Tag Archives: Jon McGregor

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2018

Cover imageJust one batch of paperbacks to look out for in September, five of which I’ve already reviewed beginning with Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes. Readers who’ve been following this blog over the past year will know that I’m passionate about Reservoir 13, not to mention mystified as to why it’s not won all the prizes. The Reservoir Tapes is a prequel to McGregor’s novel and, unusually, started life as a podcast. Comprising fourteen stories, the collection explores the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Becky Shaw. McGregor’s acutely observed characters all have their own stories – often interconnected – offering a nuanced portrait of a small community with its secrets and history, and the writing is all that fans like me would want it to be.

Given my admiration for Jane Harris’ previous novels – The Observations features in my Blasts from the Past series – hopes were high for Sugar Money. Based loosely on true events, it tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique, restoring them from British to French hands. Harris has a particular skill in telling her stories through the voice of engaging narrators and the bumptious, sardonic, young smart alec, Lucien, is no exception. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

Robin Sloan’s Sourdough offers a bit of light relief after that. A techie wage slave at General Dexterity, Lois lives off stress and Slurry, the nutrient gel championed by her boss. A flyer leads her to two brothers delivering delicious bread who look to Lois to save their sourdough starter when they’re forced to leave the country, sparking an obsession in her. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment which, like Sloan’s previous novel Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, has something to say about the way we live – and eat – now.

David Bergen’s Stranger takes a more serious turn, exploring themes of entitlement and deprivation through a young Guatemalan woman left pregnant by her American lover who returns to the States after a devastating accident. When her daughter is abducted shortly after she’s born,  İso sets out to find her. Written in clear, direct language, heightening the tension and constant danger of İso’s journey, Stranger is an easy, absorbing read – I finished it in an afternoon – but it has some serious points to make and makes them well.

I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to include this one but the paperback edition of Alicia Drake’s Cover imagedebut, I Love You Too Much, sports such an atmospheric jacket that I’ve come down in its favour. Largely ignored by the adults around him, thirteen-year-old Paul watches from the fringes of his mother, her lover and his father’s lives. Before long he’s seen something he shouldn’t but finds unlikely consolation in Scarlett, a rebellious classmate. ‘I Love You Too Much is a novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, a devastating coming-of-age story told from the sidelines of Parisian perfection’ say the publishers. Let’s hope they’re right.

That’s it for September’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first five and a more detailed synopsis for I Love You Too Much. If you’d like to catch up with the new titles, they’re here and here.

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor: Podcast in print

Cover imageThis collection is an unusual one: it was written for radio rather than print. The BBC commissioned Jon McGregor to write a set of stories that together comprise a prequel to the sublime Reservoir 13 which won the Costa Novel Award earlier this week, much to my delight. Unsurprisingly, given that was my book of last year, I was eager to both hear and read them. For those who haven’t read the novel, it explores the effects of the disappearance of a young girl on a small rural community over thirteen years – one for each of her life – rather like throwing a stone into a pool and following its ripples

The collection opens with a reporter interviewing Becky’s mother. We only have one side of the interview and so must fill in Charlotte’s part for ourselves. What follows are fourteen stories – vignettes from the Shaws’ previous holiday in the village and the days around Becky’s disappearance – each told from the perspective of a different character. They range from a woman who once worked as a prostitute in the area watching the news and recognising a client to a young boy bullied by Becky, from a man who remembers another missing girl found almost by chance to a woman who recognised her own daughter in Becky’s demeanour. As McGregor says in a brief BBC interview, there’s no attempt to solve the mystery of Becky’s disappearance.

McGregor kicks his collection off brilliantly with the reporter’s interview in which we can almost hear the tearful, faltering, sometimes angry responses from Becky’s mother despite their absence from the page. Each piece has a distinctly individual voice: an elderly man, lonelier that he’ll admit, answers the police tersely becoming more garrulous in the hope that they’ll stay; the reporter’s insinuating, subtly judgemental false sincerity when interviewing Charlotte; a woman’s memories of being rescued from alcoholism by kindness. McGregor’s acutely observed characters all have their own stories – often interconnected – offering a nuanced portrait of a small community with its secrets and history, and the writing is all that fans like me would want it to be:

There were bees buzzing fatly in the foxgloves by the wall vividly summons up the summer heat

Sometimes you’d break things just to see what would happen thinks a character trapped in early parenthood

They’d seen her realising what kind of woman she would be, and playing with the part thinks  a mother, remembering her own precocious daughter

For those of us who loved McGregor’s novel this is an additional treat to be enjoyed two ways. If you have access to it, the stories will be available through BBC iPlayer for a further nine months.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2018: Part One

This first batch of January paperbacks kicks of with my book of 2017: Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 which traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Identity theft seems to be the theme of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story The person doing the stealing is L., Delphine’s best friend with whom she has become enthralled. L. is the kind of beautifully turned out woman who seems to know what to do in every circumstance. Chillingly, she begins to dress like her new friend, offering to answer her emails and finding her way into every aspect of Delphine’s life until she takes control of it. It sounds quite riveting, and all the more so given that the author has given her protagonist both her name and her profession, not to mention that title. It’s an intriguing idea and I very much enjoyed the somewhat lighter No and Me a few years ago.

Heading further into dark territory, Phillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields tells the story of a family afflicted by tragedy set against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains. Lawyer Henry Aster sets up house with his wife and children in a crumbling mansion so that he can take care of his ailing mother. Henry spends his nights writing and drinking, slowly sinking into a deep depression. Years later his story is told by his son, burdened with his own tragedy. Lewis knows how to spin a story, managing to keep my attention over the novel’s 300+ pages despite a few too many Southern gothic touches.

J, Robert Lennon’s Broken River also has a touch of the gothic mashed up nicely with a slice of noir, this time in upstate New York. In a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, a couple moves to freshly renovated house, taking their precociously bright twelve-year-old with them, Unbeknownst to them, the house has been empty for twelve years since the unsolved murder of the family that lived in it. Lennon’s deftly handled plot revolves around a web of coincidence and misunderstandings which finally unravels. Not an unalloyed success for me but it’s well worth a read.

That’s it for the first January paperback preview. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with January’s new titles they’re here and here. Second batch of paperbacks to follow shortly…

Books to Look Out for in January 2018: Part Two

Cover imageMy first batch of 2018 titles included a volume of short stories and this second selection is led by another. It seems I really am a reformed character. I’m sure even my if views on the short story hadn’t undergone a transformation I would have been jumping up and down about Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes, a collection of fifteen pieces which can be read as ‘prequels’ to the stunning Reservoir 13. Still completely bemused as to why that didn’t make it on to the Man Booker shortlist. The stories were commissioned by BBC Radio 4: some of you may have heard them already but if not they’re available on iPlayer.

It sounds as if landscape may be as important in Kerry Andrew’s Swansong as it is in McGregor’s writing. Polly Vaughan heads for the Scottish Highlands, fleeing the guilt of a ‘disturbing incident’ in London. She finds escapism in the form of drink, drugs and sex in the local pub but is haunted by visions then fascinated by a man she comes upon in the forest seemingly ripping apart a bird. Andrews ‘comes from a deep understanding of the folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions of these islands. Her powerful metaphoric language gives Swansong a charged, hallucinatory quality that is unique, uncanny and deeply disquieting’ say the publishers, promisingly.Cover image

Dominic da Silva is also dealing with a crisis, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer in David Hargreaves’ Under the Table. He turns to the diaries he’s kept from his boarding school years to his early thirties and finds a picture emerging of both himself and of Britain through the ‘60s and into the ‘80s, revealing a life which ricochets from grand house parties to arrest and disgrace in what the publishers describe as ‘a powerful homage to truth and friendship – and a recognition of the toughness upon which both depend’. I quite like the sound of that.

There’s a fair amount of unravelling in Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew . Marcie and her husband have been together for thirty years, running a bar at the edge of town. One day Arlene appears expecting to find a man she’d once known. Then Franky returns hoping that his previous mistakes have been forgotten. As Arlene gets closer to the truth things begin to fall apart. ‘Powell invites us to consider how much we know about the ones we love and finally asks: would you want to know the truth?’ says the blurb. Powell’s darkly funny debut, Trading Futures, was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction although the paradox is that some of my favourite novels are just that: Ingenious Pain, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Essex Serpent and The Observations spring to mind. All are delivered with more than a spark of flair and originality which is what I’m hoping for in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. In 1785 a ship’s captain takes a wizened little figure, said to be a mermaid, to a merchant in Deptford. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. These two meet at a society party and embark on a dangerous new course together in a ‘spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession’ according to the publishers. There’s also mention of coffee shops, parlours and brothels which has me hoping for a romp along the lines of The Fatal Tree. We’ll see

That’s it for January’s new books. A click on a title will take you to detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you want to catch up with the first part it’s here. Paperbacks to follow shortly…

Books of the Year 2017: Part Two

Cover imageJanuary and February boasted six reading treats for me but things were spread a little more thinly over the following three months. March began with what I knew would be a favourite author’s last book. Helen Dunmore’s, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling. Dunmore quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she was gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

April’s favourite is by another writer whose work seems underrated to me. Although longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was omitted from the shortlist much to my – and many other readers’ – amazement, then it missed the Goldsmiths Prize. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fingers firmly crossed that the Costa judges see sense.Cover image

Three books stood out for me in May, the first of which was all about storytelling. Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Disoriented and lonely, Marc begins to let slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction.

I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Duncan Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos when it was first published here in 2016. Three timelines run through this tightly plotted, inventive novel: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting from the de Groot family in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000 when its curator is faced with a youthful indiscretion which could destroy her reputation. Smith juggles his narrative stands with admirable deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted and there’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel. It’s that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure about Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which looked distinctly dystopian, not the kind of distraction I was looking for in a year spent trying to escape the real world, but she’s a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. 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. This is a highly ambitious first novel 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.

The next three months kick off with another bumper selection in June, including one often described as a Brexit novel. Can’t seem to get away from it…

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

My 2017 Man Booker wish list

Despite swearing off Man Booker predictions a few years back I can’t seem to keep away although I must emphasize that my track record is pretty dismal so don’t go laying any bets on my suggestions. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and 30th September 2017 and have been written in English. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September but I’m sticking to novels I’ve already read. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Thursday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order:

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The Fatal Tree                                             Birdcage Walk                             Reservoir 13

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The End We Start From                      The Answers                      Conversations with Friends

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A Line Made by Walking               Before Everything                            The Nix

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The Hearts of Men                     Johannesburg                              Forest Dark

Usually several titles jostle for position as my top choice but this year there’s no contest – Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. No reflection on the merits of the other books: McGregor’s writing is sublime and this is quite possibly his best work yet. I’ll be searching for a hat to eat if it doesn’t make it on to the longlist at the very least. If you’d like to read my review, a click on a title will take you to it. A reviews of Forest Dark to follow soon, as will a what I got up to on my holidays post later in the week for those who might be interested.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: Life goes on…

Cover imageRegular readers may remember that I kicked off my Blasts from the Past series with Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin. I love his work – so much so that it’s hard not to gush when writing about it, particularly as this new novel seems to me to be even better than the ones that came before. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life.

Rebecca Shaw, sometimes known as Becky or Bex, goes missing over the New Year holiday when her parents are renting a holiday cottage. The villagers assemble in the freezing cold, anxious to find her, all too well aware of her danger. Despite searching in every possible place, she’s not found. The media descend, the police continue their investigations and Rebecca’s parents hunker down in their rented barn conversion. Speculation is rife. The first year ends with respectfully muted New Year celebrations. The villagers get on with their lives, nature continues its annual cycle but no one forgets what has happened. The second year sees the media still present, the villagers still concerned, still dreaming about the lost thirteen-year-old but hoping the limelight will shift elsewhere. After the dramatic events of its opening chapters, little happens over the years McGregor’s novel chronicles but the effects of the girl’s disappearance continue to be felt, steadily diminishing yet ever-present.

This is such an accomplished novel. The rhythms of the natural world and village life hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives: foxes mate; herons fish; snowdrops appear; badgers cub deep inside their setts; the parish council meets and minutes are taken; the boards are prepared for well-dressing and the almost inevitable annual defeat of the cricket team is played out. Each year small details of the characters’ backstories are stitched into the village tapestry; hopes of love are raised and dashed; children are born; parents die; teenagers leave home; crimes and misdemeanours occur. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl, sightings of her father, rumours about her mother, mentions of other girls whose disappearance might be linked to hers in the news. All this is delivered in McGregor’s gorgeous yet understated prose. Hard to pull out quotes without filling the entire review with them but here’s a flavour: ‘Everything that might be said seemed like the wrong thing to say. The heating pipes made a rattling noise that most of them were used to and the mood in the room unstiffened’; ‘A soft rain blew in smoky clouds across the fields’; ‘The nettles and cow parsley came up in swathes, the bindweed trumpeting through the hedges’. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Books to Look Out for April 2017: Part One

Cover imageDespite the many and varied delights on offer in April there’s absolutely no contest as to which of them sits at the top of my list. Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 has already met with a warm reception on social media and this time I’ve no doubt it’s justified. McGregor writes in lyrical, gorgeous prose – contemplative and beautiful. This new novel chronicles thirteen years following the disappearance of a teenage girl on holiday with her parents in the English countryside. One family has been devastated but village life goes on with all its small joys, sadnesses and mundane routines, always with a consciousness of what has happened. This sounds the perfect theme for McGregor whose quietly captivating If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things examined the events of a single day. Apologies for the gush but McGregor’s work is not to be missed. There’s even more gush if you can face it in my first Blast from the Past post which featured his So Man Ways to Begin, another lovely novel.

The theme of Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother sounds similar to Reservoir 13 in that it explores the aftermath of a tragedy in a small community, this time in Newfoundland. Suspicion falls on the Now family when a body is discovered in the local lake but as investigations progress it seems that there’s far more to the tragedy than meets the eye. ‘Compassionate and wise, beautiful and brutal, The Fortunate Brother is the story of a family and a community in turmoil and confirms Donna Morrissey’s place as one of Canada’s foremost storytellers’ say the publishers. I’m constantly being tempted by Canadian fiction not published in the UK by Naomi over at Consumed by Ink so I think I’ll snap this one up.

More dark secrets and revelations in Elanor Dymott’s Silver & Salt in which Ruthie’s father has Cover imagerecently died, prompting her return to his remote Greek villa from which she has been excluded for fifteen years. She and her elder sister settle into a sort of happiness, putting their dark childhoods behind them until the arrival of an English family and their daughter ’triggers a chain of events that will plunge both women back into the past, with shocking and fatal consequences. Devastating in its razor-sharp exploration of a tragic family legacy, Silver & Salt is the story of two sisters, bound by their history and driven to repeat it’ according to the publisher which sounds like perfect summer reading to me although a little premature.

Chequered family history seems to be something of a theme this April. Edward Docx’ Let Go My Hand explores secrets and lies through the lens of three sons and their father who has asked them to join him on a last journey through Europe. While Louis has his doubts about the idea, his two half-brothers are much more reluctant, unwilling to forgive their dying father his past transgressions. ‘Let Go My Hand is a darkly comic and deeply moving twenty-first-century love story between a son, his brothers and their father. Through these vividly realized characters, it asks elemental questions about how we love, how we live, and what really matters in the end’ according to the publisher. I’ve not had much luck with Docx’ fiction in the past but the idea of exploring the dark family secrets theme from a male point of view is an unusual one.

I have no such doubts about Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story after reading No and Me last year. Identity theft seems to be the much darker theme of this one. The person doing the stealing is L., Delphine’s best friend with whom she has become enthralled. L. is the kind of beautifully turned out woman who seems to know what to do in every circumstance. Chillingly, she begins to dress like her new friend, offering to answer her emails, finding her way into every aspect of Delphine’s life until she takes control of it. It sounds quite riveting, and all the more so given that the author has given her protagonist both her name and her profession, not to mention that title.

Cover imageI began this first batch of April titles with one about which I have no doubts whatsoever but I’m ending it with another that could backfire horribly. Paul Bassett Davies’ Dead Writers in Rehab sees Foster James waking up in a strange house, assuming he’s taken a step too far for his few remaining friends and is back in rehab again. Then Ernest Hemingway punches him in the face, he finds himself in a group therapy session with Hunter S. Thompson, Collette, William Burroughs and Coleridge, later encountering Dorothy Parker. What’s going on? ‘This is a love story. It’s for anyone who loves writing and writers. It’s also a story about the strange and terrible love affair between creativity and addiction, told by a charming, selfish bastard who finally confronts his demons in a place that’s part Priory, part Purgatory, and where the wildest fiction can tell the soberest truth’ says the publisher. Hmm… We’ll see. Great jacket, though.

That’s it for the first part of April’s preview. If you’d like to know more, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis. As seems to be so often the case, part two will have its feet firmly planted in the US.

Blasts from the Past: So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor (2006)

Cover imageThis is the first in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could. It’s quite possible that if I read them now I might not feel quite the same about all the titles I’ve raved about to anyone who would listen but I’ll only include the ones I’m still happy to recommend. It’s partly inspired by Janet’s Under the Reader’s Radar series over at From First Page to Last which kicked off with Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things reminding me how much I’d loved that book when I first read it. The other reason is that this blog tends to be all about recently published books with the odd mention of backlist titles thereby turning its back on a huge number of novels well worth reading. I already have a list in my head and I know that some titles on that list will be out of print but if that’s the case I’ll be sure to mention it. Some may be a little obscure, some not so much and others not at all. Some I’ve already written about elsewhere in the past. So, with a nod to Janet’s post for its inspiration, here’s my first blast from the past: Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin.

Set in post-war Britain, McGregor’s novel explores both history and the possibility of new beginnings. Since stumbling upon a tobacco tin, still filled with cigarettes, dating from the First Cover imageWorld War in his Auntie Julia’s treasure trove of memorabilia, David has been fascinated by the past. Regular trips to museums inspire a determination to run his own someday, and David takes his first step becoming a junior curatorial assistant in Coventry. On a field visit to Aberdeen he meets his future wife Eleanor, bright, sparky and determined to become a geologist as far from home as she can get. As Julia’s treasured memories become engulfed by her premature senility, she lets slip a secret that shatters David’s own history leaving him bitter and restless.

In vignettes constructed around small artefacts, often seemingly insignificant but freighted with a very personal meaning, this compassionate, quietly lyrical novel captures David and Eleanor’s lives and history – their disappointments and unhappinesses, their unfulfilled ambitions and their small compensatory joys. It’s both a tender exploration of a very personal history and an evocative portrait of post-war Britain.

What about you, any blasts from your own past you’d like to share?