Tag Archives: Bill Clegg

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover imageSome particularly delectable paperback treats in store for September, all but one of which I’ve already read and reviewed, beginning with Francesca Kay’s The Long Room set in the last few weeks of 1981 when terrorism was in full swing in Northern Ireland. In an MI5 back office, Stephen listens to tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When he’s called to a meeting by an operative concerned about the loyalty of a colleague, he finds himself listening to the comings and goings at the Greenwood household. Soon he’s obsessed with Helen Greenwood, convinced he’s in love with her. Judgement is clouded, risks are taken and before too long Stephen has found his way down a very dangerous path. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.

Music is the obsession that brings Mahsa and Katherine together in Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life an engrossing tale of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Mahsa finds escape in music after she becomes the ward of her uncle in Karachi, winning a scholarship to Montreal where she finds liberation, fulfilment and adventure, eventually meeting Katherine. The child of a Chinese father and a white mother, jailed in 1940 when her baby daughter was a mere three months old for ‘incorrigible’ behaviour, Katherine has carved out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with passionate determination.  There’s so much to admire about this absorbing novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing. I hope it gets more attention in paperback than it did when it was first published here in the UK.

Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina & Fran is about a very different friendship, no less enduring in its way.Cover image Paulina rampages around her New England college campus in a fury of contempt towards her fellow aspiring artists, sleeping with all and sundry whenever an opportunity presents itself. She and Fran become bosom buddies on a study trip to Norway, curling their lips at the world together. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over a line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other. Glaser’s book is a raucous, roller-coaster of a novel, both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant.

There’s much more of the latter in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family which unfolds the aftermath of a tragedy in a beautifully nuanced, multi-layered narrative, skilfully interweaving the many stories of those affected by it. 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 and heads west across the country, holing up in the Moonstone motel for months. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s elegantly crafted novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.

Cover imageMy final paperback choice seems appropriate after that – Max Porter’s much-lauded, award-winning Grief is the Thing with Feathers. As a father faces the awfulness of their mother’s sudden death with his two young sons, they’re visited by Crow a smelly ‘self-described sentimental bird’ who is determined to stay until they no longer need him. It sounds a little outlandish but the book’s beauty of expression and honesty of sentiment has been much praised. ‘Full of unexpected humour and profound emotional truth, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers marks the arrival of a thrilling new talent’ say the publishers and reviewers seem to agree..

That’s it for September paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first four novels, should you want to know more, and to a fuller synopsis for the Porter. If you’d like to catch up with the rest of September’s preview it’s 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.

Did You Ever Have a Family: Hope springs eternal

Cover imageYou may already know that Bill Clegg’s debut has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. It’s only the second novel from the list I’ve read – the other’s A Spool of Blue Thread. I know that many readers are in the grip of A Little Life mania but Did You Ever Have a Family is so extraordinarily good it’s going to be hard to beat. It unfolds the aftermath of a tragedy in a beautifully nuanced, multi-layered narrative, skilfully interweaving the many stories of those affected by it.

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. She leaves behind a fifteen-year-old-boy who can’t escape the events of that night, her boyfriend’s mother and a morass of gossip and speculation. Black and twenty years June’s junior, Luke had a jail sentence for drug trafficking behind him. His mother married into a well-respected family, only to find herself mistreated then thrown out when she gave birth to Luke. A string of bad choices culminated in the man who framed her son, triggering an estrangement recently repaired with the help of June whose own fractured relationship with her daughter has only just begun to heal. After the funerals, June heads west across the country, holing up in Room 6 of the Moonstone motel for months until a rapprochement is made and some sort of peace found. 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.

Clegg is well-known in the States as a literary agent. As I read this elegantly crafted novel I wondered if those skills had honed his work in the way that William Maxwell’s – much-lauded for his editorial light touch and the author of some of the finest novels I’ve read – did for his writing. Narrated from many different perspectives, each chapter unfolds another aspect of what has happened, subtlety shading in the back stories of the character in question and their view of this small disaster – from the unpaid caterer who cannot bring himself to pursue his fee, to Luke’s mother, the butt of gossip since she was a schoolgirl now so desperately lonely she tells her story to a telephone scammer knowing full well what he’s up to. Characters are expertly drawn, pernicious smalltown gossip quietly conveyed, the line between weekender and local beautifully delineated: ‘We live in a pricey museum, one that’s only open on weekends, and we are its janitors’ says Edith, the florist, neatly encapsulating the weekenders’ expectations and their well-meaning but somewhat patronising attitudes to the locals. It’s not simply a gorgeously told story: it has something to say to us all about the inter-connectedness of humanity, its terrifying fragility and above all, about hope. As Cissy says ‘All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company’. I’ve read many fine novels this year but this is one of the finest. I do hope there’s a second one in the works.

Books to Look Out For in September 2015: Part 2

Cover imageMy second selection for September seems to be made up almost entirely of books by American novelists. No particular reason, it just turned out that way. No starry names either but a couple of the authors already have several excellent novels to their credit so I hope they’ve come up with the goods this time, too.

Anyone who enjoyed Patrick Dewitt’s brilliant Western The Sisters Brothers may well execute a little jig at the prospect of a new novel from him,  even if the title is a little perplexing. Undermajordomo Minor is about Lucien Minor, assistant to the eponymous majordomo of Baron Von Aux’s castle where he meets the beautiful Klara, sadly already spoken for. It’s ‘a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behaviour is laid bare for our hero to observe’, ‘an adventure story, and a mystery, and a searing portrayal of rural Alpine bad behaviour with a brandy tart, but above all it is a love story’ which sounds absolutely marvelous.

I thoroughly enjoyed both The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia so I’m looking forward to Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies very much. It tells the story of a marriage and creative partnership over a period of twenty-four years. Lotto and Mathilde are a glittering, enviable couple, apparently as happy ten years since their wedding as they were on the day itself but things may not be quite what they seem – we’re promised ‘stunning revelations and multiple threads, in prose that is vibrantly alive and original.’ Fingers crossed.

Already longlisted for the Man Booker, American literary agent Bill Clegg’s first novel, Did You Cover imageEver Have a Family, is published in the UK in September and it looks very enticing. June Reid is the only survivor of a house explosion that takes place the morning of her daughter’s wedding. She takes off from her small Connecticut town in the hope of escaping her neighbours and her grief, holing up in a motel on the other side of the country. ‘The novel is a gathering of voices, and each testimony has a new revelation about what led to the catastrophe… everyone touched by the tragedy finds themselves caught in the undertow, as their secret histories finally come to light.’ says the publisher, all of which sounds just the ticket for an absorbing read, if a little wordy.

Appropriately enough, my final September choice is Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans, a set of linked short stories, a form to which I’ve become rather partial. This collection looks at the immigrant experience in America through the eyes of Tara, a single Indian woman in her mid-thirties who travels to the States to look after her teenage niece. It tells the stories of eleven people and spans the entire country with Tara as the common thread. Inevitably, the publishers compare it to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, setting the bar high, but they’re also Lahiri’s publishers so perhaps the comparison is accurate, for once.

Cover imageAnd one last title – this time by an Italian – just to alert the many fans out there, as if they don’t already know – Elena Ferrante’s long awaited The Story of the Lost Child is published in September. I’ve never quite got into the Ferrante fever which seized Twitter and hasn’t yet let go but I’m delighted that the small but perfectly formed Europa publishers have met with such success.

That’s it for September – as ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to check out my first batch of September titles here they are, and if you want to catch up with August the hardbacks are here and the paperbacks are here.