Tag Archives: A Reunion of Ghosts

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 2

Cover imageAnother very tasty batch of paperback treats to keep  the dreary British winter at bay, kicking off with a writer who seems very underrated to me. Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Lives of Women tells the story of Elaine who has come back to Ireland where her widowed father is wheelchair-bound after surgery. She’s lived in New York since she was sixteen but this is only her second visit home. Hickey slowly unfolds the tale of what lies behind Elaine’s long absence as she looks back to the 1970s and the tragedy that overshadowed her last Irish summer. Dwyer’s writing is quite beautiful – spare yet lyrical. If you haven’t yet read anything by her I hope you’ll give this one a try.

Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days tells the story of another woman looking back to a summer in the ‘70s but is entirely different. Peggy is the daughter of a German concert pianist and an English man. Ute is about to go on tour for the first time in many years while James and his North London Retreater friends play at being survivalists. After a murderous row with one of them, James tells Peggy that they are off on holiday to ‘die Hütte’ where Ute will meet them later. After a summer of repairing the derelict hut James delivers some devastating news: the rest of the world has been destroyed. It’s a wonderfully inventive, very powerful novel. I gather that Fuller has a new one in the works, to be published late 2016/early 2017. A treat to look forward to.Cover image

Judith Claire Mitchell’s A Reunion of Ghosts is another tale of a supremely dysfunctional family written in the form of a memoir which is to be the suicide note of the remaining Alters. Lady, Vee and Delph have grown up imbued with the knowledge of the family curse. Their great-grandfather Lenz first synthesised chlorine gas, used in the First World War. Both he and his wife Iris committed suicide, as did their son Richard unable to live with the misery of guilt by association. The third generation continued the family tradition. Now it’s the turn of the fourth then something entirely unexpected happens. Not to everyone’s taste, I suspect, but I thoroughly enjoyed this funny, irreverent novel.

I’m looking forward to Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations set several years on from 2001. Anne, once a documentary photographer, meets her beloved grandson, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers and fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Both have secrets which begin to emerge, taking them on a journey back to the old Blackpool guesthouse where Anne once had a room. I haven’t read an O’Hagan for some time but this one sounds interesting.

Cover imageI’m not at all sure about this last choice: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville. The Washington Post called it ‘The most dazzling, most unsettling, most oh-my-God-listen-up novel you’ll read this year’ but it’s a book which I suspect will resonate much more with American readers than with British. When D’aron Davenport inadvertently reveals that his small Southern town plays host to a Civil War Reenactment every year, his liberal fellow students see red and descend on Braggsville to stage a dramatic protest. ‘A literary coming-of-age novel for a new generation, written with keen wit, tremendous social insight and a unique, generous heart, Welcome to Braggsville reminds us of the promise and perils of youthful exuberance, while painting an indelible portrait of contemporary America.’ say the publishers. Certainly worth investigating.

Quite an embarrassment of riches for January, in all. As ever, if you’d like more detail a click on the first three will take you to my review and to Waterstones website for the second two. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks they’re here, and  the hardbacks are here and here.

That’s it from me for a week or so. A very happy Christmas to you all. I hope it will bring you a least something that you’d like, be it a book, time with family and friends or perhaps a little to yourself.

A Reunion of Ghosts: The sins of the fathers…

Cover imageLest you should think I’ve given up my rants about book jackets – it’s quite some time since the last one – I’m going to start this post by pointing you to another review of Judith Claire Mitchell’s novel from Tanya at 52 Books or Bust illustrated with the North American cover. Pop over and have a look, then compare it with the one to the left. Enough said, at least I think so. The novel is the story of the Alter family written in the form of a memoir which is to be the suicide note of the remaining Alters: three sisters, all in their forties, all resolved to kill themselves on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

Lady, Vee and Delph have grown up imbued with the knowledge of the family curse. Their great-grandfather Lenz – friend to Einstein and philandering husband of Iris – was the chemist who first synthesised chlorine gas used to devastating effect in the First World War, then again as a constituent of Zyclon B, piped into the infamous gas chambers of the Second World War. Lenz was a fiercely patriotic German willing to convert from Judaism to Lutheranism to remain in government employ. Both he and Iris committed suicide, as did their son Richard unable to live with the misery of guilt by association. Then came the third generation: Rose, Violet and Dahlie – all of whom continued the family tradition. Now it’s the turn of the fourth, each sister convinced that the sins of their ancestor have been handed down as the Bible prophesies: Delph even has the quotation tattooed on her leg. The time seems right: Lady has tried several times before and feels ready to try again; Vee has been diagnosed with cancer for a third time; and Delph elects to join them. Then something entirely unexpected happens, throwing a different light on the Alter family history.

The sisters begin with their own stories: the constant drip, drip of the family legacy fed to them by their mother, their abandonment by their father, their unhappy adult lives – divorce for Lady, early widowhood and cancer for Vee, and thwarted love for Delph. Threaded through are the stories of the previous three generations, beginning with the sexually incontinent Lenz and Iris, frustrated scientist whose reluctant foray into marriage was supposed to deliver teamwork not housework. Feminism, anti-Semitism and science are three of the many themes running through this big, sprawling novel peopled with familiar names from history. It’s heavily laced with a dark sardonic humour: ‘In the tradition of Jews in the hour before Cossacks arrive, she spent the rest of the day cleaning her apartment and packing her things’; ‘As Bismarck passes, the crowd heaves like an unfettered bosom in a bodice ripper’; men are ‘an entire gender of dented soup cans, all damaged and marked down’, says Lady to which Delph replies ‘I’ll take the salad’ – is just a tiny smattering of the smart wit on offer here. At one point I thought Mitchell might fall for a softer landing but I’m pleased to say she didn’t. Not to everyone’s taste, then, but I thoroughly enjoyed this funny, irreverent novel and will be seeking out Mitchell’s first: The Last Day of War.

That’s it from me for a week or so. I’m off to Majorca in search of a little warm sunshine and an escape from electioneering. Happy reading!

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.