Tag Archives: Elizabeth Strout

Books to Look Out For in November 2019: Part One

Cover imageI’m relieved to say there are sufficient attention-grabbing titles for a two-part November preview, although there’s no contest as to which one tops my list. As fans will already know, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again sees the return of Olive Kitteridge. Olive is both the star of the show and a bit player in these closely linked stories set in the small town of Crosby. The ‘spiky, obdurate and disarmingly human anti-heroine Olive Kitteridge [returns] for a fine chronicle of late love and generational division, set in the coastal Maine community that Strout has made her own’ promise the publishers and they are entirely right. Review to follow next month.

From a book by a thoroughly seasoned writer to a debut with Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses set in 1950s San Diego where newlywed, Muriel, works as a waitress picking up tips from the denizens of the Del Mar racetrack but unwilling to split her winnings with her husband. It’s Lee’s brother who Muriel wants to share her good luck with but he’s patrolling the Las Vegas casinos where he meets and falls in love with Henry. ‘Through the parks and plazas of Tijuana and the bars and beaches of San Diego, On Swift Horses mesmerisingly charts the journeys of Muriel and Julius on their separate quests for freedom, new horizons and love’ say the publishers. Very much like the sound of this one.

Moving west, Daniel Handler’s Bottle Grove begins with a wedding in a forest followed by what sounds like a raucous party. ‘Set in San Francisco as the tech-boom is exploding, Bottle Grove is a sexy, skewering dark comedy about two unions–one forged of love Cover imageand the other of greed–and about the forces that can drive couples together, into dependence, and then into sinister, even supernatural realms’ say the publishers. I’m a little worried about that mention of the supernatural but I like the setting and the promise further on in the blurb that everyone has a secret.

Parties are on the agenda in Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food, which begins on New Year’s Eve when writer, Bunny, finally falls to pieces. Once admitted to a classy New York psychiatric hospital, Bunny refuses all meds and instead begins to write a novel about her fellow patients and what’s brought about her own breakdown. ‘Rabbits for Food shows how art can lead us out of-or into-the depths of disconsolate loneliness and piercing grief. A bravura literary performance from one of America’s finest writers’ according to the publishers. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Kirshenbaum before but this does sound interesting.

I enjoyed Ben Lerner’s 10:04 very much when I read it back in 2015 but didn’t get on at all well with Leaving the Atocha Station. The Topeka School is about Adam Gordon, a senior at Topeka High School in 1997, who seems to be good at just about everything but whose efforts to include the class loner end disastrously. ‘Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is a riveting story about the challenges of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a startling prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the tyranny of trolls and the new right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men’ says the blurb which sounds extraordinarily ambitious to me.

Cover imageI’m finish with a book by the only British author in the batch – Sara Hall’s collection, Sudden Traveller which comprises seven stories whose settings range from Turkey to Cumbria. ’Radical, charged with a transformative creative power, each of these stories opens channels in the human mind and spirit, as Sarah Hall once more invites the reader to stand at the very edge of our possible selves’ say the publishers rather grandly. Jon McGregor has sung her previous work’s praises as has David Mitchell and Jessie Burton. I think it’s about time I read some of her stories.

That’s it for the first part of November’s preview. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that’s snagged your attention. Part two soon…

Books to Look Out for in May 2017

Cover imageFewer treats than usual in May for me but three of them are from some of my favourite authors. It was a toss-up as to which one of them should lead this preview but in the end it had to be Elizabeth Strout. Anything is Possible is a novel told in stories linked to Lucy Barton, familiar to readers of last year’s very fine My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a successful writer living in New York but these stories explore the lives of those she left behind in the small town of Amgash, Illinois. ‘Writing these stories, Lucy imagines the lives of the people that she especially remembers. And the people she has imagined that, in small ways, have remembered her too. For isn’t it true that we all hope to be remembered? Or to think in some way – even fleetingly – that we have been important to someone?’ say the publishers. Such an interesting device to have a character playing the role of the author of a book.

Colm Tóibin’s House of Names comes a very close second to Anything is Possible but I’m slightly put off by its premise. It’s a retelling of the story of Agamemnon whose shocking sacrifice of his daughter in an effort to secure the gods’ approval for his battle plans plunges his family into a terrible and violent chaos. ‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams’ quotes the publisher assuring us that it’s ‘a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers’. I won’t argue with the last point.

Even before my short story conversion I would have read Haruki Murakami’s Men without Women. These seven stories bear many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ promises the publisher who also quotes the author on writing short stories in the Cover imagebook’s blurb: ’I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’ I’d still prefer a novel.

I’m particularly fond of the idea of an apartment block portrayed as a microcosm of a city – Alaa Al Aswany did it beautifully in The Yacoubian Building as did Manil Suri in The Death of Vishnu but my favourite has to be Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Fran Cooper’s debut, These Dividing Walls, is set in a Parisian building whose inhabitants live their separate lives, barely aware of their neighbours’ existence. Enter Edward who seems to be about to change all that. ‘As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…’ say the publishers somewhat melodramatically. Maybe I’ve set the bar too high having Perec in mind but it sounds worth investigating.

I tend to shy away from dystopian fiction, particularly at the moment. My optimistic world view has taken such a bashing over the past year that I’m looking for a little comfort. Megan Hunter’s first novel, The End We Start From, is set against a backdrop of an environmental crisis which sees London under water. It follows a couple desperately seeking sanctuary for themselves and their new-born baby. This all sounds a little familiar, a well-worn dystopian trope, but what’s caught my attention is the promise of beautiful writing and this quote from the blurb: ‘though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love’. Let’s hope so.

I’m finishing this preview with a novel which, unusually for a new title, I’ve already read – Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell. TwoCover image people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Marc has been kidnapped while on business in Pakistan and finds himself caught up in the web of stories the woman he comes to know as Josephine weaves around his murdered daughter. These are the bare bones of Lowe’s cleverly structured, subtle debut which I found utterly engrossing. Breathes new life into that hoary old cliché ‘unputdownable’. Review to follow next month.

That’s it for May’s new books. A click on any of the titles that takes your fancy will give you a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks to follow soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for February 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThe first instalment of February’s paperback preview took a few steps outside my comfort zone but this one’s stuffed with tried and tested favourites, four of which made it onto my books of 2016 lists, and the fifth narrowly missed doing so only because things seemed to be getting out of hand.

My only disappointment with Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is that it hasn’t won the shedload of prizes I was hoping it would. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion, as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism.

Expectations were also high for The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson, another favourite writer of mine. The titular crime writer is Patricia Highsmith for whose work Dawson has a self-confessed addiction. Her novel is based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator and unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning and claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.Cover image

Sjón’s writing was a new discovery for me last year. Moonstone is set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter was one of those books that took me by surprise, much better than its slightly fluffy synopsis suggested. It’s set against the backdrop of a high-end restaurant in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

Cover imageMy last February paperback is Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing in which our unnamed narrator works in cancer research. Sitting outside on the smokers’ bench one day he meets a young Russian woman who introduces herself as a translator. He can’t help but be interested in this attractive young woman given to wry pronouncements about doctors and their well-meaning uselessness. It seems their friendship might become something else until the real reason for Marya’s presence in the hospital becomes apparent. There’s a welcome vein of quietly dark humour running through Duffy’s book, leavening its cool, slightly melancholic tone. It’s an unusual novel and it does that thing that good fiction so often does – educates us and helps us understand what it’s like for others.

That’s it for February.  A click on any of the five titles will take you to my review. If you’d like to catch up with the first part of the paperback preview it’s here. New books for February are here and here.

Books of the Year 2016: Part One

exposureHere we all are, hurtling towards the end of another year. Out there in the world, 2016 as proved to be pretty dreadful for liberals like me what with Brexit and Trump, not to mention the utter misery of Syria which surely touches us all. The reading world has been a much more comfortable place to be, although a little patchy in places for me. It certainly got off to a roaring start in January beginning with two books which share a similar theme. Set in 1960 against the backdrop of the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia, Helen Dunmore’s Exposure sees a woman fighting for her family’s survival when her husband becomes caught up in an old friend’s treachery. Gripping storytelling, sharp characterisation and beautifully crafted prose all combine in  this subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. Another Dunmore triumph.

The Cold War is still quietly raging in Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, set in the last few weeks of 1981. Stephen is a ‘listener’ at The Institute wading through tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When the loyalty of a colleague falls into question, Stephen is called upon to spy on him and finds himself obsessed by the operative’s wife. Kay draws you in to Stephen’s story while slowly but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. The dénouement when it comes is hardly a surprise but this isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.

Entirely different, Rachel B. Glaser’s first novel, Paulina & Fran is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from when they first meet as students. It’s both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant. Paulina strides around apparently impervious to criticism, hurling waspish barbs at her fellow students yet deflated by the slightest setback. Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life, obsessing over Paulina while eventually settling for the kind of job that would make her friend spit bile at its merest mention. It’s a very smart piece of fiction, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke.Cover image

January’s fourth favourite is also a debut – Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that’s what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic. Love Me Back is a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what Tierce comes up with next.

February delivered a couple of excellent reads beginning with Kim Echlin’s superb Under the Visible Life. Like Paulina & Fran, it’s a story of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Echlin takes her time, unfolding Katherine and Mahsa’s stories using alternating narratives to round out these very different characters through their distinctive voices: Katherine’s sharp, passionate and frenetic; Masha’s gentle, quietly determined, almost poetic at times. It’s a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women able to withstand all that’s thrown at them, from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour.

Cover imageYou may have noticed that all five of my books of 2016 so far have been by women as is the sixth: Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton for which I had high hopes as a Baileys contender, sadly dashed. It did, at least, make it on to the longlist but there it stuck, much to my mystification. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism which seems a good point at which to finish this post.

Six books covered already and it’s only the end of February but as I mentioned, it’s been a patchy reading year for me – the next post will leap ahead from March to June. Should you be interested, a click on any of the titles above will take you to my review.

My 2016 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logoIt’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.

Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

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The Book of Memory                     Undermajordomo Minor              The Long Room

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Exposure                                            Under the Visible Life               My Name is Lucy Barton

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What Belongs to You                   The Cauliflower                         The Gun Room

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The Essex Serpent                           The Crime Writer                     The Tidal Zone

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

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016

Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already.  The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed.  What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:

A God in Ruins                                The Heart Goes Last                The Versions of Us

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Spill Simmer Falter Wither       The Other Side of the World                 Exposure

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Under the Visible Life                    The Book of Memory                    Paulina & Fran

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His Whole Life                                 The Lives of Women                    The Ballroom

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The Long Room                           The Mountain Can Wait                            Tender

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Early Warning                               My Name is Lucy Barton                Love Me Back

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I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: Loneliness and how to survive it

Cover imageSometimes you want to tell everyone you know just how good an author is, press their books into as many hands as possible. I’ve felt that way about Elizabeth Strout’s writing for some time. My proof copy’s jacket proclaims her  ‘the greatest American writer you’ve never heard of’. That may be less true than it was with the release of HBO’s fine adaptation of Olive Kitteridge a few years back. If you’ve come across that already, you’ll know that her writing can be dark and so it is with My Name is Lucy Barton. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities.

Lucy looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago when a simple appendix removal resulted in an illness which resisted both diagnosis and cure. After four weeks of boredom, loneliness and isolation she wakes up one morning to find her mother sitting opposite her bed. Lucy has not seen her mother since she took her prospective husband home many years ago. Her mother stays for six days – bolting when it appears that Lucy may need surgery – filling their time together telling stories about people Lucy once knew all of whom seem to have suffered unhappiness in their marriages. Her father is left unmentioned by both of them until her mother leaves, and then only briefly. The next time Lucy sees her mother, nine years later, she will be close to death and Lucy will be a successful writer. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection.

There’s a passage in the book in which an author tells Lucy that ‘her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do’ which sums up Strout’s own writing beautifully for me. Lucy reports on the poverty and neglect – both emotional and physical – which singled her out as a child, exposing her to mockery in small-town Illinois. She’s a woman who never learnt how to be in the world, a child whose parents taught her nothing, carefully avoiding revealing their own pain in words while conveying it in their inability to express their love to their children. Despite her eventual success, Lucy feels untethered, quick to love those who are kind to her, constantly looking at others to see how she should behave. Strout unfolds Lucy’s life in vignettes from her past and future filled with reflections and uncertainties. She is, of course, an unreliable narrator – this is written years after the event – but then Lucy is certain of nothing about herself, or others, apart from her own loneliness. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion as are all Strout’s novels: ‘Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there’, wrings the heart as does Lucy’s efforts to comfort herself when locked in the grimy family truck as a punishment: ‘It’s okay, sweetie. A nice woman’s going to come soon. And you’re a very good girl, you’re such a good girl’. Not an easy read then, but a superlative one, which ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism. Listen up literary prize judges, this one’s a contender if ever I read one.

Books to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 1

Not long back from my Viennese jaunt  – of which more later in the week – but here’s one I made earlier. February’s the perfect time to draw the curtains on the murky grey outdoors and get on with some serious reading. There’s no shortage of choice this year – so many tasty offerings that despite the fact that it’s the shortest month there’ll be two posts devoted to new books.

Cover imageTop of my list has to be Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. I’m a long-term Strout fan. You may know her work already or perhaps saw HBO’s excellent adaptation of Olive Kitteridge. Sadly, several of her novels have been packaged in the UK in the kind of wishy-washy pastel covers that fail to do her fiction justice.  Much more suitably jacketed, this new novel examines the relationship between mothers and daughters – always fertile terrain – as Lucy’s mother unexpectedly visits her after many years of estrangement. Strout’s a mistress of the understatement, writing in that elegant pared back style that pushes my literary buttons.

New York settings are catnip for me and Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life sounds particularly attractive with its story of female friendship. Katherine struggles with motherhood and an unreliable partner while Mahsa flees her strict guardians in Karachi, only to be faced with an arranged marriage in Montreal. She escapes to New York where she and Katherine become friends, brought together by a shared passion for music. ‘Vividly rendered and sweeping in scope, Under the Visible Life is a stunning meditation on how hope can remain alive in the darkest of times, if we have someone with whom to share our burdens.’ according to the publishers. Very much like the look of this one.

Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing is another New York-set novel, although this one’sCover image themes sound sadly universal. An Irish oncologist becomes increasingly disillusioned with city life as he searches for a breakthrough in his research while his marriage disappears down the tubes. Work is a comfort but life begins to look up when he meets a beautiful Russian translator. Perhaps not a particularly interesting synopsis but what caught my eye was the publisher’s descriptions of the writing: ‘Shot through with Duffy’s haunting, beautiful descriptions of the science underlying cancer, which starkly illustrate the paradox of an illness at whose heart is a persistent and deadly life force, This Living and Immortal Thing shows how the cruelty of the disease is a price we pay for the joy and complexity of being in the world.’

New York, again, for Heinz Helle’s debut Superabundance whose nameless narrator is separated from his girlfriend by the Atlantic. Although he loves and misses her he finds himself attracted to every woman he passes on the street. With his own brain in overdrive, constantly buzzing, he wonders at everyone else’s ability to cope with life so easily. I like the idea of this but it could very easily back fire. Well worth a look, though.

Cover imageI try not to succumb to those puffs you see from authors adorning book jackets but when it’s a writer whose work I love it’s difficult to resist. Certainly worked with Sara Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait which Nikolas Butler, author of the wonderful Shotgun Lovesongs. rated highly. That ended up being one of my books of 2015. The writer in question this time is Ron Rash who’s sung the praises of Travis Mulhauser’s debut, Sweetgirl. The eponymous girl is sixteen-year-old Percy. In search of her junkie mother, Percy finds herself struggling through blizzard conditions, caught up in an attempt to save a baby girl with the local crook and his henchmen in pursuit.  Given Rash’s endorsement I’m hoping for similarly taut, spare prose from Mulhauser.

That’s my last choice for this first selection of February titles, all American as you may have noticed. The next bunch will be much closer to home. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with January’s offerings the hardbacks are here and here, and the paperbacks are here and here.

Five days in Madrid and the case of the mutilated book

chic loftLook very closely at the picture on the left and you can see why I might have been swayed to rent this apartment for our hols in Madrid. Not just a book lover, I thought, but one with taste – that’s Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys thoughtfully placed next to the bed. It was sitting on the living room coffee table by the time we arrived, an American hardback edition with those rough-cut page edges that I’ve never quite got used to. It wasn’t until H was putting together an evening meal that he noticed two pages from the novel framed and hung next to the worktop, pages 104-5 to be exact. Nothing particularly significant about those pages – no hidden message as far as I could make out and I’d reviewed it here only a few weeks ago – just two pages cut seemingly at random and framed. A little puzzling, it has to be said. Other than that, the holiday was a straightforward case of enjoying ourselves.

Madrid is far greener that I expected, although what it’s like after a bout of the 40C heat thatMalva (Jardins Botanical Madrid) hits it in the summer is hard to imagine. We spent a good deal of our time outside enjoying the lovely JardÍns Botánico and the Retiro Park – just the ticket after a wet British winter. We did manage to fit the three main galleries into our wanderings. The first one was the Reina Sofia and should you ever visit on a busy weekend there’s a very handy back entrance, found by H who’s an assiduous reader of guides, where there was no queue whatsoever. Reina Sofia is home to Guernica which has to be seen if you’re in Madrid. It was housed in New York’s MOMA for many years as it was Picasso’s express wish that it should not be shown in Spain until liberty and democracy had been re-established after Franco’s long dictatorship. A tapestry reproduction, with its own interesting history, hung in the United Nations for many years. It seems an entirely appropriate site – a reminder of an atrocity that stands for so many – although you might argue that the power of a piece of art lessens the more familiar it becomes.

Thyssen-BornemiszajpgThe next day we went to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza , a private collection and treasure-house of work by artists you may never have heard of such as William Michael Harnett’s Materials for a Leisure Hour, one of my favourites. Sometimes it’s better to see unfamiliar art than stand in front of the world’s most feted works seen reproduced so many times that we stop really looking at it. That’s if you can actually see them, of course. Our third day was Prado day. I wanted to see Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights but so did at least fifty other people, many of them considerably taller than me. After trying, and failing, to find someone short to stand behind I gave up. According to H I’d missed a treat. He’d managed to get there when a group of school children were settled on the floor in front of it. We’d seen this at the Thyssen, too – young children being taught about a particular work in both English and Spanish, then asked questions about what they thought of it. It seemed like an excellent introduction to art.

The last gorgeously sunny day was spent wandering along tree-lined streets from plaza to plaza, looking up and spotting beautiful tile work, elegant wrought iron balconies and impressive statuary for which previous generations clearly had a weakness. What a lovely city! That’s what I did on my holidays – back to (unmutilated) books later this week.

The Burgess Boys: A Baileys contender

Being a bit of an Elizabeth Strout fan, I was delighted to see her latest novel long listed for Baileys PrizeCover image last week. The Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge was greatly admired in the States but I’m not sure it made much of an impression here in the UK. She writes the sort of quietly understated, astutely observed novels about everyday life and how we live it that remind me of Alice Munro, Carol Shields and Alice McDermott. The Burgess Boys is no exception. It tells the story of the eponymous brothers: Jim, a hot-shot lawyer, and the anxious Bob, employed in a far more lowly position, adoring of his arrogant, bullying brother. Both live in New York and see each other regularly thanks mostly to Jim’s wife Helen, fond of Bob and missing her children who’ve all left home. They rarely if ever see Susan, Bob’s twin, who still lives in Shirley Falls where the three of them grew up. Divorced, raising a son and almost perpetually angry, Susan carps about the burgeoning Somali population which has found its way to Maine where no one has much of an idea of where they’ve come from or what they’re doing there. A frantic phone call from Susan sets in train a series of events that changes all their lives – Zachery has thrown a half-frozen pig’s head into the Somalis’ mosque and may find himself charged with a hate crime.

Strout explores the Burgess family and how they came to be who they are through the people who make up their immediate world – Pam, Bob’s ex-wife with whom he is still close friends; Helen, Jim’s slightly complacent, entitled yet well-meaning wife and Mrs Drinkwater, Susan’s elderly lodger who has listened worriedly to Zach’s lonely tears from her room. She’s a master of ‘show don’t tell’, conveying a great deal with the lightest of brushstrokes making her acute social observation – often spiced with a gentle humour – all the more striking. Bob continues to idolise his hectoring older brother who greets him as ‘slobdog’ as if it’s a term of endearment until Jim makes a startling revelation. Jim continues to live off the glory of his celebrity trial days until it proves useless in protecting his nephew. Helen can’t help feeling it’s all a terrible nuisance interfering with her pleasant if vaguely unsatisfying life while Pam looks at her own privileged life and wonders if it’s the one she should be leading, fantasising about the scientific discoveries she’d hoped to make. All this against the background of the Somali refugees’ plight, many of whom have fled danger and torture only to be met with total, if well-meaning, incomprehension or worse. Just one small gripe – the novel begins with a short prologue narrated by the writer of the Burgess boys’ story and I’m still puzzled as to why. Let me know if you’ve read the novel and have any ideas about it – perhaps I’ve missed something.