Tag Archives: The First Thing You See

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of August paperbacks kicks off in New York with a surefire bestseller then wanders into smalltown America before briefly taking off around the world, offering a few more out-of-the-way books to explore. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths takes a crime committed in 1960s New York and fashions it into a novel which I’m pretty sure will turn up on a quite a few beaches this summer. In the heat wave of 1965, Ruth Malone wakes to find both her children are missing. Paying more attention to the wagging tongues keen to emphasise Ruth’s colourful life then they perhaps should, the police jump to conclusions but a tabloid journalist new to the job thinks otherwise. Crime fiction isn’t my usual territory but the setting and premise of this one makes me curious.

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley takes us out of the city and into smalltown America, a favourite setting for me. Looking back on her life spent in Miller’s Valley, the town her family have lived in for generations, Mimi Miller ‘confronts the toxicity of secrets, the dangers of gossip, the flaws of marriage, the risks and inequalities of friendship, loyalty and passion. Home, she acknowledges, is somewhere it’s just as easy to feel lost as contented’ according to the publishers who raise the bar extraordinarily high by comparing the novel with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I’m a Cover imagefan of Quindlen’s fiction so expectations are high, but perhaps not that high.

Gregoire Delacourt’s novels are often written in a delightfully playful style yet deliver acute observations. His last novel, The First Thing You See, took a mischievous swipe at celebrity culture all wrapped up in a sweet love story but We Saw Only Happiness sounds much more sombre. Antoine is determined that his son and daughter will have the perfect childhood, a far cry from his own. He’s convinced he’s found the secret of a happy life but tragic circumstances turn him into someone he no longer recognises. This may not sound a particularly inspiring premise but I’ve enjoyed all the novels by Delacourt I’ve read so far.

Enrique Vila-Matas’ The Illogic of Kassel sounds entirely different. A writer is invited to take part in Documenta, a contemporary art exhibition held in the German town of Kassel every five years. All he has to do is to write every morning in a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of town. ‘Once in Kassel, the writer is surprised to find himself overcome by good cheer. As he strolls through the city, spurred on by his spontaneous, quirky response to art, he begins to make sense of the wonders that surround him’ say the publishers. Paul Auster’s recommendation is the lure for me here.

Cover imageI’m not sure what Auster would think of it but I’ve seen lots of recommendations from bloggers for my final choice. Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos is about five runaways who’ve left their home for the metropolis in search of a better life. They’re a disparate bunch made up of a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. ‘Soon, they will also share a burden none of them expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos’ according to the publishers.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for anything that’s caught your eye. If you’d like to catch up with either August’s new titles or the first batch of paperbacks, they’re here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2016

Cover imageSeveral jewels to look out for in August’s paperback crown, starting with one of the best books I’ve read this year: Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back. It’s the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with her daughter. 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. That may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Lucia Berlin would have been all too familiar with the seamier side of work, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. She died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of her stories which draw heavily on her own life, was published last year to enormous and well deserved acclaim. There’s a striking immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from the graphic, panicky tooth extraction of ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’ to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation in ‘Unmanageable’. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Without wanting to be a proselytising zealot, I’ll just say that this collection played a large part in converting me to the pleasure of reading short stories.

Written in a lighthearted, mischievous style Grégoire Delacourt’s The First Thing You See is Cover imageentirely different but succeeds in delivering quite a punch. When he hears a knock at his door, twenty-year-old Arthur Drefuss hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure as she is on-screen. Of course it’s nor Ms Johansson who, it turns out, didn’t like the idea of this book at all, managing to delay its publication for quite some time. Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness in this fable-like novel which puts our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire in an unflattering spotlight. It’s a little gem.

I’ve yet to get my hands on the following four starting with Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. Anais, the main protagonist of Fagan’s debut, The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with this one which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.

I tend not to be a fan of historical novels, either, but Naomi J. Williams’ debut Landfalls has a very attractive structure. Set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785 on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery returning four years later, it’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay, where tragedy hits, to St Petersburg. It all sounds very ambitious but if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.

The Private Life of Mrs SharmaMy last August choice is here thanks to Naomi’s description of it as ‘as close to perfect as it gets’ over at The Writes of Women. In Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, Renuka keeps the household afloat while her husband works in Dubai. All seems on track for her aspirations to the New Indian Dream until she finds herself chatting to a stranger, wondering if it might not be time to shrug off the calls of duty a little. The publishers describe it as ‘a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity, from a dramatic new voice in Indian fiction’ but you might like to take a look at Naomi’s review.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first three, to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis for the next two and to The Writes of Women for Naomi’s review of the last one. And if you want to catch up with August’s hardback delights they’re here and here.

The First Thing You See: A sweet meditation on the curse of beauty

Cover imageA couple of years ago I picked up Grégoire Delacourt’s The List of My Desires to read on a train on my way to meet a friend. It looked a little fluffy but the synopsis was attractive and I thought it would suit if there were no seats in the quiet carriage. I polished it off between Bath and Birmingham. It had lots to say about sudden wealth and the way in which our fantasies can turn sour once realised unless we treat our good fortune with wisdom, all delivered in a delightfully playful style. Delacourt takes a similar tack with The First Thing You See this time turning his attention to our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire.

Twenty-year-old car mechanic Arthur Drefuss lives alone, spending most evenings quietly watching boxed sets or movies. When he hears a knock on his door he hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure – about which Arthur has a bit of a thing – as she is on screen. She tells him she’s been visiting the Deauville Film Festival. Desperate to escape the glare of the spotlight for a few days, she’s stumbled upon Arthur’s village, hoping to find someone who would take her in. Of course, it’s not Ms Johansson. Jeanine Foucamprez unmasks herself after a day or so and tells Arthur that she’s longed for him since she saw his kindness to a young girl when modelling for a supermarket advertising campaign. These two are wounded souls: Arthur’s family is devastated by the loss of his little sister, his father taking off one day never to be seen again and his mother taking refuge in drink, while Jeanine has been cursed by her beauty since childhood, abused by her stepfather, endlessly slavered over by men and distrusted by women. Over the course of seven days, these two will find a way to love and trust each other, baring their souls and their hearts.

Delacourt uses a lighthearted, mischievous style to deliver quite a punch with his fable-like novel. Jeanine and ‘Ryan-Gosling-only-better-looking’ Arthur are both emotional casualties. She’s a prisoner of the voluptuous beauty which no one seems capable of seeing beyond but has brave hopes for Arthur. Everyone wants her to be their fantasy, sexual, or otherwise, but she longs to be loved for herself. Delacourt’s characterisation is affectionate and funny – PP, Arthur’s boss, likes to look at well-rounded ladies on the internet but is thrilled by the prospect of Arthur finding true love. Both Arthur and Jeanine’s stories are poignantly told but Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness. It’s a powerful message which begins with the novel’s title – a meditation on our obsession with beauty, celebrity and the consequences for those lumbered with one or both, delivered in a deceptively simple package stuffed full of filmic references and peppered with poetic quotations. It’s a little gem and it’s been a long time in the offing in translation. Shortly after I wrote this review the Guardian enlightened me as to just why: Ms Johansson was not amused, apparently.

Books to Look Out For in September 2015: Part 1

Sweet CaressJust back from my Baltic states jaunt – of which more in a few days – and barely unpacked so here’s one I made earlier. September’s traditionally a big month for publishing – Christmas is on the horizon for booksellers even if the rest of us are busy sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring it. Consequently there are some starry names shining out from the schedules but you won’t find all of them here, just the ones that appeal to me.

I’ll kick off with a novel by one of those stars, albeit one I’ve become a bit disenchanted with lately. I was a great fan of William Boyd’s Restless, the first of his novels that could be called a thriller. He’s continued in that vein for the last three or four books but the novelty’s worn off for me; Waiting for Sunrise very nearly put the kybosh on my Boyd fandom. Sweet Caress, however, looks like a welcome return to Any Human Heart territory. It follows the life of Amory Clay  whose Uncle Grenville fills the gap left by her emotionally and physically absent father and who gives her a camera setting her on a path that will take her from snapping socialites in his London studio to Berlin in the ’20s, New York in the ’30s and on to a career as a war photographer. Lovers, husbands and children flesh out a life fully lived, apparently. Sounds like a thoroughly enjoyable return to form to me.

Truth be told I’ve also fallen out of sympathy with Margaret Atwood’s novels over the past few years but I like the look of The Heart Goes Last. It’s about Stan and Charmaine, living in desperate economic straits. An advertisement for the Positron Project, a social experiment offering stable jobs and a home, seems to be the answer. All they have to do is give up their freedom on alternate months, swapping their home for a prison cell. Soon they’re in the Cover imagegrips of an obsession about the couple who live in their house when they’re not there. ‘A sinister, wickedly funny novel about a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free’ according to the publishers.

Published a few years ago, Gregoire Delacourt’s charming The List of My Desires had a super-sweet jacket but a nicely sharp edge. In The First Thing You See young car mechanic Arthur Dreyfuss opens his apartment door one day to find a distressed Hollywood starlet but neither Arthur nor Jeanine Foucamprez, with her fake American accent, are quite what they seem. I’m hoping for some thoughtful insight wrapped up in a nice little story.

This one may seem an obscure choice but Beate Grimsund’s A Fool, Free sounds intriguing. It looks at mental illness through Eli Larsen, a talented and successful author and film-maker who has heard the voices of Espen, Erik, Prince Eugen and Emil in her head since she was a child, but kept them secret. Described as a ‘candid and beautiful novel’, Grimsund’s book won the Norwegian Critics Prize.

Cover imageI’ve enjoyed all five of Tessa Hadley’s novels. She writes the kind of quietly intelligent books packed with shrewd observations that I associate with Carole Shields. In The Past three sisters and a brother share a few hot summer weeks together in their grandparents’ old house which is to be put up for sale. Inevitably all does not run smoothly as past and present tensions take hold. I expect lots of entertaining sniping amongst the reminiscing, and we’re promised ‘an ugly secret in a ruined cottage in the woods’. Sounds excellent.

That’s it for the first batch of September titles – a click on the title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. And if you’re still catching up with August, here are the hardbacks and here are the paperbacks. Part two will be here in a week or so.