Tag Archives: The Other Americans

Paperbacks to Look Out For in March 2020: Part One

March looks like another great month for paperbacks which will either please you or make you groan at the prospect or yet more additions to the TBR, or perhaps both. I’m beginning with a book many of you may well have already read but I’ve yet to do so. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other surprised and delighted many last year by winning the Booker Prize. The judges chose to call it a tie with The Testaments, something which Margaret Atwood graciously acknowledged while managing to suggest that Evaristo ought to be the sole winner, or at least that’s how I chose to interpret her speech. It tells the story of twelve very different characters, most of them black British women.Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible’ promise the publishers. Evaristo’s Mr Loverman was an absolute joy raising my hopes for this one.

Letitia Colombani’s The Braid tells the story of three, rather than twelve, very different women all of whose lives intersect unbeknownst to each other. Smita is a Dalit, an untouchable, determined that her six-year-old will have a better life. Giulia works for her father in Sicily, preparing hair for wig makers in a family business whose finances are revealed to be precarious. Sarah is a partner in a Montreal law firm who hides her cancer diagnosis, scheduling her treatment to fit in with work. All three of these women change their lives for the better on their own terms in this heartening fable-like story.

Set in rural Malaysia, We, the Survivors tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy. When the staff of the fish farm he manages succumb to cholera, Ah Hock turns to an old friend for help. On the night Keong has arranged to meet his Bangladeshi contact, Ah Hock is horrified to find that he’s armed with a knife. Aw’s writing is contemplative and perceptive, his characters well drawn and convincing.

Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK.Cover image

It was its Berlin setting that first attracted me to Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From a German Building Site, an irresistible backdrop for me. Duncan’s debut follows a couple in their mid-thirties who have left Ireland for Germany. Paul is a structural engineer refurbishing a building in the old East Berlin while Evelyn is waiting to start a job in a Cologne museum. As the project nears its end, tempers on site become dangerously frayed, crises flare and Paul feels himself increasingly out of kilter, grappling with a language which constantly eludes him. Written in spare, elegant prose, this beautifully crafted novella is wonderfully atmospheric.

That’s it for this first part of March’s paperback preview. A click on any title that catches your eye will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new novels they’re here and here. Second instalment soon…

Books of the Year 2019: Part One

It’s that time again. Books of the year lists are being wheeled out right, left and centre. I’d love to tell you I’d managed to trim mine to a single post of gems but I’m not the Cover imagedecisive type so I’m afraid it will be the usual four, falling roughly into quarters, all with links to reviews on this blog. For those of you who think I’ve jumped the gun, I’m still a bookseller at heart, hoping to help out anyone desperate for gift ideas for their book-loving friends.

My reading year got off to a flying start with Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer whose premise is irresistible. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, darkly funny novel, an enjoyable caper with a sharp edge and a page-turning pace. I was delighted when it turned up on both the Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Two books stood out for me in February, each very different from the other. Given my country’s preoccupation with Brexit, Robert Menasse’s The Capital was something of a bittersweet read. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club. Rather like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Entirely different, Joan Silber’s carefully constructed Improvement reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories which explore the ripple effectsCover image of a car accident through a range of sharply observed characters. Silber’s writing is subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Sadly, Improvement is her only book published here in the UK: all I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.

Leapfrogging March into April, Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans also explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK

The second of April’s treats is a bestseller which left me wondering why I hadn’t already read it. Paolo Cognetti’s beautifully expressed The Eight Mountains is about the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Cover imageRounding off April’s favourites, Ayelet Gunder-Goshen’s lusciously jacketed Liar tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Tel Aviv girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation leaving her trapped in an untruth she’s allowed to take root. A thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Politicians take note. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style.

There, I seem to have ended 2019’s first quarter with politics, something which I’ve been trying (but failing) to avoid since mid-way through the year when I though I might be about to spontaneously combust with fury. Let’s see if I can stay away from it in the second instalment which will cover May and June.

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami: Modern America in the Mojave

Cover imageGiven my weakness for small town American novels and an immigration theme I had a shrewd idea I’d enjoy Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans just from its title. It explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in the Californian desert town of Joshua Tree for decades.

Nora is celebrating with her flatmate when she hears the news of Driss’ death. She’s a musician, funding her work through supply teaching having turned her back on medical school to her mother’s chagrin. Her elder sister, Salma, is Maryam’s favourite: the good daughter – a dentist married with two children –  while Driss had always favoured Nora. She rushes home in shock, unable to take in what has happened then determined to get to the bottom of it. Back in the town she was so eager to escape, she feels suffocated by the constant attention and condolences but finds herself confiding in Jeremy, her high school band mate and an Iraq war veteran, now sheriff’s deputy. The sole witness eventually comes forward but it’s a lucky traffic stop prompted by a high school grudge which finally solves the case. Throughout the months between Driss’ death and the arraignment of the culprit, family dynamics, grief and the possibility of love are explored against a background of a modern America where casual racism and sexism abounds, and the repercussions of the Iraq war run deep.

Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. Secrets are revealed, circumstances are seen from different perspectives, interpreted or misinterpreted by others. The many narratives are deftly knitted together, each voice carefully kept distinct – from Maryam to whom Driss’ secret comes as no surprise to the detective wrestling with her stepson’s sullenness. Nora’s and Jeremy’s are the dominant voices, each with their own challenges as Nora is faced with her father’s fallibility and Jeremy understands that the traumas he suffered in Iraq may not be entirely put to rest. It’s an accomplished, absorbing novel. Lalami’s writing is subtle – the theme of racism runs throughout the book but is never laboured – and her characterisation strong. Time to explore her backlist, I think.

Books to Look Out for in March 2019: Part One

Cover imageThis first March instalment has its feet firmly planted in the US beginning with a title I’m both eagerly anticipating and slightly apprehensive about. Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved is one of my favourite pieces of contemporary fiction. Her last novel, The Blazing World, was bursting with ideas and erudition. Expectations are sky high, then, for Memories of the Future which looks as if it may be a slice of metafiction as twenty-three-year-old S. H. arrives in New York eager to grasp any opportunities that come her way. Forty years later, she reads her younger self’s notebook with both amusement and anger. ‘A provocative, wildly funny, intellectually rigorous and engrossing novel, punctuated by Siri Hustvedt’s own illustrations – a tour de force by one of America’s most acclaimed and beloved writers’ according to the publishers. I do hope so.

Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans is set in a small desert town where an immigrant is killed by a speeding car. Lalami tells the stories of a disparate set of characters, all connected in some way with the Driss’ death, from his jazz composer daughter to the witness who fears deportation if he comes forward. ‘As the characters – deeply divided by race, religion and class – tell their stories in The Other Americans, Driss’s family is forced to confront its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies and love, in all its messy and unpredictable forms, is born’ say the publishers promisingly.

I suspect Americans deemed ‘other’ make an appearance in Jonathan Carr’s debut, Build Me a City, about the founding of Chicago. Opening in 1800, the novel spans the city’s first century and encompasses a wide range of characters, all with stories to tell. ‘Chicago, its inhabitants and its history are brought to dazzling, colourful life in this epic tale that speaks of not just one city but America as a whole, and of how people come to find their place in the world’ according to the publishers which sounds pleasingly ambitious.

Which might also be said of Andrew Ridker’s The Altruists, another debut which explores the idea of America, this time through the lens of a professor in a Midwestern college who seems to have a good deal on his plate, from money problems to children who refuse to speak to him. When he invites them home for a reconciliation a whole can of worms opens up. ‘The Altruists is a darkly funny (and ultimately tender) family saga in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith. It’s a novel about money, privilege, politics, campus culture, dating, talk therapy, rural sanitation, infidelity, kink, the American beer industry, and what it means to be a ‘good person’’ say the publishers. I’ll take the Zadie Smith bits but leave the Franzen, thanks.

I’m ending as I began with a novel from a favourite author: Elizabeth McCraken’s Bowlaway. Cover imageBertha Truitt begins life in her small New England town, found unconscious in a cemetery with a bowling ball, a candlepin and fifteen pounds of gold at the beginning of the twentieth century. From this intriguing start, she goes on to scandalize the town, eventually opening a bowling alley and changing it forever. ‘Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unravelling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket.

That’s it for March’s first batch of new novels from which you may deduce that American authors are in the business of tackling big themes about the nature of their country. I wonder why. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that takes your fancy. Second instalment soon…