Tag Archives: Golden Age

Paperbacks to Look Out For in March 2016

Cover imageNot nearly so many paperbacks to look forward to for me in March as there were in February, and four of them I’ve already read and reviewed. Two of those popped up on my 2015 Books of the Year posts, the first of which tied with four others at the top of the tree. Sarah Leipciger’s superb The Mountain Can Wait is the sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I read last year.

Entirely different, Molly McGrann’s The Ladies of the House also made it on to my 2015 list. It begins with a middle-aged woman, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. She’s never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise. McGrann combines a sharp eye for characterisation with wry humour and some arrestingly vivid descriptions in this entertaining piece of storytelling. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through it and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.

If you’ve been following Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy you’ll no doubt be Cover imagedelighted to hear that the final part will soon be in paperback. Beginning with a reunion Golden Age picks up where Early Warning left off taking the Langdons from 1987 into the twenty-first century. As the novel progresses, the next generation moves seamlessly into the spotlight before focussing on their own children. The trilogy comes to a close with two events, both of which will draw the family together again in a world very different from the one in which it opened. Undoubtedly Smiley’s literary legacy, all three novels are assured, thought-provoking, magisterial and damn fine stories. You could read Golden Age as a standalone novel but I can’t imagine why you’d want to deprive yourself of the first two.

Polly Samson’s The Kindness opens at roughly the same time as Golden Age, with Julia meeting Julian. She’s flying her husband’s Harris hawk and he – struggling up the hill and struck by her beauty – falls instantly for her. Soon the two are besotted but eight years later a grief-stricken Julian is looking back at his life with Julia. A thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing read, Samson’s novel is a triumph of clever plotting. Several times throughout her narrative I congratulated myself on realising what the promised ‘explosive secret’ was only to have the carpet pulled from beneath my feet.

Cover imageJust one that I haven’t read: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper was much talked about last year when it came out in hardback. In it a married couple who share a love of birds move from America to Switzerland. ‘The Wallcreeper is nothing more than a portrait of marriage, complete with all its requisite highs and lows: drugs, dubstep, small chores, anal sex, eco-terrorism, birding, breeding and feeding’ say the publishers while Zink, herself, describes it as ‘a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code’. I’m cautiously intrigued.

That’s it for March. A click on a title will take you to my review for the titles I’ve read and Waterstones website for The Wallcreeper. If you’d like to catch up with my hardback preview it’s here.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 2

Cover imageThis second batch of 2015 goodies covers April and May, and is made up entirely of women writers. No plan there – just the way this particular cookie crumbled. I’ll begin with The Shore, Sara Taylor’s beautifully packaged debut which appeared on both the Baileys longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/ Peters Fraser Dunlop award shortlist. Taylor’s novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and the novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. Taylor’s writing is striking, her characters believable and her storytelling entrancing. Can’t say better than that.

My second April book is Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.

Christine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure she has the readership she deserves. Written in precise, quiet and unshowy prose The Lives of Women, follows Elaine, back from the States on her first visit home in many years, as she remembers the summer back in the ‘70s which has shaped her adult life. The story’s an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’veCover image not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. I rate her enough to have included her on my Man Booker wish list but, as with the Baileys, the judges failed to agree with me.

A God in Ruins has recently made its way on to the Costa shortlist, although for the life of me I fail to understand why it wasn’t on the Man Booker longlist at the very least. It was the one title I’d have bet my shirt on. Beginning in 1925, it’s 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. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative and stitching it all together beautifully. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here – or perhaps proving my incompetence as a literary prize judge, not that I’m likely to become one – but here’s yet another novel that appeared on my Man Booker wish list but not on theirs. The Mountain Can Wait is sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Sarah Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I’ve read this year.

Cover imageRounding off this second selection is Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, the second instalment of her The Last Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. The first part, Some Luck, made it on to last year’s books of the year posts for me – and many others – so I was looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. It opens in 1953 with a funeral neatly passing the baton on to the next generation and finishes in 1986 with a revelation which offers another pleasing twist in the lives of the family. Published here in the UK in October, Golden Age completed the trilogy, and suffice to say it’s the equal of the other two.

That’s it for the second selection. A click on a title will take you to my review and if you’d like to catch up with the first post, it’s here. More to follow shortly when yet another Man Booker unfulfilled wish will be aired.

Golden Age by Jane Smiley: Or is it?

Golden AgeThree Jane Smileys in a year seems a little greedy but once started on The Last Hundred Years Trilogy all thoughts of delayed gratification go out of the window. For those who haven’t yet come across the first two, the trilogy tells the sometimes torturous history of the United States through the story of an Iowan farming family, beginning in 1920 with Some Luck and continuing with Early Warning. Golden Age picks up the Langdons in 1987 and takes them to the imagined end of Smiley’s century. Impossible not to refer back to the first two so if you haven’t read them yet, you may want to look away now.

Golden Age opens with a reunion to welcome the new member of the family we learnt about at the end of Early Warning. The second generation is well into middle age. Now a wealthy man, Frank’s interest in the family farm has been reinvigorated by his correspondence with his nephew Jesse whose scientific approach chimes more with Frank’s than with his father Joe’s. Henry is a professor in Chicago still studying medieval literature although beginning to shift his focus. Arthur, now retired, is still inconsolable after the loss of Lillian, and Claire has regained her independence after her divorce, taking up a job as a buyer in a Chicago department store. As the novel progresses, the next generation moves seamlessly into the spotlight – Richie becomes involved in national politics; his volatile twin Michael strides around the financial world; Jesse takes over the farm, eager to test his theories, while Charlie attaches himself to the green movement – before focussing on their own children. The trilogy comes to a close with two events, both of which will draw the family together again in a world very different from the one in which it opened.

Just as with Some Luck and Early Warning, Golden Age felt a little slow to get off the ground for me but once it does it’s hard to put it aside. Smiley cleverly uses a family reunion to reacquaint us with the Langdon family, wisely choosing not to follow all their many offspring. References to events in the previous novels are deftly woven in – useful reminders for those of us who’ve read them and context for those who haven’t. Historical events and social change are reflected and refracted through the characters’ lives: we see the devastation wreaked by AIDs on Henry’s friends; Michael is caught up in the increasing lunacy of the financial markets; the terrible repercussions of the Iraq war come home to roost; climate change and its effects are seen through the farm and in Richie’s half-hearted attempts to influence policy-making. Cultural and historical references are lightly handled – British readers might be amused at Richie’s reaction to a BBC report of the 1987 storm which raged through the South East: ‘didn’t they know what a tornado was?’ There are some surprising omissions – if there was a mention of Katrina I missed it which seemed a little odd given the novel’s emphasis on climate change, likewise the seemingly endless sex scandals in the Catholic church – but that’s a small quibble. Politicians are often talked of in terms of legacy – The Last Hundred Years Trilogy is undoubtedly Smiley’s: assured, thought-provoking, magisterial and a damn fine story. You could read Golden Age as a standalone novel but I can’t imagine why you’d want to deprive yourself of the first two.

Books to Look Out For in October 2015

Golden AgeBit of a lean month for those of us who tend towards the more literary end of fiction. The novel that stands out above all others for me is Golden Age, the final part of Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy. Some Luck followed the Langdon family from just after the First World War, when Walter established the family farm, to the beginning of the ‘50s where the appropriately named Early Warning picked it up, beginning with the Cold War years and ending in 1986 with a new twist in the family story. Golden Age takes the Langdons into the twentieth-first century and I can’t wait to catch up with them. Smiley’s microcosm of an American century reflected through the fortunes of one family has been a triumph so far. Highly recommended.

A volume of short stories seems the antithesis of Smiley’s hefty endeavour. I’m a reader that likes to get my teeth into something hence the Smiley fandom but Colm McCann is one of my favourite writers and we’re promised a novella as well as three short stories in his new book. In the eponymous work an elderly man is attacked after meeting his son for lunch. Detectives must piece together what has happened based on any information they can glean. ‘Told from a multitude of perspectives, in lyrical, hypnotic prose, Thirteen Ways of Looking is a ground-breaking novella of true resonance, exploring the varied consequences that can derive from a simple act’ say the publishers. I can vouch for that ‘lyrical’ prose based on my reading of McCann’s novels.

Amélie Nothcomb’s Pétronille might be a handy counterbalance to what sounds like a somewhat serious read, even if it is distinctly post-modern with its friendship between Pétronille Fanto, a woman who refuses to drink alone, and a writer called Amélie Nothcomb. According to the publishers it’s a ‘literary Thelma & Louise, with a little bit of French panacheCover image and a whole lot of champagne thrown into the mix’ which makes it sound well worth a read. This is Nothcomb’s twenty-third novel, and she has quite a following.

Naomi J. Williams’ Landfalls is a debut set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785, on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery, returning four years later. It’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay where tragedy hits to St Petersburg. The structure sounds an ambitious but very attractive one and if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.

Finally, Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is here partly because at a stonking nine hundred and sixty pages it can’t be ignored. Set in New York, it explores the interconnections between a multitude of people surrounding the shooting of a young girl in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1976. It sounds immensely complicated so I’ll let the publisher’s blurb speak for itself: Cover imageFrom the reluctant heirs to one of New York’s greatest fortunes, to a couple of Long Island kids drawn to the nascent punk scene downtown. From the newly arrived and enchanted, to those so sick of the city they want to burn it to the ground. All these lives are connected to one another – and to the life that still clings to that body in the park. Whether they know it or not, they are bound up in the same story – a story where history and revolution, love and art, crime and conspiracy are all packed into a single shell, ready to explode. Then, on July 13th, 1977, the lights go out in New York City.’ A similar theme to Colm McCann’s book, then, but with considerably more pages. This is the kind of novel I get all excited about when I see it in a catalogue then watch its progress up my reading pile with a sinking heart. I have a copy and so I will be sampling it but whether a review will materialise or not remains to be seen.

That’s it for October. As usual a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, although in the case of the Hallberg there’s not much more to say. If you’ve not yet caught up with my September previews, here are the paperbacks and here are the hardbacks, parts one and two.