Tag Archives: Books

Paperbacks to look out for in November 2014

Cover imageUnlike October, the November paperback schedules appear to be packed with far too much temptation, at least for me. I’ve only read one of the titles that snagged my attention so I’ll start with that. I’m a great fan of Alice McDermott’s fiction. She’s in the quiet understated school that if you’re a regular reader of this blog you may have noticed is my favourite kind of writing. Her first novel in seven years, Someone is about Marie whose unremarkable story is told in such light brushstrokes and with such empathy that the moments of drama stand out vividly. A lovely novel and one which I hope will introduce McDermott to more British readers.

David Leavitt is another fine novelist whose work I’ve long read and enjoyed. The Two Hotel Francforts is set in neutral Portugal in 1940 when Lisbon is seething with refugees hoping to escape the war through its port. When two American couples strike up a friendship – the conventional Winters, fleeing Paris, and the bohemian Frelengs – a passionate affair ensues with tragic consequences. This one will be at the top of my to buy list – I’ve a weakness for Lisbon and it’s an unusual setting for a wartime novel.

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs is described as ‘a wry and knowing portrait’, and is, apparently, both moving and funny. A once-famous photographer’s career is on the slide along with her bank balance. She turns her back on the city, moves to the country and finds that there’s more to life than work. Doesn’t sound as if it will set the world on fire, I know, but Quindlen’s one of those writers I’d rank alongside Sue Miller in my reliably good, emotionally intelligent fiction pigeonhole.

Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut is irresistible for its title alone. 2 A. M. at the Cat’s Pyjamas, sees three lost souls Cover imagemeet on a snowy Christmas Eve in Philadelphia: nine-year-old aspiring jazz-singer Madeleine Altimari, her teacher apprehensively contemplating a dinner party with her teenage crush and the owner of the legendary Cat’s Pyjamas club, on the brink of closure. These three ‘will discover life’s endless possibilities over the course of one magical night’ – a tad worried about the magical bit but it sounds like a cheering November read.

I’ve picked the next book more on the recommendation of another blogger than the appeal of the publisher’s blurb which is a little off-putting but it is Tinder Press, an imprint I like, and I trust Elena over at Reviews and Words so here we go. It’s Morgan McCarthy’s Strange Girls and Ordinary Women, a ‘lyrical and utterly enthralling story of warped perceptions, female intuition and ‘the other woman’ – see what I mean about the blurb? Alice is convinced her husband is having an affair, Vic is worried about her dear friend Michael’s attraction to Estella. Into the midst of this comes Kaya who is determined to find a way out of her miserable world. We’ll see.

Cover imageMy last choice is Kerrigan in Copenhagen, the first in Thomas E. Kennedy’s Copenhagen quartet, presumably reissued to tie in with the final volume, Beneath the Neon Egg, which is also published this month. I’ve been meaning to catch up with these for some time and now seems a good opportunity. American writer Terence Kerrigan is drowning his sorrows after a lost love, writing a guide to the fifteen hundred pubs and bars of Copenhagen (good luck with that – a wincingly expensive occupation). A great deal of boozing then, but accompanied by lots of literary allusions and jokes, apparently, and like The Two Hotel Francforts it’s set in one of my favourite cities.

That’s it for November, although I do have a bit of a hankering for Claire Cameron’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlisted The Bear but it’s narrated by a five-year-old which has put me off a little. A click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for more information and if you’d like to know what I have my eye on in October you can click on paperbacks or hardbacks.

Books to look out for in October 2014

There’s already a nip of autumn in the air in the UK – a bit unexpected but there it is – so it seemed appropriate to take a dekko at a few books to look out for in October. It used to be one of my favourite publishing months but if you’ve read my August and September posts you’ll know that schedules seem to have shifted a little, spilling over into earlier months rather like the summer sales. As a result, this is going to be a shorter post that I’d expected with only four novels that really push my literary buttons. As ever, a click on the link will take you to Waterstones synopsis should you want to learn more.

Cover imageLet’s start with the cherry on my particular cake: Colm Tóibin’s Nora Webster, set in the late ‘60s in the same small Irish town which Ellis Lacey left in Brooklyn. Left alone with four children, the fiercely intelligent Nora must start again after the premature death of her husband, returning to work and slowly building a life of her own. Brooklyn is one of my favourite novels. Written in gorgeous, elegant prose it’s a quiet masterpiece that will wring your heart. I caught wind of a new Tóibin novel some time ago and am delighted to see it in the October schedules. Lovely nostalgic jacket, too

Next in line is  If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, a fine confident title that will no doubt be mangled when requested in bookshops. It’s a debut set in close-knit ’70s Long Island (that’s sold it to me immediately) and follows a group of young working-class people wrestling with life and all it brings in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Sounds right up my alley and I plan to review it here nearer publication.

My third book’s title is the antithesis of Judy Chicurel’s wordy but enticing debut: Daniel Kehlmann’s F tells the story of three brothers – one a faithless priest, one an artist without integrity, the third a poverty-stricken banker – all of whom are about to take a fateful step. I’ve read and very much enjoyed Kehlmann’s work before. Measuring the World is about two eighteenth century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long-suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border. Very different from the playful, episodic Fame which satirises celebrity and is also immensely enjoyable.

Last but far from least – the second cherry if such a luscious cake exists – is Michel Faber’s Cover imageThe Book of Strange New Things. Fans of The Crimson Petal and the White won’t need any persuasion and if you shied away from that because of its doorstep proportions, please think again. It may be over 800 pages but it’s a rollicking good read which flies by. This one is literally a world away from the grimy nineteenth century slums of Crimson. Funded by a shadowy multinational, Peter is leaving his beloved wife behind, sent to a colony on another planet where he is to spread the word of God. It’s a book that addresses big questions, apparently, and has been described as ‘compelling and brilliant’.

That’s my somewhat abbreviated October post. Are there any authors whose next novel you’re eagerly anticipating?

After Me Comes the Flood: Which turns out to be not quite what I was expecting

Cover imageIt was partly the setting that attracted me to Sarah Perry’s first novel – I love Norfolk’s huge sky and lovely coastline – but the blurb was enticing, too, and I don’t say that very often. A middle-aged man exhausted by the seemingly endless heat wave that’s hit London shuts up shop and heads off to his brother’s house in Norfolk. He’s forgotten to take a map but is convinced he knows the way until his car breaks down miles from anywhere. He spots a house on the horizon and makes for it only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected and ushered into a room which has been prepared for him where he finds boxes labelled with his name. So far, so spooky and it becomes more so when John comes down for dinner and finds himself ignored, then drawn into a conversation in which most of the house’s inhabitants seem to think he knows why he’s there. Unnerved, John begins to make a record of what’s happened in a notebook he finds in his room. It soon becomes clear that this is a case of mistaken identity but what gives Perry’s novel a twist is John’s deliberate collusion in that mistake.

Perry’s characters are a decidedly rum bunch, each of them troubled in some way: Elijah is a priest made sick with anxiety about his loss of faith; Alex is deeply vulnerable and made more so by the poison pen letters that play on his fears; Clare, his oddly childlike sister, frets about her brother’s mental state; Eve, their friend, is a talented yet frustrated pianist with whom the aloof Walker is obsessed. Over it all presides Hester, physically unprepossessing but firmly in control. During the course of a week, John – buttoned-up and rootless – finds himself embroiled in the tangled relationships of the household as each of them confides in him. It ends in tears with a birthday party and a storm.

It’s not quite the psychological thriller I was expecting from the first few chapters – it’s a much more subtle book than that in which Perry takes her time, skilfully revealing what has brought this intense household together. She vividly summons up the discomfiting claustrophobia of a household seething with unspoken resentments, powerfully conveying John’s bafflement at the odd company he finds himself in and his inability to extract himself from it. Although Elijah is the novel’s only explicitly religious character, its seven-day trajectory and Alex’s terror of flood has connotations of the Christian creation myth, particularly given Perry’s deeply religious upbringing.  It’s not without faults – the end had a bit too much of the King Lears for me – but it’s an atmospheric, thought-provoking novel which keeps you guessing.

Let’s hope that Sarah Perry doesn’t join the band of unsung women authors of which there are many. Ali from Heavenali and I have both contributed five each of our favourites to Naomi’s post at The Writes of Women written as part of her response to the Man Booker’s ten men/three women long list. Naomi and Antonia Honeywell will be posting their selections over the weekend but if you have any yourself I’d love to hear about them.

I am China: A love story in fragments

I am ChinaXiaolu Guo’s ambitious new novel is neither easy to read nor to write about. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a love story, chock-full of well-aimed barbs fired at Chinese politics past and present, and it takes some getting into but don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort, a book that leaves you with much to think about.

Iona Kirkpatrick has been sent a package of jumbled documents, some scrawled almost illegibly on scrappy bits of paper. She’s a translator and the package is from a publisher with very little explanation of what the documents are about or what they plan to do with her translation. She begins to realise that the papers form a love story between Chinese punk musician Kublai Jian and Mu, his poet lover. In order to tell their story Iona must assemble the many pieces of the jigsaw, researching as far as she can given the impenetrability of Chinese internet censorship. Gradually their story emerges and with it clues to Jian’s identity. He and Mu met at university and are polar opposites – Jian expressing his anger though his politicised music and the manifesto which resulted in his expulsion from the country while Mu follows the Misty Poets whose work was carefully coded protest against the Cultural Revolution. His family is part of the political elite, hers is poor and ill-educated. He insists that politics is the only way to bring about change while she favours a quieter route. Iona thinks herself self-sufficient with her work and the occasional one-night stand when she makes clear that even breakfast is out of the question but as each clue is uncovered, each new piece of the jigsaw falls into place, she’s pulled further into the love story between these two, and what has happened to them since Jian was seized on stage by the police shortly after marching in the Jasmine Revolution. She desperately wants to bring them back together. It’s no longer just another assignment: it’s taken over her life.

Diary extracts, letters with the occasional photos and illustrations – not necessarily in chronological order – make this a fragmentary novel; one which turns its readers into literary detectives just as Iona becomes. You’ll find yourself googling the many references to Chinese politics and culture, wondering if there’s a real Jian out there. The passion and vibrancy of the letters, the aching loss and the chasm between Jian and Mu’s differing beliefs draw you into this sad story of lovers wrenched apart yet with a long history of estrangement. Guo pulls no punches in her depiction of the Chinese political elite, their iron grip and closely watching eyes. In the end, the message of the book seems to be the final line of Jian’s manifesto ‘I am China. We are China. The people. Not the state.’ A tough read, then, but a thought-provoking one.

Her: A very fine psychological thriller

There’s always a niggling worry that a second novel won’t quite live up to a debut as impressive as Harriet Lane’s chilling Alys, Always but I’m pleased to say that Her doesn’t disappoint. It’s a one-sitting, riveting read: a dual narrative as cleverly controlled as a Maggie O’Farrell – queen of that particular form – but with a darker edge.

HerOut shopping one day Nina spots a harassed young woman, toddler in tow, recognising the self-assured teenager she once knew. Emma fails to recognise Nina when she engineers a meeting and a curious relationship begins narrated by each in turn. Nina is an artist, quietly successful and married to an older man, with a teenage daughter from her first marriage. Elegant, polished and collected, she’s everything that Emma is not, ragged with the exhaustion and constant small anxieties of child rearing. Through a series of apparent acts of kindness and contrived coincidences, Nina insinuates herself into Emma’s world until the two become friends. Emma, her confidence ground down by no longer playing a part in the grown up world of work, is flattered and delighted to be singled out by such a sophisticated woman.

Lane expertly handles the tension between Nina and Emma’s narratives. Nina’s small cruelties, cleverly calculated to inflict pain and upset, are revealed for what they are in her own account while Emma picks up the pieces, unaware of her manipulation by her new friend. It would have been all to easy to paint Nina as an entirely monstrous character but she has her own unhappiness to bear as, haunted by dreams of failure and insecurity, she watches her daughter drift inexorably away from her into a world she can’t enter. Over it all hangs the question of what can possibly have happened between these two to have brought about such cold, steely hatred. When the answer comes it doesn’t so much shock as illuminate Nina’s character still further. Not entirely sure about the ending which I’d arrived at some time before reading it but somehow the journey there is the point. It’s a very fine psychological thriller. Lane seems to have carved out a niche for herself in the genre and I’m already looking forward to what she delivers next.

The Vacationers: An intelligent beach read

Cover imageAt first glance The Vacationers didn’t appeal – beach reads aren’t my kind of thing – but it’s published by Picador (one of my favourite imprints), Naomi at The Writes of Women tweeted approvingly about it and annethology also seemed keen so I quit prevaricating and started reading. It seems they were right: Emma Straub’s novel is a very smart piece of commercial fiction – entertaining, peopled with entirely believable characters and, best of all, written with a sharp wit and acute observation.

Jim and Franny are scrambling to finish their packing before racing off to the airport with their daughter Sylvia. They’re flying to Mallorca for a two-week holiday in the stone villa they’ve rented just far enough from the coast to lift them up above the hoi-polloi. It’s soon clear that they’re taking rather more baggage than the cases they’re packing – Jim has lost his job after an affair with an intern, Franny can hardly contain her fury and Sylvia is preoccupied by the Facebook photos of her drunkenly snogging her classmates. When they arrive at the villa they’re jet-lagged and fractious. Into this walks their son Bobby; Carmen, the girlfriend for whom Franny can barely mask her contempt; Charles, her dearest friend and his husband Lawrence. There’s a great deal of angst, someone stomps off never to be seen again, people misbehave, someone gets punched, hopes are met and dashed – much like real life really – all served up with a slyly wicked humour. No one leaves unchanged.

The joy of this book is largely in its characters. Jim is suitably hangdog but having difficulty in banishing thoughts of his intern; Fran is a seething cauldron of resentment but determined that everyone will enjoy themselves; Sylvia picks away at her Facebook shame while nurturing hopes of her gorgeous Spanish tutor; Bobby and Carmen obsessively exercise; Charles frets about whether he can overcome his child-rearing anxieties while Lawrence can hardly contain his excitement when an email arrives from the adoption agency. Straub’s deft portrayals are a delight and her wit sharp as a tack. It’s an indulgent pleasure – an intelligent piece of fiction with enough bite to lift it far above the usual slick beach read.

Tigerman: A thriller with a sense of humour and a heart of gold

Cover imageThere was a great deal of marketing hoo-ha around Nick Harkaway’s first novel which always makes me wary, so much so that I avoided it but when Angelmaker was published so many readers whose opinions I respect jumped up and down proclaiming it a masterpiece that I though I’d better take a dekko. It’s a science fiction thriller so regular readers of this blog will understand why I wasn’t so keen but more fool me for prejudging what turned out to be a riveting novel of startling invention. Tigerman isn’t quite in the same league for me – it was the sheer wackiness of Angelmaker that was so captivating and this one’s more conventional if that’s a word that could ever be applied to Harkaway’s work – but it still had me gripped, amazed at one point by its twistiness.

It’s a thriller so to dwell too much on plot would be to ruin it. Suffice to say that there’s a flying superhero tiger and another who purrs like an avalanche; a sergeant, wise in the ways of war, longing for a child; a comic-book obsessed, internet-mad boy who seems not to have a family; a volcanic island poisoned by chemical waste on the verge of being blown up to purge it from bacteria; a bomb made of custard powder; good guys, bad guys and a few in between. Over it all looms the presence of the Fleet engaged in all sorts of dodgyness – floating brothels, slave ships, torture vessels – taking advantage of the international legal limbo in which Mancreu exists. It’s told from the point of view of Sergeant Lester Ferris, designated the British representative in this old colony after tours in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, part of whose brief is to keep an eye on law and order. Life ticks along in an unchallenging kind of way until a shootout in the café which Lester and the boy he’s befriended frequent sees the death of their dear friend. Not knowing where to start in his murder investigations, Lester begins with three seemingly unrelated mysteries – some stolen fish, a missing dog and the recurring appearance of a joyous ghost-woman. By the end of the novel all three will be solved in ways you never would have conceived.

There’s serious stuff wrapped up in all this albeit with a nicely satirical, comic edge. Harkaway swipes away at peace-keeping forces, international law and the language of diplomacy – ‘Hearts and minds, bollocks. It was amazing how often that expression was used to describe what had already gone and could not now be clawed back’ – to name but a few. Lester is an endearing reluctant hero, resourceful and used to the hair-raising experiences of war but with a great aching hole where a child should be. Harkaway is given to entertaining little digressions always neatly sewn into his narrative and has a nice line in throwaway rants. ‘Bugger Marathon. And then, irrelevantly: And they call them ‘Snickers’ now, anyway. Old anger. Chocolate bars should not take on new identities. They should be content with who they are’ seems like a heartfelt annoyance in the midst of Lester’s frantic chase. You also get the feeling that Mr Harkaway spends a good deal of his time looking up esoteric facts on the internet – how else would you know that custard powder is combustible – all put to good use, though. Altogether, it’s a virtuoso piece of entertainment which hurtles satisfyingly towards its conclusion after delivering a startling, didn’t-see-that-coming sucker-punch of a twist.

If you’d like to read about how Nick Harkaway sets about his writing, and what prompted him to write Tigerman, Annabel’s House of Books has a lovely account of an evening with him. He sounds like a jolly nice chap to me!