Tag Archives: Charlotte Collins

Books to Look Out for in March 2018

Cover imageTop of March’s list for me is Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. I have no idea where I first heard about this novel but it’s been on my radar for quite some time. Opening in New York (there’s my hook), it’s about the Gold children whose fortunes are told by a psychic in 1969. Simon heads for San Francisco and love, Klara for Las Vegas and a career as a magician, Daniel becomes an army doctor after 9/11 while Varya seeks answers in science. Karen Joy Fowler thinks it’s amazing, apparently. I’m hoping this is the kind of sprawling book you can sink into.

New York is also the setting for one thread of Lisa Halliday’s debut in which a young editor begins an affair with a celebrated, much older writer. Across the Atlantic an Iraqi-American economist on his way to Kurdistan finds himself in detention. ‘Asymmetry is a novel which illuminates the power plays and imbalances of contemporary life – between young and old, West and Middle East, fairness and injustice, talent and luck, and the personal and the political. It introduces a major new literary talent, writing about the world today with astonishing versatility, acuity and daring’ say the publishers, promisingly.

In Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil a bright young man, raised in Washington DC by his conservative Nigerian parents, keeps his sexuality secret from all but his dearest friend. When Niru’s father discovers the truth, Meredith is too caught up in her own troubles to support him. ‘As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding towards a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine’ say the publishers which sounds harrowing but the premise is an interesting one.

I’m hoping that Katy Mahood’s Entanglement will offer a little light relief after that. One day in 2007, Charlie locks eyes with Stella across a Paddington platform, and thinks he may know her.Cover image Mahood’s novel turns back the clock to the ‘70s tracing the thread that links the lives of four characters, seemingly unknown to each other. ‘In rhythmic and captivating prose, Katy Mahood effortlessly interweaves the stories of these two families who increasingly come to define one another in the most vital and astounding ways. With this soaring debut, she explores the choices and encounters that make up a lifetime, reminding us just how closely we are all connected’ say the publishers putting me in mind of David Nicholl’s One Day and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

Donal Ryan’s last novel, All We Shall Know, finally made me see what all the fuss was about. Although I’d enjoyed his previous two, they’d not met the sky-high expectations raised by their rapturous reception. I’m cautiously optimistic, then, about From a Low and Quiet Sea in which three men, all bearing the scars of experience, are looking for a home. One is a refugee, one has had his heart broken and the other is dying. ‘Each is drawn towards a powerful reckoning, one that will bring them together in the most unexpected of ways’ say the publishers.

I like the sound of Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness but what’s really persuaded me is its translation by Charlotte Collins who did such a beautiful job with both The Tobacconist and A Whole Life. Three children are sent to boarding school when their parents are killed in a car crash, each of them dealing with their shattering bereavement in different ways. ‘Years later, just as it seems that they can make amends for time wasted, the past catches up with them, and fate – or chance – will once again alter the course of a life’ say the publishers enticingly. This one sounds right up my alley.

Cover imageYou may already know James Wood’s name from his reviews in the New Yorker. In his second novel, Upstate, two sisters – one a philosopher, the other a record executive – are still coping with the emotional fallout of their parents’ bitter divorce. When Vanessa suffers a crisis, Helen and her father travel to upstate New York where over six days the family struggles with life’s big questions. ‘Why do some people find living so much harder than others? Is happiness a skill that can be learned, or a lucky accident of birth? Is reflection helpful to happiness or an obstacle to it? If, as a favourite philosopher of Vanessa’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living”, how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, Upstate is a perceptive, intensely moving novel’ say the publishers of what sounds like a weighty piece of fiction.

That’s it for March’s new books. A click on a title will take you to detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks to follow shortly…

Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry (transl. Alison Anderson): A Flaubert homage

Cover imageIt’s been a very long time since I read Flaubert’s tale of a doctor’s wife, bored to tears by provincial life and seeking diversion in adultery, but not so long since I read Sophie Divry’s slightly eccentric debut, The Library of Unrequited Love which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s always a risky business when an author writes their own version of a much-loved classic but Divry acquits herself beautifully with this story of M.A., born in the 1950s to parents who’ve lifted themselves up a notch in the world.

M.A. begins life on a housing estate on the outskirts of a small town near Lyon. She’s a bright student, if shy and given to bouts of ennui. She takes up a course of business studies in the city where she meets and falls in love with François, an anxious young man who fails at his studies but later discovers a talent for selling insurance. She finds herself a management position, then the puts a foot on the property ladder. Before too long the couple have two children and are settled into a detached house, enjoying occasional dinner parties and annual holidays when M.A. at last relaxes, for it is she that carries the domestic burden. Boredom inevitably rears its head resulting in a passionate affair with a colleague, ending only when he is transferred. A different phase of life begins – a new child, then the departure of the older children. Soon a realisation of ageing hits home bringing with it therapy, yoga lessons and endless phone calls to her best friend. Solace arrives in the form of grandchildren, then retirement must be dealt with together with the gradual winding down of mind and body, then widowhood. M.A.’s unremarkable life ends, as it does for many, with a fall. Now it is her children who are first in line.

The idea of following a life from cradle to grave in fiction is very appealing. Robert Seethaler did it exquisitely in A Whole Life and Divry also manages it beautifully. Her writing is perceptive and insightful, laced with a gentle humour. Many readers will recognise M.A.’s experiences: the longed-for freedom of student life then the misery of loneliness before making friends; the conviction that one’s relationship is uniquely special and what child hasn’t indulged in the revenge of imagining their distraught parents at their funeral when sent to their room? Throughout it all, Divry quietly emphasises the cyclical nature of life, frequently foreshadowing M.A.’s future and her repetition of her mother’s admonishments to her own children who will later help her through her old age just as she helped her mother. This is an expertly executed novel, vividly capturing the stages of a life each of us can’t help thinking of as exclusive to ourselves as we pass through them. As with Flaubert’s Bovary, M.A. is bedevilled by her expectations, deftly summed up in her feelings of anti-climax after a meticulously prepared dinner party:

‘M.A. had failed to understand that what fills a life is a way of being, the present tense of the sentence in which one is breathing, not an event situated in the future which, after consumed, will leave us standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.’

Many of us could learn something from that as we feverishly anticipate the next big thing.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Four

Cover imageThis final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman. The story is structured in brief chapters, Cover imageeach one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.

Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.

Cover imageThis year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .

And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (transl. by Charlotte Collins): Dark days in Vienna

Cover imageIt’s a both a joy and a worry when a second novel appears on the horizon following one quite so spectacularly good as Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. Will it measure up or be a disappointment? What I hadn’t considered was that The Tobacconist would exceed my expectations. Very much darker than the A Whole Life which celebrated a simple life well lived, The Tobacconist is set in Vienna, opening in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria.

For the son of a fisherman, Franz is a rather spoilt seventeen-year-old, his hands too soft for the hard labour of the salt mines where most young men work. The hefty cheque his mother gets every month from her wealthy lover has kept them both comfortable until the lover is struck on the head by a bolt of lightning while swimming in the local lake. Calling in a favour, Franz’s mother sets him up with a job at a Viennese tobacconist and packs him off on the train. When Franz arrives, Otto tells him that the most important part of his job is to read the newspapers. Soon, Franz knows the regulars’ names and idiosyncrasies, cramming his head with the esoteric knowledge of a tobacconists’ accoutrements and anticipating his customers’ desires. When a frail man appears asking for Virginias, Otto tells Franz that this is Professor Sigmund Freud. Even a boy from the Austrian backwoods has heard of Freud and soon, registering a yawning chasm in his life, Franz decides to approach him for advice, first on how to get a girl, then on how to keep her. Initially a little impatient, Freud begins to look forward to Franz’s visits and his stories of the Bohemian girl who dances at a hole-in-the-wall club compèred by a Hitler impersonator. Played out against a backdrop of political disenchantment, rife anti-Semitism and the arrival of the Gestapo which soon has the city in its grip, Seethaler’s novel follows Franz from his country bumpkin arrival into a manhood marked by bravery.

Franz begins this novel as a simple soul, a little over-indulged but with an eager questing mind, who ‘never really understood the business with the Jews’. As his character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see. Often plain and clipped, the writing is studded with vivid images: Vienna ‘seethed like the vegetable stew on Mother’s stove’; Otto intends to run his shop ‘until the good Lord rolls down my shutters’. Seethaler pokes some pleasing fun at the pretensions of Viennese society and there are some particularly amusing passages about Freud who at one point, no longer able to tolerate the laments of a vast Viennese matron, tells her ‘with his most piercing stare “stop eating cakes!”‘. Such simple, sometimes slapstick comedy, throws the dreadful events unfolding throughout the city into stark relief. It’s a triumph, one of the best books I’ve read this year. Seethaler has written two other novels, apparently. Let’s hope that Charlotte Collins who translated both A Whole Life and The Tobacconist so expertly, is busy working on one of them right now.

Books to Look Out for in October 2016

Cover imageBack from my travels in central Europe – more of that later in the week – with a look at what’s on offer in October’s publishing schedules. Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was one of my books of last year: elegant, beautifully expressed and deftly translated, this slim novella encapsulated the life of an ordinary man, revealing it to be far richer than you might expect. October sees the publication of The Tobacconist, a second novel by Seethaler in translation. Set in 1937 with Austria about to be annexed by Germany, it’s about seventeen-year-old Franz, apprenticed to a Viennese tobacconist, who forms a bond with a certain Mr Freud.

Like Seethaler, Per Petterson writes in beautifully clipped yet often lyrical prose. His new novel, Echoland, is about twelve-year-old Arvid on holiday with his family at his grandparents’ in Denmark. About to make the leap from childhood to adolescence, Arvid takes himself off exploring on his bike, escaping the household’s intergenerational tensions and glorying in his new-found freedom. ‘Echoland is an extraordinarily subtle and truthful snapshot of growing up, with an emotional depth that lingers long after its final pages’ say the publishers which sounds very much in Petterson territory to me.

In contrast, Sebastian Barry’s Days without End seems to step quite a way out of his usual territory heading off to Tennessee in the 1850s where Thomas McNulty has signed up for the US Army. Fleeing terrible hardship, he and his comrade John Cole fight first in the Indian Wars then the Civil War. ‘Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten’ promise the publishers. Hoping for more of that lyrical writing I’ve enjoyed in Barry’s previous novels. nicotine

I wish I could say I’d also enjoyed Nell Zink’s novels but I’ve yet to read one so it may seem a little odd to include Nicotine in this preview. It’s ‘the clash between Baby-Boomer idealism and Millennial pragmatism, between the have-nots and want-mores’ in the book’s blurb that’s caught my eye. Penny Baker’s rebellion has taken the form of conventionality, the only option left open to her after an upbringing by Norm who runs a psychedelic ‘healing centre’. When Norm dies, Penny finds that the house he’s left her is occupied by a bunch of squatters united ‘in the defence of smokers’ rights’. Before too long she’s caught up in their cause, battling against her much older half-brothers to protect the fervent campaigners. It sounds great but I really must get around to the other two Zinks sitting on my shelf.

Surrounded by a good deal of brouhaha, not least because President Obama took it on holiday with him, is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Cora is a slave in Georgia, an outcast amongst her fellow slaves since childhood. When Caesar arrives from Virginia he tells her about the Underground Railroad offering a means of escape from her misery which Cora chooses to take. The novel follows her arduous journey through the South, a slave catcher snapping at her heels. ‘As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day’ say the publishers. A tough read, I’m sure, but not to be missed.

Cover imageEnding on a high note, at least I hope so, with Ali Smith’s Autumn which sounds a little experimental. I was defeated by the blurb for Smith’s last novel, How to Be Both, and it looks like I may well be again with this one. It is, apparently, ‘a stripped-branches take on popular culture, and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means’. It’s the first instalment in a quartet named Seasonal – ‘four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative. From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves’. There we are then.

That’s it for October. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

Wilful Disregard: None so blind as those who will not see

Cover imageI already had Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard in my sights but when Charlotte Collins, translator of the excellent A Whole Life, left a comment praising it to the skies on my January paperback preview it zoomed up my list. She called it ‘the cleverest dissection of misguided obsession that I’ve ever read’, a spot on assessment, I’d say. It’s short, but not sweet. Easily read in a few hours but be prepared to squirm.

Ester Nilsson is an intensely cerebral writer, dedicated to forensic enquiry and expression in her work. She’s lived with Per for many years in an agreeable if slightly dull relationship. When she’s commissioned to give a lecture on Hugo Rash, an artist lauded for the ‘moral fervour’ characterising his work, she spends a week researching her subject, becoming captivated by him even before they meet. He’s delighted with what she delivers, taking her out for a celebratory meal at which they discuss a multitude of issues, or rather she puts forward well thought out arguments while he replies with a rather disappointingly clichéd set of aphorisms. You’d think that would be the end of this mismatch but Ester is seized by a passion the like of which she’s never known, throwing over poor Per and embarking on a relationship based on midnight texts and long meals spent talking, all of which Ester sees as leading to an inevitable conclusion: a full-blown romantic relationship. There’s also a lot of hanging around outside Hugo’s studio, engineering meetings on the street and parties where his face falls with increasing regularity as he spots her.

Wilful Disregard manages to be both bitingly funny and excruciating discomfiting. It’s clear from the start that this is a hopelessly mismatched couple. Ester is obsessed to the point of derangement, gleaning hope from the barest slivers of encouragement, while Hugo is a man addicted to approbation, not much of a thought in his head in contrast with Ester’s endless over-analysing. Andersson nails this dysfunctional relationship beautifully in a single sentence: ‘Neither of them was really interested in her but they were both interested in him’. The ‘girlfriend chorus’ is wonderfully comic touch with their endless, patient litany of consolation, advice and gentle criticism which Ester never fails to interpret as evidence that she’s on the right track with Hugo. As the book progresses, Ester’s inability to accept the truth becomes more and more painful but it’s compulsive – I had to keep reading to see just how far she’d go and what would finally make her see sense. A smart, funny novella best read if you’re feeling happy in your relationship.

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.