Tag Archives: Atlantic Books

Lot by Bryan Washington: No place like home

Cover imageBryan Washington’s Lot comes garlanded with praise from all manner of people not least Max Porter, whose own writing has caught the eye of a multitude of reviewers, but it was Jami Attenberg’s description of it as her ‘favourite fiction debut of the year’ which piqued my interest. Billed as a collection of short stories, Washington’s book comprises thirteen pieces – some snapshots, others much longer – all firmly rooted in Houston, Texas. That said, for me it read like a fragmentary novella through which runs the story of a narrator whose name we finally learn in the book’s last section.

The son of a black mother and a Latino father grows up in a rundown Houston neighbourhood where his family scrapes a living running a restaurant. Our narrator discovers a liking for boys while his brother entertains an endless parade of women and their sister works hard at finding a way out. Their father eventually leaves, packing his bags after a long string of nights with his lover, then our narrator’s brother joins the army after one too many skirmishes and his sister marries a white man. Finally, his mother goes home to Louisiana leaving him alone, faced with the question what’s keeping him and finding a surprising answer. Threaded through these episodes are stories of others who share the city: a beautiful woman whose affair with a white man ends in tragedy when the local gossips reveal it; two sushi restaurant workers who think they’ve found a way to make their fortune with a strange creature found abandoned; a young man’s john becomes his lover offering kindness he can hardly believe. These thirteen pieces are woven together to form a tapestry of life in a city full to bursting with diversity.

East End in the evening is a bottle of noise, with the strays scaling the fences and the viejos garbling on porches, and their wives talking shit in their kitchens on Wayland, sucking up all the air, swallowing everyone’s voices whole, bubbling under the bass booming halfway down Dowling  

The sense of place in Lot is so strong you can almost see, smell, taste and hear it. There are neighbourhoods where one of the smartest things a boy can do is get himself apprenticed to a well-connected savvy dealer, others where white boys who see themselves as cool live because they think it’s the real Houston while those with no choice are hoping for escape. Washington’s writing is striking: sometimes poetic, often raw, vibrant and immediate. Here’s a tiny sample of the many quotes I pulled out:

It was the house you shook your head at when you drove up the road  

My father was a handsome man. Wore his skin like a sunburnt peach  

We filled the corners with our silence. It leaked into the hallway. If you didn’t know us better you might call us content  

He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around  

These are stories which explore, sex, love, identity and the meaning of home with empathy and wit. They’re not always an easy read but the writing is so powerful sometimes it makes you stop to catch your breath.

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Shifting cultures

Cover imageXuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection comes garlanded with praise from Lauren Groff, herself no slouch when it comes to crafting short stories. Wang explores the second-generation immigrant experience through the lens of experience, having arrived in the States with her parents aged seven. Her collection comprises twelve lengthy stories divided into three sections: Family, Love, and Time and Space.

Home Remedies begins with ‘Mott Street in July’ which sees three children of Chinese immigrants left to fend for themselves in the one-bedroom flat they’ve long outgrown, their eyes fixed on an American future. Its dreamlike quality is mirrored in the final story ‘The Art of Straying Off Course’, a whirlwind of snapshots which takes us through an architect’s life as her career progresses until she visits her ancestral home, neatly bookending the collection. One of my favourites, ‘Vaulting the Sea’, is about two seven-year-old boys, future Olympic hopefuls, who become the closest of friends but as they grow older one wants more from the other than he’s able to give. The titular ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments’ is made up of a list of emotional ills with advice for remedying them, from dealing with a crush on an ageing professor to avoiding a father’s grief-stricken phone calls when his ancient dog dies. In ‘Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships’ a divorced computer scientist muses on the failure of his logical approach to his relationship with his daughter who has never known the hunger he endured and doesn’t appreciate the fact that he knows to the dollar how much it has cost to raise her. ‘The Strawberry Years’ has a photographer struggling to make ends meet and fed up with the multitude of requests to look after Chinese visitors, one of who seems intent on taking over his apartment with her burgeoning Livestream audience’s approval.

Told mostly from the perspective of young Chinese, these are poignant, sharply observed stories often undercut with a dark humour. Some explore intergenerational relationships and the gulf which exists between the expectations and experience of parents and children. They reveal the sheer pace of change for many Chinese, from the living memory of the Cultural Revolution to expectations of a future little different from those of wealthy Americans. Wang’s characters range from the spoilt second-generation rich boy, returning from the States after an act of cruelty for which his best friend may have to pay, to the young man who agrees to a marriage he knows will make him a rich man but at a high price. Her writing is plain yet striking:

His father was a coal miner, a thin, muscular man who looked permanently charred

The blue-eyed girl was still holding on to his hand and he was about to ask “Where is the party?” but the words came to him in Chinese. Then like a voice in an interrupted dream, they flew out of him in perfect English  

I liked the girl I married very much, but not the woman she became after we immigrated to America  

Not all the stories worked for me but it’s an interesting collection which explores a culture I’m ashamed to say I know far less about than I should.

Lost Property by Laura Beatty: A road trip through history in search of meaning

Cover imageI’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.

Our narrator is a writer living in London with her partner who organises tours to Greece. After an exchange with the beggar who’s set herself up close to our narrator’s flat, complete with a banner labelled ‘BritAnnia’, our narrator finds herself in a dark place. What has become of her country which goes about its business, turning away from people sleeping on the streets? She and her partner pack up their belongings and take off for France. Rupert is a pragmatist, happy to go along with his partner’s quest while accepting the state of the world she finds so troubling. As our narrator explores European nations’ intertwined histories on her laptop, their journey takes them through France, on to Italy then into Slovenia and the Balkans until they reach Greece and come face to face with the refugee crisis. They volunteer in a camp on the island of Chios where our narrator finally lets go of the fear that has gripped her. Along the way, they encounter a multitude of historical, literary and mythological characters, from Eustace II who fought alongside William the Conqueror to Jean of Arc, from Christine de Pizan to Hermes. By the end of this odyssey, our narrator has found a degree of peace and understanding about what nationhood means to her.

That rather trite synopsis is a feeble attempt to encapsulate this ambitious novel. Beatty pokes gentle fun at Eustace who takes up residence in the campervan and interjects cynical smart remarks into our narrator’s conversation with Rupert, making her device palatable for those of us who might feel a wee bit uneasy with it. Our narrator’s idealism is neatly counterbalanced by Rupert’s pragmatism, allowing Beatty to explore both sides of the argument. Her writing is often striking, her historical vignettes illuminating and vivid, although occasionally delivered with a little too much detail for me. Inevitably, given that the search for the meaning of nationhood is at its heart, I couldn’t help reading Lost Property as a Brexit novel although its scope is far wider than that. It’s not an easy read – it’s hasn’t been easy to write about and I fear I haven’t done it justice – but it’s a richly rewarding one, and it’ll make you think.

The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey: A study of a marriage

Cover imageI’m a great fan of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s writing and was delighted when The Narrow Land turned up. It’s been quite some time since The Lives of Women and I’d wondered if there was a new one from her in the offing. This beautifully jacketed book, adorned with Edward Hopper’s ‘Sea Watchers’, spans the summer of 1950, one of many he spent with his wife, Josephine, at their Cape Cod summer home. Dwyer’s novel explores the marriage between these two artists – one acclaimed, the other not.

Jo Hopper is both fiercely possessive of her husband and resentful of the attention he attracts. Her own work is overlooked, despite her many protestations that she is also an artist, her attempts to secure an exhibition frustrated. Her waspish outspokenness and inability to bite her tongue have won her a reputation yet she longs to be accepted. Into this walks ten-year-old Michael, a German war orphan rescued by the charity set up by the Kaplans, the Hoppers’ neighbours. Traumatised by the war, Michael is not quite the summer companion Mrs Kaplan had envisaged for her grandson, spending much of his time on his own until he meets Jo with whom he forms an unlikely connection. When they’re invited to the Kaplans’ annual Labor Day party, Jo is both eager at the prospect of having an audience to impress and reluctant to be seen as simply a wife rather than an artist in her own right. The taciturn Edward has his own reasons for attending having spied a possible muse in Katherine Kaplan after a summer of straining for an image that will form the centre of his next work.

Hickey’s novel is such a pleasingly nuanced piece of writing. It would have been easy simply to focus on Edward Hopper but Hickey chooses to explore the character of his wife from whose perspective a great deal of the narrative is delivered. Jo’s waspish tirades, which occasionally degenerate into physical fighting, leave her incapable of kind words or displaying the affection she feels but her connection with Michael reveals another side to her, curious and engaging. The Hoppers may be centre stage, but Michael is the quiet star of the show, his plight explored with sensitivity and compassion. The well-meaning Kaplans, suffering their own wartime losses, offer hospitality to this child who has witnessed what to them is unimaginable, yet fail to understand what he’s been through and how that might affect his behaviour. All of this is couched in Hickey’s subtle yet precise writing, unshowy and often appropriately painterly:

The zest of summer still on the air, the roadsides plush with wildflowers that don’t yet know their days are numbered

He never even raised his hand to comfort his slapped ear

Some of these days he can hardly remember. They seemed to have slipped through the cracks in the floorboards as soon as he got out of bedCape Cod Morning, 1950 Edward Hopper

Hickey’s novel ends with Edward Hopper finding his long sought inspiration in an unexpected place, resulting in ‘Cape Cod Morning, 1950’.

Reading The Narrow Land brought to mind Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, which also sees a young boy striking up a friendship with two artists married to each other – Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh whose work met with the acclaim that Hickey’s Jo Hopper so desperately craved.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Doing the dirty work

Cover imageI couldn’t resist the blurb for Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men,  My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, sharp blackly funny novel.

It’s not the first time Korede’s dealt with her sister’s victims. She meticulously cleans Femi’s flat, wraps his body and puts it in the boot of her car before disposing of him in the river, just like the other two. Ayoola looks on while Korede labours away, only helping to carry Femi when cajoled into action. She’s shocked, claiming self-defence, but within days she’s slipped back into her usual routine. Korede and Ayoola are the antithesis of each other: Korede is plain, practical and responsible, in line for promotion to head nurse; Ayoola spends her time loafing around, posting on social media and beguiling men with her gorgeousness. When she visits the hospital for the first time, curious to meet the man with whom her sister is clearly smitten the inevitable happens. Will Tade be Ayoola’s fourth victim? How can Korede protect them both?

Braithwaite’s debut is a caper with a sharp edge. Told in Korede’s wry voice, it’s punctuated with snapshots of the bullying, corrupt father prepared to let a colleague get his hands on his fourteen-year-old daughter in order to seal a deal. Korede’s apparently unbreakable bond with her sister is based on protectiveness and love. If men don’t come out of this very well, too easily led by beauty and quick to resort to violence, neither do women who gossip, judge each other and trade looks for money and status. Braithwaite delivers all this with a mix of almost slapstick comedy and sharp wit coupled with a page-turning pace. A smartly inventive debut, already bound for 2019’s books of the year list for me. I wonder what Braithwaite will come up with next.

Flames by Robbie Arnott: Love trumps all

Cover imageFlames is not an easy book to write about. It’s quite some way out of my usual literary territory, steeped as it is in fantasy and folklore, but I’m delighted that I overcame my prejudice and jumped in. Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead.

The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern. Levi appears to take it all in his stride but Charlotte is distraught, howling and screeching with a grief so wrenching it leaves Levi at a loss. These two are very different yet they share a bond of love. Levi decides that the best he can do for Charlotte is to save her from the same fate as their mother, commissioning a coffin which will contain her when the time comes. When Charlotte sees his notes, she takes off to a remote area of Tasmania, once a mining site now a wombat farm tended by a farmer who loves his stock devotedly. Panicked by her disappearance, Levi sets a private detective on Charlotte’s trail. Meanwhile, Charlotte has found herself a job as a farm hand. By the time the detective has tracked her down, events have taken a very dark turn at the farm where a large and glossy cormorant appears to be wreaking havoc.

Arnott’s novel is one of the most striking I’ve read this year. Told from a variety of perspectives – from a water-rat king to a foul-mouthed coffin maker, a man-made of fire to another driven mad by it – it could very easily have had me tossing it aside after a few pages but it drew me in with its gorgeous writing. From its show-stopping opening paragraph, it’s stuffed full of vivid images of the natural – and unnatural – world, its fantastical story tempered with humour. Arnott knits the threads of his tale together satisfyingly, returning us at its end to one of my favourite sections when a man discovers the joy of finding his other half who is not what you might expect. I’m not going to strain to find a meaning to it all – that would destroy its delight – but it’s safe to say that love of more than one sort triumphs. My advice is just sit back and enjoy the ride

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Home is not necessarily where the heart is

Cover imagePerhaps because I’ve only lived in one country, I’m perennially attracted to the immigrant experience in fiction which is why Elaine Castillo’s debut caught my eye. Set in the Californian city of Milpitas in the early ‘90s, it’s about a Filipino community and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp.

Hero hasn’t spoken to her parents since 1976 when she dropped out of medical school and became involved with the New People’s Army. Never part of their guerrilla attacks, Hero patched up her comrades until she was snatched and incarcerated for two years, leaving her with badly broken hands. Her favourite uncle offers her a home in the States where she’s an illegal and unable to work. Instead, she looks after her sassy seven-year-old niece Roni of whom she becomes increasingly fond. Her aunt is not so welcoming. Paz takes as many nursing shifts as she can, stubbornly intent on Roni’s betterment while Pol works as a security guard, his impeccable surgical reputation useless without accreditation. Paz and Pol come from very different backgrounds: he’s from a wealthy family with connections to President Marcos; she’s from a dirt poor, hardscrabble home. Their mother tongues are not the same; their food preferences differ widely; despite her training Paz holds firm to the old superstitions. Paz proudly stood her ground against the womanising Pol for a long time but he was determined. Now their marriage seems unequal. This is the strained household into which Hero must fit herself, made easier when she meets Rosalyn and finds a second home.

America is Not the Heart is a big, sometimes baggy novel that draws you in after a slowish start. Castillo deftly weaves the benighted history of the Philippines into Hero’s story both through flashbacks and family history. Pol and Paz neatly personify the archipelago’s intensely stratified society, a chasm between their ethnic, social and economic backgrounds which seems impossible to bridge although it’s Paz who’s the breadwinner in their American household. Castillo captures the insularity of a community in which the many signals of where each member sits in Filipino society are present and correct, evoking it particularly vividly in Rosalyn’s fury at her own ignorance when she contemplates moving out of Milpitas. The characterisation is strong – Hero and Rosalyn are polar opposites yet their relationship feels entirely credible. And Castillo writes about sex well, unafraid to use a bit of humour – not an easy feat to pull off as winners of the Bad Sex Award will no doubt tell you. Just one criticism, I could have done with a glossary. Lots of googling interrupted the reading flow for me. That said, Castillo’s debut is entertaining, engrossing and enlightening. Can’t say better than that.

The Break by Katherena Vermette: Surviving the odds

Cover imageI’m a frequent visitor to Naomi’s Consumed by Ink. She often whets my appetite for Canadian novels that seem right up my street but for some reason rarely find their way to the UK. I was particularly taken by her review of Katherena Vermette’s debut last year and delighted to find it was to be published here. It’s about an indigenous family, already contending with a history of violence and loss, faced with an appalling sexual assault on one of their daughters.

Woken by her teething baby, Stella looks out of her window one moonlit night and sees an act of violence she thinks is a rape. She rings the police but when she looks again there’s no sign of the assailants or their victim. When the police finally arrive – the younger one keen, the older one dismissive of this crime committed on the strip of land which divides the up and coming white neighbourhood from the indigenous – the only evidence is a pool of blood. Next morning, thirteen-year-old Emily is rushed to hospital by her mother’s partner after collapsing. Later that day, her best friend Ziggy is brought in, beaten about the face. Emily has been the victim of a horrible crime on the way home from a gang party she and Ziggy had stumbled into, finding themselves out of their depth. As the police try to piece together what has happened to these two friends, a picture of a community emerges in which most men are either absent, feckless or violent, and damaged women either survive or go under.

The Break was never going to be an easy read but such is Vermette’s skill that she succeeds in drawing her readers into this story in which domestic and sexual violence is more common than not. The novel’s perspective shifts from character to character, effectively unfolding the events leading up to the attack and its investigation while creating a multi-layered portrait of the tight-knit community to which Emily belongs. Vermette is careful with her characterisation, no black and white caricatures here including the perpetrator. She meticulously reveals the low buzz of racism, the particular difficulties faced by people of mixed race and the pull of one culture over another but her strength lies in her portrayal of women and the bonds between them despite the harshness of their lives. All this may sound unremittingly dark but Vermette’s story is riveting, her characters convincing and there is hope in the form of young men who find ways to avoid the lure of drink and drugs, looking out for their younger siblings. A tough read, then, but a rewarding one thoroughly deserving of the Margaret Atwood endorsement adorning its jacket.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan: A tasty bit of fun

Cover imageRobin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a 2013 favourite for me. I’ve been waiting patiently for something else from him having been a little disappointed by Mr Penumbra’s prequel, Ajax Penumbra 1969, and was delighted to spot Sourdough on the January horizon. It’s the story of a young woman who is given a sourdough starter, so hungry it may take over the world.

Just a year out of college, Lois lands a plum job in San Francisco helping to design the perfect robotic arm but it’s far from the dream she envisaged. Her nose firmly to the grindstone, her stomach cramped with stress, she exists on a diet of Slurry, the convenient nutritive gel championed by her boss. One day she finds a flyer advertising spicy soup and bread stuck to her apartment door. Desperate for comfort, she places her order with a friendly young man and another delivers it. Soon she’s addicted to their lip-smacking produce but Beo and Chaiman are moving back to their parents in Edinburgh. Before they go, Beo gives Lois his sourdough starter with instructions to play it the background music she’s familiar with from her nightly orders, and an email address. Lois, of course, has no clue how to bake bread but she knows how to set about learning. Soon she discovers there’s more to life than robotics, setting up a small sideline selling bread to General Dexterity’s trophy chef who suggests she auditions for a coveted stall at a farmers market. There she meets a young woman who offers her a place at a market no one else seems to have heard of where all manner of weird and wonderful food is being developed.

Sourdough is just the thing to brighten up a dull winter evening. Lois is an engaging narrator, determined to find a way to make her new hobby pay enough to liberate herself from the grind of her day job, and there’s the promise of a tentative love story threaded through Beo’s emails. A few well-aimed swipes are taken at the modern world which seems either to have lost its taste buds or to have become obsessed with them and is unable to find a middle way. And who can resist a novel whose star is a megalomaniac sourdough starter that puts on a light show, sings to itself and is kept in check by Grateful Dead tracks. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment which, like Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, has something to say about the way we live – and eat – now.

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.