Tag Archives: Lucky Us

Books to Look Out for in May 2018: Part One

Cover imageThere are several juicy looking short story collections on offer in May, three of which I’m including in the first part of this preview kicking off with the excellent Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It which explores both the ineptitude some people display in reading others and our ability to deceive ourselves, apparently. ‘Sharp and tender, funny and wise, this collection shows Sittenfeld’s knack for creating real, believable characters that spring off the page, while also skewering contemporary mores with brilliant dry wit’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.

Sittenfeld fans will remember her brilliant depiction of a First Lady, based on Laura Bush, in American Wife which leads me neatly to Amy Bloom’s White Houses, set in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife move into the presidential residence. Bloom’s novel explores the relationship between Lorena Hickock, the celebrated journalist who accompanied them, and Eleanor Roosevelt. ‘Filled with fascinating back-room politics, the secrets and scandals of the era, and exploring the potency of enduring love, it is an imaginative tour-de-force from a writer of extraordinary and exuberant talent’ say the publishers. That alone would pique my interest but I’m a huge fan of Bloom’s writing, from her short stories to novels like Lucky Us, so I have high hopes for this one.

Geir Gulliksen’s Story of a Marriage also puts a relationship under the microscope as a husband whose wife has fallen in love with another man after twenty years together tries to understand the disintegration of their marriage from her point-of-view. ‘Intense, erotic, dramatic, raw – Story of a Marriage examines two people’s inner lives with devastating and fearless honesty. It is a gripping but slippery narrative of obsession and deceit, of a couple striving for happiness and freedom and intimacy, but ultimately falling apart’ according to the publishers which sounds very ambitious to me but definitely worth a look.

Back to short stories for Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood. ‘Schutt’s sharply suspenseful and masterfully dark interior portraits of ordinary lives are shot through with surprise and, as Ottessa Moshfegh has it, “exquisitely weird writing”’ say AndOtherStories who are publishing this collection as part of their response to Kamila Shamsie’s provocation exhorting publishers to release only books by women. ‘Exquisitely weird’ could go either way for me.Cover image

I’m bookending this post with the third short story collection of the month from the late master of the craft. 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.

That’s it for the first instalment of May’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you wish to know more. Part two to follow at the end of the week with not a short story collection in sight.

Rowing to Eden by Amy Bloom: Short stories for novel readers

Cover imgeMuch to my surprise it seems to have turned into short story week here. Unusually for me, I came to Amy Bloom’s writing through her short fiction. It was back in the ’90s and I was a bookseller at the time. When I was shown her first volume a great deal was made of her work as a psychotherapist which intrigued me. I read all three collections when they were published and was delighted by her writing, even more so when her novels appeared, one of which – Lucky Us – I’ve reviewed on this blog. Rowing to Eden is a complete collection of her short stories and when I opened it I realised I’d read the lot but with writing as good as Bloom’s, who cares? It’s more than worth a second visit.

For readers who already know her work this collection comprises stories first published in Come to Me, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You and Where the God of Love Hangs Out. There are twenty-nine in all, some subject to a little editorial re-ordering from the sequence in which they first appeared. A small selection will give readers unfamiliar with these beautifully crafted little gems a flavour of what to expect. In ‘Love is Not a Pie’ a woman decides to break off her impending marriage when listening to her mother’s eulogy, realising that her fiancé could never live up to her mother’s generous interpretation of love. ‘Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines’ sees a young voluptuous girl, subject to neglect and criticism from her mother, model furs while naked for an elderly man. In ‘Semper Fidelis’ a young woman waits for her sick, elderly, still beloved husband to die, sharing her sexual fantasies with him. ‘Psychoanalysis Changed My Life’ has an ageing analyst give her patient advice about her appearance rather than listening to yet another recitation of dreams, perhaps with an ulterior motive in mind. Grief changes the relationship between a mother and her stepson irrevocably in the linked ‘Lionel and Julia’ sequence. Bloom’s stories are about the things that make us human – love, desire, family, ageing, grief and identity – all explored throughout this collection with admirable acuity.

Bloom’s supreme skill lies in her ability to portray human foibles and traits with a clear-eyed empathy. The many grey areas of desire are laid bare. Love and its sometimes unorthodox forms is a frequent theme. Bloom cleverly confounds expectations, in one instance turning what could have become a tale of obsession into the start of something that might become love. Her writing is beautifully nuanced, the unsaid often conveying as much as what appears on the page, sometimes more. All this – subtlety, insight and an occasionally acerbic humour – is wrapped up in polished prose which slips seamlessly from one point of view to another. Three sets of these stories are closely interlinked, offering more for those of us who like our fiction longer to get our teeth into but perhaps that is to underrate Bloom’s standalone work: these are short stories for novel readers – each one complete unto itself.

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.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageUnusually for me, I came to Amy Bloom’s writing through her short stories. Her first collection, Come to Me, was published when I was still a bookseller and I was interested by Bloom’s background as a psychotherapist, made much of when I was pitched the book. I think she was still practising then. It seemed to me after reading her stories that she must be a very fine therapist indeed: they were quietly empathetic, understanding of human weakness. From her biographical notes it looks as if Bloom has long since given up her practice and is writing full-time but Lucky Us has that same empathetic quality which makes flawed characters so attractive, and there are many in this novel, often pretending to be someone completely different from the person they are.

It opens strikingly with Eva, delivered to her father’s door and left there with only a small suitcase to show for her twelve years with her mother. Edgar’s wife has died leaving him with Iris, Eva’s sixteen-year-old half-sister and Eva’s mother has spotted an opportunity. Tangled relationships, already, and we’re not even through the first chapter – there will be many more to come. Stretching over a decade from 1939, Lucky Us follows Eva from her unceremonious arrival following her eccentric route through all kinds of permutations of family which takes her to Hollywood with Iris then east across the country into the welcoming, generous arms of the Torellis, before tragedy propels her into life as a fortune-teller easing the sorrows of New York ladies, then eventually to an entirely satisfactory if surprising resolution.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride – from descriptions of decadent Hollywood parties to stories of life in a German displaced persons camp, Bloom’s writing is vibrant and her characterisation astute. She knows how to turn a stylish phrase but it’s not showy stuff, and all the better for that. The daughter of ‘a mother who dropped [her] off like a bag of dirty laundry’ and a father ‘ who was not above stealing from [her]’, Eva is quietly smart, mature and capable under the most difficult of circumstances while Iris, seemingly steely in her determination to be a star, finds herself derailed by passion, behaving in an unforgivable fashion. Poignancy is laced with a pleasingly sly humour and after a little awkwardness with its structure – at least for me – it flows beautifully. A long way from psychotherapy then – although there’s a nice moment when Eva neatly turns her fortune-telling into an effective bit of therapy – but just as humane and empathetic as her early work.

And that’s it for me for a week or so. I’m off to the land of cream teas and alpacas for a spot of walking and no doubt some reading.