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Books to Look Out for in January 2015

I know you’ve all get your minds on Christmas but I thought it might be time for a little taster of what 2015 has to offer before we get overdosed on carols and all that malarkey. It’s a good month, too. No huge names leap out for me but there are several interesting looking treats nevertheless.

Cover imageI’ll start with the appropriately named debut, The Winter War,  by Finland’s answer to Jonathan Franzen according to its publishers but I’m not letting that put me off. Middle class Helsinki couple Max and Katriina appear to have a perfect life but as we all know that can’t be true. Katriina no longer loves Max, their adult daughters both have problems and as he nears his sixtieth birthday, Max strides off into dangerous territory. It’s compared to ‘a big, contemporary, humane American novel, but with a distinctly Scandinavian edge’ which sounds just the ticket to me.

Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is about Bjorn (bit of a Scandi theme going on here, I know) a discontented bureaucrat who finds a secret room in his office in which he feels wonderfully empowered, performing to the exacting standards demanded by the Authority with ease. Everyone else, however, denies its existence. It’s an intriguing idea which could easily backfire but it sounds worth a try.

I remember reading Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty, and not getting on with it very well but I like the sound of The Lightning Tree enough to give her another try. Set in Newcastle in the mid-1980s it’s about Ursula, raised on big ideas and keen to start the adventure of adult life, and Jerry, a class warrior with an altogether different sort of upbringing, who fall in love with each other. She heads off to India while he goes to Oxford – will their relationship survive? Recommended for fans of both The Line of Beauty and The Marriage Plot, – two very different novels, make of that what you will – it’s described as ‘lyrical and funny’.

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is another title that could go either way. Jonathan Franzen describes it as ‘hilarious…cracklingly intelligent…and original in every sentence’, apparently, but as you may have noticed I’m not a fan of Mr Franzen. It sounds a little like an early Paul Auster which is where the attractions lies for me. Narrated by Ben, a writer who has just secured a big advance after the ecstatic reception of his first novel and is now writing his second narrated by ‘Ben’, 10:04 ‘charts an exhilarating course through the contemporary landscape of sex, friendship, memory, art and politics’, apparently. Not lacking in ambition, then.

Let’s end with what I hope will be a highly entertaining nineteenth-century romp, the wonderfully named LucyThe Hourglass Factory Ribchester’s debut  The Hourglass Factory, which takes us to the circus with the equally wonderfully named Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, tiger tamer and suffragette, who’s stage getup includes the tightest laced corset you’ve ever seen and certainly wouldn’t want to experience. When Ebony disappears mid-performance, intrepid girl reporter Frankie George – fascinated with all things circus-related – is determined to find out what’s happened to her. Sounds like a rip-roaring tale, just the thing for fireside reading.

That’s it for January books. As ever a click on a title will reveal more information at Waterstones website and if you want to know what I’m hoping for in my Christmas stocking just click here.

Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss: Adventures in Iceland

Cover imageI don’t read very much non-fiction, something of a yawning gap I know but there are always so many excellent novels lined up ready and waiting. When I do it tends to be short bursts of travel writing or biography and novelist Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea neatly combines the two.

Circumstances seemed to be right for the Moss family to spend some time living abroad so when Moss spots an advertisement for a lecturer in her field at Iceland’s National University she applies, gets the job and off they go. Having toured Iceland for five weeks as a student – an unusual destination but Moss says she has a fascination with what she calls  the ‘northerly isles’ – she has an idea of what to expect but is unprepared for the culture shock of living on an island which often feels like one big village. Iceland has a population of a mere 300,000. Temperatures plummet to a dangerous level in winter and it’s volcanic – remember when European airspace closed down thanks to an eruption on the island? Moss was there – no wonder it’s tightly knit. It’s also full of contradictions: unsurprisingly, it’s an insular community but the Icelandic word for stupid means one that has not travelled. Nearly all young Icelanders jump ship for a time but almost invariably return when they want to raise a family.

Moss manages to both entertain and enlighten. She’s often very funny on both her own befuddlement and the quirks of Icelanders while avoiding the ‘let’s laugh at the funny foreigners’ tricks that some writers indulge in.  She’s a curious and insightful observer, able to keep a straight face when talking to a woman who communicates with elves – and 100-metre-tall elves at that – while writing sensitively about the effects of the financial crisis on a proud people living in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s a fascinating book and as gripping as any novel.

A quintessential English summer’s day and an American memoir

Saturday was absolutely gorgeous in my part of the world. Two weeks ago we had planned to spend it wandering around eleven open gardens in a village not too far from us fully expecting that it would come to nothing as we couldn’t quite believe the weather would hold. The village is Mells and it’s an interesting one as well as very pretty. Siegfried Sassoon is buried in St Andrew’s Church attached to the manor. It’s a very discreet grave – if you didn’t know it was there you’d miss it. Sassoon died at his home in Heytesbury not far from Mells at the age of 81. Having converted to Catholicism in 1957, he wanted to be buried close to Monsignor Ronald Knox who preached at St Andrew’s and helped with Sassoon’s conversion. Mells’s other claim to fame is the ‘Little Jack Horner’ nursery rhyme – he of the plum pie. Nineteenth century rumour had it that Jack, or probably Thomas, was dispatched to London by the abbot of Glastonbury before the dissolution of the monasteries carrying a pie with the deeds to a dozen manors baked in it. Jack/Thomas dipped his hand in what must have been a very large pie during the journey and pulled out the plum of the Mells manor deeds which included the lead mines of the nearby Mendip Hills. Not so, said the subsequent owners of the manor – well they would wouldn’t they – but the village seems happy enough to own Jack Horner now. The gardens were lovely but thanks to my and H’s forgetfulness there are no pictures. A visit to the Walled Garden at Mells website – a nursery with a fabulous garden which serves excellent cream teas – will give you a flavour.

Cover imageMuch of Sunday afternoon was spent in my own postage stamp of a garden, dipping in and out of Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, much reviewed in the press this week by the likes of the erudite Marina Warner. Solnit is well known in the States but not so much here. The book is a memoir of her mother’s dementia and of her own cancer interwoven with her reflections on art and literature, and the stories they tell us, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to seventeenth century Dutch vanitas paintings. It’s all about storytelling, opening with the line “What’s your story?” and then leading in to a scene straight out of a fairytale in which a huge quantity of apricots cover the floor of her apartment. These are the fruit from her mother’s tree and must be dealt with much as her mother’s descent into dementia must be dealt with. Solnit weaves her own story out of what she does with these fruit and how she copes with the decline of a mother who seems always to have resented her. It’s a fine piece of writing.

The second novel conundrum

Cover imageI’ve been circling warily around Andrew Miller’s Costa Prize winning Pure for some time now. Miller’s first novel, Ingenious Pain, is one of my favourite books. Set in the 18th century, its main protagonist, James Dyer, is conceived on an icy night as a result of an adulterous coupling with a stranger. James cannot feel pain which appears to be a blessing but is, of course, a curse because he’s unable to understand the human condition. He attaches himself to a quack show, is abducted and kept in a rich man’s house as a curiosity, acts as an assistant to a ship’s physician and later, becomes a brilliant but supremely arrogant surgeon in fashionable Bath. His greatest and final adventure is to take part in a race to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress of Russia against smallpox, and it’s on this journey that he meets his nemesis – a strange woman whose miraculous powers Puregive him the gift of pain. There, just writing that has made me want to rush off and read it for the third time. Ingenious Pain was published in 1997 and every time I’ve got wind of a new Miller novel I’ve looked forward to it eagerly. It’s not that they’ve been bad novels – far from it – but none has matched the magic of his debut for me hence the hesitation over Pure even though several people whose opinions I trust assured me that this one really did hit the spot. I’m half-way through the tale of the clearing of Les Innocents Cemetery in pre-revolutionary Paris and although not quite as smitten as I was by Ingenious Pain it’s a close run thing.

As a keen reader of debuts, always on the hunt for new talent, I’ve found that the second novel is often a disappointment. Jake The Long FirmArnott’s excellent The Long Firm is a case in point. Set in mid-60s London it explores the sinister underworld of gangland London and is written with a wit as sharp as the cut of a gangster’s suit, not too mention sufficient period accuracy to satisfy even my contemporary historian partner. Sadly the next two in the trilogy didn’t cut it for me. T C Boyle’s Water Music is Water  Musica rattling good yarn based on the 18th-century explorer Mungo Park’s compulsive quest to find the source of the Niger. It’s packed with extraordinary characters who never seem to have a dull moment and is very funny indeed but my copy of Budding Prospects, Boyle’s second novel, landed up in a charity shop. Of course, it’s not always the case – Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a joy as is everything else she’s written, and Audrey Niffenegger did a fine job with Her Fearful Symmetry after The Time Traveller’s Wife – but it’s happened enough to make me wonder why given that most of us get better at something the more we do it. Perhaps it’s the rabbit in the headlights syndrome – having laboured away quietly, some times for years, suddenly having so many expectations from both readers and publishers must weigh heavily. Perhaps it’s having the luxury of time to lavish on writing and research the first time around and being rushed the second. Or maybe I’m just being greedy.