Tag Archives: Life After Life

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 1

Cover imageJanuary gets off to a stonking start with enough paperbacks to keep you oblivious to the dismal British winter. Pride of place has to go to Kate Atkinson’s fabulous A God in Ruins. By now, anyone who’s interested knows that this is the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. I can’t speak highly enough of this novel. Just as with Life after Life, it’s an absolute mystery to me as to why Atkinson hasn’t swept the literary prize board with these two strikingly original books.

Another novel I would have liked to see at least longlisted for the Baileys, if nothing else, is Lucy Wood’s debut, Weathering. Ada and six-year-old Pepper are renovating her estranged mother’s cottage after she drowned. As Ada sets about putting distance between herself and the rest of the village Pepper becomes fascinated by her grandmother and her new surroundings. Put like that, Weathering sounds like a fairly prosaic tale but what singles it out is the vivid word pictures Wood sketches, often poetic but sometimes pithy and very funny. One of my favourite books of 2015.

One book that did make it on to a shortlist is Sean Michael’s Us Conductors which was already up for the Giller Prize when it was published here in the UK. It’s about, Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor born in 1896, and if that name seems familiar you may have come across the musical instrument he devised. Once heard its strange haunting sound is hard to forget. The bare bones of the novel are based on Theremin’s life but as Michaels is careful to point out at the very beginning ‘This book is mostly inventions’, a nice little pun on Leon’s activities which gives you a flavour of Michaels’ writing. Those inventions are spun out into an absorbing story, beautifully told.Cover image

I’m particularly eager to read the first of the three novels I haven’t reviewed: Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. It’s about a coup de foudre that strikes Ester Nilsson when she meets artist Hugo Rask. She turns her back on her settled life, heedless of what anyone else says or thinks about her uncharacteristic behaviour. ‘A story of the heart written with bracing intellectual vigour’ says Alice Sebold. That title sounds particularly promising, I think.

Elyria in Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing seems to show a similar disregard when she abruptly leaves Manhattan on a one-way flight to New Zealand abandoning her career and loving husband. Elyria hitchhikes her way around the country, regardless of the risk.  ‘Full of mordant humour and uncanny insights, Nobody Is Ever Missing is a startling tale of love, loss, and the dangers encountered in the search for self-knowledge’ say the publishers. Sounds well worth investigating.

Cover imageThis first selection ends with Noah Hawley’s The Punch. Scott spends his time in seedy San Francisco joints when not at his dull job while David is a successful salesman with two families, one on each coast. These two are brought together when their father dies and their mother lets out a long-held secret as they travel across the country to New York. I like the idea of an American road trip and deep dark secrets are always a winner if well-handled. We’ll see.

That’s it for the first batch. If you’d like a fuller synopsis a click on a link will take you to my reviews for the first three titles and to Waterstones website for the others. And if you’d like to catch up with January hardbacks, they’re here and here. More shortly.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in June 2015

The Paying GuestsI’ve reviewed all but two of the June paperbacks that have caught my eye so forgive me if I cram the lot into a single post and let the reviews speak for themselves. I’ll start with one that I haven’t got around to reading although I’ve had a copy for some time: Sarah Waters’ Baileys shortlisted The Paying Guests. I’m a big fan of Waters’ earlier novels but not so much her last two. In this one, she’s shifted her gaze from the 1940s to the ‘20s, setting her book in Camberwell where Frances and her widowed mother have fallen on hard times and are taking in lodgers. The arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, neither as genteel as the Wrays, shakes up the household in what Waters has called a love story ‘in which the love is forbidden, in all sorts of ways; it’s a story in which the love is dangerous’.

My second unreviewed title is Peter Buwalda’s much lauded Bonita Avenue, described as ‘a darkly hilarious tale’ in which a vulnerable young man finds himself embraced by his girlfriend’s family headed by the multi-talented Professor Sigerius. Things go horribly wrong, apparently, with all sorts of shenanigans from an explosion in a firework factory to a forgotten murderer turning up. Translated from the Dutch, it sounds as if it’s from the same school as Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Esther Gerritsen’s Craving.

There are two other translated titles on this month’s list, both by German authors, each very different from the other. Hard to choose which is my favourite but if pushed I’d plump for Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, although it’s a bit of a Marmite novel: you’ll either marvel at the way Erpenbeck adroitly handles the constant shifts in narrative throughout her complex novel or you’ll despair of ever keeping track as she views the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly re-imagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life. I thought it was excellent, but I’m a Marmite fan.

Written in a mixture of three different first-person narratives with third-person sections crisscrossing time and assorted other devices you’d think that Daniel Kehlmann’s F might become a little fragmented but Kehlmann is so deft that it flows beautifully, following Arthur Friedland and his two sons whose visit to a hypnotist when they boys are children has unforeseen consequences that will reverberate through all their lives.

Emma Freud’s Mr Mac and Me is the first of two novels I enjoyed so much that I included Cover imagethem on my Baileys Prize wish list although the judges disagreed. Impoverished and homeless, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his artist wife Margaret spent the first year of the First World War on the Suffolk coast at Walberswick. Freud tells their story from the point of view of Thomas Maggs, the thirteen-year-old son of a local publican with whom the Mackintoshs strike up a friendship. Such a shame to see that the beautiful hardback jacket has been swapped for a rather prosaic image.

Set on the Norfolk coast, not so very far from Walberswick, Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood was another surprising omission from the Baileys longlist. Its premise is enticing enough and it’s beautifully written, too. A middle-aged man exhausted by the seemingly endless heatwave that’s hit London shuts up shop and heads off to his brother’s house in Norfolk. He’s forgotten to take a map but is convinced he knows the way until his car breaks down miles from anywhere. He spots a house on the horizon and makes for it only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected and ushered into a room which has been prepared for him where he finds boxes labelled with his name.

The last two are by American authors, the first of which has a title that I’m sure has been mangled constantly up and down the land: Judy Chicurel’s If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go. It’s the title of the final chapter of the book whose meaning becomes clear towards its end. Set in the summer of 1972, If I Knew… is narrated by Katie, the adopted daughter of a white-collar family who spends her time in Elephant Beach’s rundown Comanche Street, a district frequented by drunks and druggies. It’s an episodic novel which draws you in nicely.

Lucky UsFinally, Amy Bloom’s much more manageably titled Lucky Us follows Eva whose mother dumps her unceremoniously on her father’s doorstep. Beginning in 1939, it’s a story of tangled relationships stretching over a decade. Lucky Us has an empathetic quality which makes its many flawed characters both attractive and believable.

That’s it for June paperbacks, a rather longer post than I’d intended but too short to spread over two. A click on first two titles will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis; the rest are reviewed on this blog. If you want to see which June hardbacks I’m eagerly anticipating, they’re here and here.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: What Teddy did

Cover imageYou could be forgiven for feeling that you’ve read enough about Kate Atkinson’s new novel – it is, after all, everywhere you look in the reviews pages – so do feel free to skip this. I’ve been looking forward to reading A God in Ruins since I first heard about it: for me, it’s one of the publishing events of the year, as I’m sure it is for many others, and can’t be ignored. By now, anyone who’s interested knows that this new novel is the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads.

We first meet Teddy in 1925 when he’s eleven years old, gently quizzed by his Aunt Izzie about what he gets up to and what he enjoys. She’s the author of the Adventures of Augustus series, and Teddy is her Augustus. From there Atkinson jumps to 1980 and commune-dwelling Viola, Teddy’s daughter, a hippie after her time who tetchily scolds her two children, Sun and Bertie, while their father swims out to sea, leaving her to it. Atkinson’s narrative crisscrosses the twentieth century telling Teddy and his family’s story: his years as a Second Word War bomber pilot; his life with his beloved wife Nancy in Yorkshire – she a teacher, he writing nature notes for a local journal; Viola’s misadventures and her career as a successful novelist; Sun and Bertie’s ragtag childhood and its consequences. The novel takes us to 2012, the year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the end of Teddy’s story.

Hard not to gush about this extraordinary novel. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative: it’s all beautifully stitched together. I began noting down particularly choice quotes for this review but had to give up, there were so many. Here are just a few: gazing at a photograph of her son ‘Sylvie ran her finger over the silver frame, intending fondness but finding dust’; ‘A tempest brewed in his squally heart. He might explode. That would serve his mother right’ (what child hasn’t thought that?); ‘”Almost as good as Jodi Picoult”, Mumsnet.’ was my favourite of the many barbed little quotes about Viola’s novels. It’s peppered with bracketed laconic asides – ‘”I heard they take drugs and dance naked in the moonlight,”, the farmer said. (True, although it wasn’t as interesting as it sounded.)’ – and is often very funny but its central subject is a deadly serious one. The passages devoted to Teddy’s bombing raids are played straight – graphic, gripping and extraordinarily believable, they’re based on Atkinson’s readings of many first-hand accounts and they are the guts of the book. It’s something that Teddy never talks about, just as Nancy never talks about her Bletchley days, but they have made him the man he becomes: gentle, reverential of nature, a loving grandfather, a man who wants nothing more than to sit quietly on the sidelines of a life which sometimes puzzles and perplexes him. Ursula is there, of course, with just one life: ‘a single professional woman in post-war London’. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end and must surely be awarded a multitude of prizes.

Books to Look Out For in May 2015

Cover imageBack from sunny Spain on Saturday to a UK where spring has most definitely sprung. More of that later in the week but here’s a taster of things to come next month to be going on with and there are three absolute corkers to look forward to in May’s list. Let’s start with the jewel in the crown which you may well know about already given how much pre-publicity there’s been for it: Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a companion volume to the wonderful Life After Life. I’m still mystified as to why that hasn’t been garlanded with prizes, but then, what do I know. A God in Ruins, interweaves Ursula Todd’s younger brother Teddy’s experiences as a bomber pilot with his life lived into the twenty-first century. To an extent it sounds a little like a state of the nation novel but don’t expect a straightforward linear narrative.

An exponent of that elegant, pared-back writing that the Irish seem to excel at, Anne Enright has a new novel out in May. The Green Road is about the Madigan family of County Clare. When their mother decides it’s time to sell the family home and divvy up the proceeds between her four children they return from all over the world to spend one last Christmas in the house they grew up in.

Jane Smiley’s Early Warning is set in similar territory, picking up the story of the Langdons Cover image in the second in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. It opens in 1953 at a funeral attended by Rosanna and Walter’s sons and daughters, all grown up with children of their own. Some Luck was among the best books I read last year so I’m looking forward to this middle volume which takes the family into the 1980s. I gather that the third will be appearing not long after this one.

Still in North America but moving on to Canada, Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait has been compared to Margaret Atwood by no less than Nickolas Butler, author of the sublime Shotgun Lovesongs. I imagine that’s a mixed blessing when you’ve only just published your first novel. It’s about a father trying to track down his son in the Canadian Wilderness after a terrible accident, and so enamoured am I with Mr Butler’s writing that a claim extravagant enough to bring out the old cynic in me has still made me want to read it.

The GracekeepersAnd finally, my last choice for May is actually an April title: Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers which was brought forward a little in the publishing schedules. Her short stories are so highly rated by several people whose opinions I trust that I didn’t want to miss it out. It’s set in a flooded world in which sails a circus boat, home to North who dances with her bear in return for food. Callanish is a gracekeeper, tending the graves on an island in the middle of the sea. When these two are thrown together by a storm they are irresistibly drawn to each other but find may obstacles in their way. Perhaps a little fantastical for my usual taste but I’ve been promised some very fine writing and what a wonderfully eye-catching jacket.

That’s it for May. As ever, a click will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. Here are my April hardback choices if you’d like to catch up with those. Such were the splendours of April paperback offerings that I’ve posted on them twice – here and here.

A tip top reading month

I’m half-way through Jane Feaver’s An Inventory of Heaven, due out in paperback next month. It’s far from a bad book, although it does explore the rather well trodden territory of childhood and dark secrets, but I’ve been keeping company with Haruki Murakami and Kate Atkinson for most of this month and so perhaps have been spoiled for anything less than excellent.

Cover imageMurakami’s 1Q84 stretches over more than 1,200 pages and is spread across three books but it gripped me throughout. If pressed, you could probably boil it down to boy meets girl, albeit in a rather strange way, then both spend the next 20 years trying to find each other again but of course there’s much more to it than that. Any journey with Murakami is a surreal one and by the end of it I had begun to feel that it was more akin to Alice in Wonderland with its entrance and exit from the strange two-mooned world of 1Q84 than it was to George Orwell’s 1984, the year in which it is set. Last week Murakami’s new novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, was published in Japan. Readers queued overnight and over 1 million copies have already been sold. Let’s hope his English translators are hard at work on it.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is also somewhat surreal with its replaying of the birth, life and death Cover imageof its main character, Ursula Todd, each time with differing results. Readers accustomed to the straightforward linear narratives of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books may be a little taken aback by this but those who have read her second novel, Human Croquet, will be more familiar with her use of alternative realities. In Life After Life it’s more like alternative history, clear from the start when Ursula puts her hand in her bag pulls out a gun and says quietly “Führer, für Sie”.  In an ambiguity typical of the novel we’re left not knowing whether the single shot fired hits Ursula or her target. Events in Ursula’s, sometimes very short, life affect the outcome for her friends, family and possibly the entire world, sometimes almost imperceptibly, but often dramatically. Beginning in 1910 when Ursula is born, several of her lives take the narrative through both the First and Second World Wars with sombre often harrowing descriptions of a bomb-devastated London, but there’s also much humour in the book. It’s a novel that could have fallen flat on its face sending its readers screaming to their bookshelves looking for something else but Atkinson handles it all so deftly that the result is a fine piece of work thoroughly deserving of its place on the Women’s Prize for Fiction short list.