Tag Archives: Our Endless Numbered Days

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller: A nice slice of British gothic

Cover imageBitter Orange is Claire Fuller’s third novel and it’s the third I’ve reviewed here. Our Endless Numbered Days made it on to my books of the year list in 2015 and I included Swimming Lessons on my (then) Baileys prize wish list last year. I’m something of a fan, as you can tell, so expectations were a tad high for her new one but I’m glad to report that Fuller has outdone herself. Set largely during the summer of 1969, Bitter Orange tells the story of three people thrown together by circumstance, two of whom have been commissioned to write a report on a dilapidated, abandoned English country mansion. As the summer wears on, an intimate friendship develops but who is telling the truth and who is not?

Fran lies on her deathbed recalling her summer at Lyntons twenty years ago. In 1969, just a few months after the domineering mother she had cared for most of her life had died, Fran was commissioned to survey the garden at Lyntons for its American owner. From her bare attic bedroom she watches two people caught up in disagreement: Peter whose job is to survey the house’s interior and his partner Cara, vividly alive and apparently Italian, or so Fran thinks. Fran barely sees either of these two for days until she’s invited to dinner by Cara, arriving trussed up in her mother’s formal wear to find Cara and Peter in déshabillé, no signs of dinner in preparation. Lonely, socially awkward and naïve, Fran assumes these two to be deeply in love but as she’s pulled into their orbit, listening to Cara’s story of how they got together then finding herself Peter’s confidante about Cara’s instability, Fran begins to wonder what the state of their relationship really is and increasingly drawn to Peter. Slowly but surely tensions rise.

Fuller sets her readers up for an absorbing but suspenseful read, throwing up questions at every turn while spilling clues and foreshadowing the future. Fran is a satisfying narrator, hinting at unreliability by telling us that her illness has destroyed her memory but that the events of 1969 are clear and vivid to her. She’s an expertly drawn character: a self-proclaimed voyeur, an outsider ripe for the intimate seduction of friendship that Cara seems to offer. Fuller treats us to a luxuriously long reveal which suits the novel’s vividly evoked sultry heat well, delivering a satisfying climax at its end. I would have enjoyed Bitter Orange whatever the weather but it turned out to be the perfect read for the early days of July when the UK was in the grips of a heat wave which looks set to make a reappearance.

Books to Look Out for in August 2018: Part One

Cover imageMuch jostling for position at the top of August’s list of new titles, three of which I’ve already read but not yet reviewed. I’m starting with Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free which is up there up there alongside Ingenious Pain and Pure, his two best novels for me. Set in Somerset just after the turn of the eighteenth century, it’s about Captain John Lacroix whose health has been so devastated by the disastrous campaign against Napoleon in Spain that he goes on the run rather than return to the front once recovered. ‘Taut with suspense, this is an enthralling, deeply involving novel by one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers’ say the publishers and I’d have to agree.

Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You is also set in Somerset, this time in 1970s Weston-Super-Mare where ten-year-old Eustace finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher. Lessons of another kind are learned when Eustace enrols on a holiday course in Scotland, apparently. ‘Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives’ according to the blurb. I’ve long been a fan of Gale’s writing, going right back to The Aerodynamics of Pork in the ‘80s.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley is also a coming-of-ageCover image novel with much to say about the dangers of nostalgia and nationalism. Set on a Suffolk farm in 1933, it’s about Edie, to whose family the farm belongs, and Constance, who arrives from London to record the area’s traditions and beliefs. Edie finds herself attracted by their visitor’s sophistication but it seems Constance may have a secret or two. I’m a great fan of both At Hawthorn Time and Clay but Harrison’s surpassed herself with this one.

Claire Fuller’s previous novels Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons were a delight and I’m pleased to report Bitter Orange turns out to be one too. In the summer of  1969, Frances is drawn into a relationship with her fellow tenants of a crumbling country mansion: ‘But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever’ says the blurb, neatly setting the scene.

I’m ending this batch with the winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award of which I’ve Cover imagelearned to take notice. Described as a darkly comic thriller, Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square is about Jean Mason whose friends and acquaintances tell her she has a doppelgänger. Jean sets about tracking down her likeness, becoming obsessed with this other woman who has been seen haunting Bellevue Square. ‘A peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants–the regulars of Bellevue Square–are eager to contribute to Jean’s investigation. But when some of them start disappearing, she fears her alleged double has a sinister agenda. Unless Jean stops her, she and everyone she cares about will face a fate much stranger than death’ according to the publishers. As is often the case with Canadian books, I first came across this one at Naomi’s excellent Consumed by Ink blog.

That’s it for the first selection of August’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you wish to know more. Second instalment soon but not before my Man Booker wishlist…

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: Knowing the worst or hoping for the best?

Cover imageBack in 2015, Claire Fuller’s much acclaimed Our Endless Numbered Days made it on to my books of the year list. I have a track record of disappointment with second novels, either expecting too much on my part or perhaps just one excellent novel in them on the author’s. Nothing wrong with that, of course: I don’t even have a mediocre one in me. Fuller’s new book, however, is very far from a disappointment: expectations were not only met but exceeded. Swimming Lessons is the story of a mother who disappears, leaving her family and her philandering husband with a paper trail of letters hidden among his many books.

Ingrid and Louise are studying English in ‘70s London, determined not to replicate their mothers’ lives. No marriage, children and drudgery for them: they plan to travel the world, to achieve. Gil Coleman teaches Ingrid creative writing. He’s a colourful figure with a novel or two under his belt, happily seducing his students but with his sights set on marriage and six children. Ingrid thinks their affair will be a mere summer fling but finds herself pregnant and installed in Gil’s seaside home while Louise looks on disparagingly, uncomprehending at what Ingrid has allowed to happen to her. When Nan is born, Ingrid feels nothing. While she frets about how they’re going to live now that Gil has left the university in disgrace, he takes himself off to his writing room, hard at work or so she thinks. Five years later, after a great deal of heartache, a second daughter is born. Then, when Nan is fourteen and Flora not yet nine, Ingrid disappears. Decades later, Gil is staring out of his local bookshop window, convinced he’s seen Ingrid and in his desperate efforts to pursue her, falls badly. Nan and Flora come home to look after him, one resigned to what’s happened and what will happen, the other still hopeful that all her questions will be answered and her dearest wish fulfilled.

From Gil’s dramatic sighting of Ingrid, Fuller draws you into her novel alternating present day events with Ingrid’s story written in letters tucked into appropriate books. It’s a structure which works beautifully, setting up a nice thread of suspense as we ask ourselves what has happened to Ingrid. Fuller perceptively explores the complexities of motherhood, marriage and love, overarching it all  with the question – would you rather know and accept the worst, as Nan has long resigned herself to do, or carry the bright hope of not knowing that Flora and Gil have fostered since Ingrid’s disappearance. It’s an engrossing story, beautifully expressed. Fuller’s writing is quite cinematic at times – vivid snapshots which reminded me of her flash fiction, a weekly pleasure. The little bibliographical note at the end of each of Ingrid’s letters is a treat for the anoraks among us, and I loved Gil’s annoyed response about first editions: ‘Forget that first-edition, signed-by-the-author nonsense. Fiction is about readers’. Quite so.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 2

Cover imageAnother very tasty batch of paperback treats to keep  the dreary British winter at bay, kicking off with a writer who seems very underrated to me. Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Lives of Women tells the story of Elaine who has come back to Ireland where her widowed father is wheelchair-bound after surgery. She’s lived in New York since she was sixteen but this is only her second visit home. Hickey slowly unfolds the tale of what lies behind Elaine’s long absence as she looks back to the 1970s and the tragedy that overshadowed her last Irish summer. Dwyer’s writing is quite beautiful – spare yet lyrical. If you haven’t yet read anything by her I hope you’ll give this one a try.

Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days tells the story of another woman looking back to a summer in the ‘70s but is entirely different. Peggy is the daughter of a German concert pianist and an English man. Ute is about to go on tour for the first time in many years while James and his North London Retreater friends play at being survivalists. After a murderous row with one of them, James tells Peggy that they are off on holiday to ‘die Hütte’ where Ute will meet them later. After a summer of repairing the derelict hut James delivers some devastating news: the rest of the world has been destroyed. It’s a wonderfully inventive, very powerful novel. I gather that Fuller has a new one in the works, to be published late 2016/early 2017. A treat to look forward to.Cover image

Judith Claire Mitchell’s A Reunion of Ghosts is another tale of a supremely dysfunctional family written in the form of a memoir which is to be the suicide note of the remaining Alters. Lady, Vee and Delph have grown up imbued with the knowledge of the family curse. Their great-grandfather Lenz first synthesised chlorine gas, used in the First World War. Both he and his wife Iris committed suicide, as did their son Richard unable to live with the misery of guilt by association. The third generation continued the family tradition. Now it’s the turn of the fourth then something entirely unexpected happens. Not to everyone’s taste, I suspect, but I thoroughly enjoyed this funny, irreverent novel.

I’m looking forward to Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations set several years on from 2001. Anne, once a documentary photographer, meets her beloved grandson, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers and fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Both have secrets which begin to emerge, taking them on a journey back to the old Blackpool guesthouse where Anne once had a room. I haven’t read an O’Hagan for some time but this one sounds interesting.

Cover imageI’m not at all sure about this last choice: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville. The Washington Post called it ‘The most dazzling, most unsettling, most oh-my-God-listen-up novel you’ll read this year’ but it’s a book which I suspect will resonate much more with American readers than with British. When D’aron Davenport inadvertently reveals that his small Southern town plays host to a Civil War Reenactment every year, his liberal fellow students see red and descend on Braggsville to stage a dramatic protest. ‘A literary coming-of-age novel for a new generation, written with keen wit, tremendous social insight and a unique, generous heart, Welcome to Braggsville reminds us of the promise and perils of youthful exuberance, while painting an indelible portrait of contemporary America.’ say the publishers. Certainly worth investigating.

Quite an embarrassment of riches for January, in all. As ever, if you’d like more detail a click on the first three will take you to my review and to Waterstones website for the second two. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks they’re here, and  the hardbacks are here and here.

That’s it from me for a week or so. A very happy Christmas to you all. I hope it will bring you a least something that you’d like, be it a book, time with family and friends or perhaps a little to yourself.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 1

Last year I was off the blocks at the very beginning of December with my books of the year posts, barely waiting for the starter’s pistol. This year I’ve managed to restrain myself but I’m still incapable of cutting the number of favourites back to a sensible figure. Consequently I’ll be spreading my choices over four posts, picking them out month by month. Just as it did in 2014, my reading year got off to a very satisfying start, although a little more evenly spread this time. Last year’s first books of the year post saw seven titles crammed into two months; this one has six spread over three.

Cover imageIt begins with Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a smart little piece of meta-fiction which found its way on to the Folio Prize short list the month after I read it. Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was much talked about on publication – 10:04 is his second and it’s narrated by a writer whose first novel was much talked about on publication. He’s having trouble writing his second for which he’s got a stonking six-figure advance. Half-way through we learn that the narrator’s name is Ben. Your literary pretentiousness alarm may well be ringing loudly but Lerner’s novel is well worth your time: absorbing, amusing and very clever.

Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree is a much more straightforward kettle of fish: Girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. This kind of structure’s catnip for me – lots of lovely space for character development. Funny and a little eccentric, Woof’s book reminded me of the early Kate Atkinson novels while that structure has a touch of David Nicholls with a hefty dash of sassy wit and political savvy. I’d not got on with Woof’s debut, The Whole Wide Beauty, but this one hit the spot – so much so that I included it in my Baileys Prize wishlist although the judges disagreed.

They didn’t agree with me about my first February choice either even though Lucy Wood’sCover image Weathering is a striking novel right from the get-go. Its synopsis sounds prosaic enough – single mother returns to the village she left years ago, determined to renovate the dilapidated home she’s inherited from her mother, sell up and leave – but what makes Weathering an unalloyed treat is Wood’s gorgeous word pictures and sharp characterisation all wrapped up in an engrossing story.

February also saw the publication of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Most weeks, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays, Fuller posts a hundred words inspired by a photograph. Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, they’re always inventive. She has a knack of making you look at the world in a slightly different way. No surprise, then, that her debut was on my reading list. It’s the story of Peggy whose survivalist father takes his eight-year-old daughter to the Bavarian forest in 1976 where they stay for the next nine years. True to form, it begins with a photograph as the seventeen-year-old Peggy looks back at that summer. Yet another of my Baileys wishes which failed to come true but Fuller’s wonderfully inventive debut did catch the eye of the Desmond Elliot Prize judges and went on to win it.

Two very different novels for March beginning with my first in translation for this year, Signs Preceding the End of the World. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Yuri Herrera tells the story of Makina’s journey from one world to another, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground. The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid. Herrera – and Lisa Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving his readers pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.Cover image

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed my tendency to bang on about jackets and their importance in snagging readers’ attention. This particular jacket fits its book like a glove. Molly Mc Grann’s The Ladies of the House begins with a middle-aged woman, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. She’s never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through this entertaining piece of storytelling and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.

That’s it for the first quarter of 2015. A click on a title will take you to my review. More very shortly, when it’s the turn of the Man Booker judges to let me down not once but three times…

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.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller: The incredible made credible

Cover imageClaire Fuller’s flash fiction is one of my regular treats. Most weeks, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays, she posts a hundred words inspired by a photograph. Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, they’re always inventive. She has a knack of making you look at the world in a slightly different way. Given all that, it’s no surprise that her debut was top of my February reading list. It’s the story of Peggy whose survivalist father takes his eight-year-old daughter to the Bavarian forest in 1976 where they stay for the next nine years. True to form, it begins with a photograph as the seventeen-year-old Peggy looks back at that summer.

Peggy is the daughter of a German concert pianist and an English man who once stepped in as her page-turner, then fell in love with her. In the summer of 1976, Ute is about to go on tour for the first time in many years while James and his North London Retreater friends play at being survivalists. These are the Cold War years and James trains Peggy to pack her rucksack in four minutes flat. When Ute begins her tour, Oliver Hannington moves in – Peggy knows he’s dangerous but can’t possibly understand how he will change her life beyond all imagining. After a murderous row with Oliver, James tells Peggy that they are off on holiday to ‘die Hütte’ where Ute will meet them when her tour is over. It’s an arduous journey and when they finally arrive after picking their way through mountains and forests, they find the hut is derelict. James sets about repairing it, putting to use the skills that he and Peggy have learned camping in their Highgate back garden, skinning squirrels and rabbits, curing skins and foraging. As summer slides into autumn, Peggy begins to worry about getting back to school. It is then that James delivers the devastating news that the rest of the world has been destroyed. Her mother is dead: it’s just the two of them now.

Interspersing Peggy’s memories with her slow reacclimatisation, Fuller skilfully unfolds the story of those nine years, vividly summoning up the mad world which James constructs to keep his daughter away from reality. It’s quite an achievement, apparently inspired by a hoax – a young Dutchman who claimed to have been living in the forest with his father until he died in 2011 but turned out to be a runaway – yet absolutely believable. Peggy chats with her doll Phyllis, takes refuge in the sheet music James has brought, playing the soundless piano he makes for her, believing utterly in the father she trusts despite the incredibility of the story he spins to hold her under his sway. When it comes, the resolution is an inventive one. It’s a powerful tale of madness and resilience – I wonder what Fuller will do next.

Books to Look Out For in February 2015

A Spool of Blue ThreadFebruary is my least favourite month: dank, drizzly weather here in the UK; little or no colour in the garden; countryside bedraggled and grubby looking – ugh, I hate it. It’s not always a sparkling month in the publishing schedules, either, although given all the above there’s plenty of encouragement to stay indoors reading. This year, however, there’s a huge treat in store: Anne Tyler’s new novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth. Abby and Red Whitshank live in the house Red’s father built in the 1930s. It’s where they brought up their four children, all of whom have assembled to help decide what Abby and Red  will do in old age, and what will happen to their beloved family home. Secrets, rivalries and tensions – all the bagage of family life – come into play as Tyler unfolds their story. If previous Tylers are anything to go by this will be a beautifully nuanced, acutely observed piece of fiction. And what a brilliant jacket.

Nicci Cloke’s Lay Me Down is about a very different stage of life. Eight months after their first kiss Jack and Elsa have moved to San Francisco from London after Jack secures his dream job working on the Golden Gate Bridge but he finds himself obsessed with thoughts of the Jumpers, suicides who make their leap from the bridge. Cloke’s narrative explores both Jack and Elsa’s past before they met – their failed relationships and mistakes – asking the question is their relationship strong enough to withstand their regrets. Handled well, this could be an absorbing read, and it’s a paperback original – always a plus.

Richard Bausch’s Before, During and After is also set in relationship territory, this time against the backdrop of 9/11. Michael and Natasha are apart when the Towers come down – Natasha in Jamaica where she suffers her own trauma and Michael in New York. Bausch explores the effect of both events on their love affair and whether it can survive. The tragedy that struck New York in 2001 seems an irresistible theme for a multitude of novelists and I might well have dismissed this one as just another 9/11 novel but I enjoyed Bausch’s Peace so much that I’m prepared to give it a go. For my money, the best novel written about 9/11 is Amy Waldman’s The Submission in which a woman, widowed in the attack, fiercely defends the architect picked to design its memorial when his Muslim identity is revealed. Let’s see if Bausch can better that.

Several years on from 2001, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations sees Anne, once a documentary photographer, meet her beloved grandson, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers and fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Both have secrets which begin to emerge, taking them on a journey back to the old Blackpool guesthouse where Anne once had a room. I haven’t read an O’Hagan for some time but this one sounds interesting.

Last year I read John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which explored the human need to make sense of coincidence through a sweet love story. There were a few ‘here’s the science’ moments but I enjoyed it enough to try Not Forgetting the Whale in which a young man is washed up at St Piran in Cornwall, stark naked and convinced that his computer program, which is predicting an oil crisis, a virulent disease and a Middle East conflict, is about to plunge the world into a banking collapse – some of which sounds horribly familiar. Not entirely convinced but we’ll see.

I’m also a little unsure about Laird Hunt’s Neverhome but apparently Paul Auster’s a big fan so who am I to be sceptical. It follows the fortunes of Gallant Ash, American Civil War soldier, leader of men, legendary figure – and a woman, secretly, of course. Sounds intriguing.Our Endless Numbered Days

One of my weekly treats is Claire Fuller’s post at her flash fiction site where she uses a photograph as a starting point for the shortest of short stories. They’re often thought-provoking, occasionally funny and have sometimes fed into her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, apparently. It’s set in 1976 when Peggy Hillcoat is eight and happy. Her survivalist father takes her from London to a remote cabin in a wood somewhere in Europe and tells her the world has disappeared. I have great hopes for this one.

That’s it for February which I hope will be brighter than my doomy expectations. If you want a fuller synopsis of any of these titles a click will take you to Waterstones website.