In previous years I’ve merged December’s paperback and hardback offerings but the three paperbacks I have my eye on this year merit a post of their own, kicking off with Jessie Burton’s The Muse, cunningly published at the end of the month to capture the Christmas book token trade. Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist was hugely successful a few years back. Burton’s second novel begins in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, who left her Trinidadian home five years before, about to find her niche working in a London art gallery. One day a lost masterpiece with a story behind it is delivered, purported to be by the legendary Isaac Robles. Burton’s novel untangles the painting’s history taking her readers to Spain in 1936. Lots of very complimentary reviews when it was published in hardback.
I’m not sure Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper got much coverage at all when it was first published here in the UK. A frustrated young woman with a few published short stories under her belt, is stuck in the temping world. Her life seems about to be transformed when a Nobel Prize winning author offers her the opportunity to translate his book. Unfortunately, as instalments of the manuscript roll in, it becomes clear that the book is untranslatable. ‘A deft, funny, and big-hearted novel about second chances, Good on Paper is a grand novel of family, friendship, and possibility.’ say the publishers which sounds like rather a nice way to round off the reading year.
My last choice, Andrea Canobbio’s Three Light-Years, is the only one I’ve reviewed. Still living in the same apartment building as his mother, his ex-wife and her new family, forty-three-year-old Viberti longs for a child. He meets Cecilia whose son is suffering from an eating disorder and manages to get the boy to eat by distracting him with a conversation about James Bond. Before long Viberti and Cecilia are having lunch together. Subtle, often funny, sometimes infuriating this is not a novel for those wanting a conventional love story – there are times when you want to give Viberti and Cecilia a good shaking – but I enjoyed it very much. Nicely ambivalent ending, too, much like life.
That’s it for December. A click on the title of the first two will take you to a fuller synopsis while the third link is to my review. If you want to catch up with December hardbacks, here they are
June really is a bumper month for fiction. I know I frequently kick these previews off with that kind of pronouncement but such were the many interesting looking titles on offer that there were nearly enough books for a three-parter which seems excessive even for my eyes-bigger–than-stomach tendencies. Several of them are set in that fabled decade the 1960s, beginning with Emma Cline’s debut The Girlswhich has been attracting attention for a good few months now. Set in the summer of 1969, it’s about fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd entranced by the girls in their short dresses and long tatty hair who live on a Californian ranch, deep in the hills with the charismatic Russell. ‘Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways. Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?’ say the publishers. Cline’s novel is based on the notorious Manson murders and seems to have caused quite a stir already.
Following an immensely successful debut with a second novel is a nerve-wracking time for writers, I’m sure. Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist was hugely successful two years back. Her second novel, The Muse begins in London in 1967 with Odelle Bastien who left her Trinidadian home five years before and who is about to find her niche working in a London art gallery. One day a lost masterpiece with a story behind it is delivered to the gallery, purported to be by the legendary Isaac Robles. Burton’s novel untangles the painting’s history taking her readers to Spain in 1936. ‘Seductive, exhilarating and suspenseful, The Muse is an addictive novel about aspiration and identity, love and obsession, authenticity and deception – a magnificent creation and a story you will never forget’ say the publishers.
By contrast, the synopsis of Susan Beale’s The Good Guyisn’t anything hugely special but there’s something about it that draws me in. Perhaps it’s that old third-party dynamic. Still in the ‘60s but this time in suburban New England it’s about Ted – a car-tyre salesman married to Abigail – whose chance encounter with Penny sets him off inventing a new life for the both of them until ‘fantasy collides with reality, the fallout threatens everything, and everyone, he holds dear’, apparently. Could be as dull as ditch water but it’s got a great jacket and John Murray often publish interesting novels.
Staying in the ‘60s, Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer follows Patricia Highsmith to a cottage in Suffolk where she is concentrating on her writing and avoiding her fans while conducting an affair with a married lover. When a young journalist arrives determined to interview her, things take a dark turn. ‘Masterfully recreating Highsmith’s much exercised fantasies of murder and madness, Jill Dawson probes the darkest reaches of the imagination in this novel – at once a brilliant portrait of a writer and an atmospheric, emotionally charged, riveting tale’ say the publishers. Dawson has a particular talent for taking the bare bones of a life and working it up into a richly imagined novel.
Natasha Walter – she of Living Dolls and The New Feminism fame – has a debut novel out in June which also takes the story of historical figures and fictionalises it. Laura Leverett has been living in Geneva since her husband disappeared in 1951. Ostensibly a conventional wife and mother, Leverett has been living a double life since 1939 when she met a young Communist woman aboard a transatlantic liner. When she marries a man with similar sympathies she becomes caught up in a world of espionage which will take her from wartime London to Washington in the grips of McCarthyism. Based on the relationship between the Cambridge spy Donald Maclean and his wife Melinda Marling, A Quiet Life is ‘sweeping and exhilarating, alive with passion and betrayal’ according to the publishers. This is the third Cold War novel to have caught my attention this year although Walter has stiff competition to beat: the other two were Francesca Kay’s The Long Room and Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, both excellent.
This next one is eagerly anticipated, by me anyway. It’s the third in Louisa Young’s First World War series which began with My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You and continued with The Heroes’ Welcome. Those who have read the first two novels will be familiar with several of the characters which apparently reappear in Devotion, although the baton has been handed onto the next generation now faced with the prospect of another war as Tom, adoptive son of Nadine and Riley, falls in love with Nenna whose father supports Mussolini. The first two instalments of this series were a joy – compassionate and humane without a hint of sentimentality.
Winding back to the end of the First World War and the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept the world, Sjón’s Moonstone is set in Iceland in 1918 against a backdrop of an erupting volcano and coal shortages. Sixteen-year-old Mani loves the movies, even dreaming about them, but everything changes when the ‘flu hits Iceland. ‘Capturing Iceland at a moment of profound transformation, this is the story of a misfit in a place where life and death, reality and imagination, secrets and revelations jostle for dominance’ say the publishers. Make of that what you will. It’s so unusual to see an Icelandic novel in the publishing schedules that seems to have nothing to do with crime that I feel I should give this one a go.
Finally, at least for this first batch, Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching is set in New York which is usually enough to guarantee any novel a place on my list but this one sounds particularly attractive, apparently featuring the city itself as the main protagonist. From Walt Whitman in 1891 to Robert Mapplethorpe in 1967, from Robert Moses in 1922 to Edmund White in 2013, Bradbury’s novel is about the artists and writers who have made New York a city that captures the imagination. ‘Through the lives and perspectives of these great creators, artists and thinkers, and through other iconic works of art that capture its essence, New York itself solidifies. Complex, rich, sordid, tantalizing, it is constantly changing and evolving. Both intimate and epic in its sweep, Everyone is Watching is a love letter to New York and its people – past, present and future’ say the publishers which suggests that it could either be a great sprawling mess of a novel which rambles about all over the place or a resounding success. We’ll see.
That’s it for the first batch of June titles. As ever a click on a title will whisk you off to a more detailed synopsis.
My fourth and final selection begins with an award-winning novel. After differing with both the Baileys and the Man Booker judges I’ve finally found a set I can agree with: the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Of course, they’d made their minds up in June and I only got around to reading Jo Mazelis’ utterly engrossing Significance in October. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel – it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other. Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. By showing events from so many points of view, she draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize.
October’s other treat was Zimbawean author Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that Memory, our narrator, was sold to a strange man by her parents. She’s now on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe, all served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit.
We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me and two sets of literary judges agreed: it’s on the Costa First Novel shortlist and it won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature. It’s the story of fifty-seven-year-old Ray who on one of his weekly shopping trips spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. Ray claims One Eye from the dog pound and soon the two are inseparable. Over the course of a year Ray tell his sad story to the only friend he’s ever had. As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality.
My final choice is entirely different. Way back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. Twenty years later and they’re back. Beginning in 2003, Number 11follows ten-year-old friends Rachel and Alison over a decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws. Number 11 bears several familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots.
The last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.
In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, all unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.
Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920. It ends in the Cold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government. A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.
Looking back over the year for these three posts it seems that many of my favourite reads were crammed into the first two months of the year. March, however, saw only one, Shot gun Lovesongs, but that may well turn out to be my book of the year. Nickolas Butler’s American smalltown gem is a gorgeous, tender novel which retains enough grittiness to steer well clear of the sentimental while wringing your heart. I hope there’ll be another Butler on the horizon soon.
After the remarkable Burnt Shadows I had been looking forward to April’s A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie as soon as I spotted it in the publishing schedules and it didn’t disappoint. Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters. It’s a towering achievement as is Look Who’s Back in an entirely different way. Timur Vermes’ very funny satire sees Hitler waking up with a terrible headache in August 2011, more than a little bemused but soon all too plausibly back in the frame. Satire can go horribly wrong but Vermes is right on the button. Not surprisingly, it caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published, storming up the bestseller charts and staying there for seventy weeks.
Having started this with a prime candidate for my book of the year, I spotted another in May’s posts. With its unusual thematic structure Charles Lambert’s With A Zero at its Heart could have been too tricksy for its own good but instead it turned out to be one of the finest books I’ve read this year. Its beauty lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words. Also in May was Louisa Young’s sequel to the heartrending My Dear I Wanted to Tell You – The Heroes’ Welcome. Young’s sympathetic characterisation draws you immediately into this powerful novel which looks at the aftermath of war, deftly avoiding all sentimentality. You don’t have to have read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You to enjoy The Heroes’ Welcome but you’d be missing a treat if you didn’t.
Nothing in June or July but in August I was reminded of my bookselling days by Andy Miller who I’d worked with briefly at Waterstone’s head office many years ago when the apostrophe was present and correct. The Year of Reading Dangerously in which Andy gets his reading mojo back is touching, honest and very funny indeed. Lots of sniggering in this house, and not just me. You might think ‘she would say that wouldn’t she’ but if Twitter’s anything to go by Andy seems to be having a lot of success helping people rediscover their inner reader. I’m going to leave you with another August title: The Miniaturist. Might as well get all my book of the year contenders into one post. Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it was inspired by. Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum. I’m sure you can’t have failed to notice all the brouhaha around it but believe me, it’s justified. It’s a love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface – altogether a very fine book indeed. I’ll leave you with that. Third post to follow soon and if you missed the first you can catch up here.
This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time. I first noticed it at the centre of a little Twitter storm early this year in which several people whose opinion I trust were becoming very excited, then I noticed that not only was it set in Amsterdam which I’d visited at Christmas but that Jessie Burton had taken for her inspiration the ‘cabinet houses’ that had intrigued me in the Rijksmuseum. Cabinet houses are replicas of the wealthy merchants’ homes which line the canals, beautifully decorated and furnished in miniature. Petronella Oortman’s is a particularly fine example and it’s Nella’s story that Burton tells in The Miniaturist which is, I have to say, one of the finest books I’ve read this year.
In November 1686, fresh from the country town of Assendelft, Nella knocks on the door of her new husband’s house. She hasn’t seen him since they were married a month ago. He’s a merchant, a wealthy businessman who divides his time between the stock exchange, the Dutch East India Company and searching out exotic goods far away from Amsterdam. Nella’s reception is distinctly chilly: her husband is absent, her sister-in-law taciturn and the maid sulky, only the black manservant – the like of which she’s never seen before – seems polite. Perhaps this is the way things are done in Amsterdam but as the week wears on there’s still no sign of Johannes, Marin continues to behave as if she’s the mistress of the house rather than Nella and Cornelia becomes cheekier. Nella begins to question the nature of this strange household of which she is nominally in charge. When, eventually, Johannes turns up, his gentle fondness for her fails to materialise into anything else and she continues to sleep alone. She needs an occupation which comes in the form of a present from Johannes: the cabinet house, beautifully crafted but in need of furnishing. When she commissions a miniaturist she finds the packages that are sent contain unasked for extras, dolls which mirror the inhabitants of the Herengracht house a little too exactly. As Nella becomes more confident, she begins to understand that there are many layers to the Brandt household just as there are many layers to Amsterdam. I’m not going to tell you much more than that – much of the delight and skill of this impressive, immensely enjoyable novel is the way in which Nella’s questioning peels back those layers and the many surprises – and shocks – she reveals.
This is a gorgeous jewel box of a novel packed with vivid descriptions that summon up seventeenth-century Amsterdam where ‘how you dress is what you are’ although a very plain dress many well be lined in velvet and sable, hidden well away from public gaze. It’s a city where women may walk the streets at liberty but their desire to see the world is confined to map-lined rooms. Burton is particularly adept at characterisation – there are no sinners and saints amongst her main protagonists, each is complex, many-faceted and often surprising. Nella’s transformation from naïve young country girl with visions of a glittering marriage to a resourceful, courageous woman capable of facing even the most gruelling of ordeals is a triumph. The dialogue is often snappy and the device of the mysterious miniaturist who seems to know far more that she should keeps you guessing. It’s a love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface – altogether a very fine book, indeed. And it made me want to get on the next plane to Amsterdam, head for the Rijksmuseum to look into Nella’s house then stuff my face with poffertjes or pufferts as Nella knew them. Absolutely delicious!
So, I’ve already mentioned that The Miniaturist is one of the finest books I’ve read this year – for the record the two that rank alongside it are Nikolaus Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart. We’re well past the half-way point for 2014 – what are your favourites so far?