Tag Archives: Anthea Bell

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of August paperbacks kicks off in New York with a surefire bestseller then wanders into smalltown America before briefly taking off around the world, offering a few more out-of-the-way books to explore. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths takes a crime committed in 1960s New York and fashions it into a novel which I’m pretty sure will turn up on a quite a few beaches this summer. In the heat wave of 1965, Ruth Malone wakes to find both her children are missing. Paying more attention to the wagging tongues keen to emphasise Ruth’s colourful life then they perhaps should, the police jump to conclusions but a tabloid journalist new to the job thinks otherwise. Crime fiction isn’t my usual territory but the setting and premise of this one makes me curious.

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley takes us out of the city and into smalltown America, a favourite setting for me. Looking back on her life spent in Miller’s Valley, the town her family have lived in for generations, Mimi Miller ‘confronts the toxicity of secrets, the dangers of gossip, the flaws of marriage, the risks and inequalities of friendship, loyalty and passion. Home, she acknowledges, is somewhere it’s just as easy to feel lost as contented’ according to the publishers who raise the bar extraordinarily high by comparing the novel with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I’m a Cover imagefan of Quindlen’s fiction so expectations are high, but perhaps not that high.

Gregoire Delacourt’s novels are often written in a delightfully playful style yet deliver acute observations. His last novel, The First Thing You See, took a mischievous swipe at celebrity culture all wrapped up in a sweet love story but We Saw Only Happiness sounds much more sombre. Antoine is determined that his son and daughter will have the perfect childhood, a far cry from his own. He’s convinced he’s found the secret of a happy life but tragic circumstances turn him into someone he no longer recognises. This may not sound a particularly inspiring premise but I’ve enjoyed all the novels by Delacourt I’ve read so far.

Enrique Vila-Matas’ The Illogic of Kassel sounds entirely different. A writer is invited to take part in Documenta, a contemporary art exhibition held in the German town of Kassel every five years. All he has to do is to write every morning in a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of town. ‘Once in Kassel, the writer is surprised to find himself overcome by good cheer. As he strolls through the city, spurred on by his spontaneous, quirky response to art, he begins to make sense of the wonders that surround him’ say the publishers. Paul Auster’s recommendation is the lure for me here.

Cover imageI’m not sure what Auster would think of it but I’ve seen lots of recommendations from bloggers for my final choice. Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos is about five runaways who’ve left their home for the metropolis in search of a better life. They’re a disparate bunch made up of a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. ‘Soon, they will also share a burden none of them expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos’ according to the publishers.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for anything that’s caught your eye. If you’d like to catch up with either August’s new titles or the first batch of paperbacks, they’re here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in November 2016

Cover imageA quiet month for paperbacks in November with the book trade in full swing for Christmas. Just four of interest for me, one of which I’ve already reviewed. Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved when it was first published back in March and is in danger of the same thing happening given everyone has their eye on their Christmas present lists by the time it’s published. I hope I’m wrong about that. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s set in Moscow, back at the beginning of the century when the city was stuffed full of expats with their eye on the main chance. It’s the story of a young man, studying for a PhD more because of happenstance than any burning desire, and the things he gets up to – a kind of Rake’s Progress, if you like, but what could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that. Steeped in Russian literature where happy endings are at a premium, it’s also an atmospheric portrait of a city in the midst of transforming itself.

Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower is set a decade or so before Back to Moscow, the tumultuous events which led to the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellite states yet to come. The East German experience is reflected and refracted through the experiences of a soldier, a surgeon, a nurse and a publisher against the backdrop of Dresden. ‘With evocative detail, Uwe Tellkamp masterfully reveals the myriad perspectives of the time as people battled for individuality, retreated to nostalgia, chose to conform, or toed the perilous line between East and West. Poetic, heartfelt and dramatic, The Tower vividly resurrects the sights, scents and sensations of life in the GDR as it hurtled towards 9 November 1989’ say the publishers. Tellkamp was born in Dresden in 1968 and was arrested in 1989 for ‘political sabotage’ which suggests that this will be an insightful read.

Translated by the excellent Anthea Bell, Saša Stanšic’s Before the Feast may offer a little light relief after that. It sounds a little convoluted and the blurb gives a flavour far better than I can, not having read it: ‘It’s the night before the Feast in the village of Furstenfelde (population: declining), but not everyone is asleep. The local artist, wearing an evening dress and gum-boots, goes down to the lake under cover of darkness. The village archivist is kept awake by ancient tales that threaten to take on a life of their own. A retired lieutenant-colonel weighs his pistol, and his future, in his hand. And eighteen-year-old Anna, namesake of the Feast, prepares to take her place in tomorrow’s drinking and dancing, eating and burning. On this night of misdeeds and mischief, they are joined by a dead ferryman, a hapless bellringer, a cigarette machine, two robbers in football shirts and a vixen on the hunt – as their fates collide in the most unexpected ways’ which sounds quite extraordinary. Anthea Bell has replaced the late Carol Brown Janeway as my translator to watch so this one goes straight on the list despite any reservations about magic realism I might have.

My final choice is, unusually for me, a short story collection: Helen Simpson’s Cockfosters. Her smart, witty Cover imagecollection of linked stories Hey Yeah Right Get a Life had me hooked when it first came out. She’s very funny – sharply observant of human foibles but compassionate with it – which makes me keen to read Cockfosters. The link here is Tube stations which should appeal to London commuters and seems tailor-made for a Transport for London advertising campaign although it does venture outside the metropolis, opening ‘irresistible new windows onto the world from Arizona to Dubai and from Moscow to Berlin’ according to the publishers, neatly taking this post back to where it started.

That’s it for November. A click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis for the last three titles and to my review for Back to Moscow. And if you’d like to catch up with November’s new titles they’re here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2016

Cover imageSeveral jewels to look out for in August’s paperback crown, starting with one of the best books I’ve read this year: Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back. It’s the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with her daughter. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. That may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Lucia Berlin would have been all too familiar with the seamier side of work, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. She died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of her stories which draw heavily on her own life, was published last year to enormous and well deserved acclaim. There’s a striking immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from the graphic, panicky tooth extraction of ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’ to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation in ‘Unmanageable’. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Without wanting to be a proselytising zealot, I’ll just say that this collection played a large part in converting me to the pleasure of reading short stories.

Written in a lighthearted, mischievous style Grégoire Delacourt’s The First Thing You See is Cover imageentirely different but succeeds in delivering quite a punch. When he hears a knock at his door, twenty-year-old Arthur Drefuss hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure as she is on-screen. Of course it’s nor Ms Johansson who, it turns out, didn’t like the idea of this book at all, managing to delay its publication for quite some time. Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness in this fable-like novel which puts our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire in an unflattering spotlight. It’s a little gem.

I’ve yet to get my hands on the following four starting with Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. Anais, the main protagonist of Fagan’s debut, The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with this one which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.

I tend not to be a fan of historical novels, either, but Naomi J. Williams’ debut Landfalls has a very attractive structure. Set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785 on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery returning four years later, it’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay, where tragedy hits, to St Petersburg. It all sounds very ambitious but if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.

The Private Life of Mrs SharmaMy last August choice is here thanks to Naomi’s description of it as ‘as close to perfect as it gets’ over at The Writes of Women. In Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, Renuka keeps the household afloat while her husband works in Dubai. All seems on track for her aspirations to the New Indian Dream until she finds herself chatting to a stranger, wondering if it might not be time to shrug off the calls of duty a little. The publishers describe it as ‘a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity, from a dramatic new voice in Indian fiction’ but you might like to take a look at Naomi’s review.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first three, to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis for the next two and to The Writes of Women for Naomi’s review of the last one. And if you want to catch up with August’s hardback delights they’re here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2016

Cover imageI’ll start July’s paperback selection with my favourite of the three I’ve already read. Set in Morocco, Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty takes us on a nail-biting journey wondering what our resourceful protagonist will come up with next. Exhausted after her long sleepless flight and preoccupied by problems at home, she finds herself in a Kafkaesque nightmare with no ID, credit cards cancelled and no cash after her backpack is snatched. When, after a fretful night, the chief of police hands her a black backpack she accepts it knowing that it’s not hers, nor is the passport or the credit cards she finds in it, but seeing a way out of her predicament. What follows is a somewhat improbable but thoroughly entertaining sequence of events as our nameless protagonist slides deeper and deeper into a quagmire of lies.

Vida’s writing was new to me but I’ve been reading Andrew Miller’s novels since the publication of his excellent debut, Ingenious Pain. He’s never quite matched that for me but it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to whatever he comes up with next. The Crossing opens with a young man and woman repairing a boat, both members of their university sailing club. They’re not a couple but Tim has it in the back of his mind that he’ll sleep with Maud before too long. Suddenly, Maud flips off the boat and lands on her head – for one long moment it seems she’s dead – then she gets up and walks away. Tim somehow feels responsible following her home and later conceiving a passion for her. Written in short, crisp sentences from which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, The Crossing feels very different from any of Miller’s previous novels. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.Cover image

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, is also about a marriage but not just any old run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true. The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently idyllic relationship seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Groff’s baggy, extravagant, almost baroque writing is the antithesis of the spare elegance I so admire in the likes of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. Not an unalloyed joy – it’s far too long – but it’s an absorbing, intriguing novel.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse looks irresistible: its setting, subject and jacket tick all the boxes for me. Paul Dukach is in line to take over one of the last independent publishing houses in New York and is being shown the ropes, from navigating the choppy waters of the Frankfurt book fair to the wooing of authors renowned for their delicate egos. Paul has become obsessed with Ida Perkins, a star of literary New York, whose lover and longtime publisher is Paul’s boss’s biggest rival. ‘Enriched by juicy details only a quintessential insider could know, written with both satiric sharpness and sensitivity, Muse is a love letter to the people who write, sell – and, above all, read – the books that shape our lives’ says the publisher. See what I mean by irresistible…

Cover imageEnding on a very different note, Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing takes us to rural East Prussia in January 1945 where the wealthy von Globigs have hidden themselves away from the horrors taking place on their doorstep. When they take in a stranger it seems that they will finally have to face the consequences of the war. ‘Profoundly evocative of the period, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end’ says the publisher. The novel is translated by Anthea Bell which makes it well worth a look for me.

That’s it for July. As ever, if you’d like to know more a click on a title will take you to my review for the novels I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I haven’t. if you’d like to catch up with the hardback selections they’re here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2016

Cover imageI like to start these previews off with a book I can heartily recommend and I’m delighted to say that’s easy this April as two of my 2015 favourites hit the shops in paperback. Hard to choose which I enjoyed most so I’m starting with one and ending with the other. Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s wonderful Himmler’s Cook took me on a romp through twentieth century history. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ a credo that’s got her through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband. Rose is a fabulous character and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s protagonist in Hausfrau is the antithesis of Rose, living a life in the Zurich suburbs so attenuated she’s almost faded into its background. Anna is an American who moved to Switzerland with Bruno nine years ago when pregnant with their oldest son. Bruno has settled back into Swiss life, living a short walk from his mother, but Anna has never felt she belongs there, speaking only the most basic German. Her psychiatrist has suggested she join a language class which might make her feel more of a participant than a bystander. Soon, Anna begins an affair and over the course of three months, finds herself embroiled and beleaguered until a calamitous event shakes her to her core. Essbaum’s language is striking and Anna’s story well told. Well worth a read.

The next three are new to me, although I’ve had my eye on Owen Sheer’s I Saw a Man for some time. It’s about Michael Turner who has lost his wife and is now living in London next door to the Nelsons with whom he has become close friends. For Michael, the Nelsons represent everything he has lost but their friendship is a solace to him until a catastrophe changes everything. The synopsis sounds a little trite but Sheers is a fine writer with a reputation for lyrical prose and I suspect his book will be worth reading for that alone.Cover image

I spend quite lot of time banging on about lousy jackets but in this particular case, it’s the jacket that’s sold the book to me so I can only hope the contents live up to it. Nell Leyshon’s Memoirs of a Dipper is about Gary, a seasoned thief, trained by his father on the job when he was just a child. He’s already done a stint inside, coming out of prison a career criminal. Bright, opportunistic, he knows all the moves ‘but all that changes when he falls for Mandy…’ is the nice little teaser from the publisher. A little outside my usual purview but I do like that cover

The same could be said of Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress which is set in 1255 but Elizabeth Gilbert’s description of it as ‘so beautiful, so rich, so strange’ has piqued my interest. Sarah is seventeen when she decides to be an anchoress, shutting herself away in a tiny cell beside the village church. She’s turned her back on the world and devoted herself to prayer in an attempt to escape her grief for her sister and her family’s determination that she should marry. Things, of course, are never so simple. ‘Cadwallader’s powerful debut novel tells an absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear and the very human need for connection and touch. With a poetic intelligence, Cadwallader explores the relationship between the mind, body and spirit in Medieval England in a story that will hold the reader in a spell until the very last page’ say the publishers.

Cover imageI’m rounding things off with my other 2015 favourite, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth which was commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.

That’s it for April paperbacks. A click on anything I haven’t already reviewed will take you to a fuller synopsis should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with new titles for the month they’re here and here.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 3

Our Souls at NightMy third batch of 2015 favourites starts off on a note of sadness. I’ve long been a champion of Kent Haruf’s beautifully pared back, elegant novels set in Holt, Colorado and so was very sorry to hear that Our Souls at Night was to be his last. Haruf died in 2014, a sad loss at only sixty-nine. This final novel is also set in Holt – how could it not be? – and feels like a fitting end to the series: a beautiful, tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow. Haruf’s insightful writing is clean and simple, stripped of ornament and all the more powerful for it.

My second June choice is also notable for its gorgeous writing. Beginning in 1997, Tender portrays the pain of being gay in a country that had only decriminalised homosexuality five years before. Catherine and James meet in Dublin when James returns from his Berlin stint as a photographer’s assistant to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. Entirely different from each other, they almost instantly click. Eventually, James tells Catherine he’s gay and soon she‘s basking in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those he’s not yet told. Eventually things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. It’s a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one, particularly as I read it at the time of the June referendum on gay marriage in Ireland which answered the question with a resounding ‘yes’. Good enough for me to include on my Man Booker wish list but, once again, the judges thought otherwise.

Entirely different, Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook took me on a romp through Cover imagetwentieth century history. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ a credo that’s got her through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband. Rose is a fabulous character and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters.

Andreas Egger, the protagonist of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, is the antithesis of Rose, leaving his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia where he remained for nine years as a prisoner-of-war. It’s barely one hundred and sixty pages, but Seethaler’s novel reveals a life far richer than you might expect. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he’s a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. A lovely novel whose setting reminded me of holidays past.

It’s always a joy when a favourite author returns to form after a string of disappointments. William Boyd’s new novel has its feet firmly planted in Any Human Heart territory after several dalliances with thrillers. I’d all but given up on him but the synopsis for Sweet Caress was hard to resist. It follows the life of Amory Clay whose photography takes her from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. Boyd at his best is hard to beat. He’s a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail, seamlessly threading historical bits and pieces through his narrative. Critical reception was a little mixed, apparently, but I thought this was a fine novel, both entertaining and enlightening.

Cover imageThis summer selection ends with Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family which appeared on the Man Booker longlist – at last we agreed. 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. 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.

That’s it for summer favourites. A click on a title will take you to my review. Just one more short post for the rest of the year before it’s time to look forward to 2016, and the delights on offer in January. If you missed the first two posts they’re here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in October 2015

Cover imageSad to say I’ve not found many titles that appeal in the October paperback lists. Lots of commercial big names but the more literary variety seem to be even further in the back seat than usual. I’ve reviewed only one so I’ll start with that. Per Petterson’s I Refuse seems even more sombre than his previous novels to me. Two men, close friends when they were young, meet briefly one morning by coincidence. Expensively dressed, Tommy has just parked his car when he spots Jim, shabby in his old reefer coat. Each recognises the other despite the thirty years since their last meeting. Tommy’s remarks about his expensive Mercedes are made perhaps more from embarrassment than anything else but they bite. The rest of the novel is an overlapping mosaic of memories framed within the events of that September day. It’s a fine novel – melancholic yet beautiful in its simplicity.

In Julia Franck’s West Nelly Senff is desperate to escape her life in East Berlin and the constant surveillance of the Stasi. She and her children are held in Marienfelde, a refugee processing centre and no-man’s-land between East and West where she meets several others hoping to make a new life – and John, a CIA man looking for possible Stasi spies. I read Back to Back two years ago, set just as the Wall was going up, and had mixed feelings about it but West sounds intriguing and I’m a sucker for novels which explore that East/West divide, particularly after visiting Berlin.

I’m afraid that’s all I have to offer apart from the welcome reissue of Louisa Young’s Anglo-Cover imageEgyptian trilogy: Baby Love, Desiring Cairo and Tree of Pearls. I read and enjoyed these three back in my bookselling days. None of them seemed to get the attention they deserved but I suspect Young’s publishers are hoping to gain a wider readership off the back of her successful First World War novels, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and The Heroes’ Welcome. Angeline Gower is the star of all three, bringing up the daughter of her sister killed when riding pillion on a motorbike driven by Angeline whose belly dancing career took a tumble thanks to her own injuries. Her sister’s shady past threatens Lily’s safety when Angeline gets into trouble with the police. This may all sound a little improbable and that’s a particularly fluffy shade of pink in the background of the new jacket but, trust me, it’s a thoroughly entertaining set of novels with a nice edge of suspense running through it.

That’s it for October, perhaps the shortest preview so far this year. As ever, a click on any title apart from I Refuse will take you to Waterstones for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with the decidedly meatier selection of hardbacks for the month they’re here.

The First Thing You See by Grégoire Delacourt (transl. Anthea Bell): A sweet meditation on the curse of beauty

Cover imageA couple of years ago I picked up Grégoire Delacourt’s The List of My Desires to read on a train on my way to meet a friend. It looked a little fluffy but the synopsis was attractive and I thought it would suit if there were no seats in the quiet carriage. I polished it off between Bath and Birmingham. It had lots to say about sudden wealth and the way in which our fantasies can turn sour once realised unless we treat our good fortune with wisdom, all delivered in a delightfully playful style. Delacourt takes a similar tack with The First Thing You See this time turning his attention to our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire.

Twenty-year-old car mechanic Arthur Drefuss lives alone, spending most evenings quietly watching boxed sets or movies. When he hears a knock on his door he hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure – about which Arthur has a bit of a thing – as she is on screen. She tells him she’s been visiting the Deauville Film Festival. Desperate to escape the glare of the spotlight for a few days, she’s stumbled upon Arthur’s village, hoping to find someone who would take her in. Of course, it’s not Ms Johansson. Jeanine Foucamprez unmasks herself after a day or so and tells Arthur that she’s longed for him since she saw his kindness to a young girl when modelling for a supermarket advertising campaign. These two are wounded souls: Arthur’s family is devastated by the loss of his little sister, his father taking off one day never to be seen again and his mother taking refuge in drink, while Jeanine has been cursed by her beauty since childhood, abused by her stepfather, endlessly slavered over by men and distrusted by women. Over the course of seven days, these two will find a way to love and trust each other, baring their souls and their hearts.

Delacourt uses a lighthearted, mischievous style to deliver quite a punch with his fable-like novel. Jeanine and ‘Ryan-Gosling-only-better-looking’ Arthur are both emotional casualties. She’s a prisoner of the voluptuous beauty which no one seems capable of seeing beyond but has brave hopes for Arthur. Everyone wants her to be their fantasy, sexual, or otherwise, but she longs to be loved for herself. Delacourt’s characterisation is affectionate and funny – PP, Arthur’s boss, likes to look at well-rounded ladies on the internet but is thrilled by the prospect of Arthur finding true love. Both Arthur and Jeanine’s stories are poignantly told but Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness. It’s a powerful message which begins with the novel’s title – a meditation on our obsession with beauty, celebrity and the consequences for those lumbered with one or both, delivered in a deceptively simple package stuffed full of filmic references and peppered with poetic quotations. It’s a little gem and it’s been a long time in the offing in translation. Shortly after I wrote this review the Guardian enlightened me as to just why: Ms Johansson was not amused, apparently.

Himmler’s Cook by Franz-Olivier Giesbert (transl. by Anthea Bell): A romp through twentieth-century misery

Cover imagePerhaps it’s because those of us in the privileged developed world are living longer – that and the advent of a new century – but there seems to be a little trend for novels written from the point of view of a centenarian bystander, someone who’s rubbed shoulders with those who’ve shaped our world for good or ill: Any Human Heart, The End of Days and The Hundred-Year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared spring to mind. Himmler’s Cook, is another along these lines and it was this that made me pick it up although its clever jacket was another draw. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest.

Rose makes no bones about other people: she can’t stand complainers as she says from the start. When she’s mugged by a young man calling himself the Cheetah, she suspects he’s from a comfortable middle class home and decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant having learnt the joys of cooking from her adoptive mother. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ easing the pain of tragedy by means of her beauty and wit to extract the latter while enjoying the former to the full. Giesbert takes his sassy heroine from her early years in Armenia to her confrontation with ‘the Cheetah’ – aka Ryan – after his second transgression, taking in a good deal of blood-spilling, cooking, lovemaking and adventure, not to mention a surprisingly long passage on sheep castration, along the way.

Already a bestseller in France, I suspect Himmler’s Cook is aimed firmly at the Jonasson market here in the UK. Rose is a vividly memorable character, announcing ‘History is a bitch’ then going on to explain just why. Her favourite song is The Jackson Five’s Can You Feel It? and she’s a great admirer of Patti Smith. She believes in living each day as if it’s her last, proclaiming ‘rid yourself of self-esteem or you will never know love’ despite her own supreme self-confidence. Well known names pepper her narrative – Sartre and de Beauvoir regularly dine in her restaurant, Himmler’s bewitched by both her body and her food while Felix Kirsten advises her on how to handle Hitler’s police chief. There’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters. Altogether an enjoyable romp although I felt that Giesbert skated over Rose’s long Chinese sojourn, cramming it into a few short chapters. There’s a lovely description of her adoptive mother that those of us who feel they should read less and get out more will appreciate: ‘ she had never travelled further afield than to Manosque, but thanks to the books she read she had lived a full life.’ Quite so.

Books to Look Out For in June 2015: Part 1

TenderSuch are the many and varied splendours of the June publishing schedules that I’m going to spread them over two posts. Hard to choose which of the first two I’m looking forward to most – both authors are notable for their understated yet lyrical writing but I’ve been waiting four years for Belinda McKeon’s second novel. Her much-lauded debut, Solace, was one of the finest novels I read in 2011, the year it was published.  Set in the late 1990s, Tender is the story of Catherine and James who meet in Dublin, both fresh from rural Ireland. While Catherine welcomes life with open arms, James retreats into himself and their friendship founders. If it’s only half as good as Solace, Tender will be a very fine book indeed.

Hard to follow that but for me Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night is equally to be anticipated. Haruf’s elegant, small town novellas set in his home state of Colorado are an absolute joy to read. He died last year and I wondered if knowledge of what was coming might have coloured the melancholic Benediction. This final novel takes us back to Holt where Addie Moore, widowed for twenty years and lonely, pays the equally bereft Louis Waters a visit and puts a proposition to him. If you haven’t yet discovered Haruf please do try him, particularly if you’re a fan of that pared-back style I’m always banging on about.  

Both a poet and a novelist, Owen Sheers has quite a reputation for lyrical prose, too. His new novel, I Saw a Man, is about Michael Turner who has lost his wife and is now living in London next door to the Nelsons with whom he has become close friends. For Michael, the Nelsons represent everything he has lost but their friendship is a solace to him until a catastrophe changes everything. The synopsis sounds a little trite but Sheers is a fine writer and I suspect his book will be worth reading for that alone.Cover image

Julia Rochester’s debut, The House at the Edge of the World, also involves a death in the family. John Venton’s drunken spree lands him at the bottom of a cliff when Morwenna is only eighteen. The family scatters – Morwenna’s twin in one direction, she in another, while her mother happily turns her back on years of miserable marriage. Only her grandfather stays on in the family home. Seventeen years later they all meet again in the eponymous house and, as in all the best family stories, dark secrets begin to surface. I like the sound of this –  the family secret trope can be riveting if handled well.

Last year I read and enjoyed Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, her account of the time she spent as an assistant to the eponymous reclusive’s literary agent. Bloomsbury are publishing her first novel A Fortunate Age off the back of her memoir’s success. A coming-of-age novel, it revolves around a group of college friends who are just starting out in late ’90s Brooklyn. I’d like to think it will be one of those absorbing novels played out on a small canvas: lots of opportunities for rivalries, domestic crisis, friendships made and broken – you know the kind. However a glance at Goodreads suggests it’s not an unalloyed joy. No doubt I’ll read it anyway

Cover imageChurlish as it may sound, after last year’s seemingly endless parade of titles about the First World War, I’ve been avoiding anything war-related – with the honourable exception of Catherine Hall’s The Repercussions – but Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook sounds like an unusual take on the subject. Cook to Himmler, confidante to Hitler and Simone de Beauvoir’s pal to boot, Rose has not only managed to survive the Armenian genocide, the Nazis and the horrors of Mao Zedong’s regime but has maintained her zest for life throughout. Now 105, she’s recounting her life in what sounds like a thoroughly entertaining tale, tall or otherwise.

That’s it for the first batch of June titles. A click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis. Look out for the second instalment sometime in a week or so, and if you’d like to catch up with May titles you’ll find hardbacks here and paperbacks here.