Tag Archives: The Nest

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2017: Part One

Cover imageThere’s a fair old mix of attention-snagging titles published in paperback this June. I’ll start with one that was hotly anticipated in hardback: Peter Ho Davies’ The Fortunes, his first novel since the much-lauded The Welsh Girl back in 2007. Spanning 150 years, Davies’ novel explores the Chinese-American experience through the lens of four characters: Ah Ling, the son of a prostitute, sent alone to California as a young boy in the 1860s; Anna Mae Wong, the first Chinese Hollywood movie star; Vincent Chin murdered in 1982 just because he looked Japanese and John Ling Smith, visiting America to adopt a child. Apparently, Davies has mixed real and fictional characters, drawing on his own mixed-race experience in what sounds like fascinating read, and that’s a great jacket.

Jade Chang’s The Wangs Vs the World looks at Chinese-Americans in a very different way. Set in 2008 with the financial world about to crash with the loudest of bangs, it’s about a family whose cosmetics mogul father suddenly finds himself bankrupt in a country he thought he’d made his own. He decides to claim his fabled ancestral land in China but first he needs to gather his family together, taking off on a road trip across the States in his first wife’s powder blue 1980s Mercedes. Chang makes some serious points along the way in this funny, entertaining novel.Cover image

Families – albeit a hugely dysfunctional one – and money are also the themes which run through Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest. The Plumbs have been counting on a windfall from the fund their father set up for them many years ago. What the financially compromised younger siblings have not been expecting is the plundering of their treasured Nest by their mother to get their eldest brother Leo out of trouble. Sweeney’s novel follows these four over the three months after Leo gets out of rehab until the longed-for payout day. A well-turned out, entertaining and absorbing piece of fiction which quietly delivers a serious message about money and expectations.

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk also has a foot in dysfunctional family territory, exploring ‘the violently primal bond between mother and daughter’ according to its publishers. It’s set in Spain where the daughter has taken her mother to an alternative clinic in the hope of discovering a cure for her paralysis which may or may not be psychologically induced. While her mother undergoes a series of odd treatments, the daughter becomes caught up in ‘the seductive mercurial games of those around her’. That synopsis isn’t entirely up my street but Levy has been praised by so many people whose opinions I trust that it’s worth a try.

Cover imageI’ll end this first June paperback instalment with Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, about colleagues so immersed in each other’s lives they come to seem like family. The socially awkward Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside the taciturn Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As these two stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo cheers them on from the side lines. Written in quietly understated prose infused with a gentle humour, Kawakami’s novel is an absolute delight. One of my favourite books of last year. it’s a reminder that joy can to be found in the most prosaic of lives.

A click on a title will take you to my review  for The Wangs Vs the World, The Nest and The Nakano Thrift Shop or to a more detailed synopsis for those I haven’t yet read, should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new titles they’re here.  Second paperback batch to follow shortly…

The Girls by Emma Cline: Time for girls to become women

Cover imageThe Girls is another one of those novels about which there’s been a good deal of brouhaha – lots of Twitter love and advance anticipation for months – but like The Nest and The Essex Serpent, similarly lauded to the skies, it succeeds in living up to all that hype. I’m going to have to think about putting my sceptical hat into storage if this carries on. As you may already know, Emma Cline’s debut is loosely based on the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son – and her friends in 1969.

One day in a Californian park, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals, her attention snagged by the dark-haired one she will later know as Suzanne. Evie’s parents have recently divorced and her unquestioning love for her mother has soured into adolescent scorn. She and her best friend Connie are inseparable but Evie is tired of her prosaic smalltown life. When Evie spots Suzanne, thrown out of the local supermarket, she seizes her chance and finds herself invited to a summer solstice party. Soon she’s is a frequent visitor to the dilapidated ranch where the charismatic Russell holds sway over a collection of runaways, living off the donations of rock star Mitch Lewis and whatever they can filch from the town. When Russell’s ambitions to secure a record deal are thwarted, the mood at the ranch changes. The violence Evie has briefly seen but excused to herself becomes more tangible. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back on the events of 1969 as she watches an old friend’s young son and his besotted girlfriend.

The strength of Cline’s novel lies in her portrayal of adolescent girls on the brink of discovering their sexual power, vulnerable and constantly judging themselves and other women by the way they look. Their awkwardness, self-absorption and craving for the slightest sliver of recognition is painfully caught: ‘We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.’ Lonely and eager, Evie is ripe for Suzanne’s attention – her uncritical adulation tinged with desire all too believable. Cline wisely keeps her as a bit-player at the ranch, engaging our sympathy and making her a credible witness. The murders are foreshadowed with enough suspense to make it gripping but this is a character-driven novel – the killings and their immediate aftermath take up very little of it. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me – a few too many similes – but that’s a small criticism. As Evie looks back on that summer, watching Sasha subsume herself in Julian’s scant regard, hoping for another glimpse of the sassy young woman who emerged briefly in his absence, you long for all young girls to shrug off their girlhood and become women, happy in their own skins, regardless of who looks at them.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageCynthia D’Arprix Sweeney’s debut is one of those novels that lots of people have been jumping up and down about, eagerly anticipating its publication: I’ve been one of them. Usually that kind of thing makes me put on my sceptical hat but with the promise of a dysfunctional family – a favourite literary trope which may say a lot about families – a New York backdrop and some well-aimed barbs at the better-off it sounded right up my alley and I’m delighted to say it delivers. The Plumbs, who’ve been counting on a windfall from the fund their father set up for them many years ago, are everything you could wish for in the dysfunctional stakes.

Leonard Plumb’s family frittered away what fortune they had. A proud self-made man, he decided that his own children would suffer neither his fate nor indulge in his family’s profligacy, setting up a modest fund nicknamed the Nest, which will pay out on his youngest child’s fortieth birthday. It’s supposed to be a top-up, a little something to draw on in middle age, but the growth of the fund has far exceeded Leonard’s wildest dreams. It has become exactly what he didn’t want for his children: a source of expectation. What Jack, Bea and Melody have not counted on is the plundering of their treasured Nest by their mother to get their eldest brother Leo out of trouble. Drunk and coked-up, Leo has crashed head on with an SUV while in compromising circumstances with a waitress, his mind taken off the road somewhat. Three months after the event, the three aggrieved siblings have arranged to meet Leo, fresh out of rehab. All are financially compromised: Jack’s taken out a loan against the summer-house he shares with his partner to shore up his failing antiques shop; Bea’s writing career has stalled and her advance is all but spent; Melody’s concern for appearances has landed her with a massive mortgage and college fees for her sixteen-year-old twins are looming on the horizon. Leo is late, as ever, but when he arrives he assures them he will repay the money. Sweeney’s novel follows these four over the three months until Melody’s fortieth, the longed for payout day.

The strength of The Nest lies in Sweeney’s characterisation. She introduces us to the Plumbs with a set-piece meeting, filling in their background as each prepares with a drink in a bar they know none of the others frequents. The story unfolds from the point of view of each member of the family, rounding them out nicely. Sweeney smartly avoids caricature, underpinning her novel with a gentle humour which makes it all the more engaging: these aren’t bad people, just a little too greedy for their own – and others’ – good. The novel is polished off with a thoroughly satisfying epilogue, neatly tying up any loose ends. It’s not challenging – no literary fireworks, nothing revolutionary – just a well-turned out, entertaining and absorbing piece of fiction that will keep you interested for all of its 400+ pages while quietly delivering a serious message about money and expectations. More please!

Books to Look Out For in May 2016: Part 1

Cover imagePole position for May has to go to Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place. There was a time when I cheerily dismissed O’Farrell’s novels as chick lit, not for me. Pretty snobby, I know, and pretty stupid, too, as I found out when I was finally persuaded to read After You’d Gone. Still, at least it meant I had a  pleasingly lengthy  backlist to enjoy. It’s been a little while since a new O’Farrell so there’s a definite air of impatient anticipation around this one. It’s about Daniel, a New Yorker who lives in a remote part of Ireland, with what sounds like a somewhat complicated life: children he never sees, a father he detests and a trigger-happy, ex-film star wife. News of a woman he knew long ago is about to further spice things up.  The novel ‘crosses continents and time zones, giving voice to a diverse and complex cast of characters. At its heart, it is an extraordinary portrait of a marriage, the forces that hold it together and the pressures that drive it apart’ say the publishers. Sounds unmissable.

Regular readers will know that I find New York backdrops hard to resist. It doesn’t always work – I didn’t get past the first fifty pages of City on Fire – but I have hopes for Molly Prentiss’ debut, Tuesday Nights in 1980. It’s about three people, all trying to make it big in the city: Raul Engales is an Argentinean painter in exile, passing himself off as an art student; James Bennett is the critic with synaesthesia who experiences art as a trippy set of sensations and Lucy is Raul’s young muse, fresh from Idaho and eager for the bright lights. ‘Over the course of one year, these three lives will collide and be transformed. A brand new decade has just begun and New York is a crucible brimming with the energy of a million secret metamorphoses, poised to spill forth art, destruction and life itself into the waiting world’ say the publishers in a synopsis which is a tad overblown it has to be said, but I’m willing to overlook that.

And we’re off to New York again for Cynthia D’Apprix Sweeney’s The Nest which sounds like a pleasingly acerbic outing for the good old dysfunctional family trope. The Plumbs’ dwindling Cover imagefamily trust fund is threatened after Leo’s drunken accident involving a nineteen-year-old waitress. Leo’s rehab costs, Melody’s colossal mortgage and children’s tuition fees, Jack’s secret debts and Beatrice’s inability to finish her novel have all depleted the family fortune but the fallout from the accident may wipe it out altogether. You may think they sound like a bunch of spoilt brats and good riddance to them but we’re promised a novel that’s ‘ferociously astute, warm and funny… …a brilliant debut chronicling the hilarity and savagery of family life.’

Venturing a little further into upstate New York, Elizabeth Brundage’s creepy sounding 1980s-set All Things Cease to Appear sees a professor and his family moving into a farmhouse where things soon become very bumpy indeed. George knows the house’s history but his wife does not although she often feels she’s being watched in the many hours she spends at home with their daughter.  ‘With masterful tension and understanding of human nature, Elizabeth Brundage has crafted a novel that is at once a community’s landscape spanning twenty years and an intimate portrait of a disturbed mind ‘ say the publishers setting us up for a chilling piece of smalltown fiction.

Still in the States, Marc Bojanowski’s Journeyman follows a carpenter who travels where his work takes him. After a dreadful accident at work he leaves his temporary Las Vegas home heading towards the west coast, by way of his brother’s town where he finds himself stranded after the loss of his car and tools, forcing him to think about his life and contemplate building something more meaningful. Set against a backdrop of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars it’s billed as a ‘intimate, honest and exquisitely crafted state-of-the-nation novel’ – another weakness of mine.

Cover imageHannah Kohler’s debut, The Outside Lands, also has war as its backdrop, this time the Vietnam war. Jeannie and Kip’s mother died when she is nineteen and he 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’ which, once again, 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.

That’s it for the first clutch of May goodies, all but one American. The next batch will range a little further. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you be interested. And for anyone interested in that kind of thing there’ll be a little ‘what I got up to on my holidays’ post in a couple of days.