Tag Archives: Catherine Lacey

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2018: Part One

Cover imageI seem to start most of these posts with promises of many treats, or potential treats, on the paperback horizon and May’s no exception with publishers not yet assuming that we’ve put our brains away in preparation for summer reading.

At the top of May’s goodie list for me is Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which appeared on both my books of 2017 list and my Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 wish list. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. It’s a highly ambitious debut but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is a caustic satire which takes a distinctly dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way. Desperate for money, Mary enrolls in The Girlfriend Experiment as Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few. The ensuing shenanigans skewer the contemporary pursuit of the perfect partner in a novel which lives up to its Margaret Atwood puff.

Technology comes in for a bashing in The Chalk Artist which sees Allegra Goodman contrasting the world of gaming with the older more established one of literature. Despite her antipathy to it, Nina prods Collin into a job in her father’s business which designed the game that Cover imageconsumed his teenage years. 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. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old games-obsessed Aidan has been given a black box which opens up a virtual reality game to him. The Chalk Artist is an absorbing, all too believable read but I preferred Goodman’s previous novel, The Cook Book Collector, which explores similar thematic territory.

I had a similar reaction to Jennifer Egan’s first historical novel Manhattan Beach to which I had been looking forward very much having enjoyed A Visit from the Goon Squad. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her beloved father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him. Anna is assigned to work in the shipyards during the Second World War but manages to argue, cajole and doggedly train her way onto the all-male diving programme while still trying to find answers to the mystery of her father’s disappearance. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away.

I’m hoping Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl won’t continue the disappointment trend after the excellent The Woman Upstairs. Her new novel looks at female friendship through two women who have been friends since nursery school but whose paths diverge leaving one of them feeling cast aside. ‘Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship. Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship’ say the publishers which sounds right up my street.

I’m ending this selection with Jamie Ford’s Love and Other Consolation Prizes which I’m not at all sure about largely because of the cover which looks somewhat soapy to me but I like the sound of the premise. At the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair Ernest, a half-Chinese boy, is raffled off as a prize and ends up working in a brothel where he falls in love with the daughter of its madam. In 1962, on the eve of the new World’s Fair, Ernest looks back at his past while his daughter attempts to unravel her family’s story. Quite an eye-catching synopsis but it I’m still not convinced by that jacket.

That’s it for the first batch of May paperback delights. A click on any of the first four will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other two should you want to know more. If you missed May’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second batch of paperbacks shortly…

My 2017 Man Booker wish list

Despite swearing off Man Booker predictions a few years back I can’t seem to keep away although I must emphasize that my track record is pretty dismal so don’t go laying any bets on my suggestions. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and 30th September 2017 and have been written in English. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September but I’m sticking to novels I’ve already read. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Thursday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order:

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The Fatal Tree                                             Birdcage Walk                             Reservoir 13

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The End We Start From                      The Answers                      Conversations with Friends

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A Line Made by Walking               Before Everything                            The Nix

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The Hearts of Men                     Johannesburg                              Forest Dark

Usually several titles jostle for position as my top choice but this year there’s no contest – Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. No reflection on the merits of the other books: McGregor’s writing is sublime and this is quite possibly his best work yet. I’ll be searching for a hat to eat if it doesn’t make it on to the longlist at the very least. If you’d like to read my review, a click on a title will take you to it. A reviews of Forest Dark to follow soon, as will a what I got up to on my holidays post later in the week for those who might be interested.

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

The Answers by Catherine Lacey: Love, whatever that Is

Cover imageCatherine Lacey’s second novel arrived with a press release mentioning Margaret Atwood. I tend to ignore these bits of paper until I’ve finished the book, preferring to read it with an open mind. A few chapters in, however, Atwood’s was the name that popped into my head. Not such a cheeky comparison after all for this satire which takes a dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a social experiment, a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way.

Mary is in desperate straits. Afflicted with many and varied symptoms, medical bills piling up, her only relief derived from Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia – the therapy recommended by her best, and only, friend – she has to find a way to make some money. A notice in a health food store seems to offer a solution, albeit one cloaked in mystery. She jumps through the many hoops of the recruitment process – her main qualification seemingly her ignorance of Kurt Sky, the household name behind this strange assignment – until she’s initiated into the Girlfriend Experiment. She’s to be Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few of the participants. Each of them must take part in choreographed and scripted Relational Experiments with Kurt, closely monitored by the Research Division who have their own agenda. As the experiment proceeds, it seems that Mary’s interactions with Kurt are the most successful. The job becomes full-time and as the Research Division interpolate their own ideas into the experiments, Mary’s feelings become increasingly confused. Meanwhile, she continues her PAK therapy with Ed, complete with crystals, gnomic pronouncements and incense burning.

Lacey’s novel is stuffed full of barbs aimed at modern society, from our determination to find perfect romantic love to our obsession with celebrity, reserving a few for the wackier alternative therapies. Mary tells her own story in the beginning and end sections of the book while the experiment forms the middle. There were a few too many girlfriends popping up at one point – I began to feel we might be losing track of Mary – but that said Lacey’s writing is both acerbic and penetrating. The idea of a man, numbed by constant and insistent attention, trying to track down how love feels, is both poignant and repellent yet convincing. Lacey has some trenchant comments to make about our pursuit and expectations of love: ‘It was painfully clear then, so painfully clear, that people fell in love to find something in themselves that they’d had all along’ thinks Mary, watching two lovers. Altogether a sharply observed satire, smartly delivered with a hefty dollop of caustic humour, which – echoing that press release – brought Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last to mind.

Books to Look Out for in June 2017

Cover image Top of my list for June is Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends which I’m pretty sure isn’t aimed at my age group but sounds enticing all the same. Four friends in their twenties talk about everything under the sun but it’s Frances and her affair with a much older married man who eventually takes centre stage. ‘You can read Conversations with Friends as a romantic comedy, or you can read it as a feminist text. You can read it as a book about infidelity, about the pleasures and difficulties of intimacy, or about how our minds think about our bodies. However you choose to read it, it is an unforgettable novel about the possibility of love’ according to the publishers, kindly leaving the choice up to their readers.

Love is also the subject of Catherine Lacey’s The Answers which comes at it in a very different way. Mary is desperate for work when she sees a job advertised as part of The Girlfriend Experiment whose aim is to analyse the nature of relationships – what works and what doesn’t – through role-playing. She is to be Emotional Girlfriend, joining a team which includes Angry Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend, playing against the Hollywood actor whose idea the whole thing is. ‘A novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which probe the depths of our society, and answers that will leave you reeling’ say the publishers. It’s an interesting premise which has the makings of a great book not to mention a film, although I’m sure that’s been considered already.

Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World is about another kind of social experiment, this one focusing on families. Alone and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, Isabelle is offered a place in The Infinity Family Project whose billionaire founder is pursuing a utopian ideal: raising nine babies as part of an extended family in a Tennessee compound. ‘Can this experiment really work – or is their ‘perfect little world’ destined to go horribly wrong?’ ask the publishers. Given the number of unhappy children brought up in communes who’ve shared their experiences with the world in one way or another, I suspect we can guess the answer. Cover image

Here’s one that has attracted a good deal of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods. Julie Buntin’s Marlena follows naïve fifteen-year-old Cat who finds herself becoming best friends with her neighbour when she moves to a new town in rural Michigan. Cat and Marlena make the town their own, partying like there’s no tomorrow until Marlena is found drowned in nearby woods. Decades later Cat is still trying to come to terms with her past. ‘Alive with an urgent, unshakeable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull ourselves back from the brink’ say the publishers a little dramatically.

The trials and tribulations of settling into a new home also play a part in Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which follows the Bredins – who can neither afford a divorce nor their London home – to a remote part of Devon. No one seems very happy with the arrangement and everyone wonders why their rent is so low. ‘The beauty of the landscape is ravishing, yet it conceals a dark side involving poverty, revenge, abuse and violence which will rise up to threaten them’ say the publishers which promises the revelation of dark secrets. I’ve enjoyed Craig’s previous novels and this one comes with a stonking endorsement from Helen Dunmore.

Allegra Goodman’s The Chalk Artist is about the all-consuming nature of computer gaming and the way it can threaten to take over real life, explored through a teenage boy living in smalltown America. Aidan is at the top of his game when playing EverWhen, putting the problems of adolescence behind him, but when he’s sent a mysterious black box from the game’s designers he finds himself physically taken into EverWhen’s world, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. It’s a fascinating subject – remember Second Life and the divorce it prompted? – and I’ve enjoyed Goodman’s fiction very much in the past.

Cover imageI’m ending this preview with a book by an author whose first novel is sitting on my shelves but I have yet to read. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away follows three women: one wanting to box at a time when boxing is illegal for women in Ireland; the second contemplating a job offer but wondering if she can bring herself to abandon her mother in her nursing home; and a third who takes up with a biker gang as a means of escape. ‘A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing but perhaps I should get around to reading Generation first.

That’s it for June’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that appeal. Paperbacks to follow soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 1

Cover imageJanuary gets off to a stonking start with enough paperbacks to keep you oblivious to the dismal British winter. Pride of place has to go to Kate Atkinson’s fabulous A God in Ruins. By now, anyone who’s interested knows that this is the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. I can’t speak highly enough of this novel. Just as with Life after Life, it’s an absolute mystery to me as to why Atkinson hasn’t swept the literary prize board with these two strikingly original books.

Another novel I would have liked to see at least longlisted for the Baileys, if nothing else, is Lucy Wood’s debut, Weathering. Ada and six-year-old Pepper are renovating her estranged mother’s cottage after she drowned. As Ada sets about putting distance between herself and the rest of the village Pepper becomes fascinated by her grandmother and her new surroundings. Put like that, Weathering sounds like a fairly prosaic tale but what singles it out is the vivid word pictures Wood sketches, often poetic but sometimes pithy and very funny. One of my favourite books of 2015.

One book that did make it on to a shortlist is Sean Michael’s Us Conductors which was already up for the Giller Prize when it was published here in the UK. It’s about, Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor born in 1896, and if that name seems familiar you may have come across the musical instrument he devised. Once heard its strange haunting sound is hard to forget. The bare bones of the novel are based on Theremin’s life but as Michaels is careful to point out at the very beginning ‘This book is mostly inventions’, a nice little pun on Leon’s activities which gives you a flavour of Michaels’ writing. Those inventions are spun out into an absorbing story, beautifully told.Cover image

I’m particularly eager to read the first of the three novels I haven’t reviewed: Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. It’s about a coup de foudre that strikes Ester Nilsson when she meets artist Hugo Rask. She turns her back on her settled life, heedless of what anyone else says or thinks about her uncharacteristic behaviour. ‘A story of the heart written with bracing intellectual vigour’ says Alice Sebold. That title sounds particularly promising, I think.

Elyria in Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing seems to show a similar disregard when she abruptly leaves Manhattan on a one-way flight to New Zealand abandoning her career and loving husband. Elyria hitchhikes her way around the country, regardless of the risk.  ‘Full of mordant humour and uncanny insights, Nobody Is Ever Missing is a startling tale of love, loss, and the dangers encountered in the search for self-knowledge’ say the publishers. Sounds well worth investigating.

Cover imageThis first selection ends with Noah Hawley’s The Punch. Scott spends his time in seedy San Francisco joints when not at his dull job while David is a successful salesman with two families, one on each coast. These two are brought together when their father dies and their mother lets out a long-held secret as they travel across the country to New York. I like the idea of an American road trip and deep dark secrets are always a winner if well-handled. We’ll see.

That’s it for the first batch. If you’d like a fuller synopsis a click on a link will take you to my reviews for the first three titles and to Waterstones website for the others. And if you’d like to catch up with January hardbacks, they’re here and here. More shortly.