The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff: Several stories for the price of one

Cover imageI could start this post with yet another protestation that I’m not an historical fiction fan but I’m not entirely sure that’s true, particularly after listing Imogen Hermes Gower’s The Mermaid and the Mrs Hancock amongst my books of 2018. Perhaps I should adopt the term Craig Cliff mentions in his acknowledgements – romanzi storici – although once he’d got down to writing The Mannequin Makers he was no longer sure it fit the bill. Beginning at the turn of 1902, Cliff’s debut takes us up to 1974 with its tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before.

Colton Kemp lives in the small New Zealand town of Marumaru, a window dresser for Donaldson’s, one of two local department stores, who’s turned his hand to mannequin making. On New Year’s Eve 1902, his wife gives birth to twins losing her own live in the process. Colton is distraught, unable to speak of her death lest it become real to him. That same night, the German strongman makes an unscheduled appearance in the town. As Colton watches Sandow showcasing total control of his muscles, a plan emerges from the madness of his grief which will materialise sixteen years later. It will be the culmination of his intense rivalry with Gabriel Doig, known as The Carpenter, whose uncannily lifelike models adorn Hercus and Barling’s windows. Gabriel has his own story to tell. A ships’ carver from Scotland, he was taken on as a carpenter on the Agathos when his business finally failed. Scenting fresh meat, the crew do their worst, strapping him to the ship’s mast with Vengeance, his precious figurehead. When a storm hits, Gabriel finds himself cast away, surviving but losing his voice. He’s lived in Marumaru for two decades before a series of tableaux in Donaldson’s windows catch his eye. Can it possibly be what he thinks it is?

This is such an inventive, imaginative piece of storytelling; not just one story but several nested within each other. Gabriel’s story is almost a novel in itself, yet Cliff adroitly weaves it into Colton’s and his twins’, revealing the way in which one man can tragically misinterpret another’s motives. Madness and grief haunt this novel which has more than a touch of the gothic but moments of humour brighten it, and its narrative is gripping. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction which offered me some much-needed distraction from my Brexit woes although opening the book to find this quote prefacing Part One felt horribly apt:

We run carelessly to the precipice after we have put something before us to prevent us from seeing it

Ho, hum…

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Shifting cultures

Cover imageXuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection comes garlanded with praise from Lauren Groff, herself no slouch when it comes to crafting short stories. Wang explores the second-generation immigrant experience through the lens of experience, having arrived in the States with her parents aged seven. Her collection comprises twelve lengthy stories divided into three sections: Family, Love, and Time and Space.

Home Remedies begins with ‘Mott Street in July’ which sees three children of Chinese immigrants left to fend for themselves in the one-bedroom flat they’ve long outgrown, their eyes fixed on an American future. Its dreamlike quality is mirrored in the final story ‘The Art of Straying Off Course’, a whirlwind of snapshots which takes us through an architect’s life as her career progresses until she visits her ancestral home, neatly bookending the collection. One of my favourites, ‘Vaulting the Sea’, is about two seven-year-old boys, future Olympic hopefuls, who become the closest of friends but as they grow older one wants more from the other than he’s able to give. The titular ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments’ is made up of a list of emotional ills with advice for remedying them, from dealing with a crush on an ageing professor to avoiding a father’s grief-stricken phone calls when his ancient dog dies. In ‘Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships’ a divorced computer scientist muses on the failure of his logical approach to his relationship with his daughter who has never known the hunger he endured and doesn’t appreciate the fact that he knows to the dollar how much it has cost to raise her. ‘The Strawberry Years’ has a photographer struggling to make ends meet and fed up with the multitude of requests to look after Chinese visitors, one of who seems intent on taking over his apartment with her burgeoning Livestream audience’s approval.

Told mostly from the perspective of young Chinese, these are poignant, sharply observed stories often undercut with a dark humour. Some explore intergenerational relationships and the gulf which exists between the expectations and experience of parents and children. They reveal the sheer pace of change for many Chinese, from the living memory of the Cultural Revolution to expectations of a future little different from those of wealthy Americans. Wang’s characters range from the spoilt second-generation rich boy, returning from the States after an act of cruelty for which his best friend may have to pay, to the young man who agrees to a marriage he knows will make him a rich man but at a high price. Her writing is plain yet striking:

His father was a coal miner, a thin, muscular man who looked permanently charred

The blue-eyed girl was still holding on to his hand and he was about to ask “Where is the party?” but the words came to him in Chinese. Then like a voice in an interrupted dream, they flew out of him in perfect English  

I liked the girl I married very much, but not the woman she became after we immigrated to America  

Not all the stories worked for me but it’s an interesting collection which explores a culture I’m ashamed to say I know far less about than I should.

Books to Look Out for in July 2019

Cover imageInevitably, July means summer reading which means fewer books for me, not being of the reading by the pool persuasion or doing anything by the pool for that matter. That said, I’m starting off with what will be a surefire summer bestseller: David Nicolls’ Sweet Sorrow. I loved One Day which was commercial fiction perfection as far as I’m concerned. This new one explores young love over a summer in which sixteen-year-old Charlie meets Fran. It’s described by the publishers as ‘a hymn to the tragicomedy of ordinary lives, a celebration of the reviving power of friendship and that brief, blinding explosion of first love that perhaps can only be looked at directly once it has burned out’. I suspect I’ll probably be reading this one happily ensconced on a sofa.

Nicola Barker is the other end of the literary spectrum from David Nicholls, often wacky and innovative. I still haven’t got around to reading H(a)ppy but have fond memories of The Cauliflower®. I Am Sovereign follows a forty-year-old teddy bear maker trying to sell his Llandudno house. A viewing by prospective buyers sets in train a series of events that cause all concerned to question reality. ‘As religious epiphanies bump up against declarations of love, examinations of subjectivity hurtle into meditations on the history of culture, our entire understanding of the book – and of the boundaries between fiction and real life – is radically upended. A tour de force in miniature form that twists the novel into new shapes as the characters sabotage the fictional world they inhabit, I Am Sovereign sees Nicola Barker at her most joyful, provocative and riotous’ say the publishers promisingly.

We’re back in much more straightforward territory with Anna Hope’s new novel, I suspect. I enjoyed both Wake and The Ballroom very much so hopes are high for Expectation which sees three friends living in East London, their lives full of art, love and delight. A decade later, Hannah, Cate and Lissa are trying to cope with the inevitable disillusionments and difficulties of adult life, each thinking the others’ lives are better than theirs, and each wondering how to make their life more meaningful. ‘Expectation is a novel of the highs and lows of friendship – how it can dip, dive and rise again. It is also about finding your way: as a mother, a daughter, a wife, a rebel. Most of all, it explores that liminal space between expectation and reality, the place – full of dreams, desires and pain – in which we all live our lives’ say the publishers whetting my appetite nicely.

Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game is about the Bauhaus movement, a school of art and design whose ethos and style I find very appealing. Wood’s novel follows Paul Beckermann who arrives at the school in 1922 and becomes entranced by both the teaching and his fellow students, falling in love with one of them. Political tensions and its own internal rivalries result in the group’s disintegration leaving Paul with a secret he’s forced to face when an old Bauhaus friend contacts him, many years later. ‘Beautifully written, powerful and suspenseful, Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game is a novel about the dangerously fine line between love and obsession, set against the most turbulent era of our recent past’ say the publishers. I very much enjoyed Mrs Hemingway, Wood’s take on Ernest Hemingway’s marriage so I’m looking forward to this one.

Cover imageTwo American novels published in July sound like catnip to me. The first, Regina Porter’s The Travelers, follows two families – one Irish-American, the other African-American – beginning in 1942 as America recovers from the Second World War. ‘Illuminating more than six decades of sweeping change – from the struggle for civil rights and the chaos of Vietnam to Obama’s first year as President – James and Agnes’s families will come together in unexpected, intimate and profoundly human ways. Romantic and defiant, humorous and intellectually daring, Regina Porter brilliantly explores how race, gender and class collide in modern-day America – and charts the mishaps and adventures we often take to get closer to ourselves and to home’ say the publishers which sounds right up my literary alley.

As does Salvatore Scribona’s The Volunteer which spans four generations of fathers and sons, beginning in 1966 when Vollie Frade enlists in the US Marine Corps to fight in Vietnam. ‘From the Cambodian jungle, to a flophouse in Queens, to a commune in New Mexico, Vollie’s path traces a secret history of life on the margins of America, culminating with an inevitable and terrible reckoning. Scibona’s story of a restless soldier pressed into service for a clandestine branch of the US government unfolds against the backdrop of the seismic shifts in global politics of the second half of the twentieth century’ say the publishers promisingly.Cover image

I’m ending July’s new titles as I began with a novel I’d be amazed if I didn’t love – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days. Oscar and Mina move to London after a patrol car picks her up on the George Washington Bridge, apparently about to jump off. Oscar hopes that getting away from New York will help Mina recover but finds their love tested when another woman offers Mina both friendship and attraction. I loved Buchannan’s debut, Harmless Like You, which was both poignant and wryly humorous. I’m hoping for more of the same with Starling Days.

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

Six Degrees of Separation – from Murmur to Johannesburg

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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We’re starting this month with Will Eaves Murmur, a slice of experimental fiction which explores Alan Turing’s life and ideas through dreams, correspondence and journal entries. Eaves’ extraordinary book won both the Republic of Consciousness Prize and this year’s Wellcome Prize.

The Wellcome Prize often has an interesting selection of books on its shortlist one of which was Sarah Moss’ Bodies of Light in 2015. It follows Ally in her struggles to become a doctor in nineteenth-century Britain.

Moss also wrote Names for the Sea,  an appealing account of her year in Iceland, which brings me to Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s very funny Butterflies in November in which a dead sheep is wrestled into a car’s passenger seat.

That sheep (and the style of Ólafsdóttir’s somewhat wacky novel) puts me in mind of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase which sees a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd.

Hiromi Kawakami is another favorite Japanese author of mine who also knows how turn her hand to the surreal but not in The Nakano Thrift Shop. The eponymous shop is staffed by an endearing set of awkward and idiosyncratic characters who become so close they’re like family to each other.

As do the characters in Michael Cunningham’s lovely, heart-wrenching Home at the End of the World in which Bobby, traumatised by the childhood death of his brother, finds a family with Jonathan and Clare.

Cunningham is better known for his novel The Hours (although I prefer Home and the End of the World) which was made into an award-winning film. It was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as was Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg which follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013, the day after the death of Nelson Mandela.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from 1950s Britain and the reimagining of Alan Turing’s life to a tribute to Virginia Woolf, set in Johannesburg in 2013. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Murmur by Will Eaves: An imagined life

Will Eaves’ Murmur was originally published by CB Editions, a ‘one-person-venture’ as its website describes it. A brave decision, then, to publish an experimental piece of fiction which makes considerable demands on its readers’ attention but it’s paid off handsomely. Eaves’ book was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths and James Tait Black Prizes then bagged both the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Wellcome Book Prize. In this extraordinarily ambitious novella, a man is undergoing chemical castration having been convicted of gross indecency. Although the man is given a different name, it’s clear Alan Turing’s is the experience that Eaves is imagining.

In a jubilant mood after finishing a difficult paper, mathematician Alec Pryor has picked up a young man at a fair and taken him home. Shortly after their encounter, Cyril attempts to blackmail Pryor, then Pryor’s flat is burgled. Pryor takes the matter to the police but finds himself under arrest. This is 1952: homosexuality is a criminal offence. Pryor is sentenced to chemical castration which not only changes his body but also induces vividly hallucinogenic dreams, offering glimpses into his past and an exploration of his theories about consciousness and artificial intelligence.

Murmur is impossible to encapsulate in a short review, although had I taken note of Annabel’s words and read up about Turing I might have grasped a little more of what Eaves’ cerebral book has to offer. Made baroque by the Stilboestrol injected by a kindly nurse once a week, Pryor’s dreams together with his correspondence with June, his ex-fiancée and Bletchley Park colleague, make up the bulk of the novel, sandwiched between two short journal entries. Recurrent tropes of fairgrounds, mirrors, a nocturnal swim with his beloved schoolfriend Chris and confrontations with his family run through these dreams which are beautifully described in poetic sometimes lambent prose. Eaves manages to combine a gorgeous use of language, erudition and an occasional playfulness with an aching compassion at its most poignant in his description of Pryor gazing at his changed body in the mirror:

His hands were mine, too, formerly, of that I’m sure: but I’m not him, not any more. His hands caress me and I can’t feel anything

Pryor no longer quite recognises his reflection as his body becomes other than it was. His desire has been stolen from him by the barbaric ‘treatment’ deemed necessary by the state. We know how this ended for Turing, of course. When I’m feeling particularly dismayed by the state of my nation, or even the world, I remind myself of just how much has changed for gay men. Some things do get better.

I’ve barely done the many and varied ideas explored by Eaves’ book justice, I’m afraid. If you’d like to read a more articulate review you might like to visit Annabel’s, Clare’s or Rebecca’s.

Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (transl. Antoinette Fawcett): An English eccentric

I don’t have the necessary patience for bird watching. My father spent hours observing them from the large picture windows of the house I grew up in. Perhaps that’s why I was attracted to Bird Cottage when I first saw it in the Pushkin Press catalogue. Eva Meijer’s debut novel is based on the life of Len Howard whose work Meijer first encountered when she was writing her dissertation. Aged forty, Howard threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds, determined to devote herself to researching their habits.

Born in 1894, Howard was the youngest of four children. Her parents held regular soirées to brighten the boredom of life in rural Wales, distracting themselves from their often fractious marriage. A talented violinist, Howard made her escape to London where she lived for many years before turning her back on her long affair with an artist and the gossip-ridden orchestra she’d played in, using her inheritance from her father to buy a cottage in Sussex. Here she conducted her research for forty years having long thought that observing birds in their natural habitat would yield the results that laboratory investigation could not. Quietly, patiently, she got to know the great tits who lived in her garden, opening her windows to them and welcoming them into her house, feeding them and naming them. She wrote articles for countryside magazines eventually winning a degree of celebrity as the author of several books filled with anecdotes derived from her observations. Throughout her decades in Ditchling she defended her birds against all comers. When she died in 1973 Howard left her property to the Sussex Naturalists’ Trust.

I’d not heard of Len Howard before reading Meijer’s delightful novel but as you’ll notice this is a translated work: in her time Howard’s books – Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds – were well known, themselves translated into many languages. Her research methods were often disparaged by scientists but her work clearly had popular appeal. Using simple, clean prose, Meijer lets her subject tell own story, weaving through it observations of Star, one of Howard’s favourites. It’s a striking way of illustrating the bond which forms between the two through Howard’s patience and the intelligent, trusting response it elicts. Poor Star has her ups and downs, losing several partners, fighting off territorial incursions and eventually falling foul of the neighbour’s cat. Howard was a remarkable character, a formidable defender of her beloved birds, whose writing found a hugely appreciative audience. I’m only sorry that Bird Cottage did not become the sanctuary after her death she’d hoped it would.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of June paperbacks is as jam-packed with potential goodies as the first, a few of which I’ve already sampled including Sonia Zinovieff’s Putney which explores the fallout of childhood abuse through Ralph who’s aroused by Daphne’s boyish beauty when she is nine and he is twenty-seven. Daphne is the child of bohemian parents caught up in their own affairs, looking anywhere but at what’s happening under their noses. Forty years later, Ralph is oblivious to Daphne’s chaotic, rackety life while she works on a collage commemorating her time with him in a flat a stone’s throw away from her childhood home. This subject could so easily have been mishandled but Zinovieff explores it with consummate skill in a thoroughly accomplished novel.

I reviewed Finnish writer Philip Teir’s debut, A Winter War, back in 2015 when I described it as the perfect winter read. It may seem a bit lazy but it’s hard to resist describing The Summer House as the perfect summer read. Julia, Erik, ten-year-old Anton and twelve-year-old Alice are off to Mjölkviken for the summer where Erik plans to put his work troubles behind him and Julia wants to finish her novel but finds herself pulled back into her past. Teir’s second book explores the dynamics of modern family life with the same empathy and deftness as he did in his first. Well worth packing if you’re after an intelligent holiday read.

As is Patrick deWitt’s French Exit, a pleasingly caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classesCover image which takes its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their cat. After years of jaw-dropping extravagance Frances is running out of money so why does she spend much of her time trying to divest herself of the 185,000 euros she has stashed in her handbag, and why is such an ancient cat so important to her. I’ve been a keen fan of deWitt’s fiction since reading his darkly comic ripping yarn, The Sisters Brothers and although the latter remains my favourite, French Exit is a welcome treat.

Cherise Wolas’ The Family Tabor sounds rather more conventional. 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.

Rick Gekoski’s A Long Island Story is set in the summer of 1953 when the Grossmans and their two children relocate from Washington DC to Long Island. The move unsettles the couple who Cover imagebegin to wonder if their lives might have been different, and if their marriage is worth fighting for. It’s described by the publishers as ‘a portrait of a couple in crisis, of a unique and fascinating period in US history and of a seemingly perfect family fighting their demons behind closed doors’ which sounds quite promising to me.

I’ve always been surprised at how few novels are set in offices given how many of us have worked in them and what political hothouses they can be. Halle Butler’s The New Me looks at the life of a thirty-year-old temp as she watches her permanently employed peers and wonders if she will ever join their ranks. Then a vacancy arises and Millie contemplates the possibility of a life of stability and perks. ‘Will it bring the new life Millie is envisioning – one involving a gym membership, a book club, and a lot less beer and TV – finally within reach? Or will it reveal just how hollow that vision has become?’ ask the publishers.

Colleagues of a very different sort feature in Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble. Jana, Brit. Daniel and Henry are musicians, ill-suited as friends but drawn together by their art. Their chequered careers encompass ‘devastating failure and wild success, heartbreak and marriage, triumph and loss, betrayal and enduring loyalty. They are always tied to each other – by career, by the intensity of their art, by the secrets they carry, by choosing each other over and over again’ apparently. This one could go either way but I like the idea of a disparate group of characters locked together by their work.

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I’m finishing off June’s paperbacks with J M Holmes’ How Are You Going to Save Yourself 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.

That’s it for June’s paperbacks. A click on the first three titles will take you to my review, and to a more detailed synopsis for the other five. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. New novels are here and here.

Good Day? by Vesna Main: When life mirrors fiction, or not

This is the second jacket I’ve fallen in love with this year, another which fits its book perfectly. The other was the gloriously pink cover for Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar. Always a joy when publishers use an image which is both strikingly original and appropriate. Vesna Main’s Good Day? recounts a daily conversation between a Writer and her Reader, who is also her husband, describing the progress of her novel about a couple whose marriage is strained to breaking point.

Richard, the fictional husband, has been visiting prostitutes for seven of the twenty-five years he’s been married to Anna. When she discovers what he’s been up to, Anna is furious, becoming obsessed and later taking lovers of her own. In another thread, a young prostitute is sent to prison for murdering her pimp. Tanya had become involved in the consciousness-raising group that Anna had help run when she was a post-grad student. Each day the Reader asks the Writer if she’s had a good day and she replies with how things are progressing with Richard, Anna and sometimes Tanya. Discomfited by the similarities between the fictional couple and themselves, the Reader challenges the Writer who tetchily denies that Anna is a copy of herself or that Richard is modelled on the Reader. How will all this end both for Anna and Richard, and for the Reader and the Writer?

This is such a clever piece of writing and a daring one, too. To write a novel almost entirely in dialogue and carry it off as well as Main does requires quite a degree of chutzpah. Good Day? explores themes of marriage, gender and fiction within the framework of its characters’ daily exchange with wit and aplomb. This isn’t about us is the refrain that recurs through the novel but cracks begin to show:

Do you think we have a happy marriage?

Do you?

 I asked first

The ransacking of their lives for character traits and intimate details sees the Reader becoming increasingly cagey, wary of the incidents from his day the Writer lights upon, names from his department that crop up and whole sentences which have been borrowed – sometimes with permission, sometimes without. His identification with Richard, standing up for him against Anna’s outrage, provokes the Writer to jump to her defence accusing him of a typically male reaction. As both novels near their ends, the Reader plumps for a happy one while the Writer protests that such conclusions are tedious, interestingly mirroring the attitudes in my own house. As with all the best novelists, the Writer suggests that it’s up to her readers to infer not to her to dictate. Main rounds off her smartly accomplished novel with a postscript which may or may not have you scratching your head.

A Stranger City by Linda Grant: A river runs through it

Cover imageAfter three tries by Linda Grant’s patient and determined publicist, A Stranger City finally arrived through my letter box. I’ve no idea what happened to the other two copies but I hope someone’s enjoying them somewhere and telling all their friends about it. Grant’s novel paints a picture of a post-referendum London through the stories of a set of characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body is pulled from the Thames and who remains unclaimed and unidentified for four years.

Pete Dutton is the detective in charge of the investigation into the identity of DB27, the label given to the woman who is the twenty-seventh corpse retrieved from the river that year. Intrigued by her anonymity, Pete becomes obsessed, his thoughts turned away from his wife who is recovering from cancer at home. He contacts Alan McBride, a film-maker, whose attention has already been caught by a missing person alert on Twitter for the brash young woman he saw crushed by her slick hipster companion’s comment  overheard on his way back from viewing a house with his wife Francesca. Pete wants Alan to make a film about DB27 which Alan broadens to include Chrissie, who turned up alive and well, and Marco, her flatmate who set up the alert, regretting his sharp remark. Chrissie is a nurse who quickly comes to the aid of Rob when he’s caught up in a terrorist attack, forging a friendship with him that will result in the eventual revelation of DB27’s identity. Grant’s novel explores the rich and varied lives of these characters revealing a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it.

This many-layered, vibrant portrait of London encompasses a multitude of themes – privacy and exposure, interconnectedness and isolation, gentrification and poverty – the most prominent of which is the racism and its close relative xenophobia, unleashed since the 2016 referendum.

We won’t hear that in twenty years. If they stay, their kids will speak English as their first language and no new people will be coming. It’ll be a time machine, taking us back to the past

Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry, some of it ragged and frayed, of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Dickensian London is summoned up in a dreamlike episode when Francesca, the quintessential smart West Ender, uncomfortable in her new North London home, is taken to an area known as the Island by two neighbours. Pete’s love of his hometown and the river which runs through it is neatly contrasted with the superficial gloss of Marco’s PR world. It’s a structure that could easily have become bitty and overly-fragmented in less capable hands but Grant is too deft for that. I loved it – a novel with something to say which draws you in and  keeps you rapt to its end. Well worth the wait.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2019: Part One

Cover imageThis June is bursting at the seams with tempting paperbacks – enough to fill two long posts – of which I’ve already read and reviewed several beginning with one of my books of last year, Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall. Longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Moss’ novel is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling. Together with three students and their professor, seventeen-year-old Sylvie and her parents, Bill and Alison, spend the summer living as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the summer landscape. The climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. Still mystified as to why this superb novel didn’t make it on to the Women’s Prize shortlist.

Ghost Wall was one of a succession of novellas that so impressed me in 2019 including Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers which came as no surprise given the excellence of A Meal in Winter. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Written in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion

Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows Captain John Lacroix who has been invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War, exploring themes of war and culpability in a story taut with a thread of suspense. Finding himself unable to return to war, Lacroix travels to Scotland where he is embraced by a utopian community but two men are on his tail, one with a sinister motive. I loved Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second but I’ve found some of his contemporary-set novels disappointing. Having read this new one, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction.

I reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House back in 2014, finding it a little disappointing after very much enjoying her first novel, The Borrower. That said, The Great Believers sounds very appealing. It spans thirty years, beginning in 1985 with Yale Tishman acquiring an extraordinary collection of 1920s artwork for a Chicago gallery. AIDs cuts a swathe through Yale’s life leaving just one person dear to him – his friend’s sister Fiona who, thirty years later, is searching for her estranged daughter in Paris. ‘Yale and Fiona’s stories unfold in incredibly moving and sometimes surprising ways, as both struggle to find goodness in the face of disaster’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.

I’m not so sure about Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success having begun Super Sad True Love Story with high hopes only to give it up but I do like the sound of a road trip through modern America, particularly one that sees a ‘master of the universe’ reduced to travelling on a Greyhound. Barry Cohen is on his way to Texas to meet his old college girlfriend hoping for a second chance having fallen foul of an insider investigation. According to Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go Bernadette, it’s ‘the funniest book you’ll read all year. A rollicking and zinger-filled road trip [that] sneakily deepens into a poignant tale of a man trying to outrace his problems’. We’ll see.

Humour’s also on the agenda in Good Trouble, by the sound of it, a collection of short stories by Joseph O’Neill, author of the much-lauded Neverland. Good Trouble’s characters are brought face to face with both who they are and who they will never be, apparently. ‘Packed with O’Neill’s trademark acerbic humour, Good Trouble explores the maddening and secretly political space between thoughts and deeds’ say the publishers promisingly.

A. M. Homes’ Days of Awe is another collection I’m eager to sample. 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.Cover images

I’m saving what I suspect will be the very best until last with this month’s third short story collection. William Trevor’s Last Stories comprises ten pieces described by the publishers as ‘exquisite, perceptive and profound’ and for once I won’t be arguing with their superlatives. This will undoubtedly be a treat to savour for all who treasure quietly understated, elegantly lyrical prose, and that jacket is lovely.

That’s it for the first part of June’s paperback preview; pretty tempting I hope you’ll agree. Should you want to know more, A click on the first three titles will take you to my review, and to a more detailed synopsis for the other five. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new novels they’re here and here. More paperbacks soon…