Tag Archives: Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure that I’d get on with Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. While I’d quite enjoyed The Family Fang, the premise of his new novel seemed a little off the wall but Ann Patchett’s hymn of praise swung it for me. Wilson’s novel tells the story of a young woman, still reeling from the betrayal by her best friend which wrecked her life, who nevertheless responds to that friend’s call for help. It’s also about two children who burst into flames when agitated.

Raised by a mother who hardly seems to care for her at all, Lillian is determined to make the most of her chances, studying hard and winning a scholarship to Tennessee’s Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School. Once there, she’s shunned by all the rich girls apart from her roommate Madison – almost as much a misfit as Lillian but adept at appearing otherwise – with whom she becomes besotted. When Madison is caught in possession of cocaine, Lillian takes the rap, returning home resigned to a life of dead-end jobs and living with her indifferent mother, punctuated by a desultory correspondence with Madison whose life she watches from a far – first marriage to a senator followed swiftly by the birth of a son. A decade or so later, Madison calls her with the offer of a job as a governess to Jasper’s twins from his second marriage after the death of their mother. An odd request, given Lillian’s total lack of experience with children, but this is no ordinary childcare position. Jasper is about to be vetted as a possible secretary of state. He needs the utmost discretion and his children have the strangest of disorders: when agitated they burst into flames, causing havoc around them but no harm to themselves. Such is Lillian’s devotion to Madison and the depth of her misery at home she agrees, but first she must get Bessie and Rowland to trust her.

Given those last few sentences you can see why I might have thought Wilson’s funny, heartrending and wholly original novel might not be for me but I’m delighted Patchett’s puff persuaded me. The story is told through Lillian’s funny, often snarky voice as she tries to find ways to keep Bessie and Roland fire-free, offering them the love and security that, like her, they’ve sorely lacked despite having no clue how to set about it. Wilson takes a multitude of digs at the rich and powerful who outsource their inconvenient child-rearing elsewhere, determined not to let embarrassing eccentricities get in the way of their ambitions. At the same time, he makes clear that the disadvantaged can be equally remiss in raising their children. Everyone, it seems gets in wrong, some more spectacularly than others. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel whose sardonic tone mellows as Lillian and the twins grow to love each other. If the prospect of spontaneously combusting children puts you off, I’d ignore it. You soon get used to the idea.

Text Publishing: London 2020 9781922268334 288 pages Paperback

Paperbacks to Look Out for in February 2018: Part One

Cover imageThere’s an embarrassment of paperback riches this February. Lots to occupy those of us stuck in the depths of winter beginning with one of my books of last year. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him, Lottie finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now.

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 lets 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 which also made it on to my books of 2017 list.

As did Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees a collection of short stories which enlightens those of us fortunate enough to have lived our lives in a benign political climate, no matter what we mayCover image think of our government. Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, it explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Nguyen fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. His beautifully polished eloquent collection combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience giving it a quiet power.

Loosely based on a true story, Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots is a doorstopper of a novel which explores political idealism and the stark realities of life under a totalitarian regime through Florence Fein, who sets out for Russia from New York in 1934, and her son Julian, trying to do business in the ‘new’ Russia of 2008.  Well researched and engrossing, The Patriots felt like a particularly timely read given the advent of the Trump administration with relations between the US and Russia under the microscope yet again.

Emily Ruskovich’s debut, Idaho, is entirely different. Six-year-old May and nine-year-old June have had only themselves and their parents for company in their remote mountain home but June no longer wants to play the elaborate games that have kept them whispering together for years. The afternoon the family sets out in their pickup to collect wood will end with an appalling crime which will leave one child dead and the other missing. There’s no black and white in this strikingly written novel, no neat resolution and it’s all the better for that.

Cover image Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World is also about families. Alone and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, Isabelle is offered a place in The Infinity Family Project whose billionaire founder is pursuing a utopian ideal: raising nine babies as part of an extended family in a Tennessee compound. ‘Can this experiment really work – or is their ‘perfect little world’ destined to go horribly wrong?’ ask the publishers. Given the number of unhappy children brought up in communes who’ve shared their experiences with the world in one way or another, I suspect we can guess the answer.

That’s it for the first batch of February’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first five titles and to a more detailed synopsis for Perfect Little World should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new titles they’re here and here. More paperbacks shortly…

Books to Look Out for in June 2017

Cover image Top of my list for June is Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends which I’m pretty sure isn’t aimed at my age group but sounds enticing all the same. Four friends in their twenties talk about everything under the sun but it’s Frances and her affair with a much older married man who eventually takes centre stage. ‘You can read Conversations with Friends as a romantic comedy, or you can read it as a feminist text. You can read it as a book about infidelity, about the pleasures and difficulties of intimacy, or about how our minds think about our bodies. However you choose to read it, it is an unforgettable novel about the possibility of love’ according to the publishers, kindly leaving the choice up to their readers.

Love is also the subject of Catherine Lacey’s The Answers which comes at it in a very different way. Mary is desperate for work when she sees a job advertised as part of The Girlfriend Experiment whose aim is to analyse the nature of relationships – what works and what doesn’t – through role-playing. She is to be Emotional Girlfriend, joining a team which includes Angry Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend, playing against the Hollywood actor whose idea the whole thing is. ‘A novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which probe the depths of our society, and answers that will leave you reeling’ say the publishers. It’s an interesting premise which has the makings of a great book not to mention a film, although I’m sure that’s been considered already.

Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World is about another kind of social experiment, this one focusing on families. Alone and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, Isabelle is offered a place in The Infinity Family Project whose billionaire founder is pursuing a utopian ideal: raising nine babies as part of an extended family in a Tennessee compound. ‘Can this experiment really work – or is their ‘perfect little world’ destined to go horribly wrong?’ ask the publishers. Given the number of unhappy children brought up in communes who’ve shared their experiences with the world in one way or another, I suspect we can guess the answer. Cover image

Here’s one that has attracted a good deal of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods. Julie Buntin’s Marlena follows naïve fifteen-year-old Cat who finds herself becoming best friends with her neighbour when she moves to a new town in rural Michigan. Cat and Marlena make the town their own, partying like there’s no tomorrow until Marlena is found drowned in nearby woods. Decades later Cat is still trying to come to terms with her past. ‘Alive with an urgent, unshakeable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull ourselves back from the brink’ say the publishers a little dramatically.

The trials and tribulations of settling into a new home also play a part in Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which follows the Bredins – who can neither afford a divorce nor their London home – to a remote part of Devon. No one seems very happy with the arrangement and everyone wonders why their rent is so low. ‘The beauty of the landscape is ravishing, yet it conceals a dark side involving poverty, revenge, abuse and violence which will rise up to threaten them’ say the publishers which promises the revelation of dark secrets. I’ve enjoyed Craig’s previous novels and this one comes with a stonking endorsement from Helen Dunmore.

Allegra Goodman’s The Chalk Artist is about the all-consuming nature of computer gaming and the way it can threaten to take over real life, explored through a teenage boy living in smalltown America. Aidan is at the top of his game when playing EverWhen, putting the problems of adolescence behind him, but when he’s sent a mysterious black box from the game’s designers he finds himself physically taken into EverWhen’s world, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. It’s a fascinating subject – remember Second Life and the divorce it prompted? – and I’ve enjoyed Goodman’s fiction very much in the past.

Cover imageI’m ending this preview with a book by an author whose first novel is sitting on my shelves but I have yet to read. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away follows three women: one wanting to box at a time when boxing is illegal for women in Ireland; the second contemplating a job offer but wondering if she can bring herself to abandon her mother in her nursing home; and a third who takes up with a biker gang as a means of escape. ‘A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing but perhaps I should get around to reading Generation first.

That’s it for June’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that appeal. Paperbacks to follow soon…