Tag Archives: The High Places

Six Degrees of Separation – from Shopgirl to Shotgun Lovesongs #6Degrees

I’m not one for memes but Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, is one I’ve come to eagerly anticipate on other blogs so I thought I’d stick my toe in the water. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one preceding it.

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This month’s starting point is Steve Martin’s Shopgirl which I’ve not read but the Goodreads synopsis tells me that it’s about a lonely young woman selling expensive evening  gloves in a department store who tries to form a relationship with an ageing rich Lothario while shrugging off the attentions of an awkward slacker. Feelings about the book seem to be mixed but it doesn’t sound like the barrel of laughs one might expect from a novel by a comedian.

Like Steve Martin, David Baddiel is known to many as a comic, a familiar face from the ‘90s BBC comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience. He now channels his writing talent into children’s books but his first novel, Whatever Love Means, which I’ve not read either, was aimed at adults. It’s described by the publisher as ‘part-satire, part-love story, part-whodunnit, and part-meditation on the nature of sex and death’.

Earlier this year Baddiel took part in a documentary about his father’s dementia which leads me to Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a riveting thriller told from the point of view of a demented narrator. McFarlane won the Dylan Thomas Prize for her collection of short stories, The High Places last month. I’m a recent short stories convert and my fourth book is one which played a large part in that conversion

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. draws heavily on her own rackety life: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. This collection drew lots of attention when it was published in 2015 but Berlin, who died in 2004, had been quietly writing since the ‘60s so you could describe her stories as rediscovered classics which leads me to John Williams’ Stoner.

First published in 1965 Stoner became that wonderful thing a word-of-mouth bestseller when it was re-issued a few years ago. It’s a lovely elegiac novel about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life, written in quietly graceful prose. Stoner is an academic, the main protagonist of a campus novel which leads me to Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

Russo’s Hank Devereaux is very different from Williams’ Stoner. Slap in the middle of a mid-life crisis, Hank is also caught up in campus politics, trying to cope with a teenage daughter and juggling a complicated love life. Things go horribly and quite hilariously wrong for Hank – there’s one scene in which had me almost crying with laughter.

Russo is known for his American small town novels, another weakness of mine. One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years with this sort of backdrop is Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, a gorgeous, tender novel about love and friendship, set against in Little Wing, Wisconsin.

So endeth my first but I hope not my last Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from selling gloves in a department store to broken hearts in small town America. I hope I’ve got the hang of it but I’ve a feeling this may get easier with practice. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees.

Paperbacks to Look Out for January 2017: Part Two

Cover imageWith luck you’ll be awash with book tokens by now and if you haven’t managed to spend them all already, here are a few paperbacks worth keeping an eye out for, starting with one I wasn’t at all drawn to when it was first published but I’ve seen so many good reviews I think it’s time to take a look. Beginning in 1968, Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees is set against the backdrop of the Biafran civil war and its fallout. Ijeoma is effectively orphaned after her father is killed and she’s separated from her mother, taking solace in her friendship with Amina, a relationship which will ‘will shake the foundations of Ijeoma’s faith, test her resolve and flood her heart’ according to the publishers.

Hannah Kohler’s debut, The Outside Lands, also has war as its backdrop, this time the Vietnam war. Jeannie and Kip’s mother died when Jeanie was nineteen and Kip fourteen. Jeannie’s marriage takes her into the unfamiliar world of wealth and politics while Kip turns to petty crime, then volunteers for the Marines. Both are caught up in events leaving them ‘driven by disillusionment to commit unforgivable acts of betrayal that will leave permanent scars’ in a ‘story of people caught in the slipstream of history, how we struggle in the face of loss to build our world, and how easily and with sudden violence it can be swept away’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown to me but I’m attracted by the idea of a debut that takes its readers from 1960s California to Vietnam.

Fiona McFarlane’s The High Places is a somewhat uncharacteristic choice for me given that it’s a collection of short stories, few of which are reviewed on this blog, although I have been getting a little better at that recently. It’s made up of thirteen stories written over ten years – eight previously unpublished – and ranges far and wide, both in terms of geography and subject. Some tend towards the slightly surreal while others are more conventional but all are inventive and served up with an appealing wry humour. Those who enjoyed McFarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest, should find lots to enjoy here. Still hoping for a novel, though.

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Ending with a third yet to-be-read book, this time Sunil Yapa’s debut, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, which is set in Seattle against the backdrop of the 1999 World Trade Organization protest. Victor, the estranged son of Seattle’s police chief, finds himself homeless after a family tragedy. On a day that will see the city under siege from protesters, Victor and his father are set on a collision course. This one could go either way but it has an unusual setting and that’s an eye-catching title which you could also say for the cover, I suppose, but not in a good way.

That’s it for January paperbacks. Several treats to help see off the miseries of a UK winter. If you’d like more detail, a click on  The High Places will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other three. If you missed the first part of January’s paperbacks, it’s here, while the hardback previews are here and here.