Tag Archives: The Ladies of the House

Paperbacks to Look Out For in March 2016

Cover imageNot nearly so many paperbacks to look forward to for me in March as there were in February, and four of them I’ve already read and reviewed. Two of those popped up on my 2015 Books of the Year posts, the first of which tied with four others at the top of the tree. Sarah Leipciger’s superb The Mountain Can Wait is the sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I read last year.

Entirely different, Molly McGrann’s The Ladies of the House also made it on to my 2015 list. It begins with a middle-aged woman, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. She’s never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise. McGrann combines a sharp eye for characterisation with wry humour and some arrestingly vivid descriptions in this entertaining piece of storytelling. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through it and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.

If you’ve been following Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy you’ll no doubt be Cover imagedelighted to hear that the final part will soon be in paperback. Beginning with a reunion Golden Age picks up where Early Warning left off taking the Langdons from 1987 into the twenty-first century. As the novel progresses, the next generation moves seamlessly into the spotlight before focussing on their own children. The trilogy comes to a close with two events, both of which will draw the family together again in a world very different from the one in which it opened. Undoubtedly Smiley’s literary legacy, all three novels are assured, thought-provoking, magisterial and damn fine stories. You could read Golden Age as a standalone novel but I can’t imagine why you’d want to deprive yourself of the first two.

Polly Samson’s The Kindness opens at roughly the same time as Golden Age, with Julia meeting Julian. She’s flying her husband’s Harris hawk and he – struggling up the hill and struck by her beauty – falls instantly for her. Soon the two are besotted but eight years later a grief-stricken Julian is looking back at his life with Julia. A thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing read, Samson’s novel is a triumph of clever plotting. Several times throughout her narrative I congratulated myself on realising what the promised ‘explosive secret’ was only to have the carpet pulled from beneath my feet.

Cover imageJust one that I haven’t read: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper was much talked about last year when it came out in hardback. In it a married couple who share a love of birds move from America to Switzerland. ‘The Wallcreeper is nothing more than a portrait of marriage, complete with all its requisite highs and lows: drugs, dubstep, small chores, anal sex, eco-terrorism, birding, breeding and feeding’ say the publishers while Zink, herself, describes it as ‘a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code’. I’m cautiously intrigued.

That’s it for March. A click on a title will take you to my review for the titles I’ve read and Waterstones website for The Wallcreeper. If you’d like to catch up with my hardback preview it’s here.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 1

Last year I was off the blocks at the very beginning of December with my books of the year posts, barely waiting for the starter’s pistol. This year I’ve managed to restrain myself but I’m still incapable of cutting the number of favourites back to a sensible figure. Consequently I’ll be spreading my choices over four posts, picking them out month by month. Just as it did in 2014, my reading year got off to a very satisfying start, although a little more evenly spread this time. Last year’s first books of the year post saw seven titles crammed into two months; this one has six spread over three.

Cover imageIt begins with Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a smart little piece of meta-fiction which found its way on to the Folio Prize short list the month after I read it. Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was much talked about on publication – 10:04 is his second and it’s narrated by a writer whose first novel was much talked about on publication. He’s having trouble writing his second for which he’s got a stonking six-figure advance. Half-way through we learn that the narrator’s name is Ben. Your literary pretentiousness alarm may well be ringing loudly but Lerner’s novel is well worth your time: absorbing, amusing and very clever.

Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree is a much more straightforward kettle of fish: Girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. This kind of structure’s catnip for me – lots of lovely space for character development. Funny and a little eccentric, Woof’s book reminded me of the early Kate Atkinson novels while that structure has a touch of David Nicholls with a hefty dash of sassy wit and political savvy. I’d not got on with Woof’s debut, The Whole Wide Beauty, but this one hit the spot – so much so that I included it in my Baileys Prize wishlist although the judges disagreed.

They didn’t agree with me about my first February choice either even though Lucy Wood’sCover image Weathering is a striking novel right from the get-go. Its synopsis sounds prosaic enough – single mother returns to the village she left years ago, determined to renovate the dilapidated home she’s inherited from her mother, sell up and leave – but what makes Weathering an unalloyed treat is Wood’s gorgeous word pictures and sharp characterisation all wrapped up in an engrossing story.

February also saw the publication of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Most weeks, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays, Fuller posts a hundred words inspired by a photograph. Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, they’re always inventive. She has a knack of making you look at the world in a slightly different way. No surprise, then, that her debut was on my reading list. It’s the story of Peggy whose survivalist father takes his eight-year-old daughter to the Bavarian forest in 1976 where they stay for the next nine years. True to form, it begins with a photograph as the seventeen-year-old Peggy looks back at that summer. Yet another of my Baileys wishes which failed to come true but Fuller’s wonderfully inventive debut did catch the eye of the Desmond Elliot Prize judges and went on to win it.

Two very different novels for March beginning with my first in translation for this year, Signs Preceding the End of the World. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Yuri Herrera tells the story of Makina’s journey from one world to another, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground. The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid. Herrera – and Lisa Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving his readers pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.Cover image

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed my tendency to bang on about jackets and their importance in snagging readers’ attention. This particular jacket fits its book like a glove. Molly Mc Grann’s The Ladies of the House begins with a middle-aged woman, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. She’s never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through this entertaining piece of storytelling and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.

That’s it for the first quarter of 2015. A click on a title will take you to my review. More very shortly, when it’s the turn of the Man Booker judges to let me down not once but three times…

The Ladies of the House: A book that perfectly fits its cover

cover imageRegular visitors to this blog may have noticed my tendency to bang on about jackets and how they so often do not fit the book in question. It’s long been a bugbear of mine. If the jacket’s eye-catching, attractive and reflects the book’s contents chances are the readers it’s aimed at will pick it up. Get the jacket wrong and you do both readers and writer a disservice. This particular jacket, however, fits its book like a glove. The Ladies of the House begins with a middle-aged women, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. Marie has never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise.

Marie lives with her Italian mother in Kettering. Every day she sets off for her job at the Linen Cupboard, returning in the evening to a beautifully cooked supper and a meticulously tidied house. Every day when she’s out, her mother gently rifles through her belongings, wondering why Marie has such a plethora of expensive face creams, putting everything back precisely in order. Marie rarely saw her father who spent his working week in London, leaving his wife and daughter to their own devices. They’ve always been well looked after, their material needs adequately, if not luxuriously, satisfied although not their emotional ones. Nothing has changed since Arthur died; Mr Wye makes sure of that. Marie would like to take her mother back to Italy before she dies and when she enquires at the bank if they have enough money to cover such a trip, she gets a shock. There are millions in the account left untouched under Mr Wye’s instructions. Reluctantly, the sleazy old solicitor finally discloses Arthur’s twenty brothels spread across the more salubrious London boroughs. It seems, however, that Arthur had a soft heart – his ageing employees continue to live in their homes, happily occupying expensive real-estate. The rest of Molly McGrann’s highly entertaining novel is the story of one such brothel run by Sal, Arthur’s beloved mistress, mother of his (unacknowledged) son Joseph and madam to Rita and Annetta – girls ‘for the gods’ as Arthur called them.

McGrann’s narrative shifts smoothly from past to present and back again, unfolding the stories of Rita, the gorgeous girl from Widnes plucked from a bus stop by Arthur out scouting for talent, Annetta, once an ethereal beauty now demented and given to stripping herself naked, and Joseph, who sees life through the window of London buses. It’s also the story of Marie and Flavia, the loving wife unaware of what it was Arthur got up to. McGrann has a sharp eye for characterisation coupled with a wry humour – ‘Yes, it was true, the politicians said, jumping out of the brothels and into the scrum’ in response to the tabloids’ moral outrage about the goings-on in Soho. Her descriptions are arrestingly vivid – an uncle has ‘an unwashed smell on him that crossed the room’, indulging himself in ‘strip-mining the jolliest bits of a fruit loaf’. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through this entertaining piece of storytelling which at times reminded me of Sarah Waters, or Lesley Glaister’s novels with their cast of eccentric old ladies. What’s surprising, given that McGrann is American, is the novel’s strikingly authentic English voice. The ending, though, is pure Southern Gothic.

Books to Look Out for In March 2015

The Faithful CoupleSuch are the many temptations in March’s publishing schedules that this is going to be a long post, I’m afraid. I’ll begin with A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple as it’s the one I’m looking forward to most. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s published back in 2010. This one sounds entirely different. It begins in 1993 with two British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California and go on a camping trip together which will throw a shadow over both of them. The novel follows them over the next two decades reflecting and refracting London through their lives and friendship until the truth of that trip emerges. I always find this kind of structure particularly attractive and I enjoyed Snowdrops very much.

Patrick Gale needs no introduction after the rip-roaring success of the Richard and Judy (remember all that?) bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. A Place Called Winter is based on his own family history, telling the story of Henry Cane, forced by scandal to emigrate to the Canadian prairies where he sets up as a farmer in the eponymous settlement. According to the publisher it’s ‘an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love’. A grand claim but I’ve yet to read a Gale that I didn’t enjoy.

I have to say that the publisher’s blurb for Polly Samson’s The Kindness is a tad overblown but it boils down to this – Julian falls passionately in love with Julia, married and eight years his senior. Against all advice they throw up everything to be together enjoying their happiness until their daughter Mira becomes seriously ill forcing Julia to reveal a terrible secret. This may not sound too inspiring but the prose is ‘lyrical’, apparently, and the plotting ‘masterful – I enjoyed her previous books, Out of the Picture and Perfect Lives, very much

Sara Taylor’s debut The Shore is more a set of interconnecting stories than a novel. It spans a The Shorecentury and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of a group of small islands off the coast of Virginia. I’m not a short story fan, I’m afraid – I prefer something to get my teeth into – but when they’re linked in this way they can work extraordinarily well, as the aforementioned Perfect Lives did for me, and I like the sound of the setting very much. Lots of comparisons in the blurb, including one to Cloud Atlas, but I’m not letting that put me off.

I have to confess I don’t remember Judith Claire Mitchell’s The Last Days of Winter which was published ten years ago but A Reunion of Ghosts sounds right up my street. Three sisters living together in a New York apartment at the end of the last century have decided to kill themselves. It’s something of a family tradition, so it seems, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the poison gas used in both world wars. A little on the dark side, admittedly, but it sounds fascinating.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut Hausfrau takes us to a wealthy Zurich suburb where American ex-pat Anna Benz lives with her husband and three young children. Disconnected and isolated, Anna plunges into a series of passionate affairs which will eventually end in tragedy as her life unravels. Billed as a ‘literary page-turner’ it sounds as if it has more than a touch of the Emma Bovarys but nevertheless has the makings of an absorbing read

Cover imageI spotted the jacket of Molly McGrann’s The Ladies of the House on Twitter and couldn’t resist it. Reading the blurb it seemed even better: One hot July day three elderly people are found dead in a rundown house in Primrose Hill. Spotting the story in the paper Marie Gillies feels she is somehow to blame. McGrann’s novel pieces together what has happened, entering the secret world of the ladies of the house. It comes from the editor who brought us two of my books of 2014: The Miniaturist and Shotgun Lovesongs. Enough said, for me, anyway.

And finally, Anna Gavalda’s Billie has already been a huge seller in France. It’s the story of two unlikely friends: Franck, a bright, sensitive young boy with a bigoted father and a depressed mother, and Bille, desperate to escape her abusive family. Billie tells Franck her story when they find themselves trapped in a mountain gorge on holiday. I loved Gavalda’s Consolation and her Hunting and Gathering – she has a light touch with storytelling which I’m hoping to see more of in Billie.

Phew! That’s it for March, and if you’ve yet to catch up with February here are the hardbacks and here are the paperbacks.