Tag Archives: Sam Taylor

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2019: Part One

Cover imageThis June is bursting at the seams with tempting paperbacks – enough to fill two long posts – of which I’ve already read and reviewed several beginning with one of my books of last year, Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall. Longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Moss’ novel is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling. Together with three students and their professor, seventeen-year-old Sylvie and her parents, Bill and Alison, spend the summer living as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the summer landscape. The climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. Still mystified as to why this superb novel didn’t make it on to the Women’s Prize shortlist.

Ghost Wall was one of a succession of novellas that so impressed me in 2019 including Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers which came as no surprise given the excellence of A Meal in Winter. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Written in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion

Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows Captain John Lacroix who has been invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War, exploring themes of war and culpability in a story taut with a thread of suspense. Finding himself unable to return to war, Lacroix travels to Scotland where he is embraced by a utopian community but two men are on his tail, one with a sinister motive. I loved Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second but I’ve found some of his contemporary-set novels disappointing. Having read this new one, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction.

I reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House back in 2014, finding it a little disappointing after very much enjoying her first novel, The Borrower. That said, The Great Believers sounds very appealing. It spans thirty years, beginning in 1985 with Yale Tishman acquiring an extraordinary collection of 1920s artwork for a Chicago gallery. AIDs cuts a swathe through Yale’s life leaving just one person dear to him – his friend’s sister Fiona who, thirty years later, is searching for her estranged daughter in Paris. ‘Yale and Fiona’s stories unfold in incredibly moving and sometimes surprising ways, as both struggle to find goodness in the face of disaster’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.

I’m not so sure about Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success having begun Super Sad True Love Story with high hopes only to give it up but I do like the sound of a road trip through modern America, particularly one that sees a ‘master of the universe’ reduced to travelling on a Greyhound. Barry Cohen is on his way to Texas to meet his old college girlfriend hoping for a second chance having fallen foul of an insider investigation. According to Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go Bernadette, it’s ‘the funniest book you’ll read all year. A rollicking and zinger-filled road trip [that] sneakily deepens into a poignant tale of a man trying to outrace his problems’. We’ll see.

Humour’s also on the agenda in Good Trouble, by the sound of it, a collection of short stories by Joseph O’Neill, author of the much-lauded Neverland. Good Trouble’s characters are brought face to face with both who they are and who they will never be, apparently. ‘Packed with O’Neill’s trademark acerbic humour, Good Trouble explores the maddening and secretly political space between thoughts and deeds’ say the publishers promisingly.

A. M. Homes’ Days of Awe is another collection I’m eager to sample. These thirteen pieces explore ‘our attachments to each other through characters who aren’t quite who they hoped to become, though there is no one else they can be. Her first book since the Women’s Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven, Days of Awe is another visionary, fearless and outrageously funny work from a master storyteller’ say the publishers. Looking forward to this one very much.Cover images

I’m saving what I suspect will be the very best until last with this month’s third short story collection. William Trevor’s Last Stories comprises ten pieces described by the publishers as ‘exquisite, perceptive and profound’ and for once I won’t be arguing with their superlatives. This will undoubtedly be a treat to savour for all who treasure quietly understated, elegantly lyrical prose, and that jacket is lovely.

That’s it for the first part of June’s paperback preview; pretty tempting I hope you’ll agree. Should you want to know more, A click on the first three titles will take you to my review, and to a more detailed synopsis for the other five. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new novels they’re here and here. More paperbacks soon… 

Books of the Year 2018: Part Four

Cover imageOctober and early November were spent reading for my shadow judging stint for the Young Writer of the Year Award, a thoroughly enjoyable experience not least because it meant I met several bloggers who’ve I’ve exchanged views with over the years. The judges plumped for Adam Weymouth’s proper piece of travel writing, Kings of the Yukon but we shadow judges chose Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which, ironically, I hadn’t expected to enjoy as much as I did, not being a fan of historical fiction. It begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail and a pleasing helping of sly wit.

Having proclaimed myself not a fan of historical fiction, I’m about to recommend another tale set round about the time of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Little takes its readers from eighteenth-century Switzerland to Revolutionary France before arriving at its destination in Baker Street. When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who make his living from modelling wax busts. Fleeing the bailiffs, these two take themselves off to France where they become embroiled in the French Revolution. Grudges are borne, scores settled in the worst of ways and when it’s all over Marie is alone. Sharp and resourceful as ever, she finds her own pragmatic way. Marie is an engaging narrator whose story is made all the more enjoyable by Carey’s line drawings. Perfect for curling up with on a winter evening.

Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, October’s last favourite, joins the many superb novellas I’ve read this year which comes as no surprise give the excellence of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter which I read way back in 2013. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Cover imageWritten in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion.

My first November book carries on the theme of war with Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living, which like her last novel, The Gun Room, explores its legacy. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence. Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Written with Harding’s characteristic quiet perceptiveness, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.

Sulaiman Addonia explores the fallout of war from the perspective of those who flee it in Silence is My Mother Tongue. Set in a Sudanese refugee camp, it tells the story of a young Eritrean woman who sacrifices everything for love. Saba is a bright young girl who wanders the camp on her first day looking for the school she’s been promised. As she grows into a beautiful, sensuous young woman, she attracts unwanted male attention but never loses sight of her ambition and her devotion to her mute brother. When a businessman arrives with his son in tow, both the midwife who delivered Saba and her mother see an opportunity. This is such an intensely immersive, moving piece of fiction throughout which so much is left unsaid, so much forbidden. The knowledge of Addonia’s history as a child refugee in a Sudanese camp in flight from Eritrea in the ‘70s makes it all the more powerful.

My last 2018 favourite is a book which I was far from convinced that I would like let alone love. Cover imageRobbie Arnott’s Flames is quite some way out of my usual literary territory, steeped as it is in fantasy and folklore, but I’m delighted that I overcame my prejudice and jumped in. Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead. The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern but her son is determined that his sister will escape the same fate. Arnott’s novel drew me in with its gorgeous writing. It’s one of the most striking pieces of fiction I’ve read this year, a very satisfying book to end on.

And if I had to choose? Usually it’s a toss-up between two or three titles but I can’t seem to narrow it down to that which is indicative of a very good reading year. I hope yours has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three 2018 books of the year posts they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Time to look forward to what’s on offer in January next…

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (transl. Sam Taylor): War and peace

Cover imageI reviewed Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter here quite some time ago now but it’s stayed with me. Its premise is simple – three German Second World War soldiers share a bowl of soup in an abandoned hut and are interrupted by a Polish hunter – but its exploration of the horrors of war is extraordinarily powerful. First published in French in 2003, Four Soldiers explores similar themes this time against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War in 1919.

A company of Red Army soldiers in retreat from the Romanians is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of the soldiers form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, unofficially led by Pavel. Kyabine is the brawn of the group, big strong and obsessed with tobacco. Sifra is quiet and diffident, adept enough to reassemble his rifle blindfolded, but it is to Benia that Pavel turns for consolation each night when his nightmare recurs. With the advent of spring, they’re ordered to burn their hut where they’ve played so many games of dice, gambling away the tobacco which Pavel finds ways of passing back to Kyabine, kissing the watch containing the picture of a woman with which they each takes a turn to sleep. They stumble upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days. A young boy is assigned to the four, at first regarded with suspicion, then enfolded into their friendship. As spring wears on the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace.

A few months ago, I mentioned that I’d been reading more novellas this year, remarking on how powerful they can be: Four Soldiers is a perfect example. Told through Benia’s voice in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly and compassionately captures the comradeship of soldiers who form a deep bond of fellowship, enjoying a brief period of peace while shutting out the inevitability of what lies ahead. His writing is spare, stripped of any ornamentation and all the more evocative for it:

The officers stopped to look behind them, hands shielding their eyes from the sun, as if they’d forgotten something.

 Barely had we finished drinking that tea before we became nostalgic for it.

I was filled with emotion because each one of us was in his place and also because it seemed to me that instant that each of us was away from the winter in the forest. And that each of us was also far away from the war that was going to start up again because the winter was over.

The end is quietly devastating. While I can happily enjoy a well spun, chunky yarn  – Little being a case in point – it’s hard to beat the punch of a carefully honed novella.

Books to Look Out for in October 2018

Cover imageOctober’s the month in which the big literary guns are rolled out in the battle for our Christmas present lists although the publicity campaign for Sarah Perry’s Melmoth has already been in full swing for months. Helen Franklin is hiding from an unforgivable act she committed twenty years ago. Her sheltered life is threatened by the discovery of a manuscript telling a story in which the mythic figure of Melmoth frequently appears, complete with unblinking eyes and bleeding feet. The novel’s described by the publishers as ‘a profound, ambitiously realised work of fiction which asks fundamental questions about guilt, forgiveness, moral reckoning and how we come to terms with our actions in a conflicted world’ and having read it, I’d say they’re right. The Essex Serpent is a hard act to follow but Perry’s more than met expectations with this one.

I finally got around to reading Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. He’s a writer who knows how to spin a good yarn which raises hopes for The House on Vesper Sands. Set in a snowy London in 1893, its sounds like a second pleasing slice of Gothic involving a man whose one-time love is found stretched out in front of an altar, a seamstress with a message stitched into her skin and her employer who disappears into the night, all under the watchful eye of a society columnist keen for a real story.

Eoin McNamee’s The Vogue sounds as if it may also have a foot in Gothic territory or perhaps that’s just the slightly opaque blurb. In 1944, two teenagers silently dance in an aerodrome. She draws the outlines of their footwork in eyebrow pencil; he loses their bet. Decades later, a body is found. ‘Set against an eerie landscape, awash with secrets, The Vogue is a grimly poetic dance through the intertwined stories of a deeply religious community, an abandoned military base, and a long-shuttered children’s Care Home’ say the publishers promisingly.Cover image

Season Butler’s Cygnet sees a young girl, stranded on an island seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.

Something that could also be said Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered which intertwines the stories of Willa Knox who is grappling with a host of domestic problems in 2016, and schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood whose ambitions to teach Darwinism in 1871 are met with obdurate opposition in the town. ‘A testament to both the resilience and persistent myopia of the human condition, Unsheltered explores the foundations we build in life, spanning time and place to give us all a clearer look at those around us, and perhaps ourselves’ say the publishers, rather ambitiously comparing it with George Eliot’s work. I prefer Kingsolver’s earlier fiction to her more recent novels.

I’m much more confident about Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, described by Hilary Mantel as ‘a small miracle’. The titular soldiers set up camp in a forest close to the Romanian frontline of the Russian Civil War in the winter of 1919. They fill a lull in the fighting, trying to forget the horrors they’ve seen, enjoying a brief freedom and the beauty of their surroundings. ‘Tightly focused and simply told, this is a story of friendship and the fragments of happiness that can illuminate the darkness of war’ say the publishers. The spare prose of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter made a lasting impression on me when I read it five years ago

Cover image Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore sounds wacky enough to please even the most ardent fan. A portrait painter discovers a strange painting in the attic of a famous artist, opening a Pandora’s box in the process. To close it he must do all manner of things involving ‘a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.  A tour de force of love and loneliness, war and art – as well as a loving homage to The Great GatsbyKilling Commendatore is a stunning work of imagination from one of our greatest writers’ say the publishers. Can’t wait.

That’s it for October’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…

Books to Look Out For in November 2015: Part 2

Cover imageThe second instalment of November goodies begins with a debut – Sloane Crosley’s The Clasp – although you may already know her from the delightfully named set of essays I Was Told There’d be Cake. Crosley’s novel follows a set of college friends as they make their way in the big wide world of jobs, romantic entanglements and friendships. This structure is catnip for me as regular visitors to this blog may have already noticed. Michael Chabon likes it too, apparently

Lorna Gibb’s A Ghost’s Story is just the sort of title publishers bring out for Christmas. Often they’re to be avoided like the plague but Gibb’s novel sounds intriguing. The Katie King spirit was famous in the 19th and 20th centuries for her appearances at séances and this is her fictionalised autobiography, ‘an examination of belief and a spectacular insight into what lies on the other side’, apparently. It’s also the story of a scholar who attempts to understand the Katie phenomenon. If Gibb manages to pull it off this could be a wonderfully original novel. We’ll see.Cover image

In Karine Tuil’s The Age of Reinvention successful Manhattan attorney Sam Tahar has built his life on a lie. The son of a Tunisian living in Paris, Tahar threw off his impoverished background making friends with a Jewish student at law school until they both conceived a passion for the same woman. When Nina chose Samuel, Tahar took off for America assuming Samuel’s identity. Many years later the three meet again with disastrous consequences. Tuil’s novel was a Prix Goncourt finalist and sounds well worth a look.

Set in Copenhagen just before the 2008 crash Martin Kongstad’s Am I Cold follows food critic Mikkel Vallin. Divorced, deserted by his girlfriend, sacked and unhappily middle-aged, he’s sworn off fidelity and his new girlfriend agrees. All seems fine and dandy until Vallin thinks he may be falling in love. Kongstad’s ‘debut turns the last, glorious, debauched days of pre-crash decadence into a wild satire of modern life’ Cover imagesay his publishers and if it lives up to that billing it could be very entertaining.

Having said so many times that I’m not a short story fan, here I am again including another set. This one’s from Shena Mackay many of whose novels I’ve enjoyed, particularly The Orchard on Fire which was shortlisted for the Booker way back in 1996. Her settings are often suburban, sometimes surreal and she has a fine line in dark humour all of which makes this collection something to look forward to.

That’s it for November hardbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more substantial synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here.