Tag Archives: Among the Ten Thousand Things

A Week in Split and Two Books

The first time H and I went to Croatia was just after the end of the war, 1996 or thereabouts. I remember being annoyed with the travel agent (that’s the way we did things in those days) who advised me not to go to a country where there was a war on despite the fact that it had been over for some time. As part of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia had enjoyed a healthy tourist trade: the last thing they needed was visitors to be discouraged. We spent a week on the lovely island of Korcula, staying in a hotel with a terrace overlooking the sea, then went to Dubrovnik which was full of facades hiding bombsites, but still beautiful.

Split was spared the sustained bombardment that Dubrovnik endured, its old town seemingly unscathed. It’s quite unlike anywhere I’ve been in Europe, made up largely of a Roman palace built by Diocletian who became emperor at the age of thirty-nine in 284 CE. The palace was to be his retirement home, not something that emperors usually planned or managed to achieve but he did, taking up residence twenty-one years after gaining power. Diocletian, it seems, liked to make an entrance, sailing his ship into the flooded vaults of his palace from the sea rather than disembarking at the shore like the rest of us plebs. Many additions have beenMajan peninsula made to the complex throughout the centuries including a cathedral in Diocletian’s mausoleum. Somewhat churlishly, the Christians who built it looted his body or what remained of it, putting their stamp firmly on his palace. It’s all very fetchingly got up now, a maze of alleyways running through the complex filled with a multitude of tiny shops, cafes and restaurants. A gorgeous place to wander around as we did the evening we arrived but chock-full during the day.

We turned our backs on the weekend crowds the following afternoon, walking up the hill above the old city to explore the wooded Marjan peninsula. What was to have been a pleasant amble turned into a seven-mile hike for which both of us were somewhat overdressed. Sadly, we failed to find a cake shop, the promise of which had kept me going for the last hot, crowded stretch, full of people heading in the opposite direction to us. Worth it for the magnificent views, though.

Split is Croatia’s second city after Zagreb but it’s charms are confined to a fairly small area unless you’re a fan of high-rise apartment blocks so we’d planned a couple of day trips one of trogirwhich was to Trogir, a little gem of a walled city on its own tiny island. Getting lost on the way to the bus station we stumbled across a patch of rough ground populated by around fifteen peacocks, one of those odd sights you sometimes come across in an unfamiliar place then later wonder if you dreamt it. We arrived in Trogir after a long, hot, stop-start bus journey but it was well worth all that jolting and jarring, not least for the lovely lunch on a shady terrace finished off with a scrumptious dessert: wine soaked dried figs with lavender-scented honey, mascarpone cream and a little chocolate sauce. Fabulous!

Our second outing was to the Krka National Park, yet another UNESCO-listed site, to see the Skrandinski buk waterfalls set in lovely woodland, one of those spectacular sights that’s hard to do justice with just a phone camera but you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, it’s a hugely popular place to visit but the walkways are so artfully laid out that despite the large number of us admiring the jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery, it never felt crowded. After lunch we headed off to the lower reaches of Roški Slap which we had pretty much to ourselves. A much more tranquil, lower-key beauty than Skrandinski buk, made all the more so by constant, mellifluous birdsong.

The rest of the week passed in a pleasantly lazy haze. It’s taken us over twenty years to return to Croatia and after a week soaking up sun, stunning landscape and architecture, I hope we won’t wait another two decades.

And the books? The first was Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love, shortlisted forCover image the Baileys back in 2015 which is what made me want to read it. In essence it’s a literary potboiler about a lost masterpiece made interesting thanks to the author’s knowledge of art history. There’s a nice little edge of suspense running through the novel but ultimately it’s somewhat soapy. Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things was much more of a success. It begins with a young girl opening a box addressed to her mother, full of emails printed off by the woman with whom her father has had an affair. The novel explores the resulting fallout through the girl, her brother and their parents which may not sound startlingly original but Pierpont’s writing is striking and the novel is utterly engrossing. It’s always a gamble when you choose your holiday reading but at least this one turned out to be a winner.

Back to the endless litany of electioneering which will drag on for the next month here in the UK, wistfully remembering our last Croatian lunch looking out to sea from the restaurant’s sunlit terrace…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThe first batch of February paperbacks kicked off with one of my books of 2015 as does the second: Sara Taylor’s The Shore which I was delighted to see on both the Baileys Prize longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist last year. The novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories that span a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and Taylor’s novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. You need to keep your wits about you – characters pop up then disappear only to reappear again – but Taylor’s careful to tie in every loose end meticulously. I miss that gorgeous hardback jacket, though.

Oneworld is a small publisher who had a very good year last year. They’re the publishers of Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. They also publish my second choice, Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things which sounds entirely different from James’ novel. An anonymously sent box of printed explicit emails, meant for artist Jack Shanley’s wife, is opened by their children, precipitating a crisis. In an attempt to repair their marriage, Jack and Deb decide to move away from New York, thrusting fifteen-year-old Simon and eleven-year-old Kay into different worlds. The synopsis reminds me a little of Jane Hamilton’s Disobedience published back in the days when email was still a bit of a novelty rather than the time-consuming annoyance it’s come to be for so many.Cover image

The next title was also shortlisted for the Man Booker, and appeared alongside Sara Taylor’s The Shore on the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is the story of thirteen young Indian men sharing a house in Sheffield, each with their own story and all in search of a better life. The publishers bravely compare Sahota’s novel with Rohinton Mistry’s superb A Fine Balance which makes the sceptic in me raise her eybrows but Kamila Shamsie rates it highly, apparently. Nothing would please me more than to be able to include a new novel by Mistry in one of these previews. It’s been such a long time that I wonder if he’ll ever publish one again.

The Power of the DogThis last title is here almost as an act of faith. Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog is published by the same imprint that brought us the wonderful Stoner and they claim that it’s in the same league thereby setting the bar extraordinarily high. Phil and George are brothers, owners of a large Montana ranch. They’re the antithesis of each other but have shared the same room for forty years since they were boys. When George marries a widow, overturning this lifelong arrangement, Phil sets out to destroy her. We’re promised a ‘devastating twist at the end’. Annie Proulx rates it enough to have written an afterword so I’m thrusting my cynicism aside.

That’s it for February paperbacks. If you’d like to know more, a click on the title will take you to my review for The Shore and to Waterstones for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with the rest of February’s new novels the first batch of paperbacks are here and the hardbacks are here and here.

Books to Look Out For in August 2015

Cover imageYes, it’s that time already, and you might think that the publishing industry expects us all to slip our brains gently out of gear given that it’s summer, but there are a few stimulating novels sprinkled through my August choices, the most enticing of which for me is the weighty A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s a bit of a doorstop – just over 730 pages – but that’s what holidays are for. It comes with a great deal of pre-publication brouhaha but nevertheless looks mighty tempting. The novel follows four graduates from a small New England college to New York where they plan to make their fortune: JB is a sharp-tongued artist, Willem an aspiring actor, Malcolm a frustrated architect and Jude – their ‘centre of gravity’ – a supremely talented lawyer. It charts the course of their friendship into middle age, visiting some very dark territory on the way. Irresistible, at least for me, anyway.

Still in New York, Julia Pierpont’s debut Among the Ten Thousand Things sees an anonymously sent box of printed explicit emails, meant for artist Jack Shanley’s wife, opened by their children, precipitating a crisis. In an attempt to repair their marriage, Jack and Deb decide to move, thrusting fifteen-year-old Simon and eleven-year-old Kay into different worlds. The synopsis reminds me a little of Jane Hamilton’s Disobedience published back in the days when email wasn’t far from being a novelty rather than the time-consuming annoyance it’s come to be for so many.

One more American novel, and the reference to Olen Steinhauer as the new heir apparent to John le Carré at the end of the synopsis made me dither as to whether to include it – not really my territory – but I like the sound of its premise. All the Old Knives explores the idea of trust through the relationship of Celia, once a CIA operative, and Henry, still in the game, whose relationship was destroyed when the rescue of a hijacked plane went horribly wrong. Neither can forget what happened and both are determined to get to the bottom of it but can they trust each other? It sounds like a thriller worth reading, but perhaps that’s my old Cover imageSpooks obsession talking

There was a time when a new Andrew Miller novel would have been top of my list but I’ve had several disappointments after the magnificent Ingenious Pain. Pure saw him back on form and although The Crossing is set in the present I’m hoping that he’s stayed there. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the blurb but it appears to be a love story about Tim who conceives a passion for Maud ‘who fell past him, lay seemingly dead on the ground, then stood and walked’ but Maud is a loner whose passion seems to lie in the direction of the sea rather than Tim. I think it will be well worth a look, despite its rather perplexing synopsis.

I have to confess that this one’s only here because of my own obsession with the perfect pillow which would, of course, deliver the perfect night’s sleep. Lucy seems to have the same conviction which is why she fetches up in the bed linen department where William works. So far, so possibly clichéd boy meets girl but this is the bit of the blurb which clinched the inclusion of Nick Coleman’s Pillow Man here: ‘William and Lucy are not connected. Yet the pair of them share a terrible memory from the past, the sort of joint recollection that changes with the light, depending on who you were and where you were standing at the time. The question is: what to do with it?It goes on to talk about the ‘difficult metaphysics of bedtime’ – pretentious nonsense or intriguing, either could be true, but I think I’ll give it a try.

Cover imageAnd finally, Haruki Murakami’s first two novels Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are to be published in the UK for the first time. Both follow the fortunes of their narrator and his friend, the Rat, and it sounds as if many of those familiar Murakami hallmarks were already in place when the novels were written. The first sees the narrator in college drinking and listening to music in J’s bar with Rat, and pursuing a relationship with a nine-fingered girl while the second moves our narrator on three years leaving Rat behind for life in Tokyo working as a translator, living with twin girls and searching for a replica of the pinball machine at J’s. Both novels will appear in the same volume under the title Wind/Pinball which will no doubt be bought by all of us committed Murakami fans, and maybe a few more.

That’s it for August. As ever a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with my July choices, you can find the first hardback selection here, the second here and the paperbacks here.