Tag Archives: Happy Little Bluebirds

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2019: Part One

Cover ImageThere’s an embarrassment of paperback riches in March, several of which were among my books of 2018. This first batch begins in the ‘30s with Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley about a young woman who turns up in the village of Elmbourne and inveigles herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie’s flattered by Constance’s attentions but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism gathering throughout Europe. As with all of Harrison’s novels, there’s a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy.

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from beneath her readers’ feet several times during Juliet’s journey through the Secret Service’s labyrinthine corridors. As ever, there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy but some serious points are made about idealism and national interest. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were met for me. And there’s another Atkinson in the offing this year: Big Sky, a Jackson Brodie novel. Hurrah!

Amy Bloom’s White Houses is also set in the ‘40s. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House and with whom Eleanor had a long and passionate affair. Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s Cover imagepresidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons. Such a cool jacket for the paperback edition, too.

Set just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, Louise Levene’s Happy Little Bluebirds keeps us in the ‘40s. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off. Like all the best satire, serious points are made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are all slipped into the narrative. That said, Levene’s novel is a thoroughly enjoyable romp and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood.

Set in the early ’90s, Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart is about a Filipino community in California, and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp, finding a second home with Rosalyn who knows nothing but the city of Milpitas where she lives. Castillo’s novel wasn’t without flaws for me – I could have done with a glossary – but it’s both entertaining and enlightening.

Cover imageI’m ending this first batch of paperbacks with Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion, set in the near future, which I’ve yet to read but which will no doubt depress me. Set in a small English town, post-Brexit, it depicts a country in the grips of fear and loathing thanks to a few opinions aired too stridently, political extremism on the rise and the revelation of secrets threatened. ‘Smart, satirical and honed to frightening acuity, Sam Byers’s writing offers up a black mirror to Britain post-Brexit in this frighteningly believable and knowingly off-kilter state-of-the nation novel’ say the publishers. I do love a state-of-the-nation novel but given the state of my particular nation I may just put my head in the sand although humour is promised, presumably of the dark variety.

That’s it for the first selection of March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first five and to a more detailed synopsis for the last one. If you’d like to catch up with March’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second paperback  instalment soon…

Happy Little Bluebirds by Louise Levene: A Hollywood romp

Cover imageI reviewed Louise Levene’s The Following Girls here just over four years ago. I loved it – a pitch-perfect satire on ‘70s schoolgirl life whose period detail rang more than a few bells for me. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of that detail in Happy Little Bluebirds, set in Hollywood just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, but the humour undercut with a serious edge makes her new novel equally enjoyable. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off to Bermuda.

Evelyn has a facility for languages. She’s fluent in nine of them including Esperanto. Married to the dour Silas, she’s now a war widow but still lives with her sister-in-law in their mother-in-law’s Woking house. When she’s presented with an assignment helping to keep an eye on the Hungarian film director keen to persuade America into the war, she’s not entirely sure what she’s supposed to do. Off she goes in her drab but serviceable British clothes, only to find that her British contact has disappeared. She catches the Super Chief from New York to Los Angeles, stopping for a makeover in Chicago and seeing spies at every turn. Once in Hollywood, she’s welcomed with open arms by some, sharp-tongued sarcasm by others. Soon she’s caught up in a round of parties, finally meeting Zandor Kiss who has an adaptation of The War of the Worlds in his sights. Kiss’ enthusiasm is welcome but needs to be curbed for the Foreign Relations Committee, keen to keep America out of the war. The once-dowdy Evelyn is settled into her new glamorous life, still somewhat puzzled as to what her job is and wary of watching eyes, when she receives news from home which to others might seem welcome but to her is not.

Happy Little Bluebirds is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through a Hollywood for whom the war is just so much background noise. Letters from her sister-in-law remind Evelyn of the sober events at home but, serious and dutiful as she is, she finds it impossible to resist the delights of California once over the culture shock, not least the matinée idols. Levine has a great deal of fun with the movie industry, mocking the extravagance of the moguls while showing solidarity with the poor put upon writers. The adaptation plans for War of the Worlds are a particular delight and the novel is stuffed full sharp one-liners:

Silas hadn’t cared for it and said so repeatedly while he cleared his plate

 He looked faintly unreal; too smart, too handsome for everyday use

 She’s filled the blasted swimming pool with gardenias again

As with all the best satire, there are serious points to be made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are slipped into the narrative. Altogether a thoroughly entertaining novel and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood. Dentists, a constant motif throughout the novel, finally come into their own.

Books to Look Out for in May 2018: Part Two

Cover imageMore than once I’ve proclaimed myself not to be a thriller fan on this blog, usually before going on to review one, so it may seem surprising that several of the books in the second part of May’s preview appear to have a definite thread of suspense running through them beginning with Rachel Edwards’ Darling which has cropped up frequently recently in my neck of the Twitter woods. It seems to be a spin on the old stepmother/daughter trope. Lola is unwilling to have much to do with her new stepmother who’s only been with her father for three months. Darling’s not so fond of Lola either but she is of her dad and so has to put up with his teenage daughter. Lola, it seems, has other plans. That may sound a little hackneyed but what spices this premise up a little is that Lola is white and Darling is black.

The synopsis for Melanie Finn’s The Underneath reminds me a little of Elizabeth Brundage’s All Things Cease to Appear which I enjoyed very much. A journalist and her children are left in their rented Vermont farmhouse when her husband is called away. Kay becomes convinced that something dreadful has happened in the house and enlists the help of a local man who is wrestling with his own demons just as she is with hers. ‘The Underneath is a tense, intelligent, beautifully written thriller which is also a considered exploration of violence, both personal and national, and whether it can ever be justified’ say the publishers.Cover image

Louise Levene’s Happy Little Bluebirds is set in 1940s Hollywood with recently widowed Evelyn, fresh from her mundane life in Woking. Evelyn is to help persuade an Anglo-Hungarian producer to create war propaganda but when she arrives she finds her contact has been called to Bermuda leaving her to fend for herself. ‘Happy Little Bluebirds has all the allure, glamour and intrigue of a golden age Hollywood film. Packed with meticulous historical research which is handled with a light, deft touch, Louise Levene brings her acerbic, whip-smart wit to a glittering period in recent history’ says the publishers which sounds great and I enjoyed Levene’s debut, The Following Girls, very much.

Alison Moore has quietly gained a growing following for her atmospheric novels. Her new one, Missing, is set in the Scottish Borders to where Jessie Noon has moved. Her husband walked out a year ago and she hasn’t seen her son for years, leaving her free to begin a relationship with a local man until she begins to receive messages. ‘This is a novel about communication and miscommunication and lives hanging in the balance (a child going missing, a boy in a coma, an unborn baby), occupying the fine line between life and death, between existing and not existing’ say the publishers which seems like an awful lot going on but Moore’s writing makes it well worth investigating.

Cover imageRounding off May’s new title preview is Janice Pariat’s The Nine-Chambered-Heart which sounds more like a collection of linked short stories but is billed as a novel. Nine characters tell the story of one woman’s life from their own points of view, ranging from her art teacher to the female student who comes to love her. That’s a catnip structure for me but what seals the deal is the blurb’s description of ‘gem-like chapters’ in ‘deeply intimate, luminous and fine-boned novel that explores the nature of intimacy and how each connection you make forms who you are’.

A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that take your fancy and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here. Paperbacks soon…