059154 464 pages Paperback

The Spare Room by Helen Garner: Stretched to the limits

Cover imageI’m sure this isn’t the first reread I’ve reviewed here but aside from Amy Bloom’s Rowing to Eden, which turned out to be made up of several collections of short stories, nothing comes to mind. Australian writer Helen Garner’s The Spare Room was published in 2008 and has recently been reissued. I remember reading it in proof and being impressed with it then and it’s lost none of its power in just over a decade since. Our narrator, Helen, has been asked by a much-loved friend if she can stay for three weeks while she undergoes treatment for cancer. What ensues will test the bounds of friendship to its limits.

Helen met Nicola fifteen years ago, becoming firm friends despite the distance between Nicola’s home in Sydney and Helen’s in Melbourne. Impressed by Nicola’s casual grace, bohemian life and independence, Helen tries not to appear shocked when she arrives, much diminished, or to seem astonished at her faith in the Theodore Institute which claims to cure cancer by administering large doses of vitamin C. Nicola breezily insists she can fend for herself but Helen is having none of it, sizing up the Institute as a bunch of charlatans while trying to keep an open mind for Nicola. As the weeks wear on, Helen becomes exhausted by the night sweats and bouts of pain that summon her to Nicola’s room, increasingly appalled by the wackiness of the Institute’s treatments, their prohibition of strong painkillers and her own mounting fury, both with the so-called doctors and with Nicola’s resolute belief in a cure. When Nicola’s niece, Iris, visits, Helen finds an ally. Between them, they convince Nicola to see an oncologist who advises surgery. At the end of the three weeks, their friendship has been strained but not yet snapped.

That night we took the bottle of Stoly down the rough path to the landing where, sitting on our jackets in the dark, we launched the long conversation that would become our friendship.

Garner’s sharp novella weighs in at just under 200 pages, drawing on her own experience of nursing a close friend to explore friendship, dying and the pernicious hope engendered by desperation. Helen’s anger rings out loud and clear against the cynical exploitation of the terminally ill and against Nicola’s insane optimism, a mask behind which she hides her terror. Glimmers of gallows humour lighten the subject’s grimness as Iris, Gab and Helen dissolve into hysteria, diffusing their fury at Nicola’s doggedly contrary attitude. Nicola is entirely believable: either monumentally selfish or brave in her determination – take your choice – but wholly human in her desperate need to hope. Helen counterbalances her beautifully, all practicality and organisation but helpless in the face of such need. Throughout it all flows compassion and love. Just as powerful the second time around, this is a clear-eyed view of death and our responses to it, explored through both the dying and the rest of us who must do what we can for them knowing that our turn will come.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786896087 195 pages Paperback

Paperbacks to Look Out For in October 2019: Part Two

Cover imageI’m kicking off this second instalment of October paperbacks with the only one I haven’t read. I’d have expected to be hell-bent on getting my hands on it but after the hardback reviews, I’m not so sure. Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore sees a portrait painter discover a strange painting in the attic of a famous artist, opening a Pandora’s box in the process. To close it he must do all manner of things involving ‘a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.  A tour de force of love and loneliness, war and art – as well as a loving homage to The Great GatsbyKilling Commendatore is a stunning work of imagination from one of our greatest writers’ say the publishers. Others weren’t so keen.

Frances Liardet’s We Must Be Brave is in altogether more straightforward fictional territory. Set in a small Hampshire village, it opens in 1940 with the discovery of a child fast asleep at the back of a coach filled with frightened women fleeing the bombing of Southampton. When Ellen comes across five-year-old Pamela, her first impulse is to find the girl’s mother but the child is alone. Much to her surprise Ellen warms to this adventurous, heart-broken child whose plight mirrors her own experience. Nothing much in the way of literary fireworks here, just good old-fashioned, satisfying storytelling.

War, and its legacy, is also the theme of Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land. As he sets about his work, his wife wonders about the things he witnessed, colluding with the silence of this man she barely knew before they were married by asking few questions and playing the part of the frivolous woman until a figure from Charlie’s past turns up. A new Georgina Harding is always something to celebrate for me. I’m a great fan of her elegant yet lyrical writing and her quiet perceptiveness. Very disappointed not to see this one on the Booker longlist.

Last, but by no means least, Joan Silber’s Improvement traces the repercussions of a fatal Cover imageaccident through a set of characters, exploring themes of love and redemption. This carefully constructed novel reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories beginning and ending with Reyna as Silber explores the ripple effects of Claude’s accident through a range of characters from his girlfriend to the three Germans who visit Reyna’s aunt’s Turkish home decades before the carpet she brought back to the States contributes to Reyna’s redemption. Silber’s characters are sharply observed, her writing subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Improvement is her only book published here in the UK: all I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.

That’s it for October’s paperbacks. A click on any of the last three titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for Killing Commendatore should you wish to know more. If you’d like to catch up with October’s new titles they’re here and here, the first paperback instalment is here.

Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg: Six little gems

Cover imageHard not to be intrigued by a collection of short stories with a title like Your Duck is My Duck not to mention that cover. On closer inspection, Deborah Eisenberg turned out to be garlanded with praise from all manner of people, including a New York Times critic who described her work as ‘Shudderingly intimate and mordantly funny’ which clinched the deal for me. Her collection comprises six stories, each lengthy enough to deserve a brief synopsis of its own.

Your Duck is My Duck – Taken up by an uber rich couple she meets at a party, an artist is invited to their retreat in a small village they’ve ruined with their ill thought out schemes. She arrives to find her hosts at war with each other, oblivious to the havoc they’ve wreaked.

Taj Mahal – A group of aged movie actors are affronted by the biography of a renowned director written by his grandson, purportedly drawing on his childhood memories, but are their own as reliable as they’d like to think?

Cross Off and Move On – The death of a long lost cousin brings back memories of her irascible mother’s dislike of her father’s sisters for a middle-aged woman who remembers her aunts as nothing but kind and generous. Her own origins were a jigsaw for her to piece together, thanks to her mother’s determination to hide them.

Merge – The over-indulged Keith has been cut off from his father’s largesse and faced with real life when he meets Celeste who finds him something to do: looking out for her ageing neighbour and walking the fluffball known as Moppet. Cordis has a fascinating story if only Keith can get her to tell it. Meanwhile, a long way from home Celeste seems to be unravelling.

The Third Tower – A young woman undergoing neurological tests, finds it politic to take her cue from her consultant rather than describe what’s really in her mind.

Recalculating – Intrigued by the uncle he never met, Adam flies across the Atlantic to attend his memorial service, surprised by the elegance and sophistication of his uncle’s bohemian friends who are pleased to recognise Phillip in him

Each of these stories was a delight for me, stuffed full with acerbic observation. Several of them are darkly comic: Merge’s prefacing with two quotes, one from Noam Chomsky, the other from Donald Trump, made me laugh out loud. Eisenberg’s characters are astutely drawn and her themes – memory, ageing, family and language – intelligently explored. Her punctuation maybe a little over enthusiastic for some – commas popping up all over the place but I’m not entirely averse to that. Her stories are carefully constructed and she’s not afraid to challenge her readers – in Merge two narrative strands tease themselves apart, seeming to unravel which is a little discombobulating but strikingly effective, while The Third Tower is almost hallucinogenic in its images. As seems to be so often the case with short stories for me, it’s the writing that I most enjoyed. Here are a few choice samples:

Pretending to be other people is fine. It’s pretending to be oneself that’s exhausting. Taj Mahal

They would sit down at the bar, Mr Perfect and the girl, and the predictable theatrics would start right up, so the moment he appeared I’d resign myself to a night watching a wallet flirt with a price tag. Cross Off and Move On

Friedlander dabbled in a series of eccentric, quasi-scholarly enterprises, as only the useless child of a wealthy family can. Merge

The sights stream by out the window, wavering, not quite solid, like pictures unfurling on a bolt of printed silk. The Third Tower

It’s like a word has the same word inside it, but the one inside’s a lot bigger, and with better colours and more parts. The Third Tower

There, I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Europa Editions: London 2019 9781787701823 219 pages Paperback

Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship

Cover imageRegular readers will know that I’m not one for words like ‘charming’ and ‘delightful’ – smacks too much of tweeness for me – but when I read the pitch for Isabel Vincent’s Dinner with Edward, they immediately popped into my head. Another one was ‘Christmas’, but that’s the old bookseller in me. Vincent’s book tells the story of her friendship with the nonagenarian Edward who cooks delectable dinners for her in his New York apartment.

Vincent has recently moved to the city, taking up a position on the New York Post after years as a foreign correspondent, bringing her husband and daughter with her. Living in Toronto, far from her father, Edward’s daughter has asked Vincent to look in on him, telling her of the promise his beloved wife Paula extracted from him to continue living after her death. Intrigued and tempted by Valerie’s descriptions of her father’s culinary prowess, Vincent calls in to be met by a dapper Edward who welcomes her into an apartment filled with delicious cooking aromas. So begins what is at first a weekly dinner date, replete with an immaculately prepared cocktail followed by several courses. Edward is both a wonderful host and an accomplished cook – inventive dishes prepared from carefully selected ingredients, wine perfectly matched, jazz playing quietly in the background. These two console each other – one who has lost the love of his life, the other whose marriage is crumbling – with food, appreciation and conversation, continuing to do so over several years until their meetings grow less frequent as Vincent finds herself in love and Edward’s health inevitably begins to fail.

You’ll have realised from the first paragraph that I found this book a delight. Hard not to use the word ‘heartwarming’, another word I tend to avoid, when describing the way in which Edward and Vincent rescue each other. Her account is arranged around the meals they share, beginning each chapter pleasingly with a menu. I’m sure Edward approved – the short interview at the back of the book tells us that he lived to see the hardback edition published in the States. Vincent unfolds his, and Paula’s, stories alongside her own as Edward introduces her to his repertoire of delectable lovingly perpared delicacies.

The secret is treating family like guests and guests like family

He’s very much the urbane New Yorker, seeing Vincent as something of a project. She begins to look at life a little differently, always leaving his apartment happy no matter how difficult things have become at home or how challenging at work. A lovely book, then. Almost as soon as I started it, I was struck by what a great movie it would make. I’d go and see it for sure.

Pushkin Press: London 2019 9781911590262 223 pages Hardback