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 others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
This month we’re starting with Lucy Treolar’s Wolfe Island which I haven’t read but I gather from the blurb is about a woman whose life lived alone on the eponymous island is disrupted by the arrival of her granddaughter together with two refugees fleeing persecution.
I’m taking a phonetic leap, losing the ‘e’ and landing in Tünde Farrand’s Wolf Country, a dystopian tale set in a world in the grips of rampant consumerism. All too plausible.
Wolf Country’s jacket bears a startling resemblance to Francine Toon’s Pine, a slice of modern Scottish gothic that I’m keen to read.
Toon is an editor turned novelist as was William Maxwell, author of So Long, See You Tomorrow, one of my favourite novels, about a friendship between two boys which turns sour
Picking up the theme of male friendship, which seems much rarer that the female variety in fiction, A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple is about two men whose twenty-year friendship is overshadowed by a dubious moral act committed in college.
Staying with authors who eschew their full name in favour of initials leads me to Water Music, my favourite novel by T. C. Boyle. Based on Mungo Park’s compulsive quest to find the source of the Niger, it’s packed with extraordinary characters who never seem to have a dull moment.
On the front of its current jacket, Salman Rushdie exhorts readers of Water Music to ‘gulp it down, it beats getting drunk’ which leads me to Rushdie’s notorious The Satanic Verses, the publication of which had all sorts of repercussions that neither its author nor publisher could ever have imagined.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a woman living alone on remote island to a hugely controversial novel which led to its author living in an undisclosed location surrounded by armed guards. 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.
This second batch of February’s new titles begins with one I’m eagerly anticipating although a novel set against the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War wouldn’t usually appeal. Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll is based on the German legend of the eponymous trickster, born in an ordinary village but destined to expose the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools, apparently. ‘With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time’ say the publishers. I’m not at all sure about that but I’ve yet to read anything by Kehlmann I’ve not both enjoyed and admired.
If the historical setting of Tyll is a little outside my literary territory, thrillers are practically on a different continent but I enjoyed A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple, a favourite holiday read in Palma, a few years back. With Independence Square, Miller returns to Ukraine where his bestselling first novel, Snowdrops, was set, a country whose turbulent recent history he covered as a journalist. Once a senior diplomat in Kiev, Simon Davey spots a woman on the Tube he’s convinced is the person who unwittingly brought about his downfall and decides to follow her. ‘Independence Square is a story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. It is a story about corruption and personal and political betrayals. It is a story about where, in the twenty-first century, power really lies’ say the publishers. William Boyd is a fan, apparently.
Not entirely sure this one is up my street either but the stories that make up Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro were apparently inspired by her stint at the lovely Mr B’s Emporium here in Bath. Her pieces are speculative ranging from a musician who befriends a flock of birds to two newlyweds inhibited by a large, watchful stuffed bear in their lives. I wonder if it’s the Orvis bear which disappeared mysteriously from outside our local branch. ‘Stories that start like delicate webs and finish like unbreakable wire traps’ according to Neil Gaiman.
I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every book by Colum McCann I’ve read but I’m an admirer of his writing. His new novel, Apeirogon, sounds extremely ambitious. It follows the friendship of two men – one an Israeli, the other a Palestinian – both of whom have lost their daughters – one killed in a suicide bomb attack, the other shot by a border guard. ‘Colum McCann crosses centuries and continents, stitching time, art, history, nature and politics into a tapestry of friendship, love, loss and belonging. Musical, muscular, delicate and soaring, it is a book for our times from a writer at the height of his powers’ promise the publishers. Finger crossed for this one.
Petina Gappah’s Out of the Darkness, Shining Lightsounds just as ambitious as Apeirogon, following a procession of sixty-nine Africans carrying the remains of a white man 1,500 miles to the sea so that he can be buried in his own country. The body is David Livingstone’s but Gappah concentrates on the funeral procession, apparently, giving voice to his cook and three of his most devoted servants. ‘Their tale of how his corpse was borne out of nineteenth-century Africa – carrying the maps that sowed the seeds of the continent’s brutal colonisation – has the power of myth’ say the publishers of what sounds like a novel that deserves the rather over-used description ‘epic’. I still haven’t got around to Gappah’s short stories despite being so impressed by TheBook of Memory back in 2015.
Painted on a much smaller, twentieth-first century canvas, Luke Brown’s Theft sees a journalist granted an interview with a cult author who welcomes him into her London home. There he meets Sophie, celebrated for her controversial political views. Meanwhile, his sister has disappeared after their falling out over their dead mother’s house. Paul‘s life becomes increasingly fraught as he travels back and forth between his rundown northern home town and the Nardinis’ rather grand London house in what the publishers are describing as ‘an exhilarating howl of a novel’. Couldn’t resist that line.
My final choice is Ben Halls’ The Quarry which offers a small twist on state-of-the-nation fiction in the form of a collection of interlinked short stories rather than a straightforward novel. Set on the eponymous West London estate, Halls’ stories explore contemporary masculinity and changing gender roles through a diverse set of working-class men, apparently. That state-of-the-nation theme is catnip for me and this take on it sounds intriguing.
That’s it for February’s new fiction. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attention, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…
Back to Moscow came all wrapped up in orange ribbon along with a couple of other titles, one of which I had my eye on already thanks to Twitter. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s set in Moscow, back at the beginning of the century when the city was stuffed full of expats with their eye on the main chance. Inevitably there’s a mention of A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops in the press release but this isn’t a thriller – it’s the story of a young man, studying for a PhD in Russian literature more because of happenstance than any burning desire, and the things he gets up to. A kind of Rake’s Progress, if you like. It’s also an atmospheric portrait of a city in the midst of transforming itself.
The novel opens in 1999. Martin has left Amsterdam, thrown out by his Russian girlfriend, and has found himself a scholarship to fund his doctorate on Chekov. He’s a little disconsolate. It’s been a lonely two weeks at the beginning of term but when he meets Colin and Diego in the student canteen the party begins. There’s always a party in Moscow if you’re an expat, so it seems, always a beautiful woman to take home for the night looking for opportunities. Martin and his ‘brothers’ are having the time of their lives, constantly on the razzle. Very little in the way of studying gets done, particularly when Martin picks up a lucrative part-time job with a Russian friend, posing as a Western businessman at his friend’s many meetings striking deals for this and that. Martin entertains an endless stream of ‘dyevs’ each one more gorgeous than the last, finding a way of working them into his ‘research’ and dallying with the idea of love with Lena but when he meets Tatyana it seems it may be time for him to grow up.
Martin is looking back on his time in Moscow and we know from the start that things won’t end well; hardly surprising for a novel steeped in Russian literature where happy endings are at a premium. Each section of the book begins with a short, snappy exposition of a book from the canon illustrating the national temperament – the ‘Mysterious Russian Soul’ as so many Russians Martin meets call it. Time and time again he’s told that life’s not all about the pursuit of happiness which he and his friends have immersed themselves in. Erades vividly evokes a city awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. This is not a city for independent women – the ‘dyevs’ are often treated with contempt, interchangeable beauties simply there for sex and decoration while the only woman who is prepared to face Martin with the unvarnished truth is dumpy and a little plain. Martin mentions his plans to write a fictionalised story of his time in Moscow several times and I couldn’t help but notice that the well-travelled Erades spent some time in Russia. Not sure what I think about that but I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.
Spoilt for choice this month: two posts for new titles, and now two for paperbacks. I’ll start the first selection with one of my books of 2015. I have to confess that I didn’t get on with Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty. It was lauded to the skies by all and sundry but I gave it up. The premise of The Lightning Tree was so appealing, though, that I decided to give her a second try and I’m very glad I did. The bare bones are this: girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, lefty activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. I find this structure a particularly attractive one: lots of lovely space for character development.
A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couplealso follows a relationship over many years. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s, published back in 2010. His new novel begins in 1993 with two young British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California. They instantly click then both become involved in a dubious moral act which dogs Adam, in particular. The book charts their friendship over nearly twenty years, picking out the tensions between them – Neil’s resentment of Adam’s casual privilege, career ups and downs, marriage and children with their attendant worries. Miller’s novel was an enjoyable piece of holiday reading for me last year which may explain why I remember it so well.
I think Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie would have stayed with me wherever I read it. As with Emily Woof, I wasn’t particularly keen on Attenberg’s much praised The Middlesteinsbut the background to her new novel was so intriguing that it piqued my interest. The eponymous Mazie was the subject of a short essay by Joseph Mitchell first published in The New Yorker and included in his excellent collection Up in the Old Hotel. Like many of Mitchell’s subjects Mazie’s story is a fascinating one – an ordinary working-class New York woman who did something extraordinary. Attenberg has taken Mitchell’s essay and re-imagined Mazie’s life using fictionalised interviews and autobiography extracts with her diary as the novel’s backbone. Mazie is an unforgettable character, and Joseph Mitchell’s story is almost as interesting as hers.
Still in New York but fast forwarding several decades, Richard Bausch’s Before, During, After is an unusual take on the events of September 11th, 2001. As its title suggests, Bausch’s novel is set in the months before, during and after the terrorist attacks, exploring what happened very effectively by drawing parallels between the personal and the political. Michael and Natasha are newly in love, soon to be married. On the day of the attacks she’s in Jamaica with a friend, he’s in New York for a wedding. What follows is devastating for them both. It’s a profoundly involving novel – quite cerebral at times, but also emotionally engaging
Now to one I haven’t read but am very much looking forward to: Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono. On the same day a retired Parisian police inspector receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter, he finds a stranger waiting for him at his apartment. Professor Tadashi Omura tells Inspector Jovert his extraordinary life story which has surprising parallels with Jovert’s own. It sounds intriguing and comes from Tinder Press who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.
That’s it for the first batch of February paperbacks. A click on the title will take you to my review for the first four while The Snow Kimono will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels they’re here and here.
You know how it is when you come back from holiday: those old routines kick in and the lovely little interlude of rest, relaxation and novelty that seemed so vivid begins to feel like a distant memory. Writing a post has become a way of nailing some of those memories before they fade away so bear with me on this one. Quite a few reading disappointments but so lovely was Palma that it didn’t seem to matter
We last visited Majorca back in the ‘90s, staying in a small village inland. This time we based ourselves in the capital’s old town. It’s a beautiful place – quite small, although the maze of narrow streets lined with buildings built tall to keep out the blistering summer sun means that you can walk for ages without treading the same path twice. Despite Spain’s economic difficulties there’s a good deal of money in evidence – elegant tree-lined boulevards replete with expensive shops, lots of swanky hotels and restaurants, and some very smart people to match. Incomers, most probably – the store directory at both branches of Spain’s smart department store chain, El Corte Ingles, include Russian amongst its languages. I hope some of that money finds its way into the locals’ pockets.
As for what we got up to – lots of loafing, ambling and a nice dash of culture. Palma’s cathedral had to be visited for the Gaudi restorations alone: strikingly original, and controversial at the time – unsurprisingly – although not nearly so odd as Miquel Barceló’s sculpture whose strangeness defies description. Other than that we visited the Fundació Pilar I Joan Miró A Mallorca, getting sweatily lost on the way but just about managing to keep our tempers. In the early ‘40s Miró escaped the Nazi invasion of France, fleeing to Majorca and settling there permanently in 1956. He already had strong connections with the island – his mother was Majorcan and he’d married a Majorcan woman in 1929. Both he and his wife, Pilar, wanted to leave his remarkable studio to the city of Palma and after his death Pilar was instrumental in setting up the Fundació. Set in beautiful grounds, the striking buildings alone are well worth a visit and there’s a changing exhibition of the work Miró bequeathed to his adopted city. Very enjoyable, but our favourite day was a trip on the rackety tourist train inland to Soller followed by lunch in a quiet courtyard tucked away from the crowded square which we’d both been fondly remembering as a sleepy backwater, then an hour or so wandering around the gorgeous Jardí Botànic and a bus trip home via the village of Deià, made famous by Robert Graves. One more dash of culture: a visit to Genesis, Sebastião Salgado’s stupendous collection of photographs exhibited at the La Caixa Foundation, run by Spain’s eponymous non-profit savings bank which turns out to have an admirable stance on corporate responsibility. How refreshing!
As for books – several disappointments, including Apple Tree Yard, I’m afraid. I know there’s a lot of love out there for it but it seemed far too drawn out for me. My best read of the week was A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple which begins in 1993 with two young British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California. They instantly click then both become involved in a dubious moral act which dogs Adam, in particular. The book follows their friendship over nearly twenty years, picking out the tensions between them – Neil’s resentment of Adam’s casual privilege, career ups and downs, marriage and children with their attendant worries – until 2011. It’s the kind of structure I find immensely appealing – lots of space for character development. The women characters, however, were a little two-dimensional and I wasn’t entirely convinced that Adam would find himself thinking of what happened in California every single day but on the whole it worked well. If you’d like to read a more considered review, nip over to Tales from the Reading Room.
That’s it for my holiday. I hope you have one of your own planned soon. Back to books on Friday.
Such are the many temptations in March’s publishing schedules that this is going to be a long post, I’m afraid. I’ll begin with A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple as it’s the one I’m looking forward to most. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s published back in 2010. This one sounds entirely different. It begins in 1993 with two British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California and go on a camping trip together which will throw a shadow over both of them. The novel follows them over the next two decades reflecting and refracting London through their lives and friendship until the truth of that trip emerges. I always find this kind of structure particularly attractive and I enjoyed Snowdrops very much.
Patrick Gale needs no introduction after the rip-roaring success of the Richard and Judy (remember all that?) bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. A Place Called Winter is based on his own family history, telling the story of Henry Cane, forced by scandal to emigrate to the Canadian prairies where he sets up as a farmer in the eponymous settlement. According to the publisher it’s ‘an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love’. A grand claim but I’ve yet to read a Gale that I didn’t enjoy.
I have to say that the publisher’s blurb for Polly Samson’s The Kindness is a tad overblown but it boils down to this – Julian falls passionately in love with Julia, married and eight years his senior. Against all advice they throw up everything to be together enjoying their happiness until their daughter Mira becomes seriously ill forcing Julia to reveal a terrible secret. This may not sound too inspiring but the prose is ‘lyrical’, apparently, and the plotting ‘masterful – I enjoyed her previous books, Out of the Picture and Perfect Lives, very much
Sara Taylor’s debut The Shore is more a set of interconnecting stories than a novel. It spans a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of a group of small islands off the coast of Virginia. I’m not a short story fan, I’m afraid – I prefer something to get my teeth into – but when they’re linked in this way they can work extraordinarily well, as the aforementioned Perfect Lives did for me, and I like the sound of the setting very much. Lots of comparisons in the blurb, including one to Cloud Atlas, but I’m not letting that put me off.
I have to confess I don’t remember Judith Claire Mitchell’s The Last Days of Winter which was published ten years ago but A Reunion of Ghosts sounds right up my street. Three sisters living together in a New York apartment at the end of the last century have decided to kill themselves. It’s something of a family tradition, so it seems, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the poison gas used in both world wars. A little on the dark side, admittedly, but it sounds fascinating.
Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut Hausfrau takes us to a wealthy Zurich suburb where American ex-pat Anna Benz lives with her husband and three young children. Disconnected and isolated, Anna plunges into a series of passionate affairs which will eventually end in tragedy as her life unravels. Billed as a ‘literary page-turner’ it sounds as if it has more than a touch of the Emma Bovarys but nevertheless has the makings of an absorbing read
I spotted the jacket of Molly McGrann’s The Ladies of the House on Twitter and couldn’t resist it. Reading the blurb it seemed even better: One hot July day three elderly people are found dead in a rundown house in Primrose Hill. Spotting the story in the paper Marie Gillies feels she is somehow to blame. McGrann’s novel pieces together what has happened, entering the secret world of the ladies of the house. It comes from the editor who brought us two of my books of 2014: The Miniaturist and Shotgun Lovesongs. Enough said, for me, anyway.
And finally, Anna Gavalda’s Billie has already been a huge seller in France. It’s the story of two unlikely friends: Franck, a bright, sensitive young boy with a bigoted father and a depressed mother, and Bille, desperate to escape her abusive family. Billie tells Franck her story when they find themselves trapped in a mountain gorge on holiday. I loved Gavalda’s Consolation and her Hunting and Gathering – she has a light touch with storytelling which I’m hoping to see more of in Billie.
Phew! That’s it for March, and if you’ve yet to catch up with February here are the hardbacks and here are the paperbacks.