Tag Archives: Alice McDermott

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2018

Cover imageI’ve read all but one of August’s paperbacks, or at least the ones that have caught my eye, which means a nice cheap month for me. I’ll begin with Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come which explores modern Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one rather infuriating woman. Hard to encapsulate this episodic novel in a neat synopsis but de Kretser executes it with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour underpinned with compassion.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is also notable for its compassion, examining the plight of refugees through the lens of a recently retired, widowed academic. Richard finds himself faced with a blank future until his interest is piqued by a hunger strike staged by a group of African refugees which leads to his involvement with the occupation of Oranienplatz. Erpenbeck humanises the occupiers through their stories of the often calamitous events that made them leave their homes and the appalling difficulties of their journeys. It’s a much more conventional narrative than either The End of Days or Visitation, the other novels I’ve read by Erpenbeck, but there’s the same consciousness of Germany’s own fractured past running through it.

The past is very much present in Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark in which two very different New Yorkers are drawn to Tel Aviv, briefly staying in the city’s Hilton: one a retired lawyer who has taken to giving away his valuables; the other a middle-aged novelist, stuck both in her writing and her marriage, lured by the familiar setting of childhood holidays. Krauss alternates Jules Epstein’s relatively straightforward story with Nicole’s discursive, highly literary narrative, building an expectation that they will meet at some point which – a little frustratingly – is unfulfilled. Rich in ideas and beautifully expressed, Forest Dark is far from an easy read but it’s Cover imagea rewarding one.

Studded with a multitude of literary allusions – even the cops read Modiano – C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel is about a professor at the Sorbonne who lives in a state of comfortably amicable estrangement from his wife. Max conceives an unexpected passion for a junior colleague, then a young British postgraduate appears in his study, charming him with both her flattery and eccentricity. While his wife is on holiday, a painting thought to be a Cézanne disappears from her apartment and Max finds himself in a fix. Stead’s novel manages to be both cerebral and thoroughly entertaining.

Continuing the literary allusion theme, Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg is an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a diverse set of characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Melrose shifts smoothly from one character to another offering her readers a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide leaving her pregnant and bereft. It bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, Cover imageall gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour.

My last August paperback is Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight which I’ve yet to read. Comprising ‘elegant, unsparing and intimate stories’, Sharma’s collection combines ‘the minimalism of Chekhov and Carver with a flair for dark comedy’ say the publishers setting the bar rather high although having read the Folio Prize-winning Family Life I’d say they may well be right.

If you’d like to know more, a click on any of the first six titles above will take you to a full review here or to a more detailed synopsis for A Life of Adventure and Delight, and if you’d like to catch up with August’s new books they’re here, and here.

My 2018 Man Booker Wish List

Almost time for the 2018 Man Booker judges to announce their longlist to readers, not to mention publishers, waiting with bated breath to see if their favourites are amongst the chosen few. This year’s a special one. As I’m sure you all know, It’s the prize’s fiftieth anniversary which has been celebrated with a string of events, culminating in the coronation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient as the Golden Man Booker ten days ago. There’s also been a little celebration over at Shiny New Books where contributors have been writing about their own favourites.

Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the 2018 Man Booker judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2017 and 30th September 2018 and have been written in English. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Tuesday 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.

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Sugar Money                                   The Ninth Hour                        A Long Way from Home

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The Immortalists                         From a Low and Quiet Sea             White Houses

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The Life to Come                                         Putney                              All Among the Barley

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Transcription                                     Bitter Orange                Now We Shall Be Entirely Free


It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September – I’m reasonably sure that Patrick deWitt’s French Exit would make my cut and William Boyd’s Love is Blind is due in September– but I’m sticking to novels I’ve read. And if I had to choose one? That would be Kate Atkinson’s Transcription but no doubt the judges will disagree with me on that yet again.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

My wish list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

The longlist for the only UK award that really excites me these days, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Thursday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2017 and March 31st 2018 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in my suggestions but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what the judges think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as 2017, 2016 and 2015, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

The End We Start From                   The Lie of the Land               Conversations with Friends

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Johannesburg                                        Home Fire                                   Sugar Money

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The Ninth Hour                                    The Life to Come                                 Sisters

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The Break                                                Asymmetry                  Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

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All Day at the Movies                           Before Everything

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I’ll be happy if even one of these takes the judges’ fancy. A click on a title will take you to my review should you want to know more..

How about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the longlist?

Books of the Year 2017: Part Four

Cover imageFor anyone wondering if these posts are ever going to end, we’re nearly there. Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress was the highlight of September’s reading for me. Set against the background of East End fascism in 1947, still bubbling away despite the suppression of the Blackshirts, McGrath’s novel explores the anguish of grief through Joan, widow of the late lamented Charlie Grice, star of the West End. McGrath is a master storyteller, unfolding his tale of grief and madness against the vividly evoked background of a frozen London struggling with the continuing depredations of post-war austerity.

October saw novels from two of my favourite writers, the first by Jane Harris eight years after the wonderful Gillespie and I. Based loosely on true events, Sugar Money tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique in 1765, restoring them from British to French hands. The star of the show is the novel’s twelve-year-old narrator, Lucien, a bumptious sardonic smart Alec in counterpoint to his quietly resourceful brother charged with what he knows is a foolish and dangerous task. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour couldn’t be more different. McDermott is one of those quietlyCover image brilliant authors whose work often seems underrated to me. Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, her new novel is the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide leaving her pregnant and bereft. It bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, all gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour. A treat to savour.

My third October choice is Alex Christofi’s Let Us Be True. I was a little lukewarm about this book when it arrived but it turned out to be absorbing, insightful and beautifully written. Largely set in Paris during the middle of the twentieth century, it’s the story of Ralf who becomes smitten with Elsa and remains so for decades after their brief affair ends. With a light touch, Christofi explores the way political events can shape ordinary lives through the framework of Ralf and Elsa’s relationship, a vivid backdrop to their stories told from each of their perspectives. A smart, thought-provoking novel which ends, I’m pleased to say, on a hopeful; note.

Cover imageNovember’s star was also a surprise. The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao spans twenty or so years in a Brazilian housewife’s life, beginning in the 1940s. Euridice is a clever girl who excels at everything. Her older sister Guida is the worldly one, beautiful and flirtatious. Left with parents who pin all their hopes on her when Guida disappears, Euridice marries a respectable banker who fails to understand her brilliance. One day, out of the blue, Guida knocks on Euridice’s door. Euridice’s story is expertly told, liberally laced with a smart, playful humour sharp enough to flag the serious side of this salutary tale about the dangers of becoming a good girl. An absolute treat which rounds 2017’s favourite reads off nicely.

And if I had to choose? Usually it’s a struggle but this year there’s no contest: Jon McGregor’s beautiful Reservoir 13,  a gorgeous book that will stay with me for some time.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three 2017 books of the year posts they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Time to look forward to what’s on offer in January next…

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: Praise be

Cover imageA new Alice McDermott is always a treat to be relished. She’s one of those quietly brilliant authors whose work has often seemed underrated to me, rather like Elizabeth Strout before Penguin got their hands on My Name is Lucy Barton and placed her firmly on the literary map. I did spot McDermott’s last novel, Someone, in pleasingly large paperback piles on tables close to the front of several Waterstones so perhaps she’s more appreciated than I thought. If that’s the case, The Ninth Hour should help cement that success. Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, it’s the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide, leaving her pregnant and bereft.

Sacked from his job, Jim seals the couple’s small apartment and douses the pilot light on their cooker. Passing by after a day collecting alms, Sister St Saviour catches sight of the devastation after a neighbour lit a match opening up the apartment. Shrugging off her tiredness, Sister St Saviour slips into gear, coming to the aid of the distraught Annie who is facing a bleak future, made more so by the stigma of Jim’s suicide. By the time Sally is born, Sister St Saviour has died but not before securing Annie a place in the convent’s laundry working alongside Sister Illuminata, the fount of all laundering knowledge. Over the years, Annie becomes accustomed to the nuns’ ways: Sister Lucy’s exacting standards; Sister Illuminata’s ceaseless childhood tales and Sister Jeanne’s playfulness. As Sally grows up she falls in love with the idea of becoming a nun, manufacturing the flimsiest of vocations which a railway trip to a Chicago convent sees off. She returns to find the convent’s milkman sitting at her mother’s kitchen table in an intimacy she suddenly understands. Horrified at the prospect of her mother living in mortal sin, Sally begins a negotiation with God that will lead her into a deep melancholy later in life.

The Ninth Hour bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, all gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour. McDermott frames her novel as a family history, children looking back over the stories their ageing father has told them over the years – from the  moment he saw Sally and thought ‘there’s the girl I’ll marry’ to the man his wealthy grandfather paid as a substitute to fight in the Civil War without whom he wouldn’t exist. With its dedication to Sister Mary Rose and thoughtful exploration of faith it reads like a something of a tribute to convent work, although not without criticism. The Sisters provide a safety net for Brooklyn’s Catholic poor and infirm, smoothly stepping in when sickness strikes and staying the course, some with empathetic pragmatism, others with steely organisational skills and a hefty dose of judgement. The priests, however, are a useless bunch, not prepared to get their hands dirty. Another successful McDermott novel for me, then, throwing a characteristically bright light on what it means to be human.

Books to Look Out for in October 2017

Cover imageThere are three titles competing for top of my October wish list. Hard to choose which to grab first so I’m plumping for the one I’ve been waiting for the longest: Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. It’s been eight years since Gillespie and I was published, a novel which features a superbly unreliable narrator, and eleven since The Observations which I included in my Blasts from the Past series. Gillespie and I leapt the second novel hurdle with flying colours so hopes are high for Harris’ third, set in eighteenth-century Martinique where two brothers have been instructed to return to their home island of Grenada to smuggle back forty-two slaves from a hospital plantation. ‘With great characters, a superb narrative set up, and language that is witty, bawdy and thrillingly alive, Sugar Money is a novel to treasure’ say the publishers encouragingly.

Sticking with the long gap between novels theme, my second choice Is Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach published seven years after the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad. It opens in Brooklyn against the backdrop of the Great Depression, with young Anna Kerrigan taken by her father to the house of a rich man. Years later, Anna works in the shipyard during the war, earning the money that has kept her family since her father’s disappearance. When she meets the man she remembers from her childhood she begins to question what has happened to her father. ‘Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes in New York, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America and the world’ say the publishers which sounds very ambitious but given Egan’s past novels may well not be an exaggeration.

In any other month Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour would have had no competition in topping my list. I’m an ardent fan as regular readers may have gathered. McDermott excels at that pared-back yet lyrical prose that I love – I’ve yet to read anything by her I’ve not enjoyed. Thankfully she’s a little more prolific than Harris and Egan although it’s been four years sinceCover image Someone, her last novel. Set in Brooklyn, her new book follows three generations of an Irish immigrant family in the ‘40s and ‘50s. A man takes his own life, leaving his young wife pregnant. Sister St Saviour offers her work in the convent’s laundry, saving her from destitution but although never spoken of, her husband’s suicide remains a stigma. ‘In prose of startling radiance and precision, Alice McDermott tells a story that is at once wholly individual and universal in its understanding of the human condition. Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, The Ninth Hour is the crowning achievement of one of today’s finest writers’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.

And now for something entirely different. Gabe Hbash’s Stephen Florida is about a college student, an amateur wrestler with his eye set on a championship. Not a premise that would usually appeal but the publishers‘ description is an intriguing one: ‘Profane, manic and tipping into the uncanny, this is Florida’s chronicle of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark. With echoes of The Art of Fielding and the film Foxcatcher, Gabe Habash’s daring, revelatory debut journeys into the mind of a young man teetering between control and rage, grief and elation, genius and insanity’. That reference to The Art of Fielding was inevitable, I suppose, but it did catch my eye.

Tony Peake’s North Facing has as its backdrop the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the world appeared to be on the point of catastrophe. Rather than simply telling the story of the American/Russian face-off, Peake’s novel views it through the lens of a group of South African schoolboys, one of whom is discovering his sexuality and the politics of his troubled country. Now in his sixties and drawn back to Pretoria, Paul recalls that time which saw both the Sharpeville massacre and the arrest of Nelson Mandela. I’m particularly drawn to this novel after reading Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, set on the day after Mandela’s death.

Cover imageMy final choice is Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Set in Japan, it’s about a disillusioned man with a criminal record who makes the titular paste for the pancakes sold in the confectioner’s where he works. When an elderly disabled woman enters the shop, offering to teach him her own recipe, a friendship begins. The publishers describe Sukegawa’s book as ‘a quietly devastating novel about the burden of the past and the redemptive power of friendship’ which sounds very appealing.

That’s it for October. A click on any title that’s piqued your interest will take you to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

Blasts from the Past: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (1998)

Charming BillyThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I was delighted to see piles of Alice McDermott’s Someone stacked up on tables at the front of Waterstones’ shops a couple of years ago. I’ve long been a fan of her elegantly poetic writing but she seemed to be overlooked here in the UK. Someone is the story of an unremarkable life deftly unfolded in McDermott’s characteristic empathetic understated style. I loved it but Charming Billy remains my favourite. It’s the sad story of Billy Lynch who lost the great love of his life and never recovered.

When Billy’s family and friends adjourn to a bar in the Bronx after his funeral it’s a time for affectionate reminiscing. Billy was someone who everyone loved – a romantic and poetic figure who left an impression on all who met him. But Billy’s death was far from romantic. He died an alcoholic, passed out on the street like a tramp. His life had been marked by heartbreak and many who knew him were convinced that he drank to ease the pain of the loss of his sweetheart many years ago. His devoted cousin, Dennis, came to his aid at any time of the day or night. But it is only after Billy’s funeral that Dennis tells his daughter the truth behind the legend of Billy’s sweetheart and the lie that was at the heart of his friendship with Billy.

For me, McDermott belongs to a small, select band of authors who write slim, elegant novels, each word carefully chosen and none wasted. Much is left unsaid, much for readers to infer, but that’s part of their joy. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative. Who could fail to identify with Aunt Peg from McDermott’s fifth novel, Child of My Heart, who was ‘only, it seemed, a good night’s sleep away from being pretty.’ McDermott has said ‘I wouldn’t want to spend the energy just telling a story. I’ve got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose’, a music which sings out loud and clear in the wonderfully wistful elegiac tone of Charming Billy.

And what about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Paperbacks to look out for in November 2014

Cover imageUnlike October, the November paperback schedules appear to be packed with far too much temptation, at least for me. I’ve only read one of the titles that snagged my attention so I’ll start with that. I’m a great fan of Alice McDermott’s fiction. She’s in the quiet understated school that if you’re a regular reader of this blog you may have noticed is my favourite kind of writing. Her first novel in seven years, Someone is about Marie whose unremarkable story is told in such light brushstrokes and with such empathy that the moments of drama stand out vividly. A lovely novel and one which I hope will introduce McDermott to more British readers.

David Leavitt is another fine novelist whose work I’ve long read and enjoyed. The Two Hotel Francforts is set in neutral Portugal in 1940 when Lisbon is seething with refugees hoping to escape the war through its port. When two American couples strike up a friendship – the conventional Winters, fleeing Paris, and the bohemian Frelengs – a passionate affair ensues with tragic consequences. This one will be at the top of my to buy list – I’ve a weakness for Lisbon and it’s an unusual setting for a wartime novel.

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs is described as ‘a wry and knowing portrait’, and is, apparently, both moving and funny. A once-famous photographer’s career is on the slide along with her bank balance. She turns her back on the city, moves to the country and finds that there’s more to life than work. Doesn’t sound as if it will set the world on fire, I know, but Quindlen’s one of those writers I’d rank alongside Sue Miller in my reliably good, emotionally intelligent fiction pigeonhole.

Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut is irresistible for its title alone. 2 A. M. at the Cat’s Pyjamas, sees three lost souls Cover imagemeet on a snowy Christmas Eve in Philadelphia: nine-year-old aspiring jazz-singer Madeleine Altimari, her teacher apprehensively contemplating a dinner party with her teenage crush and the owner of the legendary Cat’s Pyjamas club, on the brink of closure. These three ‘will discover life’s endless possibilities over the course of one magical night’ – a tad worried about the magical bit but it sounds like a cheering November read.

I’ve picked the next book more on the recommendation of another blogger than the appeal of the publisher’s blurb which is a little off-putting but it is Tinder Press, an imprint I like, and I trust Elena over at Reviews and Words so here we go. It’s Morgan McCarthy’s Strange Girls and Ordinary Women, a ‘lyrical and utterly enthralling story of warped perceptions, female intuition and ‘the other woman’ – see what I mean about the blurb? Alice is convinced her husband is having an affair, Vic is worried about her dear friend Michael’s attraction to Estella. Into the midst of this comes Kaya who is determined to find a way out of her miserable world. We’ll see.

Cover imageMy last choice is Kerrigan in Copenhagen, the first in Thomas E. Kennedy’s Copenhagen quartet, presumably reissued to tie in with the final volume, Beneath the Neon Egg, which is also published this month. I’ve been meaning to catch up with these for some time and now seems a good opportunity. American writer Terence Kerrigan is drowning his sorrows after a lost love, writing a guide to the fifteen hundred pubs and bars of Copenhagen (good luck with that – a wincingly expensive occupation). A great deal of boozing then, but accompanied by lots of literary allusions and jokes, apparently, and like The Two Hotel Francforts it’s set in one of my favourite cities.

That’s it for November, although I do have a bit of a hankering for Claire Cameron’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlisted The Bear but it’s narrated by a five-year-old which has put me off a little. A click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for more information and if you’d like to know what I have my eye on in October you can click on paperbacks or hardbacks.

Someone by Alice McDermott: A quiet masterpiece

Cover imageFor me, Alice McDermott belongs to a small, select band of authors who write slim, elegant novels, each word carefully chosen and none wasted. It includes Colm Tóibín, John McGahern and Anne Enright. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they’re all Irish or of Irish extraction although Helen Dunmore is no slouch at this kind of writing. McDermott is well-known in the States but not so much here. Each time I read a new novel by her I think this might be the one which makes UK readers sit up and pay attention: Someone is no exception.

Marie unfolds the story of her life beginning in 1920s Brooklyn as she sits on her family’s apartment steps waiting for her father to come home from work. She’s a daddy’s girl, looking forward to the extra sugar cubes slipped into her tea which mark her out as his favourite over Gabe, the brother picked out for the seminary. The neighbourhood has its characters as all neighbourhoods do: Billy Corrigan, blinded in the First World War, plays umpire to the boys’ ball games; accident-prone Pegeen believes there will always be someone kind to help her; Big Lucy whose uncontrollable foul mouth shames her mother. Tightly knit, nothing passes unnoticed in this Irish-American community not least by the gossiping nuns at Fagin’s undertakers whose compassion often falls short of their judgement. Marie finishes school, takes up a job at Fagin’s after much cajoling from her mother, has her share of boyfriends, marries, becomes a mother and moves out to suburbia.

An unremarkable life then, but told in such light brushstrokes and with such empathy that the moments of drama stand out vividly – the unexpected death of a friend’s mother, the sudden and insensitive ending of an unhappy love affair, a difficult birth. There are foreshadowings, past events seen with hindsight slip into place, all handled so deftly and with such grace that the whole coalesces into a small masterpiece. Much is left unsaid, much for readers to infer, but that’s part of its joy. Fingers crossed, then, that Someone reaches the audience it deserves.

Anyone have any favourite authors they feel are underrated? Let me know so that I can add them to my TBR list.