Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
This month we’re starting with Jane Austen’s Sanditon, recently televised in the UK which must have been something of a challenge given that the novel’s unfinished.
John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman has three different endings making it well nigh unfilmable, you’d think, but Harold Pinter did an excellent job with the screenplay for the 1981 movie starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.
The title of Fowles’ book leads me to French Exit, Patrick deWitt’s caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classes, which takes its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their ancient cat – once met never forgotten.
Small Frank would no doubt have sneered at the hairless therapy cat supposedly helping Jay get over what he sees as his mother’s desertion when he was a child in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You.
Nathan Hill’s The Nix explores American politics through the relationship between another mother and the son she left when he was eleven years old, reunited when she finds herself in the spotlight over two decades later
The Nix sounds very much like the name of a famous New York basketball team although it’s spelt Knicks. I know next to nothing about sport but I did enjoy Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland which sees a Dutchman take up cricket in New York City. When President Obama declared his love for the book, sales must have spiked way beyond O’Neill’s wildest dreams.
Not quite in Obama’s league, although it was once rumoured that she might stand for president, an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey must have been the stuff of dreams for authors when she was in her heyday. Not for Jonathan Franzen, though, who refused to have anything to do with her book club rather snottily declaring his novel, The Corrections, to be high art and therefore, presumably not for the Winfrey-watching hoi polloi.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an unfinished nineteenth century novel to the story of a supremely dysfunctional family by a rather pleased-with-himself author. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.
This June is bursting at the seams with tempting paperbacks – enough to fill two long posts – of which I’ve already read and reviewed several beginning with one of my books of last year, Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall. Longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Moss’ novel 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. Still mystified as to why this superb novel didn’t make it on to the Women’s Prize shortlist.
Ghost Wall was one of a succession of novellas that so impressed me in 2019 including Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers which came as no surprise given the excellence of A Meal in Winter. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Written in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion
Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows Captain John Lacroix who has been invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War, exploring themes of war and culpability in a story taut with a thread of suspense. Finding himself unable to return to war, Lacroix travels to Scotland where he is embraced by a utopian community but two men are on his tail, one with a sinister motive. I loved Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second but I’ve found some of his contemporary-set novels disappointing. Having read this new one, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction.
I reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House back in 2014, finding it a little disappointing after very much enjoying her first novel, The Borrower. That said, The Great Believers sounds very appealing. It spans thirty years, beginning in 1985 with Yale Tishman acquiring an extraordinary collection of 1920s artwork for a Chicago gallery. AIDs cuts a swathe through Yale’s life leaving just one person dear to him – his friend’s sister Fiona who, thirty years later, is searching for her estranged daughter in Paris. ‘Yale and Fiona’s stories unfold in incredibly moving and sometimes surprising ways, as both struggle to find goodness in the face of disaster’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.
I’m not so sure about Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success having begun Super Sad True LoveStory with high hopes only to give it up but I do like the sound of a road trip through modern America, particularly one that sees a ‘master of the universe’ reduced to travelling on a Greyhound. Barry Cohen is on his way to Texas to meet his old college girlfriend hoping for a second chance having fallen foul of an insider investigation. According to Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go Bernadette, it’s ‘the funniest book you’ll read all year. A rollicking and zinger-filled road trip [that] sneakily deepens into a poignant tale of a man trying to outrace his problems’. We’ll see.
Humour’s also on the agenda in Good Trouble, by the sound of it, a collection of short stories by Joseph O’Neill, author of the much-lauded Neverland. Good Trouble’s characters are brought face to face with both who they are and who they will never be, apparently. ‘Packed with O’Neill’s trademark acerbic humour, Good Trouble explores the maddening and secretly political space between thoughts and deeds’ say the publishers promisingly.
A. M. Homes’ Days of Awe is another collection I’m eager to sample. 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.
I’m saving what I suspect will be the very best until last with this month’s third short story collection. William Trevor’s Last Stories comprises ten pieces described by the publishers as ‘exquisite, perceptive and profound’ and for once I won’t be arguing with their superlatives. This will undoubtedly be a treat to savour for all who treasure quietly understated, elegantly lyrical prose, and that jacket is lovely.
That’s it for the first part of June’s paperback preview; pretty tempting I hope you’ll agree. Should you want to know more, A click on the first three titles will take you to my review, and to a more detailed synopsis for the other five. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new novels they’re here and here. More paperbacks soon…
It’s often tricky to decide which title should lead these previews but not this time. Written when she knew her death was imminent, Helen Dunmore’s gorgeously jacketed short story collection Girl Balancing, and Other Stories explores family ties, motherhood friendship and grief. ‘Capturing the passion, joy, loss, longing and loneliness we encounter as we navigate our way through life, each story sets out on a journey, of adventure, new beginnings, reflection and contemplation. With her extraordinary imagination and masterful storytelling, Girl, Balancing & Other Stories offers us a deep insight into the human condition and our place in history’ say the publishers and I’ve no doubt they’re right. Dunmore’s characteristic empathy and perception shone through her quietly graceful writing.
Hard to follow that but I’ve chosen a writer whose work I think Dunmore may have enjoyed, although it’s very different from her own. In Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion a young student is taken up by a prominent feminist and finds herself treading a very different path from the one she’d expected to be on. ‘Expansive and wise, compassionate and witty, The Female Persuasion is about the spark we all believe is flickering inside us, waiting to be seen and fanned by the right person at the right time, and the desire within all of us to be pulled into the light’ say the publishers, promisingly. I’ve long been a fan of Wolitzer’s novels, reviewing The Interestings here way back in 2013.
Kenji Tanabe, the protagonist of Thomas Bourke’s The Consolation of Maps, also finds himself on a surprising path by the sound of it. Tenabe sells antique maps in a prestigious Tokyo gallery but is presented with an unexpected offer of a job in America working for a woman who has never recovered from the death of her lover. ‘Moving across countries and cultures, The Consolation of Maps charts an attempt to understand the tide of history, the geography of people and the boundless territory of loss’ say the publishers which sounds interesting if a little woolly.
Quite a brave move to make your first novel a fictionalised account of Truman Capote’s career, focussing on the ‘literary grenade’ he threw into the circle of socialite confidantes who had entrusted him with their gossip and secrets but that’s what Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott has done in Swan Song. ‘A dazzling debut about the line between gossip and slander, self-creation and self-preservation, SWAN SONG is the tragic story of the literary icon of his age and the beautiful, wealthy, vulnerable women he called his Swans’ say the publishers confidently although Paula at BookJotter begs to differ.
I’m bookending this first batch of June titles with a second collection of short stories, also with a splendid cover. This one comes from Joseph O’Neill, author of the much-lauded Neverland. Good Trouble’s characters are brought face to face with both who they are and who they will never be, apparently. ‘Packed with O’Neill’s trademark acerbic humour, Good Trouble explores the maddening and secretly political space between thoughts and deeds’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite.
That’s it for the first batch of June goodies. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Second selection soon…
My second April paperback selection begins with a book whose jacket which will either charm you or make you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a Barbie nightmare. You might also be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing new or original to say about the Kennedy assassination but having already read and enjoyed Nicole Mary Kelby’s The Pink Suit in its more restrained hardback incarnation, I’m happy to recommend it. By telling her fictionalised story of the infamous suit through Kate, a back room girl at Chez Ninon, Kelby niftily avoids the well-trodden Kennedy path with its apparently endless power to fascinate.
Louise Levene’s The Following Girls is a satire on schoolgirl life in the 1970s, stuffed full of pitch-perfect period detail. It’s a novel which will have women of a certain age and education both squirming and cackling in recognition. Levene’s sharpest skill is her ability to signal the pain beneath her narrator’s witty rejoinders. I’m already looking forward to rereading this one.
Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists was one of those novels that caught the affections of many readers including me. His second,The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, begins in a Welsh bookshop run by Tooly Zylberberg who finds a message on her Facebook page – her father is in trouble, can she come and help? As far as Tooly’s concerned she hasn’t seen her father since she was eleven, abducted in Bangkok by a women called Sarah who promptly disappeared leaving her with Humphrey, the Russian chess-playing bibliophile who brought her up – and it’s Humphrey who’s in trouble. Rachman’s second novel is as absorbing and entertaining as his first.
Joseph O’Neill made a similar splash with his first novel, Netherland. HarperCollins must have hardly believed their luck when Barack Obama announced he was taking it on holiday with him. The Dog didn’t meet with quite the same brouhaha but I still plan to read it. Needing a fresh start, a New York attorney accepts his old friend’s offer of a job in Dubai but begins to wonder if it’s quite the gift horse he’d thought.
Edan Lepucki’s California also had a little celebrity stardust sprinkled on it when US comedian Stephen Colbert suggested his viewers buy it from their local indie during the Hatchette/Amazon debacle. Set in the near future, it’s one of those post-apocalyptic novels that have sprung up since 2008 in which Cal and Frida have fled a ruined Los Angeles when they find that Frida is pregnant. They’re faced with a choice – fend for themselves or seek out the help of a paranoid community which may not be worthy of their trust. I’m not usually a fan of this kind of novel but there’s something about the synopsis that attracts me.
I’ve been looking forward to Tim Winton’s Eyrie for some time. I first came across Winton through Cloudstreet, an odd, vaguely mystical novel about a family living in a ramshackle house in the ’30s – hard to characterise but this Time Out quote may give you an idea: ‘Imagine Neighbours being taken over by the writing team of John Steinbeck and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and you’ll be close to the heart of Winton’s impressive tale’. In Eyrie, Tom Keely, living in self-imposed isolation in a high-rise, allows his solitude to be penetrated by a woman he once knew leading him into a dangerous, destructive world
That’s it for April paperbacks. If you missed the first part but would like to catch up here it is, and if you’d like to check out my hardback choices they’re here.