Tag Archives: Louisa Young

Five Days in Budapest and a Bit of a Book

I’ve been wanting to go to Budapest for some time. I remember it popping up on the departure board at Munich station when H and I caught the train down to the Dolomites for a walking holiday a few years back. Then we hopped on and off the Hamburg to Budapest train last year but veered off from Bratislava to Vienna. We’d thought about another, shorter railway journey Margaret Island (Budapest)taking in the city but plumped for a long weekend break instead. The trip seemed to be jinxed in the weeks running up to it: first thanks to Ryanair’s fit of cancellations (we were lucky) then a health crisis for H’s father who, fortunately, was well enough for us go after all.

Spending much of our first day on Margaret Island, slap in the middle of the Danube which divides Buda from Pest, was a much-needed laid back start after all that stress and finally getting to bed at 2 am after the flight. It’s a large and lovely area of green space, beautifully planted with trees just on the autumnal turn with squabbling red squirrels running up and down them. There’s a splendidly kitsch musical fountain at one end which knocks the Las Vegas Bellagio’s into a cocked hat. Hard to do it justice but, as ever, YouTube comes to the rescue.Museum of Applies Arts (Budapest)

The following day we crossed the river and wandered around leafy Buda, taking the cog railway a little way into the hills. Back over the Danube to Pest after lunch in search of a bit of culture we headed for the Museum of Applied Arts, unfortunately closed for renovation but it was enough just to see the outside. Readers of this blog who’ve followed my travels House of Art Nouveau (Budapest)around the Baltics, Central Europe and Antwerp will know that I’ve a weakness for Art Nouveau architecture, the more extravagantly flamboyant the better. It’s the sheer bonkersness of it all, and you can’t get more bonkers than the Museum of Applied Arts, although there are many rivals for that in Budapest. The rather more restrained Bedő House, whose upper floors house a museum, is an excellent example of the Secessionist architecture we’d seen in Vienna last year but if it’s extravagance you want – and I did – the former Török Bank fits the bill nicely. Impossible to walk very far in Budapest without coming across yet another extraordinarily ornate building. If you fancy seeing a little more outrageously exuberant architecture you might like to visit this Pinterest site.

Sunday seemed like a good day to visit the Great Synagogue but apparently every other tourist in Budapest had the same idea so we went to the Orthodox Synagogue instead. I’d expected it to be Orthodox synagogure (Budapest)somewhat spartan but it turned out to be anything but with its gorgeously painted walls and stained-glass windows. On to the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre, our only bit of culture thanks to the glorious weather, housed in a beautiful, converted Art Deco cinema. Capa famously documented the Spanish Civil War as did his Polish photographer wife, Gerda Taro, who was killed in action. Sadly, Taro doesn’t get much of a mention at the centre. I remember reading Susana Fortes’s novel based on their lives, Waiting for Robert Capa, which tells their story from her point of view, and enjoying it very much.

With the museums closed and another bright shiny autumn day in the offing, we decided to spend Monday morning in City Park after a brief visit to Heroes’ Square in front of which were parked a huge number of police vans and cars, a reminder that Hungary is not quite the free and easy state it might appear when walking its capital’s streets. We spent our last evening wandering around both sides of the river, marvelling at the gorgeously lit Parliament, Parliament (Budapest)a palace of democracy, over which hung a huge harvest moon. Five days, and we’d barely scratched the surface of this lovely city with its elegant tree-lined boulevards. We need to come back to visit at least one of its many baths, take the Children’s Railway around the Buda Hills and eat more fabulous cake at the stylish Cover imageDunapark.

And the book? Not much luck with reading on this holiday. My first book was pleasant enough but hardly worth mentioning. The second was Louisa Young’s Devotion, the third in a series which began with My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You set against the backdrop of the First World War. Young moves her characters on to the interwar years taking some of them to Italy where Il Duce is on the rise. Unlike the first two, both of which I loved, I found it a little difficult to get into and am contemplating giving it up.

Books to Look Out For in June 2016: Part 1

Cover imageJune really is a bumper month for fiction. I know I frequently kick these previews off with that kind of pronouncement but such were the many interesting looking titles on offer that there were nearly enough books for a three-parter which seems excessive even for my eyes-bigger–than-stomach tendencies. Several of them are set in that fabled decade the 1960s, beginning with Emma Cline’s debut The Girls which has been attracting attention for a good few months now. Set in the summer of 1969, it’s about fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd entranced by the girls in their short dresses and long tatty hair who live on a Californian ranch, deep in the hills with the charismatic Russell. ‘Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways. Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?’ say the publishers. Cline’s novel is based on the notorious Manson murders and seems to have caused quite a stir already.

Following an immensely successful debut with a second novel is a nerve-wracking time for writers, I’m sure. Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist was hugely successful two years back. Her second novel, The Muse begins in London in 1967 with Odelle Bastien who left her Trinidadian home five years before and who is about to find her niche working in a London art gallery. One day a lost masterpiece with a story behind it is delivered to the gallery, purported to be by the legendary Isaac Robles. Burton’s novel untangles the painting’s history taking her readers to Spain in 1936.  ‘Seductive, exhilarating and suspenseful, The Muse is an addictive novel about aspiration and identity, love and obsession, authenticity and deception – a magnificent creation and a story you will never forget’ say the publishers.

By contrast, the synopsis of Susan Beale’s The Good Guy isn’t anything hugely special but there’s something about it that draws me in. Perhaps it’s that old third-party dynamic. Still in the ‘60s but this time in suburban New England it’s about Ted – a car-tyre salesman married to Abigail – whose chance encounter with Penny sets him off inventing a new life for the both of them until ‘fantasy collides with reality, the fallout threatens everything, and everyone, he holds dear’, apparently. Could be as dull as ditch water but it’s got a great jacket and John Murray often publish interesting novels.

Staying in the ‘60s, Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer follows Patricia Highsmith to a cottage in Suffolk where she is concentrating on her writing and avoiding her fans while conducting an affair with a married lover. When a young journalist arrives determined to interview her, things take a dark turn. ‘Masterfully recreating Highsmith’s much exercised fantasies of murder and madness, Jill Dawson probes the darkest reaches of the imagination in this novel – at once a brilliant portrait of a writer and an atmospheric, emotionally charged, riveting tale’ say the publishers. Dawson has a particular talent for taking the bare bones of a life and working it up into a richly imagined novel.Cover image

Natasha Walter – she of Living Dolls and The New Feminism fame – has a debut novel out in June which also takes the story of historical figures and fictionalises it. Laura Leverett has been living in Geneva since her husband disappeared in 1951. Ostensibly a conventional wife and mother, Leverett has been living a double life since 1939 when she met a young Communist woman aboard a transatlantic liner. When she marries a man with similar sympathies she becomes caught up in a world of espionage which will take her from wartime London to Washington in the grips of McCarthyism. Based on the relationship between the Cambridge spy Donald Maclean and his wife Melinda Marling, A Quiet Life is ‘sweeping and exhilarating, alive with passion and betrayal’ according to the publishers. This is the third Cold War novel to have caught my attention this year although Walter has stiff competition to beat: the other two were Francesca Kay’s The Long Room and Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, both excellent.

This next one is eagerly anticipated, by me anyway. It’s the third in Louisa Young’s First World War series which began with My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You and continued with The Heroes’ Welcome. Those who have read the first two novels will be familiar with several of the characters which apparently reappear in Devotion, although the baton has been handed onto the next generation now faced with the prospect of another war as Tom, adoptive son of Nadine and Riley, falls in love with Nenna whose father supports Mussolini. The first two instalments of this series were a joy – compassionate and humane without a hint of sentimentality.

Winding back to the end of the First World War and the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept the world, Sjón’s Moonstone is set in Iceland in 1918 against a backdrop of an erupting volcano and coal shortages. Sixteen-year-old Mani loves the movies, even dreaming about them, but everything changes when the ‘flu hits Iceland. ‘Capturing Iceland at a moment of profound transformation, this is the story of a misfit in a place where life and death, reality and imagination, secrets and revelations jostle for dominance’ say the publishers. Make of that what you will.  It’s so unusual to see an Icelandic novel in the publishing schedules that seems to have nothing to do with crime that I feel I should give this one a go.

Everyone is WatchingFinally, at least for this first batch, Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching is set in New York which is usually enough to guarantee any novel a place on my list but this one sounds particularly attractive, apparently featuring the city itself as the main protagonist. From Walt Whitman in 1891 to Robert Mapplethorpe in 1967, from Robert Moses in 1922 to Edmund White in 2013, Bradbury’s novel is about the artists and writers who have made New York a city that captures the imagination. ‘Through the lives and perspectives of these great creators, artists and thinkers, and through other iconic works of art that capture its essence, New York itself solidifies. Complex, rich, sordid, tantalizing, it is constantly changing and evolving. Both intimate and epic in its sweep, Everyone is Watching is a love letter to New York and its people – past, present and future’ say the publishers which suggests that it could either be a great sprawling mess of a novel which rambles about all over the place or a resounding success. We’ll see.

That’s it for the first batch of June titles. As ever a click on a title will whisk you off to a more detailed synopsis.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in October 2015

Cover imageSad to say I’ve not found many titles that appeal in the October paperback lists. Lots of commercial big names but the more literary variety seem to be even further in the back seat than usual. I’ve reviewed only one so I’ll start with that. Per Petterson’s I Refuse seems even more sombre than his previous novels to me. Two men, close friends when they were young, meet briefly one morning by coincidence. Expensively dressed, Tommy has just parked his car when he spots Jim, shabby in his old reefer coat. Each recognises the other despite the thirty years since their last meeting. Tommy’s remarks about his expensive Mercedes are made perhaps more from embarrassment than anything else but they bite. The rest of the novel is an overlapping mosaic of memories framed within the events of that September day. It’s a fine novel – melancholic yet beautiful in its simplicity.

In Julia Franck’s West Nelly Senff is desperate to escape her life in East Berlin and the constant surveillance of the Stasi. She and her children are held in Marienfelde, a refugee processing centre and no-man’s-land between East and West where she meets several others hoping to make a new life – and John, a CIA man looking for possible Stasi spies. I read Back to Back two years ago, set just as the Wall was going up, and had mixed feelings about it but West sounds intriguing and I’m a sucker for novels which explore that East/West divide, particularly after visiting Berlin.

I’m afraid that’s all I have to offer apart from the welcome reissue of Louisa Young’s Anglo-Cover imageEgyptian trilogy: Baby Love, Desiring Cairo and Tree of Pearls. I read and enjoyed these three back in my bookselling days. None of them seemed to get the attention they deserved but I suspect Young’s publishers are hoping to gain a wider readership off the back of her successful First World War novels, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and The Heroes’ Welcome. Angeline Gower is the star of all three, bringing up the daughter of her sister killed when riding pillion on a motorbike driven by Angeline whose belly dancing career took a tumble thanks to her own injuries. Her sister’s shady past threatens Lily’s safety when Angeline gets into trouble with the police. This may all sound a little improbable and that’s a particularly fluffy shade of pink in the background of the new jacket but, trust me, it’s a thoroughly entertaining set of novels with a nice edge of suspense running through it.

That’s it for October, perhaps the shortest preview so far this year. As ever, a click on any title apart from I Refuse will take you to Waterstones for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with the decidedly meatier selection of hardbacks for the month they’re here.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

It’s that time of year again. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges are putting the finishing touches to their longlist, due to be announced shortly. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2014 and March 31st 2015 qualify for the award. It’s the one prize I pay attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed. What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. A few of the titles are a bit out of the way but I’d like to think a sprinkling of them will appear. I’ve followed the same format as last year with thanks to Jackie at Farm Lane Books for coming up with such a simple but striking presentation. I’ve restricted myself to novels that I’ve read and there’s a link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2015 Baileys Prize:

Ridely Road                                       The Miniaturist                     Academy Street

Cover imageCover imageAcademy Street

Mr Mac and Me                         Our Endless  Numbered Days               Friendship

Cover imageCover image      Friendship

Upstairs at the Party                      Black Lake                                 The Lost Child

Cover imageCover imageThe Lost Child

Bodies of Light                          When the Night Comes In  After Me Comes the Flood

Bodies of LightWhen the Night ComesCover image

A God in Every Stone                         Some Luck                     A Spool of Blue Thread

A God in Every StoneCover imageCover image

Weathering                                  The Lightning Tree                 The Heroes’ Welcome

Cover imageCover imageThe Heroes' Welcome

I’m sure there will be omissions and inclusions that some of you feel passionately about. I’ve heard good things about Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, for instance, which is working its way up to the top of my pile. Do let me know what you think.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 2

Cover imageLooking back over the year for these three posts it seems that many of my favourite reads were crammed into the first two months of the year. March, however, saw only one, Shot gun Lovesongs, but that may well turn out to be my book of the year. Nickolas Butler’s American smalltown gem is a gorgeous, tender novel which retains enough grittiness to steer well clear of the sentimental while wringing your heart. I hope there’ll be another Butler on the horizon soon.

After the remarkable Burnt Shadows I had been looking forward to April’s A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie as soon as I spotted it in the publishing schedules and it didn’t disappoint. Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters. It’s a towering achievement as is Look Who’s Back in an entirely different way. Timur Vermes’ very funny satire sees Hitler waking up with a terrible headache in August 2011, more than a little bemused but soon all too plausibly back in the frame. Satire can go horribly wrong but Vermes is right on the button. Not surprisingly, it caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published, storming up the bestseller charts and staying there for seventy weeks.

Having started this with a prime candidate for my book of the year, I spotted another inWith a Zero at its Heart May’s posts. With its unusual thematic structure Charles Lambert’s With A Zero at its Heart could have been too tricksy for its own good but instead it turned out to be one of the finest books I’ve read this year. Its beauty lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words. Also in May was Louisa Young’s sequel to the heartrending My Dear I Wanted to Tell YouThe Heroes’ Welcome. Young’s sympathetic characterisation draws you immediately into this powerful novel which looks at the aftermath of war, deftly avoiding all sentimentality. You don’t have to have read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You to enjoy The Heroes’ Welcome but you’d be missing a treat if you didn’t.

cover imageNothing in June or July but in August I was reminded of my bookselling days by Andy Miller who I’d worked with briefly at Waterstone’s head office many years ago when the apostrophe was present and correct. The Year of Reading Dangerously in which Andy gets his reading mojo back is touching, honest and very funny indeed. Lots of sniggering in this house, and not just me. You might think ‘she would say that wouldn’t she’ but if Twitter’s anything to go by Andy seems to be having a lot of success helping people rediscover their inner reader. I’m going to leave you with another August title: The Miniaturist. Might as well get all my book of the year contenders into one post. Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it was inspired by. Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum. I’m sure you can’t have failed to notice all the brouhaha around it but believe me, it’s justified. It’s a love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface – altogether a very fine book indeed. I’ll leave you with that. Third post to follow soon and if you missed the first you can catch up here.

The Heroes’ Welcome and a trip to Fulham Palace Gardens

Fulham PalaceTrawling the internet looking for somewhere to meet my aunt with the prospect of a lovely day in view, I lit upon Fulham Palace thanks to a piece in the Telegraph about quirky, less well known places to visit in London. We met on Monday which was as gorgeous as the Met. Office had promised and the gardens were lovely. Getting there from Putney Bridge tube station proved to be a more of a challange than I’d expected given Google’s confusing directions – not just me, M lost her way, too, – but it was well worth it. There’s what looks like a newly restored walled garden resplendent with irises, lots of green space, a few sculptures and a café serving delicious cake. We didn’t make it into the palace – too much to talk about and too lovely outside – but we had a very nice time indeed.

I took Louisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome to keep me occupied on the train. FictionCover image publishing schedules are crowded with First World War novels this year, so much so that I’m becoming a little weary of the theme, but it’s the sequel to My Dear I Wanted to Tell You which I’d read and very much enjoyed a few years ago so I’d been looking forward to it. The first novel is about five young people: working class boy Riley Purefoy; landed gentry Peter Locke married to beautiful, lost Julia who suffers a breakdown when he goes to war; Peter’s cousin Rose; and Nadine who becomes a VAD in France. What I had particularly admired about the novel was the way in which Young explored the class tension between Nadine and Riley who share an artistic talent and fall deeply in love much to both sets of parents’ horror.

The Heroes' WelcomeThe second novel picks up the five main characters in 1919, each of them deeply damaged by their experiences of war. Peter has taken refuge in Homer, reading The Iliad obsessively to shut out the litany of the names of the dead for whom he feels responsible. His comrade, Riley, whose jaw has been shot away, is angry – trying to find a place for himself in the civilian world. His saving grace is the love of Nadine who is dealing with her own horrors at what she saw at the Front. Julia is at a loss to know how to help Peter, taking to her bed while their three-year-old son, confused and lonely, sleeps with the dog in his basket for comfort. Rose, as ever, does the best she can, putting everyone’s interest before her own. Each of them casualties in their own way.

Young’s sympathetic characterisation draws you in immediately. Her opening chapter sees Riley and Nadine marry, neither sure how things will be on the wedding night: each heartrendingly considerate of the other’s feelings. What had been joyful and celebratory before the war is now fraught with emotional and physical difficulty. When they finally overcome their diffidence it makes you want to whoop with joy. Peter’s desperate, self-destructive attempts to shut out the horrors of the battle field, and his overwhelming sense of responsibility are poignantly conveyed. For so many, it was not to be talked about, could not be talked about lest the floodgates open. This silence and miscommunication is so skilfully woven into the novel that you find yourself aching  for someone to break it as these poor damaged characters try to find their way out of the maze of sorrow, some more successfully than others. The final part of the book leaps to 1927 with hopes of new beginnings though not for all. It’s a powerful novel which neatly avoids sentimentality. You don’t have to have read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You to enjoy The Heroes’ Welcome but you’d be missing a treat if you didn’t and it’s in paperback. Hats off to Borough Press for the gorgeous jacket which adorns Heroes’. Effective, too – it was commented on by three people on Monday who all asked me if the book was good.