Tag Archives: Joanna Briscoe

Books to Look Out For in June 2020

Cover imageJune is usually the month when publishers present us with a plethora of summer reading designed to keep us entertained by the pool, although there’s not much chance of that this year unless you have your own. Not my kind of novel, on the whole, but Rebecca Kauffman’s The House on Fripp Island might be this year’s exception. The eponymous island is a luxury resort in South Carolina where Lisa Daly and her family are holidaying with friends, all of whom have secrets to keep, apparently. ‘While revelations from the past and present unfold, the book builds to a shocking event that will shake your sense of justice and leave you wanting to talk about crime and retribution’ say the publishers which may sound a step too far into summer reading territory  but given that I enjoyed Kaufmann’s The Gunners, I may give it a try.

I’d happily pack anything by Joanna Briscoe in my suitcase should I be lucky enough to get away this year. Her new novel, The Seduction, follows Beth, who lives a quiet life in north London, hoping that her uncertainty can be settled by going into therapy but finds herself even more disturbed than before, apparently. ‘What if the very person who is meant to be the solution becomes the most dangerous problem of all? And why is what’s bad for us so enticing?’ asks the blurb suggesting a thread of suspense. I was a huge fan of Briscoe’s Sleep with Me, published over fifteen years ago but I still remember it well.

Niamh Campbell’s This Happy has been quietly popping up in my Twitter timeline for a few months, much lauded by people whose opinions I trust. Twenty-three-year-old Alannah and her married Cover imageolder lover spend three weeks in cottage in the Irish countryside. Six years later, recently married to another man, Alannah spots the cottage’s landlady triggering memories of bliss followed by utter misery. An interesting enough premise but it’s the quote that comes with the blurb that’s sold this one to me: I have taken apart every panel of this, like an ornamental fan. But we stayed in the cottage for three weeks only, just three weeks, because it was cut short you see – cut short after just three weeks, when I’d left my entire life behind. Hoping for some fine writing if that’s a sample.

I wasn’t at all sure about Jean-Baptiste Andrea’s A Hundred Million Years and A Day with its rather wordy title, either, but the enthusiasm of the small indie publisher who pitched it won me over. Baptiste’s novella was a huge literary hit in France where it was published last year. It’s about a palaeontologist who thinks he may have found a clue to the discovery which will enshrine his legacy, hidden deep in the mountains of Southern France, and the expedition that takes him there. His novel comes complete with a puff from Carys Davies who dubbed it ‘A sublime and beautiful book’ and I’d have to agree. Review shortly…

I’m a little wary of comparisons between authors made in press releases. I’ve noticed Elizabeth Strout’s name appearing more and more frequently as it does in the advance information for Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut, Valentine. Set in Texas, it’s about the shockwaves running through a small town in the wake of a violent crime, following three women including the fourteen-year-old survivor of the crime, apparently. ‘When justice is as slippery as oil, and kindness becomes a hazardous act, sometimes courage is all we have to keep us alive’ say the publishers. An interesting premise, if handled well as well as that mention of Strout suggests.

Cover imageAnother starry name pops up in the blurb for my last June choice, this time in a quote from Alex Preston, the Observer critic, who compares Stuart Evers’ The Blind Light to a British Don DeLillo. I’m not a DeLillo fan but I liked the sound of this novel which explores Britain’s history from the ‘50s onwards through two families from opposite ends of the social specturm, first from the parents’ perspective then from their children’s. ‘The Blind Light is a powerful, ambitious, big yet intimate story of our national past and a brilliant evocation of a family and a country. It will remind you how complicated human history is – and how hard it is to do the right thing for the right reasons’ say the publishers which, having read it already, I can tell you is spot on. Review to follow.

That’s it for June’s new titles. As ever, a click on any that snag you attention will take you to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in May 2015

UsI tend to read what’s often described as literary rather than commercial fiction – I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the difference is although I know it when I see it – but, for me, David Nicolls is king of the commercial fiction castle which is why Us is top of my May paperback list. I’m sure Nicholls must have felt under pressure after the phenomenally successful One Day but he seems to have risen to the challenge with a novel which explores how a long marriage survives. Douglas is a little discombobulated when Connie announces she’s leaving him, insisting that they take his long-planned European Grand Tour in the hope that it will keep them together. I do hope that Hollywood will keep its mitts of this one.

The title of Michel Guenassia’s The Incorrigible Optimists Club is enough to make me want to read it but I like the sound of the structure, too. Set in Paris in 1959, it follows twelve-year-old Michel as he eavesdrops on a group of Eastern European men who play chess and tell their stories of life before they came to France. I’ve been warned that it’s a bit of a door-stopper but it sounds right up my alley.

Robin Black’s Life Drawing is one of the two books in this round-up I’ve reviewed. There’s a nice little edge of suspense running through this story about an artist and her writer husband, not least because we know right from the start that he has died and that his death wasn’t a natural one. Taut and claustrophobic, it reminded me a little of Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me.

The other is Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes which I rated enough to include in both my books of last year and my wish list for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. Based on a true story – the sinking of the Nella Dan – it’s about the deep bond that forms between a young Tasmanian girl and the Danish sailor who lodges with them in between supply trips to the Antarctic aboard the Nella Dan. It’s an absorbing story but what struck me about the book was the beauty of Parett’s writing. Gorgeous descriptive prose.

Finally, Philippe Claudel’s debut Grey Souls is being reissued and if you missed it the first Grey soulstime around please do keep your eyes peeled for it. Three mysterious deaths in an isolated French village during the First World War still haunt the local policeman twenty years later: the new schoolmistress killed herself; a ten-year-old girl was found strangled; and the policeman’s wife died alone in labour while her husband was hunting the girl’s murderer. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in. He’s a very fine film maker, too.

That’s it for May paperbacks a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis of anything I haven’t reviewed and if you’d like to catch up with my hardback choices they’re here.

A Touch of the Horrors

TouchedA few years ago Random House began publishing novellas under the Hammer imprint. They’re all either horror or ghost stories – hardly a surprise given the connotations of the name – but what is surprising are some of the authors they’ve commissioned to write for them. I’ve already read Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat, a subtle, beautifully written ghost story set in the early ‘50s close to an aerodrome used in the War, and Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate about the Pendle witches which was a little too blood-and-guts for me with its descriptions of torture and violence, although I should have known what I was letting myself in for. I also have Julie Myerson’s The Quickening in my TBR pile. It’s not a genre to which I’m drawn but writers like these catch my eye and as I’m a great fan of Joanna Briscoe’s elegant thriller Sleep with Me, Touched, their latest offering, seemed right up my alley.

Set in the early ’60s in Crowsley Beck ‘twenty miles from Piccadilly Circus’ much like Letchmore Heath, the location for the film of John Wyndam’s horror The Midwich Cuckoos, where Briscoe spent her first few years, Touched is about the Crales who have just moved into the village. Rowena and Douglas are renovating his mother’s cottage next door to their own having packed her off to live with her god-daughter in Scotland. They’ve engaged Pollard, a local builder, for the job of knocking down the wall between the two cottages but the wall’s proving recalcitrant, refusing to budge. Soon the whole building seems to have gained a life of its own, oozing putrefaction and smelling of an unholy mix of cat pee and Je Reviens. Meanwhile, the Crale children run a little wild – the otherworldly Evangeline roams around the village in her Grandmama’s Victorian garb, missing for longer and longer periods of time; Jennifer of the astonishing beauty but empty head is taken up by the creepy Pollards; Bob hears people muttering and murmuring, and Evangeline’s imaginary friend Freddie becomes more real every day. As the family is increasingly disrupted by the strange goings-on, so Rowena’s guilt at turfing out her mother-in-law grows.

Perhaps it’s the frequent mentions of Elstree but Touched seemed to have more than a whiff of the cinematic about it. It feels as if it’s been dipped in Technicolor – Briscoe’s writing is vivid and at times a little hectic. Some times it feels like a ghost story, at others verging more on horror or even a straightforward madwoman-in-the-attic tale but what’s really clever about it is the way in which reality proves to be far more chilling than the supernatural. To say more would be to give the game away – suffice to say that having led us up the conventional ghostly path, Briscoe turns her story on its head while still leaving her readers with a nice little frisson of horror. Looking forward to who Hammer come up with next.