Tag Archives: Mary Costello

Books to Look Out for in October 2019: Part One

This October sees a nicely varied selection of tempting new titles on offer including one by an author whose name I’ve been hoping to spot in the publishing schedules for some time. I loved Mary Costello’s quietly beautiful Academy Street, one of my books of 2014. Her new novel, The River Capture, is about a man whose solitary existence is interrupted when a young woman knocks at his door, presenting him and his family with a dilemma. ‘This is a novel about love, loyalty and the raging forces of nature. More than anything, it is a book about the life of the mind and the redemptive powers of art’ say the publishers promisingly.

Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel sounds as if it’s also about art, although possibly not its redemptive powers. The final work of a woman who committed suicide hangs in a Dublin gallery, a piece she’d intended as her shroud. A collector covets it so much he’s prepared to pay to have it stolen. Hegarty’s novel follows the thief he commissions, the curator who loves the piece and the man charged with recovering it. ‘The lives of these three damaged people, each evoked with a calm, moving sympathy reminiscent of Michael Cunningham or David Park, come together around the hauntingly strange Victorian painting’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely. I enjoyed Hegarty’s debut, Inch Levels, very much.

There’s something of a theme emerging here. In Jon Fosse’s The Other Name a widowed ageing painter is looking back on his life. Asle lives on the west coast of Norway and has just two friends – his neighbour and his gallerist who lives in Bjorgvin as does another Asle who is also an ageing painter leading a very different life. ‘Written in hypnotic prose that shifts between the first and third person, The Other Name calls into question concrete notions around subjectivity and the self. What makes us who we are? And why do we lead one life and not Cover imageanother?’ It’s the doppelganger idea that intrigues me with this one which is the first in a trilogy, apparently.

There’s geographical link rather than an artistic one to Lars Saabye Christensen’s Echoes of the City which has been hailed a Norwegian masterpiece. It charts the changes in an Oslo neighbourhood through its inhabitants as the city emerges from wartime austerity. ‘The minutes of the local Red Cross meetings give an architecture to the narrative of so many lives and tell a story in themselves, bearing witness to the steady recovery of the community. Echoes of the City is a remarkably tender observation of the rhythms and passions of a city, and a particular salute to the resilience of its women’ according to the publishers which sounds very inviting.

Years ago, in the very early days of this blog, I reviewed Susan Fortes’ Waiting for Robert Capa which introduced me to Gerda Taro, an unsung hero of war photography. Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica is also about Taro, telling her story through several characters attending her funeral held on what would have been her twenty-seventh birthday and placing it firmly in the context of the time. ‘Gerda Taro is at the heart of this kaleidoscopic novel but another of its main characters is the era itself, the 1930s, with economic depression, the rise of Nazism, hostility towards refugees in France, the century’s ideological warfare, the cultural ferment, and the ascendency of photography as the age’s quintessential art form’ say the publishers. I’m very pleased to see such attention devoted to Taro who, I was annoyed to discover, is barely given a mention at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre which we visited in Budapest.

Cover imageI’m sure Zadie Smith would have shared that annoyance. I’m rounding this first October batch off with Grand Union, her first published collection. Smith’s stories take us from the last day of an Antiguan immigrant’s life in 1959 to a meditation on the nature of desire to a policeman in disgrace, apparently. ‘Moving exhilaratingly across genres and perspectives, from the historic to the vividly current to the slyly dystopian, Grand Union is a sharply alert and prescient collection about time and place, identity and rebirth, the persistent legacies that haunt our present selves and the uncanny futures that rush up to meet us’ say the publishers which sounds good to me.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Part two to follow soon.

That’s it from me until the end of the week. I’m off to see a friend who lives in Holmfirth in Yorkshire where I believe there’s a spanking new indie bookshop…

My 2015 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logo 2015Just before last year’s Man Booker prize winner announcement I wrote a rather disenchanted post about it so you might think that I’ve cast off my world weariness, given the title above. Not entirely, I’m afraid, but I did have to think about it when the lovely people over at Shiny New Books asked if I’d like to contribute a few punts for this year’s longlist. They only wanted two or three, but it got me thinking about other titles that I’d like to see longlisted. I’ve restricted myself to books that I’ve read and like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Theirs will be revealed on Wednesday 29th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

Academy Street Cover imageCover image

       Academy Street                            Weathering                      A Spool of Blue Thread

Cover imageOur Souls at NightTender

   The Mountain Can Wait              Our Souls at Night                           Tender

Cover imageThe Lives of Women1004

        A God in Ruins                           The Lives of Women                          10:04

Cover imageCover imageCover image

         Some Luck                            The Lightning Tree               Signs for Lost Children

 

I’ve been pipped to the post on this by Jackie over at Farm Lane Books whose format I’ve stolen, not for the first time. Interestingly we only overlap on two although if I’d read Anne Enright’s The Green Road I’m pretty sure it would have appeared here. And if you’d like to see which of the above I came up with for the Shinies plus other contributors’ hopes here they are. Let me know which titles you fancy for this year.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler (tranls. Charlotte Collins): Being greater that its parts

Cover imageThere’s something very attractive about a slim novel which encapsulates the life of an ordinary person, someone whose life might well be judged narrow by those who stride across the world’s stage. Mary Costello’s very fine Academy Street springs to mind – I’m still trying to work out why it failed to appear on the Baileys longlist, let alone be shortlisted. Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life is in a similar vein: Andreas Egger leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia where he remained for nine years as a prisoner-of-war. It’s barely one hundred and sixty pages, but Seethaler’s novel reveals a life far richer than you might expect.

It opens in 1933 with an almost fairytale-like passage in which Egger tenderly lifts Horned Hans, a dying goat-herd, from his sodden pallet, strapping him to his back and carrying him down from the mountain. When Egger stumbles, Horned Hans unfastens himself and runs off into the snow, leaving the shaken Egger to try to collect himself at the Golden Goat where a lovely young serving woman brushes his shoulder. Egger first arrived in the valley when he was four years old. His uncle was resentful at the sudden appearance of his sister’s illegitimate child, but Egger was strong, more than earning his straw mattress and keep despite the injury inflicted during one overly enthusiastic beating. Aged twenty-nine, Egger used what little he’d saved to buy a small plot and a barn, just enough for him and the lovely Marie when she joined him. Realising it may not be long before they needed a more secure income, Egger found work with Bittermann & Sons, an engineering firm building the cable car runs that had become so popular with the burgeoning tourist trade. All looked set fair until nature intervened.

Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic, arranging a message spelled out in fire on the mountainside before finally finding the courage to propose to his beloved Marie. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage: ‘the distant mountaintops stood out so clearly that it was as if someone had just finished painting them onto the sky’ vividly summons up crystal clear alpine views. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience. A simple life, then, but well lived: ‘He had survived his childhood, a war and an avalanche… …He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.’ Who can say better than that?

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 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

Academy Street by Mary Costello: ‘A life fitting on one page’

Academy StreetIrish – and Irish-American – writers seem to specialise in a particular style of pared-back, elegant prose from which shines out the occasional lyrical gem: William Trevor, John McGahern, Colm Tóibin, Sebastian Barry, Jennifer Johnston, Elizabeth Bowen, Deirdre Madden, Alice McDermott… I could go on. Mary Costello joins that (very long) list with her debut novel, Academy Street, which has all those stylistic hallmarks suffused with the same quiet melancholy that characterises so much of the finest Irish writing.

Spanning almost sixty years, it begins, and ends, with a funeral. Seven-year-old Tess Lohan is lying on a rug watching the evening sun play on the walls of the living room of her home. A blackbird flies through the open window, tears a little paper from the wall and carries it off to line its nest. Tess watches in wonder then hears her family upstairs as they struggle to move the coffin. Lost in the moment, Tess has forgotten and now must remember that she no longer has a mother. The Lohan children cope as best they can, their father made irascible with grief. As Tess grows up, a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education, she longs to leave the family farm training as a nurse in Dublin then following her sister Claire to America where she settles in New York City. Friendship is not easy for her, always a little outside of things she aches for the intimacy of connection and thinks, fleetingly, that she has found it. Her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’.

This is a heart-wrenching book. Reading it, you long for joy in Tess’s life, a closeness that will ease her loss and longing. Hers is a life led quietly, never quite making the warm connections that come so easily to her friend Willa. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly, Tess’s sudden bright moments of empathy and understanding shining out like a beacon. The elderly man she tenderly nurses through his last days recognises the ‘essential loneliness’ they both share, telling her that ‘I could fit my whole life on one page. I could write it all down on a single page.’ A fine novel, best read when cheerful.

Books to look out for in November 2014

Cover imageMuch to my surprise there are more enticing books published this November than in October. It’s usually a rather dull month – all the finest jewels in the box put out on display for Christmas already – but some treats have been held back perhaps the most surprising of which is Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first in a trilogy that promises to follow an American family over a century. It opens in 1920 with Walter and Rosanna Langdon beginning their lives together on an isolated Iowan farm. There’s a chapter for each year, apparently, with the next two parts due to be published in 2015. From a writer of Smiley’s calibre this could be a very enjoyable way of exploring the American twentieth century.

Mary Costello’s first novel, Academy Street, also looks at twentieth century American history this time through the eyes of Tess Logan, a shy young woman with a passionate heart. Over four decades, Costello follows Tess from her early years in the west of Ireland to the razzle-dazzle of New York where she makes her home. Costello’s short story collection, The China Factory, was much praised and the quote from the novel on Canongate’s press release looks very promising indeed.

I enjoyed Amanda Coe’s What They Do in the Dark very much. It’s one of those taut, domestic thrillers – very dark indeed, and she certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension. In Getting Colder Sara, who deserted her children to be with her lover – once a much-lauded playwright now whiskey-soaked and blocked – has died. Thirty-five years after she left them, her children have sought Patrick out wanting answers. A little less sinister than What They Do in the Dark, apparently, although it sounds pretty unsettling to me

I know very little about my fourth choice, Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes, but somehow the juxtaposition of its settings alone – Tasmania and Antarctica – makes it worth checking out. In it a young girl and a crewman on an Antarctic supply ship cross paths, each learning something from the other. Not much, I know, but it’s enough to pique my interest.

This one may seem completely out of character to regular readers of this blog – it’s William Gibson’s The Peripheral – but if there’s one SF writer non-genre readers make an exception for it’s Gibson. The prescience of his near-future set novels – Virtual Light and Pattern Recognition, for instance – is uncanny and his writing is excellent. I’m hoping for more of the same in this ‘tale of drones, murder and time-travelling crime’ set in 2020 where a young woman in a video game witnesses a drone strike kill a young child in the Deep South. At the same moment – but one hundred years into the future – a boy is remotely killed in London. Intriguing!

My final choice is Georges Perec’s Portrait of a Man. Years ago I read and loved what is Cover imageprobably Perec’s best known novel, Life: A User’s Manual, about the inhabitants of an apartment block in Paris. It’s quite some time since I’ve read anything else by him but this one caught my eye. Written in the 1950s, it’s the story of a forger and a killer. It’s only recently been discovered – it’s his first novel – which may well mean that it was tucked away in a drawer somewhere, rejected by a long list of publishers but I think it’s worth a try.

That’s it for November. A click on the title will take you to Waterstones website if you want to know more about a book – and if you’d like to see what I’m looking forward to in October click here for the hardbacks and here for the paperbacks.