Tag Archives: Jennifer Egan

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2018: Part One

Cover imageI seem to start most of these posts with promises of many treats, or potential treats, on the paperback horizon and May’s no exception with publishers not yet assuming that we’ve put our brains away in preparation for summer reading.

At the top of May’s goodie list for me is Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which appeared on both my books of 2017 list and my Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 wish list. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. It’s a highly ambitious debut but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is a caustic satire which takes a distinctly dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way. Desperate for money, Mary enrolls in The Girlfriend Experiment as Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few. The ensuing shenanigans skewer the contemporary pursuit of the perfect partner in a novel which lives up to its Margaret Atwood puff.

Technology comes in for a bashing in The Chalk Artist which sees Allegra Goodman contrasting the world of gaming with the older more established one of literature. Despite her antipathy to it, Nina prods Collin into a job in her father’s business which designed the game that Cover imageconsumed his teenage years. As Nina struggles to imbue her students with a love of literature, Collin is pulled further into Arkadia with its playground offices and exacting taskmasters. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old games-obsessed Aidan has been given a black box which opens up a virtual reality game to him. The Chalk Artist is an absorbing, all too believable read but I preferred Goodman’s previous novel, The Cook Book Collector, which explores similar thematic territory.

I had a similar reaction to Jennifer Egan’s first historical novel Manhattan Beach to which I had been looking forward very much having enjoyed A Visit from the Goon Squad. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her beloved father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him. Anna is assigned to work in the shipyards during the Second World War but manages to argue, cajole and doggedly train her way onto the all-male diving programme while still trying to find answers to the mystery of her father’s disappearance. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away.

I’m hoping Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl won’t continue the disappointment trend after the excellent The Woman Upstairs. Her new novel looks at female friendship through two women who have been friends since nursery school but whose paths diverge leaving one of them feeling cast aside. ‘Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship. Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship’ say the publishers which sounds right up my street.

I’m ending this selection with Jamie Ford’s Love and Other Consolation Prizes which I’m not at all sure about largely because of the cover which looks somewhat soapy to me but I like the sound of the premise. At the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair Ernest, a half-Chinese boy, is raffled off as a prize and ends up working in a brothel where he falls in love with the daughter of its madam. In 1962, on the eve of the new World’s Fair, Ernest looks back at his past while his daughter attempts to unravel her family’s story. Quite an eye-catching synopsis but it I’m still not convinced by that jacket.

That’s it for the first batch of May paperback delights. A click on any of the first four will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other two should you want to know more. If you missed May’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second batch of paperbacks shortly…

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Diving in

Cover imageThere will be lots of fans standing ready for this one, I’m sure. It’s been seven years since the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad which bagged both the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award. Manhattan Beach is very different, not least because it’s Egan’s first historical novel. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him.

Anna adores Eddie who takes his bright young daughter with him to business meetings. The stock market crash has driven him to the fringes of gangsterism, working as a bagman for the childhood friend he saved from drowning. Eddie steers a careful course, wary of risk but needing to support the wife he adores and their severely disabled daughter a little younger than Anna. One day, Eddie takes Anna to Manhattan Beach where they meet Dexter Styles and his family. This is the beginning of a business relationship which will last until Eddie disappears, having made sure his family are looked after. Years later, Anna is working in the Naval Yard checking parts for warships. Summoning all her grit and determination she finds her way onto the diving programme essential to ship maintenance, defeating its leader’s sneering prejudice. When she spots Styles at one of his nightclubs, she becomes determined to find out what happened to Eddie but finds herself embroiled in more than she bargained for.

Egan’s novel explores the history of mid-twentieth century America through the lens of Anna’s experience. She’s a smart, strong character, taught to interpret the world by her father and wary of what she might give away. She’s different from the women around her: Nell makes her way through sex and what it buys her; Rose is bringing up a child, working while her husband is at war but Anna uses her intelligence and determination to break into a staunchly masculine sphere, earning respect but not without a fight. Styles’ world contrasts with the hard graft of the shipyards, moneyed and comfortable but hanging by a thread of influence. Egan has clearly done a great deal of research for this novel, all framed within an engrossing story replete with some very smart writing: ‘the man raised in him a welt of provocation whose itch he could barely withstand’; ‘No one talked more than men on ships, but the point of the stories they told was to hide the ones they could never divulge to anyone’. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away. I’ll be interested to see what other Egan fans make of it.

Books to Look Out for in October 2017

Cover imageThere are three titles competing for top of my October wish list. Hard to choose which to grab first so I’m plumping for the one I’ve been waiting for the longest: Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. It’s been eight years since Gillespie and I was published, a novel which features a superbly unreliable narrator, and eleven since The Observations which I included in my Blasts from the Past series. Gillespie and I leapt the second novel hurdle with flying colours so hopes are high for Harris’ third, set in eighteenth-century Martinique where two brothers have been instructed to return to their home island of Grenada to smuggle back forty-two slaves from a hospital plantation. ‘With great characters, a superb narrative set up, and language that is witty, bawdy and thrillingly alive, Sugar Money is a novel to treasure’ say the publishers encouragingly.

Sticking with the long gap between novels theme, my second choice Is Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach published seven years after the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad. It opens in Brooklyn against the backdrop of the Great Depression, with young Anna Kerrigan taken by her father to the house of a rich man. Years later, Anna works in the shipyard during the war, earning the money that has kept her family since her father’s disappearance. When she meets the man she remembers from her childhood she begins to question what has happened to her father. ‘Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes in New York, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America and the world’ say the publishers which sounds very ambitious but given Egan’s past novels may well not be an exaggeration.

In any other month Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour would have had no competition in topping my list. I’m an ardent fan as regular readers may have gathered. McDermott excels at that pared-back yet lyrical prose that I love – I’ve yet to read anything by her I’ve not enjoyed. Thankfully she’s a little more prolific than Harris and Egan although it’s been four years sinceCover image Someone, her last novel. Set in Brooklyn, her new book follows three generations of an Irish immigrant family in the ‘40s and ‘50s. A man takes his own life, leaving his young wife pregnant. Sister St Saviour offers her work in the convent’s laundry, saving her from destitution but although never spoken of, her husband’s suicide remains a stigma. ‘In prose of startling radiance and precision, Alice McDermott tells a story that is at once wholly individual and universal in its understanding of the human condition. Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, The Ninth Hour is the crowning achievement of one of today’s finest writers’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.

And now for something entirely different. Gabe Hbash’s Stephen Florida is about a college student, an amateur wrestler with his eye set on a championship. Not a premise that would usually appeal but the publishers‘ description is an intriguing one: ‘Profane, manic and tipping into the uncanny, this is Florida’s chronicle of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark. With echoes of The Art of Fielding and the film Foxcatcher, Gabe Habash’s daring, revelatory debut journeys into the mind of a young man teetering between control and rage, grief and elation, genius and insanity’. That reference to The Art of Fielding was inevitable, I suppose, but it did catch my eye.

Tony Peake’s North Facing has as its backdrop the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the world appeared to be on the point of catastrophe. Rather than simply telling the story of the American/Russian face-off, Peake’s novel views it through the lens of a group of South African schoolboys, one of whom is discovering his sexuality and the politics of his troubled country. Now in his sixties and drawn back to Pretoria, Paul recalls that time which saw both the Sharpeville massacre and the arrest of Nelson Mandela. I’m particularly drawn to this novel after reading Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, set on the day after Mandela’s death.

Cover imageMy final choice is Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Set in Japan, it’s about a disillusioned man with a criminal record who makes the titular paste for the pancakes sold in the confectioner’s where he works. When an elderly disabled woman enters the shop, offering to teach him her own recipe, a friendship begins. The publishers describe Sukegawa’s book as ‘a quietly devastating novel about the burden of the past and the redemptive power of friendship’ which sounds very appealing.

That’s it for October. A click on any title that’s piqued your interest will take you to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

The Last Book of the Year

At the beginning of 2014 I wrote one of those posts that I thought was just for my own satisfaction but which generated some interesting discussion. It was called ‘the first book of the year’ and it covered a decade of reading, all neatly recorded in a notebook that I still keep. I know we’re not yet done with 2015 but it’s a safe bet that I won’t finish another book before we are so I thought I’d write a counterpart. That first post was also a test of what I remembered about each book. So, two years further into middle-aged memory syndrome – that ‘what did I come into the kitchen for?’ state that will be all too familiar to some of you – here are a decade’s worth of my last books of the year.

Cover image2006: The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan And I’m off to a bad start here. I’m sorry to tell you that I remember little or nothing about O’Nan’s novel, although I know that it had supernatural overtones leaning towards horror. I’ve a feeling I read this in preparation for some magazine work as it hardly seems up my usual alley.

2007: Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson I read this because I’m a Thomson fan. No one could accuse him of endlessly ploughing the same furrow: this year’s Katherine Carlyle leapt into the twenty-first century after Secrecy‘s exploration of Medici court politics. I remember that the eponymous murderer was Myra Hindley, one of the infamous Moors Murderers, who had died several years before.

2008: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale This one’s easy. It was one of those titles that Richard and Judy made into a bestseller, naming it as one of their book club choices in the days when that meant shifting shed loads of books for booksellers. It’s about an artist, as its title suggests, whose death uncovers many secrets the revelation of which rock her family. Having been a Gale fan since The Aerodynamics of Pork way back when, it was a delight to see it race up the bestseller charts.

2009: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde I’m going to forgive myself for forgetting which particular Fforde this is. They’re very funny – the kind of books that irritate your partner as you snigger your way through them – but instantly forgettable.

2010: A Single Man by Christopher IsherwoodCover image Unusually for me these days, this was a re-read prompted by Tom Ford’s beautiful film. Set in the early ‘60s, it’s the story of a gay English professor teaching in California, left devastated by the death of his lover whose family shut him out, sweeping their relationship neatly under the carpet.

2011: A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan I feel I should remember this in great detail – I enjoyed it very much at the time and it isn’t that long ago – but all that comes to mind is that it involved two characters from the music industry who worked together, and that it wandered about all over the world.

2012: Alligator by Lisa Moore Same goes for Lisa Moore’s Alligator which I read having enjoyed February so much. Surprisingly that’s the one I remember despite reading it several years before. It’s the story of a woman widowed while pregnant when her husband’s oil rig sinks, and her long slow emergence from grief. As for Alligator, well I’m not at all sure…

2013: Wild Hares and Humming Birds by Stephen Moss Not a novel, Wild Hares.. was a birthday present, given to me because of a newly awakened interest in nature writing. It’s a year of the Moss’s reflections on what he saw around him on the Somerset Levels, not a million miles away from where I live. I’d love to tell you that we, in the West Country, are beset by humming birds but the title refers to the hummingbird hawk-moth, which I remember seeing once at Abbotsbury Gardens.

2014: Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton Also not a novel, this is chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir. I remember it for its gorgeous descriptions of food and the many places that Hamilton has eaten and cooked it with friends and family. It’s a glorious celebration of all those things – I’m tempted to use that tired old cliché ‘life-affirming’ to describe it.

2015: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo This seems an appropriate last book for this year given Naomi over at The Writes of Women and Dan’s Twitter initiative #DiverseDecember, now extended to #ReadDiverse2016. Bulawayo’s novel is set in Zimbabwe against the backdrop of Robert Mugabe’s destruction of tens of thousands of homes in 2005, seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Darling and her friends. Darling eventually joins her aunt in America only to find life there is not quite what she expected. Both funny and heart-wrenching, it’s a strikingly vivid piece of writing.

That’s my last, somewhat nerdy post of 2015. I’d love to know what your last book of the year is, present or past.