Tag Archives: Jamie Bulloch

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2019: Part One

Cover imageI’ve read three of the paperbacks that have caught my eye for January, one of which is Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew, a slice of American small town life seen through the eyes of an unnamed bartender. I’d enjoyed Powell’s second novel, Trading Futures, a few years back, admiring its narrator’s waspishly funny inner monologue. This one’s infused with a gentler humour, the themes it tackles much weightier. Our narrator and his wife lie in bed mulling over events in the bar they run together. One day Arlene walks in, all glamour and sophistication, asking if they’ve heard of a man named Jack. Powell’s story unfolds through the bartender’s memories of the nine months Arlene occupied her bar stool, slipping in details of his apparently prosaic marriage, less transparent than he might have thought. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling.

Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is set largely in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities, and translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with interesting fiction. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t, in this carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction which offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one. One of my books of 2018.Cover imge

Winding back another thirty years in German history, Lutz Seiler’s award-winning Kruso is set on Hiddensee – a Baltic island legendary as a destination for idealists and rebels against the East German state – where in 1989 a young student has fled a dreadful tragedy. Once there, he gets a job washing dishes at the island’s most popular restaurant and becomes friends with the eponymous Kruso to whom the seasonal workers seem to be in thrall. ‘As the wave of history washes over the German Democratic Republic, the friends’ grip on reality loosens and life on the island will never be the same’ say the publishers.

Rupert Thomson takes us over the border with Never Anyone But You based on the true story of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore who meet and fall in love in early twentieth-century small town France. Moving to Paris, they immerse themselves in the world of Hemingway and Dali, producing a series of avant-garde photographs. On the eve of war, they flee to Jersey where their anti-Nazi propaganda puts their lives in danger. ‘Never Anyone but You explores the gripping true story of two extraordinary women who challenged gender boundaries, redefining what it means to be a woman, and ultimately risked their lives in the fight against oppression. Theirs is a story that has been hidden in the margins of history’ according to the publishers which sounds fascinating.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this first batch with Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which we shadow judges picked as our winner for the Young Writer of the Year Award. It begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail and a pleasing helping of sly wit.

That’s it for the first part of January’s paperback preview. A click on a title will take you to my review for the three I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the other two. If you’d like to catch up with January’s new titles they’re here and here. More paperbacks soon…

Books of the Year 2018: Part Two

Cover imageSpring, which seems so far away now, was a particularly good reading time for me hence this bumper post. March began with Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a carefully crafted, moving novella which explores love, loss and connection through the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk is a bereaved refugee, Lampy helps out at the local care home, spending much of his time in a rage, and John is fixer, bent on the corruption of good men. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in three discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does here but he pulls it off beautifully, writing in prose which has a lilting rhythmic beauty.

Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness explores similar themes through the story of three siblings. Forty-one-year-old Jules is in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. Each of their children deal with their loss differently: Liz takes to promiscuity and drugs; Marty loses himself in study and Jules becomes a dreamer, unable to settle at anything. Wells explores grief and death with empathy and compassion neatly avoiding the maudlin while facing what many of us might prefer to avoid contemplating. You might think that sounds somewhat gloomy but it’s not: the clue’s in the title. Another excellent translation by Charlotte Collins whose name I’ve learnt to look out for.

Death pops up again in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists which had my hype antennae twitching before I read it. It’s a novel with a very clever hook: what would you do with your life if you knew the date of your death? Would you choose to live it to the full, or would you keep yourself as safe as you could? In other words, would you choose to live or merely to survive? This is the conundrum for the Gold siblings whose stories unfold as they move inexorably towards the dates appointed to each of them at their childhood visit to a fortune-teller. Entertaining, moving and thought-provoking it’s a compassionate and satisfyingly immersive novel.

April brought probably the longest title of a contemporary novel I’ve ever come across:Cover image renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t. This carefully constructed piece of fiction offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by his novella’s fragmented structure. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking – beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch.

Michael Andreassen’s weird and wonderful The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is probably the oddest book to appear in my books of any year, but you never know. It’s a collection of twelve short stories, a work of surreal, off-the-wall fantasy. From the get-go you know you’re in discombobulating territory as a loving son remembers the many happy times they have shared before his father is crated up in his wheelchair and dropped into the sea. Next, a man longs for his wife after he and his unconsummated one-night-stand are abducted by aliens (yes, I know) and takes radical action to find her. In the eponymous story a crew look on helplessly, quarrelling amongst themselves, fretting about their cannibalistic admiral and being propositioned by mermaids as a many tentacled sea monster tightens her grip on what she hopes is her new lover. That should give you a flavour of this strange, often very funny collection. You’ll either hate it or love it; I loved it.

Amy Bloom took me back to more conventional literary territory in May. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, White Houses 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 presidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons.

Cover image’Elegantly spare’ is a description that could also be applied to Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, my other favourite May read. Set in the mountains above Ronda in Andalucia, Carrasco’s slim novella reads like a fable deeply rooted in the landscape of southern Spain. It tells the story of two brothers – one committed to saving the family olive farm, the other looking for a way out – against the backdrop of a searing autumnal drought. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut. Carrasco’s writing is strikingly poetic at times, stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

The next instalment covers four months of what turned out to be one of the most glorious summers we’ve known for some time here in the UK.

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig (transl. Jamie Bulloch): A wolf takes a walk

Cover imageImpossible not to comment on that title which makes the old bookseller in me wonder just how much it will be mangled in customer enquiries. I’m sure the publishers breathed a sigh of relief that Twitter have extended their 140-character limit, too. That said, it was the title which attracted me to this novella along with its setting largely in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with interesting fiction. One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s first novel. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany.

Coming out of the east, the wolf turns west into a forest where no wolf has been seen since 1843, crossing many people’s paths as it moves closer and closer to Berlin. Caught up in a traffic jam on his way back from Poland to his Berlin flat, Tomasz snaps the wolf on his phone, a shot which will later seize the media by storm. Elisabeth and Micha, two runaways from close to the border, spot the wolf’s tracks deep in the forest. Charly who runs a kiosk with his partner in an up and coming area of Berlin becomes haunted by his faceout with the wolf. A woman, intent on burning her dead mother’s diaries, spots it in the distance. The whole of Berlin falls under its spell, obsessed with this interloper who inspires both fear and wonder. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t, in this carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction which offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one.

This is such a clever, beautifully structured novella which seems to me to hold a mirror up to the reunified Germany through the stories of the characters whose path the wolf crosses. Tomasz is an economic migrant, uncomfortable in Berlin and longing for home; the ageing remaining occupants of the apartment block he’s helping to gentrify in the old east Berlin are determined not to be ousted; Elisabeth’s mother bitterly resents her ex-husband for thwarting her artistic career while Micha’s father has taken to drink in the face of economic decline. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by the fragmented structure of this novella in which deftly handled coincidences abound. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking. I’d suggest putting aside any difficultly stumbling over that title in your local bookshop and grabbing yourself a copy.

Books to Look Out for in April 2018

Cover imageFewer new April titles have snagged my attention than I’d hoped, although there were so many at the beginning of the year that may not be such a bad thing. I’ll start with the Gun Love by Jennifer Clement, author of the impressive Prayers for the Stolen, published in the UK a few years ago. Fourteen-year-old Pearl lives in the front seat of a wrecked car in a Florida trailer park while her mother lives in the back. Under the driver’s seat sits a gun given to Margot by her boyfriend, a regular visitor to the back seat. ‘Gun Love is a hypnotic story of family, community and violence. Told from the perspective of a sharp-eyed teenager, it exposes America’s love affair with firearms and its painful consequences’ say the publishers. I remember circling Prayers for the Stolen for some time, expecting unremitting grimness given that it was about kidnapped girls but it surprised me, and I’m hoping for the same with this one.

Diana Evans’ Ordinary People is set in South London, far from Pearl and Margot’s trailer park. Melissa is sinking after the birth of her baby while Michael fails to remain faithful to her. Further out into the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their children until the death of his father seems to pull the carpet from underneath him. ‘Set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s historic election victory, Ordinary People is an intimate, immersive study of identity and parenthood, sex and grief, friendship and aging, and the fragile architecture of love’ say the publishers enticingly.

Sarah Françoise’s Stories We Tell Ourselves is about another marriage in trouble, or perhaps a whole series of them. Joan and Frank have spent three decades in an unfinished house in the French Alps. Frank is involved in an epistolary affair with his German ex-girlfriend, and Joan is losing patience but it’s Christmas. They’re about to be visited by their three children, all wrestling with their own relationship difficulties. ‘Written with a rare precision and insight, the author explores the thorniness of familial love and its capacity to endure with warmth, wit and disarming honesty’ say the publishers, a promise which if it’s fulfilled could result in an Cover imageentertaining read.

No prizes for guessing the subject matter of Joanna Walsh’s Break.up but what’s interesting is the way in which Walsh approaches her subject, apparently blending fiction with essays on all manner of things according to the blurb. Walsh’s book is rooted in the idea that the internet has resulted in ex-partners becoming near inescapable. After an affair conducted mostly online, her narrator travels across Europe relying purely on chance to shape her journey. ‘From Rome to Budapest, Freud to Foucault, algorithms to nostalgia, this is a stimulating, original work which dismantles what we know of love, and how we make art from it, and finds a new form and language for the way we love now’ say the publishers. Walsh writes both fiction and non-fiction so may well be able to pull off what sounds like an ambitious piece of writing. She’s also the person behind #ReadWoman.

Lucy Wood’s lovely first novel, Weathering, was a 2015 favourite for me. I still haven’t got around to reading her much-praised collection Diving Belles and Other Stories but that hasn’t stopped me lusting after her new one, The Sing of the Shore, comprising stories set in Cornwall. ‘These astonishing, beguiling stories of ghosts and shifting sands, of static caravans and shipwrecked cargo, explore notions of landscape and belonging, permanence and impermanence, and the way places can take hold and never quite let go’ according to the publishers. Weathering was striking for its gorgeous, lyrical writing raising expectations for more of the same.

Cover image I’m ending with Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century, one of the lengthiest titles I’ve come across in some time. The lure here is its Berlin backdrop and its translation by Jamie Bulloch whose work I’ve come to admire. A wolf crosses the border from Poland into Germany, making its way to Berlin. Schimmelpfennig’s novel traces the lives of the people whose path the wolf crosses, from the construction worker who photographs it to the woman who burns her mother’s diaries on a Berlin balcony. ‘Those who catch sight of the wolf see their own lives reflected, and find themselves searching for a different path in a cold time. This first novel of Germany’s most celebrated contemporary playwright is written in prose of tremendous power and precision’ say the publishers which sounds very promising.

That’s it for April’s new titles. A click on any title that takes your fancy will lead to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bulloch): Not as sweet as you might think

the-empress-and-the-cakeGiven that two jaunts that have taken me to Vienna this year, Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake seemed an obvious choice. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with excellent fiction. Part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, Stift’s novella comes beautifully packaged in delicate pink and cream but beware: as we all know from the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are often far from sweet and this one’s no exception.

Our unnamed narrator finds herself accosted by a black-clad woman, not unlike the Empress Elisabeth, perusing the delights of a Viennese patisserie window. A gugelhupf is far too much for her, would the young lady like to share one? Our narrator reluctantly agrees, then Frau Hohenembs, as she introduces herself, explains that even half is too much, insisting that her new acquaintance comes back to her apartment for coffee and cake. Once there, our narrator meets Ida, plump and dressed in what looks a little like a doctor’s coat. Sadly for her, this incident triggers a binging episode, fifteen years after she thought she’d rid herself of her eating disorder. A few days later, hearing rustling outside her door, she opens it to finds Ida encamped in her hallway – Frau Hohenembs is insisting on her presence. As she becomes entangled in Frau Hohenembs’ increasingly baroque schemes, horrified as her persecutor filches bits and pieces from the city’s museums including the royal cocaine syringe, she loses her battle with food, caught up in  grim cycle of binging and purging.

Stift’s novella is a thought-provoking tale of madness, delusion and addiction, an exploration of the way in which the mind is able to construct elaborate and convincing scenarios for itself. Her writing is vivid, often graphically harrowing but there’s a rich vein of dark humour running through it. The coked-up dog and chorusing parrots add a particularly striking dash of lunatic comedy to the proceedings. Not a toothsome tale then but certainly an original and disturbing one which will stay with me for quite some time.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) November 2015

Cover imageJust two books worth recommending that I’ve read but not reviewed this month. Thanks are due to Jacqui at JacquiwinesJournals for pointing me in the direction of one of them – Daniela Krien’s Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything, set in 1991 in what was still the GDR during the summer before German reunification. Johannes has taken sixteen-year-old Maria home where she’s remained, living with him in the top two rooms of the old family farmhouse. Her mother’s divorced and her father is about to marry his pregnant nineteen-year-old Russian girlfriend. Maria stops going to school, reads The Brothers Karamazov and learns how to cook, settling into family life until she catches the eye of forty-year-old Henner on the neighbouring farm. Soon they’re embroiled in a violently passionate affair. The backdrop of a GDR emerging from years of separation with its neighbour amidst all the conflicted feelings of joy and resentment that brings are beautifully expressed in this lovely novella translated by Jamie Bulloch who seems to have an eye for interesting German fiction. A click on the title will take you to Jacqui’s very thoughtful review. Cover image

Every so often I like to read a bit of straightforward, neatly structured, well-written, good old commercial fiction. Flagging energy levels and murky weather provided the trigger this month and Susan Elliot Wright’s The Secrets We Left Behind filled the gap nicely. It takes the form of a dual narrative – one set in 1976 when our narrator was sixteen and living in a Hastings squat after her mother died; the other in 2009 when she’s just become a grandmother and is suddenly faced with disclosing the eponymous secrets. It’s all very deftly handled, deserving of the Maggie O’Farrell comparison adorning its jacket, although not quite a match. That would be a tall order, indeed – O’Farrell’s the mistress of the dual narrative, and – so Twitter tells me – she has a new novel out next summer. Oh joy!

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?

Look Who's BackAdolf Hitler wakes up with a dreadful headache. He’s a little bemused to find himself lying in what seems to be a wasteland. He picks himself up and makes his way to a news kiosk where he’s astonished to find that it’s August 30th 2011. He’s at a loss to know what’s happened but the newspaper seller whose stand is frequented by media types spots an opportunity. This guy, who appears to be a method actor, is such a dead ringer for the Fürhrer all he needs are a few introductions to the right people. Before long Hitler’s spot supporting comedian Ali Gagmez on TV is so successful that he gets his own show. There are a few hitches with the contract – just what is his real name – but soon he’s the current YouTube phenomenon. The trouble is, nobody quite gets it: they think he’s particularly edgy stand up comic – he thinks he’s launching a campaign to restart National Socialism.

Satire can often go horribly wrong, particularly if you choose to narrate your novel through the voice of one of the 20th century’s greatest villains, but Timur Vermes carries it off beautifully, chucking lampoons in all directions and managing to hit his mark nearly all the time. Celebrity culture, modern politics, the internet, TV, social media, tabloid newspapers, binge drinking – they all get a bashing. Hitler spends much of his time in a state of furious astonishment at the idiocy of the modern world and the parlous state of the German people, led by a woman for god’s sake. When he’s exposed to modern TV for the first time he’s amazed by its vacuous nature; he fears there must be a bread shortage when he’s given a granola bar and finally sees the point of those pesky ringtones when his secretary assigns him The Ride of the Valkyries. Like all good satire, there are sharp observations within the jollity – Hitler has trouble with his email address as so many people have already nabbed the appropriate ones, he’s gratified to find so few mixed race children despite the Turkish immigrant population, after the initial wonder of the ‘Internetwork’ he’s quick to spot a propaganda tool. At times he’s horribly plausible, and of course he loves animals and children. The novel ends on a warning note – maybe there are some people who think he wasn’t all bad. It’s hard to keep blistering satire up for well over three hundred pages even if it is punctuated by slapstick hilarity and, for me, the novel was a little too long. That said, no one could accuse Vermes of being anything but original. Hats off to translator Jamie Bulloch, not just for an excellent translation but for adding a short essay on the German historical and political context for the novel.

Not surprisingly, Look Who’s Back caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published. It stormed up the bestseller charts and stayed there for 70 weeks, apparently. It’s a brave author who tackles a taboo subject in the way Vermes has – I’m British but I felt a little squirmy at times. What do you think? Are there any subjects you’d consider completely verboten?