Philppe Claudel

Paperbacks to Look Out For in May 2015

UsI tend to read what’s often described as literary rather than commercial fiction – I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the difference is although I know it when I see it – but, for me, David Nicolls is king of the commercial fiction castle which is why Us is top of my May paperback list. I’m sure Nicholls must have felt under pressure after the phenomenally successful One Day but he seems to have risen to the challenge with a novel which explores how a long marriage survives. Douglas is a little discombobulated when Connie announces she’s leaving him, insisting that they take his long-planned European Grand Tour in the hope that it will keep them together. I do hope that Hollywood will keep its mitts of this one.

The title of Michel Guenassia’s The Incorrigible Optimists Club is enough to make me want to read it but I like the sound of the structure, too. Set in Paris in 1959, it follows twelve-year-old Michel as he eavesdrops on a group of Eastern European men who play chess and tell their stories of life before they came to France. I’ve been warned that it’s a bit of a door-stopper but it sounds right up my alley.

Robin Black’s Life Drawing is one of the two books in this round-up I’ve reviewed. There’s a nice little edge of suspense running through this story about an artist and her writer husband, not least because we know right from the start that he has died and that his death wasn’t a natural one. Taut and claustrophobic, it reminded me a little of Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me.

The other is Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes which I rated enough to include in both my books of last year and my wish list for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. Based on a true story – the sinking of the Nella Dan – it’s about the deep bond that forms between a young Tasmanian girl and the Danish sailor who lodges with them in between supply trips to the Antarctic aboard the Nella Dan. It’s an absorbing story but what struck me about the book was the beauty of Parett’s writing. Gorgeous descriptive prose.

Finally, Philippe Claudel’s debut Grey Souls is being reissued and if you missed it the first Grey soulstime around please do keep your eyes peeled for it. Three mysterious deaths in an isolated French village during the First World War still haunt the local policeman twenty years later: the new schoolmistress killed herself; a ten-year-old girl was found strangled; and the policeman’s wife died alone in labour while her husband was hunting the girl’s murderer. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in. He’s a very fine film maker, too.

That’s it for May paperbacks a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis of anything I haven’t reviewed and if you’d like to catch up with my hardback choices they’re here.

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?

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