Tag Archives: A Spool of Blue Thread

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: Hope springs eternal

Cover imageYou may already know that Bill Clegg’s debut has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. It’s only the second novel from the list I’ve read – the other’s A Spool of Blue Thread. I know that many readers are in the grip of A Little Life mania but Did You Ever Have a Family is so extraordinarily good it’s going to be hard to beat. It unfolds the aftermath of a tragedy in a beautifully nuanced, multi-layered narrative, skilfully interweaving the many stories of those affected by it.

The night before her daughter’s wedding June’s house burns to the ground with her daughter and her fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend inside. In a state of shock and grief, unable to bear the endless stream of condolence, she flees the small Connecticut town where she’s been living for three years in the holiday home she once rarely visited. She leaves behind a fifteen-year-old-boy who can’t escape the events of that night, her boyfriend’s mother and a morass of gossip and speculation. Black and twenty years June’s junior, Luke had a jail sentence for drug trafficking behind him. His mother married into a well-respected family, only to find herself mistreated then thrown out when she gave birth to Luke. A string of bad choices culminated in the man who framed her son, triggering an estrangement recently repaired with the help of June whose own fractured relationship with her daughter has only just begun to heal. After the funerals, June heads west across the country, holing up in Room 6 of the Moonstone motel for months until a rapprochement is made and some sort of peace found. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s carefully assembled novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.

Clegg is well-known in the States as a literary agent. As I read this elegantly crafted novel I wondered if those skills had honed his work in the way that William Maxwell’s – much-lauded for his editorial light touch and the author of some of the finest novels I’ve read – did for his writing. Narrated from many different perspectives, each chapter unfolds another aspect of what has happened, subtlety shading in the back stories of the character in question and their view of this small disaster – from the unpaid caterer who cannot bring himself to pursue his fee, to Luke’s mother, the butt of gossip since she was a schoolgirl now so desperately lonely she tells her story to a telephone scammer knowing full well what he’s up to. Characters are expertly drawn, pernicious smalltown gossip quietly conveyed, the line between weekender and local beautifully delineated: ‘We live in a pricey museum, one that’s only open on weekends, and we are its janitors’ says Edith, the florist, neatly encapsulating the weekenders’ expectations and their well-meaning but somewhat patronising attitudes to the locals. It’s not simply a gorgeously told story: it has something to say to us all about the inter-connectedness of humanity, its terrifying fragility and above all, about hope. As Cissy says ‘All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company’. I’ve read many fine novels this year but this is one of the finest. I do hope there’s a second one in the works.

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.

My 2015 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logo 2015Just before last year’s Man Booker prize winner announcement I wrote a rather disenchanted post about it so you might think that I’ve cast off my world weariness, given the title above. Not entirely, I’m afraid, but I did have to think about it when the lovely people over at Shiny New Books asked if I’d like to contribute a few punts for this year’s longlist. They only wanted two or three, but it got me thinking about other titles that I’d like to see longlisted. I’ve restricted myself to books that I’ve read and like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Theirs will be revealed on Wednesday 29th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

Academy Street Cover imageCover image

       Academy Street                            Weathering                      A Spool of Blue Thread

Cover imageOur Souls at NightTender

   The Mountain Can Wait              Our Souls at Night                           Tender

Cover imageThe Lives of Women1004

        A God in Ruins                           The Lives of Women                          10:04

Cover imageCover imageCover image

         Some Luck                            The Lightning Tree               Signs for Lost Children

 

I’ve been pipped to the post on this by Jackie over at Farm Lane Books whose format I’ve stolen, not for the first time. Interestingly we only overlap on two although if I’d read Anne Enright’s The Green Road I’m pretty sure it would have appeared here. And if you’d like to see which of the above I came up with for the Shinies plus other contributors’ hopes here they are. Let me know which titles you fancy for this year.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

It’s that time of year again. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges are putting the finishing touches to their longlist, due to be announced shortly. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2014 and March 31st 2015 qualify for the award. It’s the one prize I pay 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. A few of the titles are a bit out of the way but I’d like to think a sprinkling of them will appear. I’ve followed the same format as last year with thanks to Jackie at Farm Lane Books for coming up with such a simple but striking presentation. I’ve restricted myself to novels that I’ve read and there’s a link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2015 Baileys Prize:

Ridely Road                                       The Miniaturist                     Academy Street

Cover imageCover imageAcademy Street

Mr Mac and Me                         Our Endless  Numbered Days               Friendship

Cover imageCover image      Friendship

Upstairs at the Party                      Black Lake                                 The Lost Child

Cover imageCover imageThe Lost Child

Bodies of Light                          When the Night Comes In  After Me Comes the Flood

Bodies of LightWhen the Night ComesCover image

A God in Every Stone                         Some Luck                     A Spool of Blue Thread

A God in Every StoneCover imageCover image

Weathering                                  The Lightning Tree                 The Heroes’ Welcome

Cover imageCover imageThe Heroes' Welcome

I’m sure there will be omissions and inclusions that some of you feel passionately about. I’ve heard good things about Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, for instance, which is working its way up to the top of my pile. Do let me know what you think.

A Spool of Blue Thread: Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel, and counting…

Cover imageWhen I think of Baltimore two things come to mind: Anne Tyler and The Wire, polar opposites in terms of subject matter but both supreme exemplars of their particular form of entertainment. The Wire tackles the gritty problems dogging Baltimore city – drugs, racial inequality, corruption – while Tyler specialises in nuanced portraits of family life on the other side of the tracks. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that. She’s won a Pulitzer and been lauded to the skies by the likes of Sebastian Faulks, Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle. I’ve chosen an all-male list deliberately after being told by H that he’s never read a Tyler mainly because he didn’t feel he was her audience. We’ll soon put that right.

A Spool of Blue Thread is 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? Three of their children live close by while Denny, the black sheep, lives who knows where. Stem and his wife decide to move in; then Denny turns up determined to play his part, resentful of Stem as ever. Amanda and Jeannie look on, dropping in now and again, discussing their parents over the phone and learning bits and pieces about the family they thought they knew inside out. Abby and Red, deluged with more help than they need, try their best to accommodate their children and adjust to their new status, not quite ready to hand on the baton.

This post could so easily degenerate into a paean of praise or even a gush but it’s hard to fault Tyler’s wonderfully perceptive dissection of family life with its exploration of that difficult and unsettling role reversal which takes place when parents are no longer in the driving seat. As ever she’s a master of ‘show not tell’, slipping in details of the Whitshank history, quietly fleshing out her characters, recounting affectionate stories as if she’s having a conversation with you about a family dear to her – then dropping the occasional bombshell so that all the cards are thrown up into the air. It’s familiar territory for fans like me but none the less satisfying for that. Her writing reminds me of a particular sort of English cottage garden, awash with summer colour: it all looks thrown together with the greatest of ease yet you know it’s an effect only achieved with supreme skill and attention to detail. Her canvas isn’t broad but her incisive intelligence, her sharp observation and her gentle yet sometimes barbed humour ensures that her fiction remains entertaining, vibrant and relevant. This is her twentieth novel and I hope it will be far from her last.

Books to Look Out For in February 2015

A Spool of Blue ThreadFebruary is my least favourite month: dank, drizzly weather here in the UK; little or no colour in the garden; countryside bedraggled and grubby looking – ugh, I hate it. It’s not always a sparkling month in the publishing schedules, either, although given all the above there’s plenty of encouragement to stay indoors reading. This year, however, there’s a huge treat in store: Anne Tyler’s new novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth. Abby and Red Whitshank live in the house Red’s father built in the 1930s. It’s where they brought up their four children, all of whom have assembled to help decide what Abby and Red  will do in old age, and what will happen to their beloved family home. Secrets, rivalries and tensions – all the bagage of family life – come into play as Tyler unfolds their story. If previous Tylers are anything to go by this will be a beautifully nuanced, acutely observed piece of fiction. And what a brilliant jacket.

Nicci Cloke’s Lay Me Down is about a very different stage of life. Eight months after their first kiss Jack and Elsa have moved to San Francisco from London after Jack secures his dream job working on the Golden Gate Bridge but he finds himself obsessed with thoughts of the Jumpers, suicides who make their leap from the bridge. Cloke’s narrative explores both Jack and Elsa’s past before they met – their failed relationships and mistakes – asking the question is their relationship strong enough to withstand their regrets. Handled well, this could be an absorbing read, and it’s a paperback original – always a plus.

Richard Bausch’s Before, During and After is also set in relationship territory, this time against the backdrop of 9/11. Michael and Natasha are apart when the Towers come down – Natasha in Jamaica where she suffers her own trauma and Michael in New York. Bausch explores the effect of both events on their love affair and whether it can survive. The tragedy that struck New York in 2001 seems an irresistible theme for a multitude of novelists and I might well have dismissed this one as just another 9/11 novel but I enjoyed Bausch’s Peace so much that I’m prepared to give it a go. For my money, the best novel written about 9/11 is Amy Waldman’s The Submission in which a woman, widowed in the attack, fiercely defends the architect picked to design its memorial when his Muslim identity is revealed. Let’s see if Bausch can better that.

Several years on from 2001, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations sees Anne, once a documentary photographer, meet 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.

Last year I read John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which explored the human need to make sense of coincidence through a sweet love story. There were a few ‘here’s the science’ moments but I enjoyed it enough to try Not Forgetting the Whale in which a young man is washed up at St Piran in Cornwall, stark naked and convinced that his computer program, which is predicting an oil crisis, a virulent disease and a Middle East conflict, is about to plunge the world into a banking collapse – some of which sounds horribly familiar. Not entirely convinced but we’ll see.

I’m also a little unsure about Laird Hunt’s Neverhome but apparently Paul Auster’s a big fan so who am I to be sceptical. It follows the fortunes of Gallant Ash, American Civil War soldier, leader of men, legendary figure – and a woman, secretly, of course. Sounds intriguing.Our Endless Numbered Days

One of my weekly treats is Claire Fuller’s post at her flash fiction site where she uses a photograph as a starting point for the shortest of short stories. They’re often thought-provoking, occasionally funny and have sometimes fed into her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, apparently. It’s set in 1976 when Peggy Hillcoat is eight and happy. Her survivalist father takes her from London to a remote cabin in a wood somewhere in Europe and tells her the world has disappeared. I have great hopes for this one.

That’s it for February which I hope will be brighter than my doomy expectations. If you want a fuller synopsis of any of these titles a click will take you to Waterstones website.