Tag Archives: Paulina & Fran

Books of the Year 2016: Part One

exposureHere we all are, hurtling towards the end of another year. Out there in the world, 2016 as proved to be pretty dreadful for liberals like me what with Brexit and Trump, not to mention the utter misery of Syria which surely touches us all. The reading world has been a much more comfortable place to be, although a little patchy in places for me. It certainly got off to a roaring start in January beginning with two books which share a similar theme. Set in 1960 against the backdrop of the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia, Helen Dunmore’s Exposure sees a woman fighting for her family’s survival when her husband becomes caught up in an old friend’s treachery. Gripping storytelling, sharp characterisation and beautifully crafted prose all combine in  this subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. Another Dunmore triumph.

The Cold War is still quietly raging in Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, set in the last few weeks of 1981. Stephen is a ‘listener’ at The Institute wading through tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When the loyalty of a colleague falls into question, Stephen is called upon to spy on him and finds himself obsessed by the operative’s wife. Kay draws you in to Stephen’s story while slowly but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. The dénouement when it comes is hardly a surprise but this isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.

Entirely different, Rachel B. Glaser’s first novel, Paulina & Fran is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from when they first meet as students. It’s both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant. Paulina strides around apparently impervious to criticism, hurling waspish barbs at her fellow students yet deflated by the slightest setback. Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life, obsessing over Paulina while eventually settling for the kind of job that would make her friend spit bile at its merest mention. It’s a very smart piece of fiction, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke.Cover image

January’s fourth favourite is also a debut – Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that’s what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic. Love Me Back is a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what Tierce comes up with next.

February delivered a couple of excellent reads beginning with Kim Echlin’s superb Under the Visible Life. Like Paulina & Fran, it’s a story of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Echlin takes her time, unfolding Katherine and Mahsa’s stories using alternating narratives to round out these very different characters through their distinctive voices: Katherine’s sharp, passionate and frenetic; Masha’s gentle, quietly determined, almost poetic at times. It’s a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women able to withstand all that’s thrown at them, from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour.

Cover imageYou may have noticed that all five of my books of 2016 so far have been by women as is the sixth: Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton for which I had high hopes as a Baileys contender, sadly dashed. It did, at least, make it on to the longlist but there it stuck, much to my mystification. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism which seems a good point at which to finish this post.

Six books covered already and it’s only the end of February but as I mentioned, it’s been a patchy reading year for me – the next post will leap ahead from March to June. Should you be interested, a click on any of the titles above will take you to my review.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover imageSome particularly delectable paperback treats in store for September, all but one of which I’ve already read and reviewed, beginning with Francesca Kay’s The Long Room set in the last few weeks of 1981 when terrorism was in full swing in Northern Ireland. In an MI5 back office, Stephen listens to tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When he’s called to a meeting by an operative concerned about the loyalty of a colleague, he finds himself listening to the comings and goings at the Greenwood household. Soon he’s obsessed with Helen Greenwood, convinced he’s in love with her. Judgement is clouded, risks are taken and before too long Stephen has found his way down a very dangerous path. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.

Music is the obsession that brings Mahsa and Katherine together in Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life an engrossing tale of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Mahsa finds escape in music after she becomes the ward of her uncle in Karachi, winning a scholarship to Montreal where she finds liberation, fulfilment and adventure, eventually meeting Katherine. The child of a Chinese father and a white mother, jailed in 1940 when her baby daughter was a mere three months old for ‘incorrigible’ behaviour, Katherine has carved out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with passionate determination.  There’s so much to admire about this absorbing novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing. I hope it gets more attention in paperback than it did when it was first published here in the UK.

Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina & Fran is about a very different friendship, no less enduring in its way.Cover image Paulina rampages around her New England college campus in a fury of contempt towards her fellow aspiring artists, sleeping with all and sundry whenever an opportunity presents itself. She and Fran become bosom buddies on a study trip to Norway, curling their lips at the world together. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over a line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other. Glaser’s book is a raucous, roller-coaster of a novel, both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant.

There’s much more of the latter in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family which unfolds the aftermath of a tragedy in a beautifully nuanced, multi-layered narrative, skilfully interweaving the many stories of those affected by it. The night before her daughter’s wedding June’s house burns to the ground with her daughter and her fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend inside. In a state of shock and grief, unable to bear the endless stream of condolence, she flees the small Connecticut town where she’s been living for three years and heads west across the country, holing up in the Moonstone motel for months. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s elegantly crafted novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.

Cover imageMy final paperback choice seems appropriate after that – Max Porter’s much-lauded, award-winning Grief is the Thing with Feathers. As a father faces the awfulness of their mother’s sudden death with his two young sons, they’re visited by Crow a smelly ‘self-described sentimental bird’ who is determined to stay until they no longer need him. It sounds a little outlandish but the book’s beauty of expression and honesty of sentiment has been much praised. ‘Full of unexpected humour and profound emotional truth, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers marks the arrival of a thrilling new talent’ say the publishers and reviewers seem to agree..

That’s it for September paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first four novels, should you want to know more, and to a fuller synopsis for the Porter. If you’d like to catch up with the rest of September’s preview it’s here.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016

Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already.  The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much 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. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:

A God in Ruins                                The Heart Goes Last                The Versions of Us

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Spill Simmer Falter Wither       The Other Side of the World                 Exposure

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Under the Visible Life                    The Book of Memory                    Paulina & Fran

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His Whole Life                                 The Lives of Women                    The Ballroom

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The Long Room                           The Mountain Can Wait                            Tender

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Early Warning                               My Name is Lucy Barton                Love Me Back

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I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.

Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser: Friendship, warts and all

Paulina & FranFemale friendship is a frequent theme in fiction, or at least what’s often dubbed as ‘women’s fiction’ – a label best avoided in my view. It can be more than a little idealised but that’s not an accusation that could be levelled at Rachel B. Glaser, for sure. Her first novel, Paulina & Fran, is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from their meeting as students back in 2000 along the thorny path their friendship is propelled.

Paulina has already been chucked out of Smith before landing up at the New England art school where she meets Fran. She rampages around the campus in a fury of contempt towards her fellow aspiring artists, sleeping with all and sundry whenever an opportunity presents itself. It’s never quite clear what Paulina’s particular artistic bent is but she’s more than a little forthright about her fellow students’ work. Despite that she’s managed to acquire two friends – Sadie and Allison – who trail along in her wake. Paulina signs up for a study trip to Norway mainly to launch another onslaught of sexual advances at the guy she’s had in her sights all semester. On the bus to the airport she spots Fran, last seen dancing in front of a shattered mirror at a party. Surprisingly, these two hit it off, curling their lips at the world, becoming bosom buddies overnight and bonding over their hair problems. Back in New England, Paulina abandons Sadie and Allison for Fran. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over a line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other.

Glaser’s novel is both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant. Paulina strides around apparently impervious to criticism, hurling waspish barbs at her fellow students yet deflated by the slightest setback. Fran – the more conventional of the two – is similarly well drawn, incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life, obsessing over Paulina while settling for the kind of job that would make her erstwhile friend spit bile at its merest mention. Glaser has a sharp eye for the striking phrase – ‘every nightgown came with a few bad dreams’; ’anxiety fidgeted through her body’; ’Why couldn’t people stay where she put them?’; a ‘silk shirt that wrinkled with her every thought’ – are just a few to whet your appetite. It’s a very smart piece of fiction. Glaser’s depiction of this tortured friendship resists any saccharine sentimentalisation, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke.

Books to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThis second January batch roams around the world much as I’d like to myself in January, escaping the dullness of the British winter. John Irving is a writer whose novels I’ve loved but who seems to have become distinctly hit and miss to me. I’d all but given up on him before Last Night in Twisted River which saw a return to the good old-fashioned storytelling that is his forte. I’m not entirely convinced about Avenue of Mysteries which follows an ageing man to the Philippines where the vivid events of his Mexican childhood and adolescence ‘collide with his future’, as the publishers put it. Worth trying but my hopes aren’t particularly high for this one. Irving seems to be much better on home territory than when he ventures overseas.

Moving a little further west, Janice Y. K. Lee’s The Expatriates is set in Hong Kong. It interweaves the experiences of three American women, all living in the same expat community, each dealing with difficult circumstances: Mercy can’t seem to recover from a devastating event in her past; Margaret has suffered a terrible loss and Hilary is desperate to have a child. Each of them struggles to find a way to cope in a world where they find themselves questioning their own identities. I didn’t read Lee’s bestselling The Piano Teacher but this sounds like fertile ground for fiction and well worth a try. Cover image

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Happy Marriage takes us to Morocco for this story of a marriage seen from both parties’ points of view. The husband has been paralysed by a stroke and is convinced that his marriage is to blame, keeping a secret record of its many failures as he sees them. When his wife finds his notebook, she rebuts his version point by point. Always an interesting structure, the novel’s context makes it particularly so set as it is ‘in a society where marriage remains a sacrosanct institution, but where there’s also a growing awareness of women’s rights’ as the publishers put it.

Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina & Fran sees two very different young women meet at a party near their New England art school. Soon they’re bosom buddies, busy slagging off their fellow students while bolstering their own egos until things go horribly wrong and friendship turns to enmity. Student days over, both have to contend with adulthood and all its disappointments. ‘Written with wit and brio, dancing between razor-sharp satire and a tender portrait of unrequited love, Paulina & Fran is a beguiling whirl of a novel from a writer of immense talent’ say the publishers and it does sound appealing.

Cover imageRachel Cantor’s Good on Paper sees a frustrated young woman with a few published short stories under her belt, stuck in the temping world. Her life is about to be transformed when a Nobel Prize winning author offers her the opportunity to translate his book. Unfortunately, as instalments of the manuscript roll in, it seems that the book is untranslatable. ‘A deft, funny, and big-hearted novel about second chances, Good on Paper is a grand novel of family, friendship, and possibility.’ Which sounds like rather a nice way to start off the reading year.

As ever, a click on a title will whisk you off to a more detailed synopsis and if you’d like to catch up with part one of January’s goodies they’re here.