Tag Archives: Allegra Goodman

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2018: Part One

Cover imageI seem to start most of these posts with promises of many treats, or potential treats, on the paperback horizon and May’s no exception with publishers not yet assuming that we’ve put our brains away in preparation for summer reading.

At the top of May’s goodie list for me is Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which appeared on both my books of 2017 list and my Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 wish list. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. It’s a highly ambitious debut but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is a caustic satire which takes a distinctly dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way. Desperate for money, Mary enrolls in The Girlfriend Experiment as Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few. The ensuing shenanigans skewer the contemporary pursuit of the perfect partner in a novel which lives up to its Margaret Atwood puff.

Technology comes in for a bashing in The Chalk Artist which sees Allegra Goodman contrasting the world of gaming with the older more established one of literature. Despite her antipathy to it, Nina prods Collin into a job in her father’s business which designed the game that Cover imageconsumed his teenage years. As Nina struggles to imbue her students with a love of literature, Collin is pulled further into Arkadia with its playground offices and exacting taskmasters. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old games-obsessed Aidan has been given a black box which opens up a virtual reality game to him. The Chalk Artist is an absorbing, all too believable read but I preferred Goodman’s previous novel, The Cook Book Collector, which explores similar thematic territory.

I had a similar reaction to Jennifer Egan’s first historical novel Manhattan Beach to which I had been looking forward very much having enjoyed A Visit from the Goon Squad. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her beloved father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him. Anna is assigned to work in the shipyards during the Second World War but manages to argue, cajole and doggedly train her way onto the all-male diving programme while still trying to find answers to the mystery of her father’s disappearance. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away.

I’m hoping Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl won’t continue the disappointment trend after the excellent The Woman Upstairs. Her new novel looks at female friendship through two women who have been friends since nursery school but whose paths diverge leaving one of them feeling cast aside. ‘Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship. Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship’ say the publishers which sounds right up my street.

I’m ending this selection with Jamie Ford’s Love and Other Consolation Prizes which I’m not at all sure about largely because of the cover which looks somewhat soapy to me but I like the sound of the premise. At the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair Ernest, a half-Chinese boy, is raffled off as a prize and ends up working in a brothel where he falls in love with the daughter of its madam. In 1962, on the eve of the new World’s Fair, Ernest looks back at his past while his daughter attempts to unravel her family’s story. Quite an eye-catching synopsis but it I’m still not convinced by that jacket.

That’s it for the first batch of May paperback delights. A click on any of the first four will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other two should you want to know more. If you missed May’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second batch of paperbacks shortly…

The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman: Winning and losing

Cover imageI remember enjoying Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector very much when it was published back in 2010 which is partly what attracted me to The Chalk Artist, that and what promised to be an exploration of the all-consuming nature of gaming. I’m not a gamer but I am an obsessive reader and so I can see the attraction of losing yourself entirely in a world other than the real one. In some ways Goodman’s new novel echoes her previous one, exploring the world of new technology and contrasting it with the older more established one of literature.

Collin is a talented artist. He chalks the backdrops for his friends’ theatrical productions, often staged in unlikely venues. He makes his money from part-time jobs, one of which is waiting at Grendel’s where his attention has been snagged by a beautiful young woman, a teacher who comes to the bar twice a week to mark her students’ papers, oblivious of the racket around her. Eventually these two get together. They have much in common but their worlds are very different: she, it turns out, is the daughter of the man who owns Arkadia, the designers of EverWhen which once consumed Collin’s attention; he is the son of a teacher – comfortably alternative and popular with her students – who takes in lodgers to make ends meet. Before long Nina finds herself unable to resist prodding Collin into doing better for himself, introducing him to her father who takes him on, spotting a useful asset for his company. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Aidan frequently pulls all-nighters playing EverWhen, worrying his mother and his twin sister who has her own demons to wrestle. Aidan’s obsession with his female EverWhen companion pays off in the form of a black box which opens up UnderWorld to him, a virtual reality game not yet on the market. With her sharp marketing eye, Daphne has spotted a way to manipulate expert gamers, fanning the flames of the already fevered anticipation of this new game. As Nina struggles to imbue her students with a love of literature, Collin is pulled further into Arkadia with its playground offices and exacting taskmasters.

Just as she did with The Cookbook Collector, Goodman uses a love story to explore the way in which technology shapes the modern world, sometimes to its detriment. Nina represents the values of education while Arkadia is portrayed as a manipulative organisation, quite capable of employing fake protestors to surround their launches with publicity-snatching controversy. I can’t judge the authenticity of the vivid gaming descriptions but Aidan’s obsession seemed all too believable and may ring loud bells for a few parents of teenagers seduced by the promise of a world more exciting than their own. The mismatch between gamers’ glamourous avatars and their owners’ physical reality is a particularly convincing touch. It’s a book which draws you in with an edge of suspense and engaging central characters but it’s not without flaws: Aidan’s twin Diana seemed a little neglected. Just as I thought we were about to explore her story as a counterpoint to Aidan’s, she faded away, making a brief reappearance towards the end. An absorbing read and an interesting insight into the gaming world but not quite a match for The Cookbook Collector for me, I’m afraid, although that did set the bar rather high.

Books to Look Out for in June 2017

Cover image Top of my list for June is Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends which I’m pretty sure isn’t aimed at my age group but sounds enticing all the same. Four friends in their twenties talk about everything under the sun but it’s Frances and her affair with a much older married man who eventually takes centre stage. ‘You can read Conversations with Friends as a romantic comedy, or you can read it as a feminist text. You can read it as a book about infidelity, about the pleasures and difficulties of intimacy, or about how our minds think about our bodies. However you choose to read it, it is an unforgettable novel about the possibility of love’ according to the publishers, kindly leaving the choice up to their readers.

Love is also the subject of Catherine Lacey’s The Answers which comes at it in a very different way. Mary is desperate for work when she sees a job advertised as part of The Girlfriend Experiment whose aim is to analyse the nature of relationships – what works and what doesn’t – through role-playing. She is to be Emotional Girlfriend, joining a team which includes Angry Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend, playing against the Hollywood actor whose idea the whole thing is. ‘A novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which probe the depths of our society, and answers that will leave you reeling’ say the publishers. It’s an interesting premise which has the makings of a great book not to mention a film, although I’m sure that’s been considered already.

Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World is about another kind of social experiment, this one focusing on families. Alone and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, Isabelle is offered a place in The Infinity Family Project whose billionaire founder is pursuing a utopian ideal: raising nine babies as part of an extended family in a Tennessee compound. ‘Can this experiment really work – or is their ‘perfect little world’ destined to go horribly wrong?’ ask the publishers. Given the number of unhappy children brought up in communes who’ve shared their experiences with the world in one way or another, I suspect we can guess the answer. Cover image

Here’s one that has attracted a good deal of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods. Julie Buntin’s Marlena follows naïve fifteen-year-old Cat who finds herself becoming best friends with her neighbour when she moves to a new town in rural Michigan. Cat and Marlena make the town their own, partying like there’s no tomorrow until Marlena is found drowned in nearby woods. Decades later Cat is still trying to come to terms with her past. ‘Alive with an urgent, unshakeable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull ourselves back from the brink’ say the publishers a little dramatically.

The trials and tribulations of settling into a new home also play a part in Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which follows the Bredins – who can neither afford a divorce nor their London home – to a remote part of Devon. No one seems very happy with the arrangement and everyone wonders why their rent is so low. ‘The beauty of the landscape is ravishing, yet it conceals a dark side involving poverty, revenge, abuse and violence which will rise up to threaten them’ say the publishers which promises the revelation of dark secrets. I’ve enjoyed Craig’s previous novels and this one comes with a stonking endorsement from Helen Dunmore.

Allegra Goodman’s The Chalk Artist is about the all-consuming nature of computer gaming and the way it can threaten to take over real life, explored through a teenage boy living in smalltown America. Aidan is at the top of his game when playing EverWhen, putting the problems of adolescence behind him, but when he’s sent a mysterious black box from the game’s designers he finds himself physically taken into EverWhen’s world, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. It’s a fascinating subject – remember Second Life and the divorce it prompted? – and I’ve enjoyed Goodman’s fiction very much in the past.

Cover imageI’m ending this preview with a book by an author whose first novel is sitting on my shelves but I have yet to read. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away follows three women: one wanting to box at a time when boxing is illegal for women in Ireland; the second contemplating a job offer but wondering if she can bring herself to abandon her mother in her nursing home; and a third who takes up with a biker gang as a means of escape. ‘A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing but perhaps I should get around to reading Generation first.

That’s it for June’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that appeal. Paperbacks to follow soon…