Tag Archives: A Place Called Winter

Paperbacks to Look Out For in September 2015

Cover imageThere are some particularly tasty paperback treats to look forward to this September. I’ll start with the ones I’ve reviewed, my favourite of which is Helen Oyeyemi’s fabulous tale of race and identity Boy, Snow, Bird. Where to start with this complex, dazzling book? There are elements of fairy tale – a wicked stepmother, a Prince Charming or two, a girl called Snow – although no apples as I recall, and it’s stuffed with stories. From its very beginning, a richly symbolic mirror motif runs through the novel reflecting, or not reflecting, different images the characters have of themselves. It’s brilliant, and I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it.

Anne Tyler’s Baileys shortlisted, now Man Booker longlisted, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a another favourite. It’s the story of the Whitshanks told through the history of their house lovingly built back in the 1930s by Red’s father for whom it was the epitome of perfection. Now in their seventies, both Red and Abby are showing signs of ageing and Abby’s ‘absences’ – short periods when her ‘brain jumps the track’ – have become a concern. What to do? I’ve heard that this may be Anne Tyler’s last novel and it wouldn’t be a bad one to go out on but I can’t help hoping for more.

Jo Bloom is at the other end of the novelist career spectrum with her first novel Ridley Road. Carnaby Street, mini-skirts, coffee bars and rock n’ roll: these are some of the things that make up the glossy vibrant Swinging Sixties we see portrayed on our TV screens in nostalgic documentaries. Flip that coin over and you’ll find something nasty – racism and fascism alive and kicking almost twenty years after the Second World War. Bloom explores a fascinating slice of British history when a group of Jewish East Enders decided enough was enough, all wrapped up in a thriller and a love story.Cover image

Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter carries on the historical theme but in an intensely personal way: it’s based upon family stories of Gale’s ancestor Harry who fled looming disgrace in England to farm a few bleak acres in Canada, knowledge that makes the novel all the more compelling. It’s a glorious piece of storytelling replete with detail anchoring it in time and place as Harry, brought up to be a gentleman rather than a farmer, struggles to establish a smallholding in the frigid Canadian landscape.

Entirely different but also bound up with history, Early Warning is the second instalment of Jane Smiley’s The Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. I read the immensely enjoyable Some Luck last year and had been looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. Early Warning opens with a funeral in 1953 and takes the family through the Cold Wars Years to 1986, ending with a revelation which adds another pleasing turn in their story. Now, of course, I’m impatient for the final instalment, although, like all absorbing reads where you feel on intimate terms with the characters, I suspect I won’t want to reach the end.

Cover imagePhilp Teir’s Helsinki-set debut tells the story of the Paul family over the course of just one winter rather than a century. Max and Katriina have been together for thirty years, apparently happy enough but in reality things are a little scratchy, wearing a bit thin. We know that divorce is on the horizon – Teir tells us that from the start – The Winter War is the story of how they get there, complete with strong characters and wry humour.

I haven’t yet read Amanda Coe’s Getting Colder but I enjoyed What They Do in the Dark very much. It’s one of those taut, domestic thrillers – very dark indeed, and she certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension. In Getting Colder Sara, who deserted her children to be with her lover – once a much-lauded playwright now whiskey-soaked and blocked – has died. Thirty-five years after she left them, her children have sought Patrick out wanting answers. A little less sinister than What They Do in the Dark, apparently, although it sounds pretty unsettling to me.

As does Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief in which a woman writes a letter night after night to what was once her dear friend about their shared past and the betrayal that blew their friendship apart fifteen years ago. As the letter progresses its tone changes, becoming both more self-revelatory and more defensive. Harvey’s previous books The Wilderness, about a man with Alzheimer’s trying to make sense of his world (that theme again), and All is Song, a novel of brotherhood and ideas, were both intelligent and beautifully expressed so my hopes are high.Cover image

My final choice is Johanna Skibsrud’s Quartet for the End of Time, a very melancholy title for a novel which re-imagines the 1932 American First World War veterans’ march to Washington during the Great Depression to demand the wartime bonus they were promised. It’s written by a Canadian, surprisingly. Skibsrud won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2010 for The Sentimentalists about a young woman trying to understand her father through his experiences in the Vietnam War.

That’s it for September paperbacks. A rather lengthy post, I know, but not quite enough to stretch over two. A click on one of the first six titles will take you to my review, the last three will take you to Waterstones for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with my hardback selections, part one is here and part two is here.

A Place Called Winter and Happy Birthday Shiny New Books

SBN-logoIt’s time for another issue of the wonderful Shiny New Books, stuffed full of interviews, articles and reviews by some of my favourite bloggers and this ones a celebratory issue: it’s their first birthday. Such a lot of hard work, energy and talent have been poured into this project. It’s been a delight to be associated with it.

My own contribution to the fifth issue is a review of Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter, the latest novel in a long writing career made illustrious by Richard and Judy whose choice of Notes from an Exhibition for their book club thrust Gale into the spotlight in 2007. Those of us who’d been enjoying his well turned out, humane and absorbing novels for some time could only be surprised that it hadn’t happened before. This one is intensely personal: it’s based upon family stories of Gale’s ancestor Harry who fled looming disgrace in England to farm a few bleak acres in Canada. If you’d like to know more why not pop over to Shiny New books where you can read the full review and explore all manner of other delights.

Books to Look Out for In March 2015

The Faithful CoupleSuch 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 The Shorecentury 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

Cover imageI 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.