Tag Archives: Rupert Thomson

Books to Look Out for in June 2018: Part Two

Cover imageWhereas there was no contest for my first June selection’s lead title, two novels jostle for that position in the second. Tim Winton wins by a whisker with The Shepherd’s Hut. Jaxie Clackton has long since put home behind him when a dramatic event leaves him with nothing, catapulting him into a journey across the arid Western Australian wilderness. ‘Fierce and lyrical, The Shepherd’s Hut is a story of survival, solitude and unlikely friendship. Most of all it is about what it takes to keep hope alive in a parched and brutal world’ say the publishers. A new book from Winton is always something to look forward to for me.

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City met with tidal waves of critical acclaim in 2016 and deservedly so. Crudo is her much-tweeted-about first novel. Just turned forty, Kathy is coming to terms with the idea of a lifelong commitment against a backdrop of mad Trump tweets and post-referendum Britain, wondering if it’s worth the effort. ‘A Goodbye to Berlin for the 21st century, Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic peripatetic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker . . .’ say the publishers somewhat intriguingly given that Acker died in 1997.Cover image

The protagonist of Caoilinn Hughes’ debut Orchid and the Wasp also seems to be dealing with personal and global crises. The daughter of a wealthy dysfunctional family, Gael is finding her way around the London club scene and New York’s art world as the Occupy movement gains momentum. ‘Written in heart-stoppingly vivid prose, Orchid & the Wasp is a modern-day Bildungsroman that chews through sexuality, class and contemporary politics and crackles with joyful fury and anarchic gall’ say the publishers which sounds a little frenetic. Hughes is an award-winning poet which is always a lure for me.

Winding back to the scorching Los Angeles summer of 1965, A. G. Lombardo’s Graffiti Palace follows African-American graffiti artist Americo Monk as he tries to make his way home through the race riots sparked by the arrest of Marquette Frye. Monk maps his route using the intricately depicted identity tags on the streets, recorded in a notebook that both cops and gangs are eager to get their hands on. ‘Bursting at the seams with memorable characters – including Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, sewer-dwelling crack dealers and a legendary Mexican graffiti artist no-one’s even sure exists – Graffiti Palace conjures into being a fantastical, living, breathing portrait of Los Angeles in 1965’ say the publishers a little dramatically but perhaps justifiably so.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this selection of June titles as it began with another author whose books I’ve enjoyed. Rupert Thomson’s Never Anyone but You is based on the true story of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore who meet and fall in love in early twentieth-century small town France. Moving to Paris, they immerse themselves in the world of Hemingway and Dali, producing a series of avant-garde photographs. On the eve of war, they flee to Jersey where their anti-Nazi propaganda puts their lives in danger. ‘Never Anyone but You explores the gripping true story of two extraordinary women who challenged gender boundaries, redefining what it means to be a woman, and ultimately risked their lives in the fight against oppression. Theirs is a story that has been hidden in the margins of history’ according to the publishers which sounds fascinating.

That’s it for June’s new titles. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more and if you missed the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

 

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.

Katherine Carlyle: A sense of belonging

Cover imageI’ve admired Rupert Thomson’s work for some time. His novels are never predictable, always exploring unexpected terrain from the advertising world, satirized in Soft!, to the Medici court in Secrecy‘s seventeenth century Florence. The last one’s my particular favourite. Famously, Davie Bowie’s is The Insult which appeared as one of his 100 Must-Read Books of All Time. I’m sure Bowie didn’t come up with that tag which sounds straight out of Soft! to me. The ones I’ve read all have an element of suspense but they’re very much more than thrillers. What kept me on edge in this new novel was the fate of the eponymous Katherine who seems to put herself in ever increasing danger.

Nineteen-year-old Katherine was what used to be called by the tabloids a test tube baby. Conceived using IVF, her embryo was implanted into her mother eight years after its conception. Her mother died when Katherine was sixteen from a cancer Katherine has convinced herself was the result of her own implantation. Her father is a journalist at CNN. Rarely at home in Rome where they settled when Katherine’s mother was still alive, he’s more often to be found in the Middle East reporting on the latest conflict. Katherine has won a scholarship to Oxford but in the September before she’s due to go she decides to disappear. Overhearing a conversation in a cinema about a man in Berlin she convinces herself it’s a message to her and takes herself off there. So begins a series of adventures in which Katherine will meet several older men while travelling from Rome to Archangel then on up into the Arctic Circle where she finds a kind of peace, far away from anyone she knows and anyone who knows her. Throughout her odyssey she fantasizes that her father is looking for her, alerted to her disappearance by the rendezvous she’s set up for them in Berlin – which she knows that she will not make – hoping to snare the attention she craves from him and dangerously courts with other men.

Thomson’s writing is often very striking. The Prologue in which Katherine recounts her own in vitro conception is extraordinarily vivid. Later, ‘His eyes are damp too. When he looks at me they seem to leave a deposit, as snails do’ describes a masculine leer perfectly while the image of the September sun in Rome ‘richer, more tender, the colour of old wedding rings’ was a gorgeous thing to read on a dank November day. Thomson is equally vivid in his exploration of the effects of Katherine’s origins. She often feels watched, as if the other embryos implanted with her accompany her on her journey. At times she feels emotionally absent ‘Sometimes I suspect I haven’t quite thawed out yet.’ Her meetings with increasingly shady men seem part of the process of making herself feel alive. Her guilt about her own survival and her mother’s death are made all the more poignant by her vibrant memories of her mother while her elaborate fantasies of her father’s pursuit convey an aching need for his attention. Wittingly or unwittingly, Katherine has left a trail of clues for anyone determined enough to find her. It’s a clever piece of work, and a fascinating theme to explore – one which is not so very far from home for Thomson as this interview reveals.

Books to Look Out For in November 2015: Part 1

Cover imageWell, knock me down with a feather! I would never have expected to be posting a two-part November hardback preview. Often it’s a rather dull publishing month but here it is: part one of two starting off with a new Jonathan Coe. I’m treating this one with caution as after many years of Coe fandom I’ve gone off the boil with his last few novels although Number 11 apparently features members of the loathsome Winshaw family, characters from the wonderful What a Carve Up!, in what sounds like a lacerating satire on the state of the nation ‘where bankers need cinemas in their basements and others need food banks down the street’. Sounds very promising.

Rupert Thomson’s inventive fiction wanders about all over the place which is part of its charm for me. His last novel, the excellent Secrecy, was set in seventeenth-century Florence but Katherine Carlyle jumps forward four centuries to the twenty-first. The product of an IVF embryo, frozen then implanted into her mother’s womb eight years later, nineteen-year-old Katherine decides to disappear after her mother dies from cancer and her father becomes increasingly distant. A ’profound and moving novel about where we come from, what we make of ourselves, and how we are loved’ say its publishersCover image.

Despite frequently proclaiming that I’m not a short story fan I’ve reviewed several collections here this year and am about to recommend another short story writer – Helen Simpson whose smart, witty collection of linked stories Hey Yeah Right Get a Life had me hooked. The link for Cockfosters is Tube stations which should appeal to London commuters and seems tailor-made for a Transport for London advertising campaign although it does venture outside of the confines of the metropolis, apparently. She’s very funny – sharply observant of human foibles but compassionate with it

cover imageMy last choice for this first batch is Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better, two novellas published in one volume. In one a twenty-four-year-old woman changes her life entirely after a man returns the bag she thought she’d lost and in the other, dinner with a neighbour spurs on an unhappy young man to start afresh. I loved Breaking Away with its bright red 2CV adorning the jacket. We used to own one just like it before seeing a distressing number with engines smoking or, once, in flames.

That’s it for the first batch of November titles. You may have noticed a common thread running through this selection, all by authors of books I’ve already read. All but one of the next lot will be entirely new to me. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis, and if you want to catch up with either October’s hardbacks or paperbacks they’re here and here.