Tag Archives: My Coney Island Baby

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2020: Part One

Cover imageFebruary’s packed with enough paperbacks to stave off the miseries of a Northern hemisphere winter, several of which I’ve already read and can heartily recommend. I’ll begin with Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, a slice of metafiction in which a writer comes across the notebook she kept in 1978, the year she arrived in Manhattan fresh from Minnesota, planning to write her first novel. As S. H. reads her journal, she contemplates the version remembered by her sixty-two-year-old self and how often it differs from the twenty-three-year-old’s account. As ever with Hustvedt, her book is stuffed full of literary allusions, ideas and erudition but it’s also playful in its early stages before taking a darker turn.

Memories play a large part in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise which sees Sarah and David fall obsessively in love in their first term at a performing arts school where teachers and students become dangerously close. Twenty years later, the students’ lives remain marked by what happened in the secret, enclosed world of their school. ‘Captivating and brilliant, Trust Exercise is a novel about the treacherous terrain of adolescence, how we define consent, and what we lose, gain, and never get over as we navigate our way into adulthood’s mysterious structures of sex and power’ say the publishers promisingly. I enjoyed Choi’s My Education very much and like the sound of this one.

Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set in 1993 when the eponymous Paul is a bartender in a university town gay bar, studying queer theory by day, but he has a secret. ‘Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Women’s Studies major to trade, Paul transforms his body at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco – a journey through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure’ promise the publishers which sounds wildly ambitious but well worth investigating.

Former US Army medic Nico Walker’s Cherry is set in Cleveland Ohio where two students meet and fall in love in 2003. When Emily is called home, her lover joins the army leaving for Iraq after they hurriedly marry. He returns stricken with PTSD and a drug habit which turns into heroin addiction. When Emily becomes addicted, too, the couple’s attempts at a normal life collapse and he turns to bank robbery. ‘Hammered out on a prison typewriter, Cherry marks the arrival of a raw, bleakly hilarious, and surprisingly poignant voice straight from the dark heart of America’ say the publishers.

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Lost Children Archive has something to say about America’s dark heart. The first book written in English by Valeria Luiselli, it’s a response to the journeys made through the most dangerous terrain by those hoping to find their way across the Mexican border, many of them unaccompanied children. On their way from New York to Arizona, a family stops in motels where the parents fight quietly, convincing themselves their children can’t hear. The closer they come to the border, the more they hear about the migrant children, many about to be deported. Compassionate and often beautiful, Lost Children Archive is an impressive achievement although less immediate than Jeanine Cummins stunning American Dirt which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Sunday Times Young Writer Award shortlisted Stubborn Archivist also tackles the theme of immigration. A young woman whose mother has left her homeland struggles to find a way to feel comfortable with herself by exploring her family history. ‘Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity’ says the publisher whetting my appetite.

Back to love which never runs smoothly, at least not the more interesting literary variety. In Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby two lovers are engaged in a long affair, meeting for an afternoon once a month, a welcome interval in their humdrum marriages. Now each is faced with a crisis that threatens this relationship which has become so precious to them both. O’Callaghan’s novel takes place during a single afternoon, switching perspective from Michael to Caitlin. It’s a novel that quietly draws you in, engaging sympathy for these two lovers who face the end of the only relationship in which they’ve truly felt themselves.

Cover imageI loved Jen Beagin’s sharp, funny Pretend I’m Dead but was a little surprised to find she’d written a sequel. Two years after the love of her life disappeared, Mona’s becoming more intimate with her clients and not necessarily in a good way. Vacuum in the Dark follows Mona from client to client, all of whom have their own darkness to shoulder. It’s considerably bleaker than Beagin’s first novel: the humour still sardonic and off the wall but less slapstick. I did wonder if Beagin was pushing her luck with a sequel but she manages to carry it off. Best quit while you’re ahead, though.

That’s it for the first instalment of February’s paperback delights. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. And if you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels, they’re here and here.

My Coney Island Baby by Billy O’Callaghan: Love in the afternoon

Cover imageRegular readers may have noticed I’ve a weakness for Irish writing. It was that and the premise of Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby that attracted me to it. Two lovers, engaged in a long affair, meet for an afternoon once a month, a welcome interval in their humdrum marriages. Now each is faced with a crisis that threatens this relationship which has become so precious to them both.

On a bleak November afternoon, Michael and Caitlin battle their way against the wind to a Coney Island hotel. They’ve snatched afternoons like this for twenty-five years since Michael met Caitlin in a bar, escaping the awful grief at the loss of his baby son. Caitlin was already married, still cherishing dreams of becoming a writer and publishing the occasional short story. These two clicked and have continued to do so, telling each other their stories as lust dwindles a little, although never completely, and love grows. Now they’re in their late forties and age is overtaking them. Shortly after they meet, Michael tells Caitlin that his wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later in the afternoon she tells him her husband is in line for a promotion that will take him to Illinois. They both know these monthly meetings may be about to end unless they make an irrevocable decision.

For those seconds of a summer’s afternoon, easy in one another’s arms, they were entirely who they wanted and needed to be.

O’Callaghan’s novel takes place during a single afternoon, switching perspective from Michael to Caitlin. Their stories unfold in such a way that we come to know these two intimately: Michael thinks of the Irish island he left when he was sixteen, and his son whose death indelibly marked his marriage; Caitlin remembers her ambitions to become a writer, and the stepfather whose sudden departure left her and her mother alone again. There’s an elegiac tone to O’Callaghan’s prose coupled with a timelessness which suits his subject beautifully. It’s a novel that quietly  draws you in, engaging sympathy for these two lovers who face the end of the only relationship in which they’ve truly felt themselves.

Books to Look Out for in January 2019: Part One

Cover imageYou may be a little weary of 2018’s books of the year roundups (mine included) and wondering what publishers are planning to help us through the long winter evenings. If so, there are lots of potential treats to look forward to in January starting with Daphne de Vigan’s Loyalties. Thirteen-year-old Theo and Mathis’ behaviour has attracted the attention of their teacher who becomes obsessed with rescuing Theo while Mathis’ mother stumbles across something dreadful on her husband’s computer. ‘Respectable facades are peeled away as the four stories wind tighter and tighter together, pulling into a lean and darkly gripping novel of loneliness, lies and loyalties’ say the publishers. De Vigan’s Based on a True Story was one of 2018’s favourites for me.

Another pair of children faces difficulties in Paula Saunders’ debut The Distance Home, set in ‘60s America. Siblings Rene and Leon excel at dancing but while Rene is a confident over-achiever, her brother is plagued by shyness and a stutter. Each parent favours a different child leading them down widely divergent paths. ‘The Distance Home is the story of two children growing up side by side – the one given opportunities the other just misses – and the fall-out in their adult lives. It is a hugely moving story of devotion and neglect, impossible to put down’ say the publishers promisingly.

Michael and Caitlin have been conducting an affair for twenty-five years, meeting once a month in an escape from their unhappy marriages in Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby. One winter’s afternoon they’re faced with the harsh realities of serious illness on one side and a move far away on the other. ‘A quiet, intense drama of late-flowering intimacy, My Coney Island Baby condenses, within the course of a single day, the histories, landscapes, tragedies and moments of wonder that constitute the lives of two people who, although born worlds apart, have been drawn together’ says the publisher in the slightly overblown blurb.Cover image

Elanor Dymott’s Silver and Salt was a disappointment for me but that hasn’t stopped me casting an eye over her new novel,  Slack-Tide. Elisabeth meets Robert four years after her marriage had split up when she lost her child, and quickly falls in love with him. ‘Slack-tide tracks the ebbs and flows of the affair: passionate, coercive, intensely sexual. When you’ve known lasting love and lost it, what price will you pay to find it again?’ ask the publishers suggesting that all does not go well.

Laura Lee Smith’s The Ice House sees Johnny MacKinnon on the brink of losing his business thanks to the fallout from an industrial accident. Then he collapses on the factory floor with a suspected brain tumor. ‘Johnny’s been ordered to take it easy, but in some ways, he thinks, what’s left to lose? Witty and heartbreaking, The Ice House is a vibrant portrait of multifaceted, exquisitely human characters that readers will not soon forget’ according to the publishers which doesn’t entirely sound up my street but Richard Russo has praised Smith for her ‘intelligence, heart and wit’ which is what’s put it on my radar.

Set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1981, Geraldine Quigley’s debut Music Love Drugs War follows a group of friends about to leave school, not knowing what to do with the rest of their lives and avoiding the issue by doing what teenagers do. When a friend is killed, it’s time to sober up but decisions made in haste and anger have irrevocable repercussions. ‘With humour and compassion, Geraldine Quigley reveals the sometimes slippery reasons behind the decisions we make, and the unexpected and intractable ways they shape our lives’ according to the publishers. Very much like the sound of this one.

Cover imageI was surprised when Haruki Murakami’s name popped up quite so soon after Killing Commendatore was published but then I spotted that Birthday Girl is a mere 48 pages. It’s about a waitress whose plans to take her birthday night off have backfired, then she’s asked to deliver dinner to the restaurant’s reclusive owner. ‘Birthday Girl is a beguiling, exquisitely satisfying taste of master storytelling, published to celebrate Murakami’s 70th birthday’ according to the blurb. An amuse bouche, then.

That’s it for the first part of January’s preview. Second batch of potential treats follows soon…