Tag Archives: A God in Ruins

Almost three days in Nice and one book

View from our windo, NiceWe’d booked our weekend in Nice long before I was felled by the flu but the timing couldn’t have been better. Four weeks after the first aches and shivers we were on the plane. It always lifts my spirits to see palm trees after a British winter and this time even more so. Nice turned out to be the perfect place for a recuperative few days: sun, an elegant esplanade to amble along – as long as you make sure to keep your back turned to Le Méridien – and lovely food.

Our apartment was in one of the old town’s winding narrow streets lined with tall buildings to keep out that forty degree summer heat which makes me quail just to think about it. Given my feeble state not much was got up to but we did visit the St Nicholas Russian Orthodox church on our first day and it’s quite fabulous. Owned by the Russian Federation, it’s in pristine condition outstripping Helsinki and Riga in its rather more restrained splendour by quite some distance. From the mid-nineteenth century Nice was firmly on the Francophile Russian nobility’s map which explains its rather surprising location. Given that the upper echelons of society spoke in French to each other, a Russian church in Provence makes perfect sense. That and the weather.St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Nice

Our only other bit of culture was a visit to the Matisse museum which charts his artistic development from the first rather gloomy still lifes to his vibrant cut-outs, although ironically many of those are currently on loan to Tate Modern for an exhibition due to open this weekend. We did see a sample of the stained glass which he designed for the windows of Chappelle du Rosaire de Vence, an ambitious project begun late in life which looks quite stunning.

Other than that we wandered around in the sun, climbed the wooded Chateau hill for lovely views of the city and its gorgeous bay (twice) and generally loafed about. Just what the doctor ordered! Many thanks to Allison Coe for her excellent blog which both whetted our appetites in the week before we took off and pointed us at La P’tite Cocotte – one of the few restaurants open on Sundays and just round the corner from us – where we had an excellent lunch before heading for the airport.  If you do find yourself in Nice, I advise you to do your damnedest to avoid using taxis – unless, of course, money’s no object.

Cover imageAnd the book? It was Attica Locke’s Baileys longlisted Pleasantville, picked because I was still feeling worn out and wanted something absorbing but not too taxing. Told from the point of view of the recently widowed Jay Porter, a black lawyer who first appeared in Locke’s Black Water Rising, the premise is a little reminiscent of The Killing with its missing girl coupled with political intrigue but the writing is far too cluttered for me: too many adjectives, too much description, too many similes. A shame, because the story itself is a gripping one. It’s published by the lovely Serpent’s Tail whose Under the Visible Life was one of my wishes for the Baileys longlist but sadly the judges disagreed with me just as they did over Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, an astonishing omission from Monday’s shortlist.

I’m typing this listening to the sound of rain hammering on the skylight. Hard not to wish I was back in sunny Provence thinking about sauntering off into town for a café crème.  Back to books in a few days when I’ll be reviewing yet another thriller, this one beautifully clipped and succinct in its writing.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016

Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already.  The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed.  What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:

A God in Ruins                                The Heart Goes Last                The Versions of Us

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Spill Simmer Falter Wither       The Other Side of the World                 Exposure

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Under the Visible Life                    The Book of Memory                    Paulina & Fran

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His Whole Life                                 The Lives of Women                    The Ballroom

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The Long Room                           The Mountain Can Wait                            Tender

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Early Warning                               My Name is Lucy Barton                Love Me Back

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I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 1

Cover imageJanuary gets off to a stonking start with enough paperbacks to keep you oblivious to the dismal British winter. Pride of place has to go to Kate Atkinson’s fabulous A God in Ruins. By now, anyone who’s interested knows that this is the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. I can’t speak highly enough of this novel. Just as with Life after Life, it’s an absolute mystery to me as to why Atkinson hasn’t swept the literary prize board with these two strikingly original books.

Another novel I would have liked to see at least longlisted for the Baileys, if nothing else, is Lucy Wood’s debut, Weathering. Ada and six-year-old Pepper are renovating her estranged mother’s cottage after she drowned. As Ada sets about putting distance between herself and the rest of the village Pepper becomes fascinated by her grandmother and her new surroundings. Put like that, Weathering sounds like a fairly prosaic tale but what singles it out is the vivid word pictures Wood sketches, often poetic but sometimes pithy and very funny. One of my favourite books of 2015.

One book that did make it on to a shortlist is Sean Michael’s Us Conductors which was already up for the Giller Prize when it was published here in the UK. It’s about, Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor born in 1896, and if that name seems familiar you may have come across the musical instrument he devised. Once heard its strange haunting sound is hard to forget. The bare bones of the novel are based on Theremin’s life but as Michaels is careful to point out at the very beginning ‘This book is mostly inventions’, a nice little pun on Leon’s activities which gives you a flavour of Michaels’ writing. Those inventions are spun out into an absorbing story, beautifully told.Cover image

I’m particularly eager to read the first of the three novels I haven’t reviewed: Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. It’s about a coup de foudre that strikes Ester Nilsson when she meets artist Hugo Rask. She turns her back on her settled life, heedless of what anyone else says or thinks about her uncharacteristic behaviour. ‘A story of the heart written with bracing intellectual vigour’ says Alice Sebold. That title sounds particularly promising, I think.

Elyria in Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing seems to show a similar disregard when she abruptly leaves Manhattan on a one-way flight to New Zealand abandoning her career and loving husband. Elyria hitchhikes her way around the country, regardless of the risk.  ‘Full of mordant humour and uncanny insights, Nobody Is Ever Missing is a startling tale of love, loss, and the dangers encountered in the search for self-knowledge’ say the publishers. Sounds well worth investigating.

Cover imageThis first selection ends with Noah Hawley’s The Punch. Scott spends his time in seedy San Francisco joints when not at his dull job while David is a successful salesman with two families, one on each coast. These two are brought together when their father dies and their mother lets out a long-held secret as they travel across the country to New York. I like the idea of an American road trip and deep dark secrets are always a winner if well-handled. We’ll see.

That’s it for the first batch. If you’d like a fuller synopsis a click on a link will take you to my reviews for the first three titles and to Waterstones website for the others. And if you’d like to catch up with January hardbacks, they’re here and here. More shortly.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 2

Cover imageThis second batch of 2015 goodies covers April and May, and is made up entirely of women writers. No plan there – just the way this particular cookie crumbled. I’ll begin with The Shore, Sara Taylor’s beautifully packaged debut which appeared on both the Baileys longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/ Peters Fraser Dunlop award shortlist. Taylor’s novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and the novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. Taylor’s writing is striking, her characters believable and her storytelling entrancing. Can’t say better than that.

My second April book is Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.

Christine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure she has the readership she deserves. Written in precise, quiet and unshowy prose The Lives of Women, follows Elaine, back from the States on her first visit home in many years, as she remembers the summer back in the ‘70s which has shaped her adult life. The story’s an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’veCover image not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. I rate her enough to have included her on my Man Booker wish list but, as with the Baileys, the judges failed to agree with me.

A God in Ruins has recently made its way on to the Costa shortlist, although for the life of me I fail to understand why it wasn’t on the Man Booker longlist at the very least. It was the one title I’d have bet my shirt on. Beginning in 1925, it’s the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative and stitching it all together beautifully. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here – or perhaps proving my incompetence as a literary prize judge, not that I’m likely to become one – but here’s yet another novel that appeared on my Man Booker wish list but not on theirs. The Mountain Can Wait is sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Sarah Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I’ve read this year.

Cover imageRounding off this second selection is Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, the second instalment of her The Last Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. The first part, Some Luck, made it on to last year’s books of the year posts for me – and many others – so I was looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. It opens in 1953 with a funeral neatly passing the baton on to the next generation and finishes in 1986 with a revelation which offers another pleasing twist in the lives of the family. Published here in the UK in October, Golden Age completed the trilogy, and suffice to say it’s the equal of the other two.

That’s it for the second selection. A click on a title will take you to my review and if you’d like to catch up with the first post, it’s here. More to follow shortly when yet another Man Booker unfulfilled wish will be aired.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: What Teddy did

Cover imageYou could be forgiven for feeling that you’ve read enough about Kate Atkinson’s new novel – it is, after all, everywhere you look in the reviews pages – so do feel free to skip this. I’ve been looking forward to reading A God in Ruins since I first heard about it: for me, it’s one of the publishing events of the year, as I’m sure it is for many others, and can’t be ignored. By now, anyone who’s interested knows that this new novel is the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads.

We first meet Teddy in 1925 when he’s eleven years old, gently quizzed by his Aunt Izzie about what he gets up to and what he enjoys. She’s the author of the Adventures of Augustus series, and Teddy is her Augustus. From there Atkinson jumps to 1980 and commune-dwelling Viola, Teddy’s daughter, a hippie after her time who tetchily scolds her two children, Sun and Bertie, while their father swims out to sea, leaving her to it. Atkinson’s narrative crisscrosses the twentieth century telling Teddy and his family’s story: his years as a Second Word War bomber pilot; his life with his beloved wife Nancy in Yorkshire – she a teacher, he writing nature notes for a local journal; Viola’s misadventures and her career as a successful novelist; Sun and Bertie’s ragtag childhood and its consequences. The novel takes us to 2012, the year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the end of Teddy’s story.

Hard not to gush about this extraordinary novel. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative: it’s all beautifully stitched together. I began noting down particularly choice quotes for this review but had to give up, there were so many. Here are just a few: gazing at a photograph of her son ‘Sylvie ran her finger over the silver frame, intending fondness but finding dust’; ‘A tempest brewed in his squally heart. He might explode. That would serve his mother right’ (what child hasn’t thought that?); ‘”Almost as good as Jodi Picoult”, Mumsnet.’ was my favourite of the many barbed little quotes about Viola’s novels. It’s peppered with bracketed laconic asides – ‘”I heard they take drugs and dance naked in the moonlight,”, the farmer said. (True, although it wasn’t as interesting as it sounded.)’ – and is often very funny but its central subject is a deadly serious one. The passages devoted to Teddy’s bombing raids are played straight – graphic, gripping and extraordinarily believable, they’re based on Atkinson’s readings of many first-hand accounts and they are the guts of the book. It’s something that Teddy never talks about, just as Nancy never talks about her Bletchley days, but they have made him the man he becomes: gentle, reverential of nature, a loving grandfather, a man who wants nothing more than to sit quietly on the sidelines of a life which sometimes puzzles and perplexes him. Ursula is there, of course, with just one life: ‘a single professional woman in post-war London’. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end and must surely be awarded a multitude of prizes.

Books to Look Out For in May 2015

Cover imageBack from sunny Spain on Saturday to a UK where spring has most definitely sprung. More of that later in the week but here’s a taster of things to come next month to be going on with and there are three absolute corkers to look forward to in May’s list. Let’s start with the jewel in the crown which you may well know about already given how much pre-publicity there’s been for it: Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a companion volume to the wonderful Life After Life. I’m still mystified as to why that hasn’t been garlanded with prizes, but then, what do I know. A God in Ruins, interweaves Ursula Todd’s younger brother Teddy’s experiences as a bomber pilot with his life lived into the twenty-first century. To an extent it sounds a little like a state of the nation novel but don’t expect a straightforward linear narrative.

An exponent of that elegant, pared-back writing that the Irish seem to excel at, Anne Enright has a new novel out in May. The Green Road is about the Madigan family of County Clare. When their mother decides it’s time to sell the family home and divvy up the proceeds between her four children they return from all over the world to spend one last Christmas in the house they grew up in.

Jane Smiley’s Early Warning is set in similar territory, picking up the story of the Langdons Cover image in the second in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. It opens in 1953 at a funeral attended by Rosanna and Walter’s sons and daughters, all grown up with children of their own. Some Luck was among the best books I read last year so I’m looking forward to this middle volume which takes the family into the 1980s. I gather that the third will be appearing not long after this one.

Still in North America but moving on to Canada, Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait has been compared to Margaret Atwood by no less than Nickolas Butler, author of the sublime Shotgun Lovesongs. I imagine that’s a mixed blessing when you’ve only just published your first novel. It’s about a father trying to track down his son in the Canadian Wilderness after a terrible accident, and so enamoured am I with Mr Butler’s writing that a claim extravagant enough to bring out the old cynic in me has still made me want to read it.

The GracekeepersAnd finally, my last choice for May is actually an April title: Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers which was brought forward a little in the publishing schedules. Her short stories are so highly rated by several people whose opinions I trust that I didn’t want to miss it out. It’s set in a flooded world in which sails a circus boat, home to North who dances with her bear in return for food. Callanish is a gracekeeper, tending the graves on an island in the middle of the sea. When these two are thrown together by a storm they are irresistibly drawn to each other but find may obstacles in their way. Perhaps a little fantastical for my usual taste but I’ve been promised some very fine writing and what a wonderfully eye-catching jacket.

That’s it for May. As ever, a click will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. Here are my April hardback choices if you’d like to catch up with those. Such were the splendours of April paperback offerings that I’ve posted on them twice – here and here.