Tag Archives: The Following Girls

Happy Little Bluebirds by Louise Levene: A Hollywood romp

Cover imageI reviewed Louise Levene’s The Following Girls here just over four years ago. I loved it – a pitch-perfect satire on ‘70s schoolgirl life whose period detail rang more than a few bells for me. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of that detail in Happy Little Bluebirds, set in Hollywood just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, but the humour undercut with a serious edge makes her new novel equally enjoyable. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off to Bermuda.

Evelyn has a facility for languages. She’s fluent in nine of them including Esperanto. Married to the dour Silas, she’s now a war widow but still lives with her sister-in-law in their mother-in-law’s Woking house. When she’s presented with an assignment helping to keep an eye on the Hungarian film director keen to persuade America into the war, she’s not entirely sure what she’s supposed to do. Off she goes in her drab but serviceable British clothes, only to find that her British contact has disappeared. She catches the Super Chief from New York to Los Angeles, stopping for a makeover in Chicago and seeing spies at every turn. Once in Hollywood, she’s welcomed with open arms by some, sharp-tongued sarcasm by others. Soon she’s caught up in a round of parties, finally meeting Zandor Kiss who has an adaptation of The War of the Worlds in his sights. Kiss’ enthusiasm is welcome but needs to be curbed for the Foreign Relations Committee, keen to keep America out of the war. The once-dowdy Evelyn is settled into her new glamorous life, still somewhat puzzled as to what her job is and wary of watching eyes, when she receives news from home which to others might seem welcome but to her is not.

Happy Little Bluebirds is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through a Hollywood for whom the war is just so much background noise. Letters from her sister-in-law remind Evelyn of the sober events at home but, serious and dutiful as she is, she finds it impossible to resist the delights of California once over the culture shock, not least the matinée idols. Levine has a great deal of fun with the movie industry, mocking the extravagance of the moguls while showing solidarity with the poor put upon writers. The adaptation plans for War of the Worlds are a particular delight and the novel is stuffed full sharp one-liners:

Silas hadn’t cared for it and said so repeatedly while he cleared his plate

 He looked faintly unreal; too smart, too handsome for everyday use

 She’s filled the blasted swimming pool with gardenias again

As with all the best satire, there are serious points to be made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are slipped into the narrative. Altogether a thoroughly entertaining novel and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood. Dentists, a constant motif throughout the novel, finally come into their own.

Books to Look Out for in May 2018: Part Two

Cover imageMore than once I’ve proclaimed myself not to be a thriller fan on this blog, usually before going on to review one, so it may seem surprising that several of the books in the second part of May’s preview appear to have a definite thread of suspense running through them beginning with Rachel Edwards’ Darling which has cropped up frequently recently in my neck of the Twitter woods. It seems to be a spin on the old stepmother/daughter trope. Lola is unwilling to have much to do with her new stepmother who’s only been with her father for three months. Darling’s not so fond of Lola either but she is of her dad and so has to put up with his teenage daughter. Lola, it seems, has other plans. That may sound a little hackneyed but what spices this premise up a little is that Lola is white and Darling is black.

The synopsis for Melanie Finn’s The Underneath reminds me a little of Elizabeth Brundage’s All Things Cease to Appear which I enjoyed very much. A journalist and her children are left in their rented Vermont farmhouse when her husband is called away. Kay becomes convinced that something dreadful has happened in the house and enlists the help of a local man who is wrestling with his own demons just as she is with hers. ‘The Underneath is a tense, intelligent, beautifully written thriller which is also a considered exploration of violence, both personal and national, and whether it can ever be justified’ say the publishers.Cover image

Louise Levene’s Happy Little Bluebirds is set in 1940s Hollywood with recently widowed Evelyn, fresh from her mundane life in Woking. Evelyn is to help persuade an Anglo-Hungarian producer to create war propaganda but when she arrives she finds her contact has been called to Bermuda leaving her to fend for herself. ‘Happy Little Bluebirds has all the allure, glamour and intrigue of a golden age Hollywood film. Packed with meticulous historical research which is handled with a light, deft touch, Louise Levene brings her acerbic, whip-smart wit to a glittering period in recent history’ says the publishers which sounds great and I enjoyed Levene’s debut, The Following Girls, very much.

Alison Moore has quietly gained a growing following for her atmospheric novels. Her new one, Missing, is set in the Scottish Borders to where Jessie Noon has moved. Her husband walked out a year ago and she hasn’t seen her son for years, leaving her free to begin a relationship with a local man until she begins to receive messages. ‘This is a novel about communication and miscommunication and lives hanging in the balance (a child going missing, a boy in a coma, an unborn baby), occupying the fine line between life and death, between existing and not existing’ say the publishers which seems like an awful lot going on but Moore’s writing makes it well worth investigating.

Cover imageRounding off May’s new title preview is Janice Pariat’s The Nine-Chambered-Heart which sounds more like a collection of linked short stories but is billed as a novel. Nine characters tell the story of one woman’s life from their own points of view, ranging from her art teacher to the female student who comes to love her. That’s a catnip structure for me but what seals the deal is the blurb’s description of ‘gem-like chapters’ in ‘deeply intimate, luminous and fine-boned novel that explores the nature of intimacy and how each connection you make forms who you are’.

A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that take your fancy and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2015: Part 2

Cover imageMy second April paperback selection begins with a book whose jacket which will either charm you or make you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a Barbie nightmare. You might also be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing new or original to say about the Kennedy assassination but having already read and enjoyed Nicole Mary Kelby’s The Pink Suit in its more restrained hardback incarnation, I’m happy to recommend it. By telling her fictionalised story of the infamous suit through Kate, a back room girl at Chez Ninon, Kelby niftily avoids the well-trodden Kennedy path with its apparently endless power to fascinate.

Louise Levene’s The Following Girls is a satire on  schoolgirl life in the 1970s, stuffed full of pitch-perfect period detail. It’s a novel which will have women of a certain age and education both squirming and cackling in recognition. Levene’s sharpest skill is her ability to signal the pain beneath her narrator’s witty rejoinders.  I’m already looking forward to rereading this one.

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists was one of those novels that caught the affections of many readers including me. His second, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, begins in a Welsh bookshop run by Tooly Zylberberg who finds a message on her Facebook page – her father is in trouble, can she come and help? As far as Tooly’s concerned she hasn’t seen her father since she was eleven, abducted in Bangkok by a women called Sarah who promptly disappeared leaving her with Humphrey, the Russian chess-playing bibliophile who brought her up – and it’s Humphrey who’s in trouble. Rachman’s second novel is as absorbing and entertaining as his first.Cover image

Joseph O’Neill made a similar splash with his first novel, Netherland. HarperCollins must have hardly believed their luck when Barack Obama announced he was taking it on holiday with him. The Dog didn’t meet with quite the same brouhaha but I still plan to read it. Needing a fresh start, a New York attorney accepts his old friend’s offer of a job in Dubai but begins to wonder if it’s quite the gift horse he’d thought.

Edan Lepucki’s California also had a little celebrity stardust sprinkled on it when US comedian Stephen Colbert suggested his viewers buy it from their local indie during the Hatchette/Amazon debacle. Set in the near future, it’s one of those post-apocalyptic novels that have sprung up since 2008 in which Cal and Frida have fled a ruined Los Angeles when they find that Frida is pregnant. They’re faced with a choice – fend for themselves or seek out the help of a paranoid community which may not be worthy of their trust. I’m not usually a fan of this kind of novel but there’s something about the synopsis that attracts me.

Cover imageI’ve been looking forward to Tim Winton’s Eyrie for some time. I first came across Winton through Cloudstreet, an odd, vaguely mystical novel about a family living in a ramshackle house in the ’30s – hard to characterise but this Time Out quote may give you an idea: ‘Imagine Neighbours being taken over by the writing team of John Steinbeck and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and you’ll be close to the heart of Winton’s impressive tale’. In Eyrie, Tom Keely, living in self-imposed isolation in a high-rise, allows his solitude to be penetrated by a woman he once knew leading him into a dangerous, destructive world

That’s it for April paperbacks. If you missed the first part but would like to catch up here it is, and if you’d like to check out my hardback choices they’re here.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 1

It’s that time of the year again – best of this and that all over the place. When I did this last year I’d only been blogging for a few months and, foolishly, thought I’d restrict myself to a top six. It didn’t work and the so-called six spilled over into just under twenty so this year I’m spreading things out a bit starting at the beginning of my reading year which got off to a stonking start.

Paperback cover imageBy January 8th I’d already got one very fine read notched up: Michèle Forbes’ exquisitely written debut, Ghost Moth. Set in Northern Ireland, it opens in 1969 and is the story of a marriage told in alternating narratives, twenty years apart. The following week it was Fiona Macfarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest, which opens dramatically with a tiger stalking the Australian beachside house where Ruth lives. Ruth as we soon realise, is demented – a theme which seemed hard to avoid in 2014’s fiction but with its subtle incremental use of suspense McFarlane’s novel stands out for me as one of the better ways of exploring it, and clearly the Guardian First Book Award judges agreed. Unsurprisingly given its centenary year, the First World War provided the backdrop for a plethora of novels from which Helen Dunmore’s The Lie stood out for me. Dunmore, as regular readers may have noticed given that I regularly bang on about her, is one of my favourite writers, sadly underrated. Still in January, Katherine Grant’s Sedition was a treat: a bawdy, rollicking tale, set in 1794 about the subversion of male authority. It’s a hugely enjoyable novel, liberally laced with a ribald, salacious wit underpinned with sufficient sobriety to save it from caricature.

Four picks already, and I’ve only just reached February – a short month and not usually aCover image very exciting one in the publishing schedules or the UK winter, come to that. Louise Levine’s The Following Girls cheered me up with its pitch-perfect satire on adolescent schoolgirl life in the 1970s, replete with period detail and smartarse one-liners but with a nicely honed dark edge. Hélène Gestern’s beautifully constructed The People in the Photo also took me back to the ‘70s with its newspaper cutting from which two people try to trace their history. In this detective story without a detective, Gestern painstakingly leads her readers down a few blind alleys pulling at our heartstrings until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are pieced together. Finally, at least for this post, but still in February the wonderfully imaginative Helen Oyeyemi gave us Boy, Snow, Bird, a fabulous tale of race and identity with a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.

That’s my first seven picks of 2014. I’ve come up with twenty-one in all so two more posts in the offing, although it’s only early December: still time for additions.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant: Familar territory for some of us

Cover imageThere’s a very clear, concise disclaimer at the beginning of Linda Grant’s new novel – ‘This novel is inspired by a particular time in my own life, but the characters and the events are the product of my imagination.’ Whether under instructions from the legal department or because of her own concerns she reiterates it in the acknowledgements at the back of the book, and I’m not surprised. It’s a novel about a particular generation, my own, and many of her characters are all too recognisable. This is the second novel in which Grant puts the baby-boomers under the microscope. The first, the hugely enjoyable We Had it So Good, is about the first wave who matured in the 1960s rather than us tail-enders. Upstairs at the Party has some familiar Grant hallmarks – young Jewish girl rebelling against her mother, a much loved uncle figure, an attention to clothes – and is also a thoroughly absorbing, if darker, read. Hard to untangle my own enjoyment from nostalgia but if you’ve liked Grant’s other novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.

Narrated by Adele Ginsberg, it begins with her chequered history. Adele is the spoiled daughter of an exuberant charmer who robbed, conned and embezzled to give her everything she wanted and a mother who looks grimly on while finding solace in her friends, united in their stoic acceptance of their men and all their faults. When one of his schemes backfires, her father hangs himself and Adele’s life changes: no more promise of a glittering future. Then she hatches a scheme worthy of her father – she and her mother send a copy of her prize-winning poem to every Ginsberg they know, including Allen from whom she receives a postcard addressing her as ‘cousin’. She sends a copy to a northern university (Grant went to York – see what I mean about the legal department) in the hope that they will ignore her dodgy A-Levels and admit her, which they do. Cue snort from H, my very own in-house academic – but this was the ’70s. Set in what might as well be the middle of nowhere, the university leaves its students to their own devices – none of this loco in parentis stuff as Adele discovers later. Soon a group of friends forms: Gillian, the innocent ripe for radicalisation; Dora, the fiercely idealistic Marxist bent on revolution; Rose, quietly well-connected but determinedly socialist; Bobby, gay and equally determinedly decadent; while Adele remains the enigmatic outsider – a little hard-nosed – who never reveals her own past. Early on she encounters the androgynous Evie/Stevie and becomes fascinated with the ethereally beautiful Evie apparently in thrall to her dominating male counterpart who has an opinion on everything. What lies behind the pivotal event that takes place at Adele’s twentieth birthday party and the mystery of Evie/Stevie is finally unravelled forty years later when their relationship is revealed as very much more complex than it first appeared.

The structure of Grant’s novel is one which I find perennially appealing – a group of young people form intense friendships then we follow them through their lives into adulthood as they deal with vicissitudes of life. Meg Wolitzer did this beautifully last year in The Interestings. Here, Adele and her fascination with Evie is the constant while other characters flit in and out of her life. Towards the end, the surviving members of her group are brought together satisfyingly at a university reunion although Brian seemed a little out of place to me, perhaps brought into make a few points. The characterisation is spot on – readers of a certain age are likely to find themselves both smiling and cringing in recognition – and there’s a nicely wry wit running through it all. As she did in We Had it So Good, Grant has things to say about the boomers and takes the odd swipe at modern life too. It’s a very satisfying read – I wonder what she’ll have in her sights next.

This isn’t the first  novel which made me come over all nostalgic this year. Louise Levene’s excellent The Following Girls took me back to my school days in February. Are there any novels that resonated with your own childhood or youth recently, and if so, would you like to share them with me?

The Following Girls by Louise Levene: A pitch perfect ’70s satire

The Following GirlsI’m pleased to report that my reading mojo is well and truly back: first, Never Mind Miss Fox then The Following Girls dipping into Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea in between. Indeed, Louise Levene’s new novel was such an unadulterated treat that it’s hard not to gush about it. Set in the ‘70s it’s a sharp, very funny satire on adolescent schoolgirl life and like all good satire it has a dark edge to it.

The novel opens with Amanda Baker, one of the Four Mandies – aka Baker, Bunty, Stottie and Queenie – enjoying a crafty fag while scrutinising the graffiti adorning the toilet wall of the private girls’ school she attends. The Mandies are the bad girls of the fifth form, skiving sports in favour of bitching about their teachers, thumbing The Sensuous Female and expressing their exasperation at the seemingly ever-present Julia, the supposedly sporty prefect who does, indeed, turn out to be Baker’s nemesis. Chief rebel, Baker is the daughter of a mother who left when she was three, destined for the Bahamas, and a miserable father who has somehow persuaded Spam, as Baker christens her stepmother, to be his domestic skivvy despite her full-time job which may well be the equal of his.

The Following Girls is stuffed full of pitch-perfect period detail: ‘It was always busy in Mrs Baker’s kitchen, even when there was no one in it’ describes to a T the clashing horror of patterns that was the ‘70s. There are references which will have women of a certain age and education both squirming and cackling in recognition – remember uniform inspection, kneeling on the floor to ensure that the hem of your skirt was only an inch above it? Baker fires acerbic one-liners like scatter shot but beneath her smartarse exterior lies a slurry of adolescent insecurity exacerbated by her carping, moaning father and her well-meaning but emotionally awkward stepmother. It’s a very funny novel which had me smirking like a teenager for much of it – the teachers’ internal monologues are a particular joy – but Levene’s sharpest skill is her ability to signal the pain beneath Baker’s witty rejoinders. I’m already looking forward to rereading it.

There, not too gushy I hope. Have you read anything that has taken you back to your adolescence, painful or otherwise? May have to show your age, I’m afraid, but don’t let that stop you.