Tag Archives: Ann Patchett

Five Comfort Reads I’ve Read

I suspect we’re all in need of a comfort read now and again and never more so while the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic that currently has us in its grip. I can’t promise that all five of these novels are entirely free of strife or upset – for me it’s hard to find good fiction that contains none of that – but they’re all either entertaining, heartwarming, something to lose yourself in or all three. Here, then, are five consoling reads that might help get you through difficult times, each with links to my review on this blog.

Cover imageSet in the near future, Robin Sloan’s  Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore playfully meshes the old reading world with new technology in a quirky edge-of-your-seat story of bookish folk. Clay Jannon works the night shift at the eponymous bookstore, logging its few customers, most of them oddly attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Curiosity aroused, Clay sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, in a story that encompasses a fifteenth-century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour.

If you’re in need of being reminded that things do get better, I’d suggest  Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten. It begins in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie. Evan’s story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. It never loses sight of the fact that while some women were given the vote in 1918, the vast majority were not, nor that when they were the battle was still far from won. I loved it, and if you do, too, may I suggest reading Crooked Heart to which Old Baggage is the prequel.Cover image

Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As Hitomi and Takeo stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister cheers them on from the side lines. Kawakami’s four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this delightful novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for.

Elinor Lipman writes the kind of sharply observed, absorbing and entertaining fiction that‘s just the ticket when you’re after an intelligent bit of escapism. With its story of a young woman, her widowed father and the high school yearbook left to her by her mother, Good Riddance is the literary equivalent of a smartly turned out rom-com. It follows Daphne, a close-to-thirty woman, flailing around for something to do with her life after her unfortunate marriage, who has the carpet pulled out from under her feet a second time. Lipman narrates her story in Daphne’s sometimes waspish voice, serving it up lightly laced with a few farcical moments and a good deal of sly wit. It’s a pleasingly perceptive comedy of manners whose slightly old-fashioned style would suit Frasier fans well.

Cover imageI could have picked The Dutch House, the more recent of Ann Patchett’s novels which would fit the comfort reading bill well but instead I’ve plumped for the lesser known Commonwealth. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel criss-crosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I’m sure you have a few novels you turn to when in need of comfort and distraction. I’d love to know what they are.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2020: Part One

April’s paperback preview falls neatly into two parts – those I’ve already read and those I’ve yet to read. I’m beginning with the former, the first four of which were on my last year’s books of the year list. Hard to know which one to kick off with but I’m plumping for Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with and I think we could all do with one of those at the moment.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded the high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

When I read that Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair my heart sank but far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with the usual Cover imagespeculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s book reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective. Her careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours Sandra Rivett’s memory, tipping the balance away from the media portrayal which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best, and that’s saying something after The Crime Writer, a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction starring Patricia Highsmith.

Paul Lynch’s Beyond the Sea is from Oneworld who’ve  bagged not one but two Booker Prizes in the last few years. Written in that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, this intense novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis through the story of two fishermen cast adrift after a dreadful storm. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness.

Anna Hope’s  Expectation narrowly missed my books of last year list only because I was wary of stretching readers’ patience a little too far. Very different from her first two novels, Wake and The Ballroom, it has the kind of structure I find irresitsible, exploring friendship, motherhood, love and feminism through the lives of Hannah, Cate and Lissa who share a house together in their twenties. Hope bookends her lovely, empathetic novel with two sunny Saturday mornings, the first in 2004 when Hannah and Cate buy breakfast to share with Lissa at home and the second in 2018 when the three, now in their mid-forties, meet for a picnic. Much has changed in between – betrayal, grief, disappointment, pain have all been suffered along with forgiveness, joy and hope. I loved it.

I’ve not read anything by Laura Beatty before but I found Lost Property’s synopsis intriguing. A woman finds herself in a state of despair at her country’s apparent indifference to the suffering and poverty on its streets and decides she must find a way to understand how such a state has come about. This witty yet profound novel of ideas takes us across Europe in a second-hand camper van on a road trip through history, following our unnamed narrator’s quest for meaning. It’s not an easy Cover imageread but it’s a richly rewarding one, and it’ll make you think.

Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands follows a man woken by a vivid dream of his wife’s infidelity, convinced of its truth. He takes himself off to the airport, boards the first plane that will take him as far away as he can get, ending up in Japan where he becomes involved with a young man intent on suicide. It’s a playful yet poignant novella which I enjoyed although I was a wee bit surprised to see it shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker International Prize.

That’s it for the April paperbacks I’ve read. A click on a title will take you to my review should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles they’re here and here. Into uncharted april paperback territory soon…

I should be rushing off to catch the train to Ghent after posting this but with Belgium closing restaurants and museums thanks to covid-19 there seems little point. Never mind, It’ll still be there when all this is over. Take care and keep washing those hands.

My Wishlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, 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 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

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The Language of Birds                        Good Day?                                 A Stranger City

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The Hiding Game                                 Starling Days                             The Dutch House

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Olive, Again                                          Body Tourists                                    Adults

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The Warlow Experiment                    Say Say Say                                    Weather

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There Was Still Love                     Right After the Weather          Coming Up for Air

There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.

What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?

Six Degrees of Separation – from Daisy and the Six to Eucalyptus

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six which I haven’t read although it’s on my TBR list. I do know it’s about a ‘70s rock band which implodes at the height of its fame.

Leading me to Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, set in working-class Dublin, which sees two friends put a band together singing ‘60s soul numbers. Despite their success on the Dublin circuit, tensions run high and the band splits. A very funny book which was made into a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Not at all funny but also set in Dublin, Belinda McKeon’s lovely novel, Tender, follows the story of a young woman who falls in love with her gay male friend.

Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant is about Sabine, married to a man she’s always known to be gay, trying to cope with her grief after his death and finding comfort in an unexpected place.

Ann Patchett runs a bookshop in Nashville – Parnassus Books – and I have to say it looks wonderful. Fellow author Jeanette Winterson also turned her hand to retailing with a delicatessen, no longer open, which also sold fruit and vegetables. Her debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit tells the semi-autobiographical story of growing up in an evangelical household.

That title leads me to Kathryn Harrison’s eighteenth-century set A Thousand Orange Trees, which sees Louis XIV’s niece abandoning the trees she’d hoped to take to Spain whose king she’s to marry.

Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, features another sort of tree, collected by the father of a beautiful young woman whose hand in marriage he plans to give to the first man who can name each of the five hundred eucalypts in his collection.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from hedonistic LA in the ‘70s to an isolated New South Wales estate and a rather unusual competition. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Books of the Year 2019: Part Four

We’re on the home stretch, now, heading towards the end of 2019, and already anticipating the shiny and new in 2020. September, which I like to call late summer stretching that in to October weather permitting, began with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already a collection of twenty punchy, inventive short stories, some no longer than a page or two. A few of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich, who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning, are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. Richly deserved, if Fly Already is anything to go by.

October saw two novels that exemplified beautifully crafted, immersive storytelling, the first of which was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. It’s the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well turned out, absorbing and satisfying. I would love to have seen it on the Booker longlist, at the very least.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded theCover image high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

November’s favourites were heralded by a book for which I had even higher expectations, and once again they were fulfilled. This year saw the return of the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge, familiar to fans of Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form, comprising thirteen closely-knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.

Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas tells the story of a woman in a very different set of circumstances. Now middle-aged, Adelaida grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. When an opportunity presents itself, Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem. Borgo’s novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now

Rather fittingly, given that I’ve read so many of them over the past few years, I’m bringing 2019’s favourites to a close with a novella. Written in clean bright prose Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tells the Cover imagestory of a mother and her son on the eve of his ninth birthday, a milestone she’s forgotten and he’s convinced she’s secretly planning to celebrate. Over the course of a frigid Norwegian night – each of them outdoors, unbeknownst to the other – their paths will almost cross several times, both returning home to a day which will be far from what either of them might have anticipated. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.

And if I had to choose? That would be a challenge I’d rather not take, but if push comes to shove I’d have to plump for The Dutch House, The Jewel and Olive, Again, although don’t ask me to rank them. As ever, the trimming down to just twenty-four was a painful process, particularly dropping Faces on the Tip of my Tongue, Lot and Echoes of the City, all of which are superb. I hope your year has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

Just one more review to come before devoting the rest of my posting year to looking forward, previewing some of the delights publishers have in store for us in January 2020. In the meantime, all the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first three instalments of 2019’s favourites they’re here, here and here.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Good old-fashioned storytelling

Sometimes I need a glorious bit of good old-fashioned storytelling, something to bury myself in and distract myself from the world and its woes. Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House, is exactly that. It’s the story of an unusual, beautiful house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world.

When Cyril Conroy takes his wife to see the Dutch House, she’s appalled, convinced they’re trespassing. Its walls are lined with grand portraits of the Van Hoebeeks, the family who commissioned this mansion full of light but now in disrepair. Having quietly built up a property management business, Cyril has bought the house, presenting it as a gift to Elna but she’s never happy there. One day she disappears, or so it seems to Danny, her eight-year-old son. Cyril rarely speaks of her again leaving Danny and his sister Maeve to puzzle over what has happened to her. Maeve takes over the mothering of Danny who idolises her. One day, Cyril introduces them to a small, neatly turned out woman who will eventually become their stepmother bringing her two daughters with her. Andrea adores the Dutch House, but not her stepchildren, throwing them out when Cyril dies. Over the years, Maeve and Danny return, parking just across the road, seemingly unable to resist the house’s lure. Maeve remains the lynchpin of Danny’s life. He takes up his place at medical school to please her but once qualified builds a property business, just like Cyril. He marries and has two children but Maeve remains single, living not so very far from the Dutch House. One day, Danny is called to the hospital and what he finds when he gets there will both change and disconcert him.

John Irving popped into my head several times while reading this novel. Using the device of the Dutch House, Patchett explores the history of a family who have been both obsessed and shaped by this gorgeous piece of architecture. Themes of motherhood, privilege, obsession and communication, or the lack of it, run through the Conroys’ story, told from the perspective of Danny who seems intent on replicating his father’s life even if he doesn’t realise it, self-knowledge not being his strong suit.

She might have packed her disappointments away in a box, but she carried the box with her wherever she went

Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well-crafted absorbing and satisfying.

Bloomsbury Publishing: London 2019 9781526614964 337 pages Hardback

That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to Portugal to explore the Alentejo and probably read a book or three.

Books to Look Out for in September 2019

Disappointingly, very few new titles have caught my eye for September. I’ve included the first, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments , more because I’d find it difficult to leave out a new Atwood than because I’m looking forward to it. Truth be told, I’m wary of sequels in the same way I’m wary of unpublished novels found mouldering in dusty desk drawers. Probably best to leave them there. Anyway, Atwood promises to reveal the fate of Offred in this new novel, prompted both by her readers’ pleas and by the state of the world.

I’m much more enthusiastic about The Dutch House, Ann Patchett’s new novel about a house in small-town Pennsylvania lived in by Danny Conroy, his older sister Maeve and their property-developer father. Their mother is both absent and never spoken of but Danny finds solace with his sister until his father brings his wife-to-be home. I’ve jumped the gun with this one and can tell you it’s everything an ardent fan could want it to be. So good, I included it on my Booker wish list. Review to follow…

I’m in two minds about Nell Zink’s Doxology having found her previous novels something of a curate’s egg but the synopsis makes it sound very attractive. It follows two generations of an American family, one either side of 9/11. The first are members of a punk band, two of whom have an unplanned child, Flora. Zink follows the grown-up Flora into the world of conservation with all its political and personal challenges. At once an elegiac takedown of today’s political climate and a touching invocation of humanity’s goodness, Doxology offers daring revelations about America’s past and possible future that could only come from Nell Zink, one of the sharpest novelists of our time’ say the publishers.

Regular readers could be forgiven for being surprised at the inclusion of a novel about time travel but the premise of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold sounds delightful. The offer of something more than just a flat white or macchiato in a tucked away Tokyo coffee shop is taken up by four customers each of who has a reason to travel back to the past. ‘Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?’ say the publishers promisingly.

Past times are also revisited in Philippe Besson’s Lie with Me. When a famous writer sees a young man who resembles his first love, he’s catapulted back to 1984 when he was seventeen and embarking upon an intense affair with a classmate. I think we can assume there’s an autobiographical element here given that the famous writer shares the author’s name. ‘Dazzlingly rendered by Molly Ringwald, the acclaimed actor and writer, in her first-ever translation, Besson’s exquisitely moving coming-of-age story captures the tenderness of first love – and the heart-breaking passage of time’ say the publishers.

I’m finishing September’s new title preview with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already, whose blurb promises a collection of twenty-two short stories in which ‘wild capers reveal painful emotional truths, and the bizarre is just another name for the familiar. Wickedly funny and thrillingly smart, Fly Already is a collage of absurdity, despair and love, written by veteran commentator on the circus farce that is life’. I’m hoping for some light relief in amongst all that.

A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any have taken your fancy. September paperbacks soon…

My 2019 (Man) Booker Wish List

Another year, another Man Booker Prize longlist in the offing, except this year its reverted to the Booker Prize, thanks to a change of sponsorship with Crankstart stepping into the funding breach as of June 1st this year. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2018 and 30th September 2019, and have been written in English. Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. The judges usually allow themselves twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen and this year I have, too. Their list will be revealed on Wednesday, 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.

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Little                                                         Flames                                   Land of the Living

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Memories of the Future              In the Full Light of the Sun            A Stranger City

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We, The Survivors                            The Narrow Land                       The Language of Birds

 

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Starling Days                                     The Dutch House                    The Hiding Game

Beyond the Sea

It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here before September 3rd when the shortlist is announced but I’m sticking to the tried and tested. And if I had to choose one? That’s a tough decision this year. It’s a toss-up between A Stranger City, The Dutch House and Land of the Living, although there are several others I’d be loath to relinquish.

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

Six Degrees of Separation – from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to Prodigal Summer #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, yet another book I haven’t read but I know it’s set in Botswana and that’s its author was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

As was Petina Gappah, author of The Book of Memory in which a young black albino woman tells her story from the prison in which she’s detained for a brutal murder she insists she didn’t commit.

The title of which leads me to Margaret Forster’s The Memory Box about a woman whose mother died when she was a baby leaving her a box of mementos – clues as to who her mother really was. Naturally, dark secrets are revealed

Randal Keynes’ Annie’s Box is the story of Charles Darwin’s eldest daughter who died aged ten. The eponymous box contains keepsakes from Annie’s short life, shedding light on Darwin, his work and his family.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s first novel, The Signature of All Things, tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a botanist, and her relationship with Alfred Russel Wallace who published a paper on evolutionary theory with Darwin in 1858. While Whittaker was a figment of Gilbert’s imagination, Wallace was not, although his achievement has been eclipsed by Darwin’s reputation.

Gilbert wrote a book about her struggle to accept the idea of marriage despite being deeply in love with her partner. Ann Patchett wrote of a similar experience in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage which is very much more than that. It’s made up of a set of essays, an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work as well how she came to finally marry.

Patchett wrote what you might call an eco-novel, State of Wonder, set largely in the Amazonian rainforest. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer could also fall into that bracket. It follows a park ranger, a recently widowed entomologist and an old man hoping to find a way to bring an extinct American Chestnut tree back to life. Not one of her best for me – I preferred The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven – but worth a read.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a Zimbabwean prison to small-town Appalachia. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2017: Part One

Cover imageAll but one of this first selection of May paperbacks is about marriage, family or both, and the one that isn’t appears to touch on it in some way. Top of my list has to be Ann Patchett’s superb Commonwealth, one of my books of 2016 and a hoped for Baileys Prize contender. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed narrative and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, this is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

Jane Rogers’ Conrad and Eleanor also made an appearance on both my books of 2016 list and my Baileys wishlist. Sadly, neither Commonwealth nor Rogers’ novel was successful. Authors may well start putting in requests to be omitted from my prize wishlists soon, given their lamentable performance. Conrad and Eleanor is a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is engaged in medical research as is Conrad but while she’s a star in her particular sphere, his work has stalled. When Conrad fails to return from the conference he’s supposed to be attending, Eleanor is forced to take a long hard look at their marriage. Rogers resists any hint of a fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing novel.Cover image

As, I’m sure Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place will be too. There was a time when I cheerily dismissed O’Farrell’s novels as chick lit – not for me – until I was finally persuaded to read After You’d Gone. This one’s about Daniel, a New Yorker who lives in a remote part of Ireland, with what sounds like a somewhat complicated life: children he never sees, a father he detests and a trigger-happy, ex-film star wife. News of a woman he knew long ago is about to further spice things up.  The novel ‘crosses continents and time zones, giving voice to a diverse and complex cast of characters. At its heart, it is an extraordinary portrait of a marriage, the forces that hold it together and the pressures that drive it apart’ say the publishers. Sounds unmissable.

I’m hopeful that the same can be said of Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers which has an appealing bad boys and girls facing middle age and their own teenagers’ rebellion theme. Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe once played in a band together but now they’re married with kids and mortgages, staring fifty in the face but still clinging to whatever shreds of coolness they can. They all live in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood and their kids are friends, some a little too friendly for their parents’ liking. Straub showed herself to be a sharp, witty social observer in her enjoyable The Vacationers, qualities that sit very well with her new novel’s premise so hopes are high

Cover imageMy last choice, Mike McCormack’s Goldsmith Prize winning Solar Bones, follows the thoughts of Marcus Conway as he stands in his kitchen ‘deconstructing with his engineer’s mind how things are built to consider them better: bridges, banking systems and marriages. In one of the first great Irish novels of the 21st century, Mike McCormack captures with tenderness and feeling, in continuous, flowing prose, a whole life, suspended in a single hour’ say the publishers. I like the sound of this one.

That’s it for the first instalment of May’s paperback preview. If you’d like to know more, a click on a title will take you to my review for the first two and to a more detailed synopsis for the others. If you’d like to catch up with May’s hardbacks they’re here. More paperbacks shortly.