Tag Archives: Patrick Gale

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Outsiders to Wise Children #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders which I’ve not read but I know this story of teenage rebellion is considered to be a classic of young adult fiction.

Albert Camus’ The Outsider is also thought of as a classic. It’s about Meursault who refuses to conform to society’s expectations showing no emotion when his mother dies or remorse at an act of violence he commits.

The Outsider is also translated as The Stranger which takes me to Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger set in a crumbling, haunted mansion lived in by the same family for two centuries. Not my favourite Waters. I much prefer Fingersmith for its brilliant twist.

Which leads me to Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist about a man fascinated by magic and illusion who is convinced he’s responsible for Houdini’s death. It’s such a clever book, a magnificent illusion in itself, whose final twist is kept under wraps until the very end.

Steven Galloway also wrote The Cellist of Sarajevo leading me to Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You which I’ve yet to read but I know it’s about a young boy who finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher.

Patrick Gale’s father was governor of HM Prison Camp Hill on the Isle of Wight. Patrick McGrath grew up close to another secure institution: Broadmoor Hospital where his father was the medical superintendent. His novels often explores madness, of which The Wardrobe Mistress set against the backdrop of the London theatre, is one of my favourites.

Angela Carter’s Wise Children shares a theatrical backdrop with The Wardrobe Mistress. It’s a tale of unacknowledged paternity, mistaken identities, twins at every turn, Shakespeare, Hollywood, music hall, discarded wives, glorious love and rollicking good times. A wonderful novel packed with Shakespearean references, a plot worthy of one of the Comedies and written in language which is earthy, vivid and memorable

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a teen classic to a tale of theatrical dynasty. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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…

The Last Book of the Year

At the beginning of 2014 I wrote one of those posts that I thought was just for my own satisfaction but which generated some interesting discussion. It was called ‘the first book of the year’ and it covered a decade of reading, all neatly recorded in a notebook that I still keep. I know we’re not yet done with 2015 but it’s a safe bet that I won’t finish another book before we are so I thought I’d write a counterpart. That first post was also a test of what I remembered about each book. So, two years further into middle-aged memory syndrome – that ‘what did I come into the kitchen for?’ state that will be all too familiar to some of you – here are a decade’s worth of my last books of the year.

Cover image2006: The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan And I’m off to a bad start here. I’m sorry to tell you that I remember little or nothing about O’Nan’s novel, although I know that it had supernatural overtones leaning towards horror. I’ve a feeling I read this in preparation for some magazine work as it hardly seems up my usual alley.

2007: Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson I read this because I’m a Thomson fan. No one could accuse him of endlessly ploughing the same furrow: this year’s Katherine Carlyle leapt into the twenty-first century after Secrecy‘s exploration of Medici court politics. I remember that the eponymous murderer was Myra Hindley, one of the infamous Moors Murderers, who had died several years before.

2008: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale This one’s easy. It was one of those titles that Richard and Judy made into a bestseller, naming it as one of their book club choices in the days when that meant shifting shed loads of books for booksellers. It’s about an artist, as its title suggests, whose death uncovers many secrets the revelation of which rock her family. Having been a Gale fan since The Aerodynamics of Pork way back when, it was a delight to see it race up the bestseller charts.

2009: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde I’m going to forgive myself for forgetting which particular Fforde this is. They’re very funny – the kind of books that irritate your partner as you snigger your way through them – but instantly forgettable.

2010: A Single Man by Christopher IsherwoodCover image Unusually for me these days, this was a re-read prompted by Tom Ford’s beautiful film. Set in the early ‘60s, it’s the story of a gay English professor teaching in California, left devastated by the death of his lover whose family shut him out, sweeping their relationship neatly under the carpet.

2011: A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan I feel I should remember this in great detail – I enjoyed it very much at the time and it isn’t that long ago – but all that comes to mind is that it involved two characters from the music industry who worked together, and that it wandered about all over the world.

2012: Alligator by Lisa Moore Same goes for Lisa Moore’s Alligator which I read having enjoyed February so much. Surprisingly that’s the one I remember despite reading it several years before. It’s the story of a woman widowed while pregnant when her husband’s oil rig sinks, and her long slow emergence from grief. As for Alligator, well I’m not at all sure…

2013: Wild Hares and Humming Birds by Stephen Moss Not a novel, Wild Hares.. was a birthday present, given to me because of a newly awakened interest in nature writing. It’s a year of the Moss’s reflections on what he saw around him on the Somerset Levels, not a million miles away from where I live. I’d love to tell you that we, in the West Country, are beset by humming birds but the title refers to the hummingbird hawk-moth, which I remember seeing once at Abbotsbury Gardens.

2014: Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton Also not a novel, this is chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir. I remember it for its gorgeous descriptions of food and the many places that Hamilton has eaten and cooked it with friends and family. It’s a glorious celebration of all those things – I’m tempted to use that tired old cliché ‘life-affirming’ to describe it.

2015: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo This seems an appropriate last book for this year given Naomi over at The Writes of Women and Dan’s Twitter initiative #DiverseDecember, now extended to #ReadDiverse2016. Bulawayo’s novel is set in Zimbabwe against the backdrop of Robert Mugabe’s destruction of tens of thousands of homes in 2005, seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Darling and her friends. Darling eventually joins her aunt in America only to find life there is not quite what she expected. Both funny and heart-wrenching, it’s a strikingly vivid piece of writing.

That’s my last, somewhat nerdy post of 2015. I’d love to know what your last book of the year is, present or past.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in September 2015

Cover imageThere are some particularly tasty paperback treats to look forward to this September. I’ll start with the ones I’ve reviewed, my favourite of which is Helen Oyeyemi’s fabulous tale of race and identity Boy, Snow, Bird. Where to start with this complex, dazzling book? There are elements of fairy tale – a wicked stepmother, a Prince Charming or two, a girl called Snow – although no apples as I recall, and it’s stuffed with stories. From its very beginning, a richly symbolic mirror motif runs through the novel reflecting, or not reflecting, different images the characters have of themselves. It’s brilliant, and I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it.

Anne Tyler’s Baileys shortlisted, now Man Booker longlisted, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a another favourite. It’s the story of the Whitshanks told through the history of their house lovingly built back in the 1930s by Red’s father for whom it was the epitome of perfection. Now in their seventies, both Red and Abby are showing signs of ageing and Abby’s ‘absences’ – short periods when her ‘brain jumps the track’ – have become a concern. What to do? I’ve heard that this may be Anne Tyler’s last novel and it wouldn’t be a bad one to go out on but I can’t help hoping for more.

Jo Bloom is at the other end of the novelist career spectrum with her first novel Ridley Road. Carnaby Street, mini-skirts, coffee bars and rock n’ roll: these are some of the things that make up the glossy vibrant Swinging Sixties we see portrayed on our TV screens in nostalgic documentaries. Flip that coin over and you’ll find something nasty – racism and fascism alive and kicking almost twenty years after the Second World War. Bloom explores a fascinating slice of British history when a group of Jewish East Enders decided enough was enough, all wrapped up in a thriller and a love story.Cover image

Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter carries on the historical theme but in an intensely personal way: it’s based upon family stories of Gale’s ancestor Harry who fled looming disgrace in England to farm a few bleak acres in Canada, knowledge that makes the novel all the more compelling. It’s a glorious piece of storytelling replete with detail anchoring it in time and place as Harry, brought up to be a gentleman rather than a farmer, struggles to establish a smallholding in the frigid Canadian landscape.

Entirely different but also bound up with history, Early Warning is the second instalment of Jane Smiley’s The Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. I read the immensely enjoyable Some Luck last year and had been looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. Early Warning opens with a funeral in 1953 and takes the family through the Cold Wars Years to 1986, ending with a revelation which adds another pleasing turn in their story. Now, of course, I’m impatient for the final instalment, although, like all absorbing reads where you feel on intimate terms with the characters, I suspect I won’t want to reach the end.

Cover imagePhilp Teir’s Helsinki-set debut tells the story of the Paul family over the course of just one winter rather than a century. Max and Katriina have been together for thirty years, apparently happy enough but in reality things are a little scratchy, wearing a bit thin. We know that divorce is on the horizon – Teir tells us that from the start – The Winter War is the story of how they get there, complete with strong characters and wry humour.

I haven’t yet read Amanda Coe’s Getting Colder but I enjoyed 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.

As does Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief in which a woman writes a letter night after night to what was once her dear friend about their shared past and the betrayal that blew their friendship apart fifteen years ago. As the letter progresses its tone changes, becoming both more self-revelatory and more defensive. Harvey’s previous books The Wilderness, about a man with Alzheimer’s trying to make sense of his world (that theme again), and All is Song, a novel of brotherhood and ideas, were both intelligent and beautifully expressed so my hopes are high.Cover image

My final choice is Johanna Skibsrud’s Quartet for the End of Time, a very melancholy title for a novel which re-imagines the 1932 American First World War veterans’ march to Washington during the Great Depression to demand the wartime bonus they were promised. It’s written by a Canadian, surprisingly. Skibsrud won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2010 for The Sentimentalists about a young woman trying to understand her father through his experiences in the Vietnam War.

That’s it for September paperbacks. A rather lengthy post, I know, but not quite enough to stretch over two. A click on one of the first six titles will take you to my review, the last three will take you to Waterstones for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with my hardback selections, part one is here and part two is here.

A Place Called Winter and Happy Birthday Shiny New Books

SBN-logoIt’s time for another issue of the wonderful Shiny New Books, stuffed full of interviews, articles and reviews by some of my favourite bloggers and this ones a celebratory issue: it’s their first birthday. Such a lot of hard work, energy and talent have been poured into this project. It’s been a delight to be associated with it.

My own contribution to the fifth issue is a review of Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter, the latest novel in a long writing career made illustrious by Richard and Judy whose choice of Notes from an Exhibition for their book club thrust Gale into the spotlight in 2007. Those of us who’d been enjoying his well turned out, humane and absorbing novels for some time could only be surprised that it hadn’t happened before. This one is intensely personal: it’s based upon family stories of Gale’s ancestor Harry who fled looming disgrace in England to farm a few bleak acres in Canada. If you’d like to know more why not pop over to Shiny New books where you can read the full review and explore all manner of other delights.

Books to Look Out for In March 2015

The Faithful CoupleSuch are the many temptations in March’s publishing schedules that this is going to be a long post, I’m afraid. I’ll begin with A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple as it’s the one I’m looking forward to most. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s published back in 2010. This one sounds entirely different. It begins in 1993 with two British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California and go on a camping trip together which will throw a shadow over both of them. The novel follows them over the next two decades reflecting and refracting London through their lives and friendship until the truth of that trip emerges. I always find this kind of structure particularly attractive and I enjoyed Snowdrops very much.

Patrick Gale needs no introduction after the rip-roaring success of the Richard and Judy (remember all that?) bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. A Place Called Winter is based on his own family history, telling the story of Henry Cane, forced by scandal to emigrate to the Canadian prairies where he sets up as a farmer in the eponymous settlement. According to the publisher it’s ‘an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love’. A grand claim but I’ve yet to read a Gale that I didn’t enjoy.

I have to say that the publisher’s blurb for Polly Samson’s The Kindness is a tad overblown but it boils down to this – Julian falls passionately in love with Julia, married and eight years his senior. Against all advice they throw up everything to be together enjoying their happiness until their daughter Mira becomes seriously ill forcing Julia to reveal a terrible secret. This may not sound too inspiring but the prose is ‘lyrical’, apparently, and the plotting ‘masterful – I enjoyed her previous books, Out of the Picture and Perfect Lives, very much

Sara Taylor’s debut The Shore is more a set of interconnecting stories than a novel. It spans a The Shorecentury and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of a group of small islands off the coast of Virginia. I’m not a short story fan, I’m afraid – I prefer something to get my teeth into – but when they’re linked in this way they can work extraordinarily well, as the aforementioned Perfect Lives did for me, and I like the sound of the setting very much. Lots of comparisons in the blurb, including one to Cloud Atlas, but I’m not letting that put me off.

I have to confess I don’t remember Judith Claire Mitchell’s The Last Days of Winter which was published ten years ago but A Reunion of Ghosts sounds right up my street. Three sisters living together in a New York apartment at the end of the last century have decided to kill themselves. It’s something of a family tradition, so it seems, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the poison gas used in both world wars. A little on the dark side, admittedly, but it sounds fascinating.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut Hausfrau takes us to a wealthy Zurich suburb where American ex-pat Anna Benz lives with her husband and three young children. Disconnected and isolated, Anna plunges into a series of passionate affairs which will eventually end in tragedy as her life unravels. Billed as a ‘literary page-turner’ it sounds as if it has more than a touch of the Emma Bovarys but nevertheless has the makings of an absorbing read

Cover imageI spotted the jacket of Molly McGrann’s The Ladies of the House on Twitter and couldn’t resist it. Reading the blurb it seemed even better: One hot July day three elderly people are found dead in a rundown house in Primrose Hill. Spotting the story in the paper Marie Gillies feels she is somehow to blame. McGrann’s novel pieces together what has happened, entering the secret world of the ladies of the house. It comes from the editor who brought us two of my books of 2014: The Miniaturist and Shotgun Lovesongs. Enough said, for me, anyway.

And finally, Anna Gavalda’s Billie has already been a huge seller in France. It’s the story of two unlikely friends: Franck, a bright, sensitive young boy with a bigoted father and a depressed mother, and Bille, desperate to escape her abusive family. Billie tells Franck her story when they find themselves trapped in a mountain gorge on holiday. I loved Gavalda’s Consolation and her Hunting and Gathering – she has a light touch with storytelling which I’m hoping to see more of in Billie.

Phew! That’s it for March, and if you’ve yet to catch up with February here are the hardbacks and here are the paperbacks.