Tag Archives: Jen Beagin

Paperbacks to Look Out for in February 2019: Part One

The looming dank dullness that is February here in the UK has been brightened by the prospect of some paperback goodies, beginning with Jen Beagin’s smart, funny debut, Pretend I’m Dead, one of my books of 2018. Twenty-four-year-old Mona cleans houses for a living and falls hard for a junkie, taking herself off to Taos, New Mexico when he disappears. Nothing much happens in Beagin’s novel: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing.

Whisper it, I’ve yet to read anything by John Boyne but so many people whose opinion I trust seem to rate him highly that it’s time I did and A Ladder to the Sky seems as good a place to start as any. An aspiring novelist’s chance encounter with a celebrated author in a Berlin hotel leads to an opportunity. The story that Erich tells him catapults Maurice to his own literary fame, but once there he needs another idea and he has no scruples about where it comes from or how he gets it. One critic described Maurice as ‘a bookish version of Patricia Highsmith’s psychopathic antihero Tom Ripley’ which sounds very promising to me

In Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil a bright young man, raised in Washington DC by his conservative Nigerian parents, keeps his sexuality secret from all but his dearest friend. When Niru’s father discovers the truth, Meredith is too caught up in her own troubles to support him. ‘As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding towards a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine’ say the publishers which sounds harrowing but the premise is an interesting one.

I’m hoping that Katy Mahood’s Entanglement will offer a little light relief after that. One day in Cover image2007, Charlie locks eyes with Stella across a Paddington platform, and thinks he may know her. Mahood’s novel turns back the clock to the ‘70s tracing the thread that links the lives of four characters, seemingly unknown to each other. ‘In rhythmic and captivating prose, Katy Mahood effortlessly interweaves the stories of these two families who increasingly come to define one another in the most vital and astounding ways. With this soaring debut, she explores the choices and encounters that make up a lifetime, reminding us just how closely we are all connected’ say the publishers putting me in mind of David Nicholl’s One Day and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

That’s it for February’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other three should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new titles, they’re here and here. More soon…

Books of the Year 2018: Part Three

Cover imageThis instalment leapfrogs over June, much of which was spent on a lengthy railway jaunt which took me from Amsterdam to Warsaw. July saw the start of a long and lovely British summer, and two excellent debuts beginning with Jen Beagin’s smart, funny, Pretend I’m Dead, about twenty-four-year-old Mona who cleans houses for a living, falls hard for a junkie who disappears then takes herself off to Taos. Nothing much happens in Beagin’s novel: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing. Can’t wait to see what Beagin comes up with next.

Sonia Zinovieff’s Putney also explores the fallout of childhood abuse through Ralph who’s aroused by Daphne’s boyish beauty when she is nine and he is twenty-seven. It’s the ’70s and Daphne is the child of bohemian parents caught up in their own affairs, looking anywhere but at what is happening under their noses. Forty years later, Ralph is oblivious to Daphne’s chaotic, rackety life while she works on a collage commemorating her time with him in a flat a mere stone’s throw away from her childhood home. This subject could so easily have been mishandled. Salacious details, stereotypical characters, black and white judgements – it’s a minefield but Zinovieff explores her subject with consummate skill in a thoroughly accomplished novel, both thought-provoking and absorbing. I take my hat off to its author for tackling such a tricky subject with compassion and intelligence.

August got off to a much more lighthearted start with Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten, picking it up in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie. Evans’ novel is an absolute treat. Her story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice Cover imagewith wit, humour and compassion. For those of us struggling with the current political climate, Old Baggage is a happy reminder that things can get better.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley could be said to be a counterweight to that hope. Set in the early ‘30s it’s 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. Constance’s romantic views of the countryside reveal a nostalgia for a world that never existed rather than concern for those who live there. 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.

September began with a novel that I’d have to had to find a hat to eat had I not enjoyed it. 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 underneath her readers’ feet several times during Juliet’s journey through the labyrinthine corridors of MI5. As ever, there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy but some serious points are made about idealism and national interest some of which rang loud contemporary bells for me. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were more than met for me. Bring on all the prizes.

Cover imageYou’d think I might end on that high note but there’s one more September title: Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling. Together with three students and their professor, seventeen-year-old Sylvie and her parents, Bill and Alison, spend the summer living as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the summer landscape. The climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. Another in the succession of novellas that have so impressed me.

That’s the end of summer which I found particularly hard to let go this year although autumn put on a pretty good show, both for weather and books.

All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two books of the year posts they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.

Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin: Smart, funny and dark

Cover imageJen Beagin’s Pretend I’m Dead comes adorned with a ‘laugh-out-loud’ puff on its jacket, although it was the New Mexico setting that was the attraction for me. It’s about twenty-four-year-old Mona who cleans houses for a living, falls hard for a junkie who disappears then takes herself off to Taos. Not perhaps the most inspiring of synopses but it’s Beagin’s whipsmart humour and Mona’s idiosyncratic take on life that keep you reading.

Mona loves to vacuum, sees dirt wherever she goes and indulges in self-portraits, playing dead in her clients’ houses often wearing at least one item of their clothing. Her parents split when she was twelve, packing her off to her father’s cousin the other side of the country. Once a week she volunteers at the local needle exchange where she meets Mr Disgusting, twenty years older than her and determined to get clean. These two damaged misfits get to know each other, fall in love and plan to set up home together but then he disappears leaving Mona with nothing but an idea in her head that she would fit right into Taos. She takes off for New Mexico where she sets up shop as a cleaner again. Her neighbours spend an hour looking at the sunset ever night, meditate, eat a macrobiotic diet and think she should do the same. Business picks up but she’s lonely, worrying away at the puzzling childhood memories that resurface now and then.

Nothing much happens in Beagin’s debut: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. Beagin demonstrates a nice line in satire with her New Mexico characters, from her neighbours Nigel and Shiori, or Yoko and Yoko as Mona likes to call them, to Betty the psychic who may be a sharp-eyed charlatan or more prescient that Mona first thinks. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. A few favourites should give you a flavour:

Rather than a photo, Mona kept a list of her mother’s phobias in her wallet

Like cancer, he had a way of trivialising other aspects of her life

She didn’t believe he’d accidentally killed himself. He was too attached to his problems

There’s a superb one towards the end which made me laugh out loud as promised by that puff but you’d have to read the book to understand why. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing. Can’t wait to see what Beagin comes up with next.

Books to Look Out For in July 2018

Cover imageBack from my travels (more of which next week) with a look at July’s nicely varied bunch of new titles taking in Native American culture, Indonesian customs and genre-defying Icelandic fiction to name but a few disparate themes. Quite some time ago, having spent several holidays in the Four Corners area of the US, I went through a phase of reading Native American fiction which is what attracts me to Tommy Orange’s There There. It revolves around the Big Oakland Powwow, following several celebrants not all of whose intentions are good. Described as ‘a propulsive, groundbreaking novel, polyphonic and multigenerational, weaving together an array of contemporary Native American voices into a singularly dynamic and original meta-narrative about violence and recovery, about family and loss, about identity and power’ it sounds both ambitious and enticing.

Philippe Claudel’s The Tree of the Toraja also explores cultural traditions, this time through the experience of a filmmaker fascinated by the Indonesian custom of interring the bodies of deceased infants in the trunks of trees which grow to encase them. On his return to France he finds that his dearest friend is dying. ‘Like the trees of the Toraja, this powerful novel encloses and preserves memories of lost loves and friendships, and contains the promise of rebirth and rebuilding, even after a terrible tragedy’ say the publishers of what sounds like a very personal exploration of death and our attitudes to it. Claudel’s writing is often very beautiful, as measured and contemplative as his filmmaking, so hopes are high for this one.

They’re also high for Philip Teir’s The Summer House which sees Erik and Julia taking their children off to the west coast of Finland for what may well be their last family holiday. Erik has just lost his job while the presence of Julia’s childhood friend and her charismatic environmental activist husband throw a further spanner in the works. ‘Around these people, over the course ofCover imageone summer, Philip Teir weaves a finely tuned story about life choices and lies, about childhood and adulthood. How do we live if we know that the world is about to end?’ say the publishers. I enjoyed The Winter War very much a few years back.

It’s the gorgeously written Moonstone that’s whetting my appetite for Sjón’s Codex 1962 in which a character is fashioned out of clay carried in a hatbox by his Jewish fugitive father in WW2 Germany. The woman his father meets in a smalltown guesthouse nurses him back to health and together they mould the clay into the shape of a baby. It’s not until 1962 that Joseph enters the world, growing up with a rare disease which will attract the attention of an Icelandic geneticist fifty-three years later. ‘At once playful and profoundly serious, this remarkable novel melds multiple genres into a unique whole: a mind-bending read and a biting, timely attack on nationalism’ say the publishers of this beautifully jacketed novel

Jordy Rosenberg’s debut Confessions of the Fox also features some eye-catching characters. A professor has stumbled on an obscure manuscript telling the story of Jack Sheppard, a transgender carpenter’s apprentice who fled his master’s house and Bess Khan who escaped the draining of the fenlands. These two find themselves caught up in a web of corruption at the centre of which is the Thief-Catcher General. ‘Jack and Bess trace the connections between the bowels of Newgate Prison and the dissection chambers of the Royal College, in a bawdy collision of a novel about gender, love, and liberation’ say the publisher which puts me in mind Cover imageof Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree, setting the bar very high indeed.

Still in London, but moving on several centuries to the 1970s, Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney explores the relationship between a twenty-five-year-old composer and the nine-year-old daughter of the man with whom he hopes to collaborate. ‘It is not until years later that Daphne is forced to confront the truth of her own childhood – and an act of violence that has lain hidden for decades. Putney is a bold, thought-provoking novel about the moral lines we tread, the stories we tell ourselves and the memories that play themselves out again and again, like snatches of song’ say the publishers of a novel that could prove to be unsettling reading.

A M Homes takes us to twenty-first-century America with her collection of short stories, Days of Awe. These thirteen pieces explore ‘our attachments to each other through characters who aren’t quite who they hoped to become, though there is no one else they can be. Her first book since the Women’s Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven, Days of Awe is another visionary, fearless and outrageously funny work from a master storyteller’ say the publishers. Looking forward to this one very much.

Jen Beagin’s Pretend I’m Dead brings this selection geographically full circle to the Four Corners and Taos, New Mexico where twenty-four-year-old Mona hopes to make a fresh start along with sundry other truth seekers. ‘The story of Mona’s journey to find her place in the world is at once fearless and wonderfully strange, true to life and boldly human, and introduces a stunning, one-of-a-kind new voice in American fiction’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some entertainment combined with a little trip down the memory lane of holidays past with this one.

That’s it for July’s new titles. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…