Tag Archives: The Room

Books to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 1

Cover imageYes , I know – it’s not even Christmas week yet but if you’re a little weary of the same old titles popping up on Books of the Year lists – mine included – you might like a peek at what’s to come in 2016 which gets off to a very exciting start with a new Helen Dunmore. Regular readers of this blog will already know that I have a bit of a bee in my literary bonnet about how underrated Dunmore is alongside the likes of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis who all get acres of coverage when she’s lucky to get a single football field’s worth. Exposure opens in November 1960 amidst the febrile atmosphere of the Cold War. Simon Callington stands accused of spying for the Soviets. His wife is determined to clear his name, unaware that Callington is hiding a damaging secret in his past.

Set at the other end of the Cold War in 1981, Francesca Kay’s The Long Room also explores the world of espionage but in a very different way. Stephen Donaldson is assigned the ultra-secret case of Phoenix, his task to assess whether or not his subject is betraying his country. Lonely and frustrated, Stephen finds himself falling in love with the voice of Phoenix’s wife.With her mastery of the perfect detail, Francesca Kay explores a mind under pressure and the compelling power of imagination.’ says the publisher. Given how much I enjoyed An Equal Stillness, I’m looking forward to this one.

The same goes for Gail Jones’ A Guide to Berlin. Sixty Lights, Sorry and Dreams of Speaking are all examples of very fine writing so my hopes are very high for this new one named after a Nabokov short story written in 1925. Six travellers – two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian – meet in empty Berlin apartments to exchange stories and discuss Nabokov’s work until an act of violence splits the group apart. Jones’ writing is beautiful – elegant and delicately understated. This should be a treat.Cover image

Patrick Modiano is also a master of the understatement. I read my first Modiano this yearSo You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood and was as impressed as I had expected to be given the many fans in the blogosphere who had been singing his praises. Maclehose Press are publishing two more this year, the wonderfully named In the Café of Lost Youth which sounds as if it explores just that and The Black Notebook, in which a writer discovers a set of notes and sets off in search of a woman he loved forty years ago. There seems to be an element of mystery in both novels but if Neighbourhood is anything to go by, there will be more questions posed than answers.

Jonas Karlsson’s The Invoice appears to be the story of an unremarkable man, happy with his life working in a Stockholm video store and living alone in a small flat just a few yards away from an Ice cream stall that sells his favourite flavours. I know this hardly sounds riveting but I loved The Room with its portrayal of a man in the grips of a delusion – a wonderfully quirky novel with cringemaking descriptions of corporate office life which will be all too familiar to many, I’m sure.Cover image

Similarly, Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else was a fine read which is why I’m including Mr Splitfoot despite its slightly unconvincing premise. Two orphans decide to jump ship and attach themselves to a travelling con man who claims to channel the dead. Decades later a young woman, in the midst of a crisis, is visited by her mute aunt. Together they set off on foot, travelling across New York.Ingenious, infectious, subversive and strange’ say the publishers – I particularly like the sound of subversive.

That’s it for the first batch of January titles.  As ever, if you’d like more detail a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website. More to follow soon.

The Room: Kafka in the office

The RoomThis is my second review of a Scandi book this year and we’re only half-way through January. Both prove that it’s not all crime and angst in the chilly north. Jonas Karlsson’s short fable manages to be wacky, funny and thought-provoking all within a very few pages. Set in an open plan Swedish office, it’s about Björn and his conviction that somewhere between the toilets and the recycling bin at his new workplace there’s a small room in which he’s his best self and does his best work. Unfortunately, where he sees a door his new colleagues see a blank wall.

Björn’s two weeks into his job with the shadowy Authority (eliciting the inevitable comparison with Kafka) when he stumbles upon the room. Standing in front of its mirror he notices that he looks considerably smarter, better turned out and somehow more alert. Over the course of the next few weeks he visits it regularly, taking a colleague aside for a confidential chat and even having an erotic encounter in there at the Christmas party. Everyone else insists that he’s spending increasing amounts of time standing next to the wall and they’re not happy. Over the very short course of Karlsson’s novella, Björn goes from office outcast to rising star, but will it last?

Reading Karlsson’s novella will take a couple of hours at most but that feels quite some time to be inside Björn’s head. Arrogant and superior, he’s devoid of all social skills ignoring the friendly overtures of his new colleagues in a manner worthy of The Bridge’s Saga but without the endearing habit of at least trying to understand other people. Despite the menial tasks he’s asked to perform, he’s convinced that his brilliance will be recognised and eventually it is which may well have you grinding your teeth in annoyance along with his colleagues. It’s very funny at times, bringing back cringe-making memories of working in open plan offices with its petty skirmishes about territory and mind-numbing meetings spent crammed in to the senior manager’s goldfish bowl, but it’s also about how those who are different are perceived by the rest of us. Björn’s colleagues are all too keen to have him kicked out for his bizarre behaviour. It’s quite an uncomfortable read at times, but often very amusing one and thought-provoking with it. Quite a feat in a mere 176 pages.

Books to Look Out for in January 2015

I know you’ve all get your minds on Christmas but I thought it might be time for a little taster of what 2015 has to offer before we get overdosed on carols and all that malarkey. It’s a good month, too. No huge names leap out for me but there are several interesting looking treats nevertheless.

Cover imageI’ll start with the appropriately named debut, The Winter War,  by Finland’s answer to Jonathan Franzen according to its publishers but I’m not letting that put me off. Middle class Helsinki couple Max and Katriina appear to have a perfect life but as we all know that can’t be true. Katriina no longer loves Max, their adult daughters both have problems and as he nears his sixtieth birthday, Max strides off into dangerous territory. It’s compared to ‘a big, contemporary, humane American novel, but with a distinctly Scandinavian edge’ which sounds just the ticket to me.

Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is about Bjorn (bit of a Scandi theme going on here, I know) a discontented bureaucrat who finds a secret room in his office in which he feels wonderfully empowered, performing to the exacting standards demanded by the Authority with ease. Everyone else, however, denies its existence. It’s an intriguing idea which could easily backfire but it sounds worth a try.

I remember reading Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty, and not getting on with it very well but I like the sound of The Lightning Tree enough to give her another try. Set in Newcastle in the mid-1980s it’s about Ursula, raised on big ideas and keen to start the adventure of adult life, and Jerry, a class warrior with an altogether different sort of upbringing, who fall in love with each other. She heads off to India while he goes to Oxford – will their relationship survive? Recommended for fans of both The Line of Beauty and The Marriage Plot, – two very different novels, make of that what you will – it’s described as ‘lyrical and funny’.

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is another title that could go either way. Jonathan Franzen describes it as ‘hilarious…cracklingly intelligent…and original in every sentence’, apparently, but as you may have noticed I’m not a fan of Mr Franzen. It sounds a little like an early Paul Auster which is where the attractions lies for me. Narrated by Ben, a writer who has just secured a big advance after the ecstatic reception of his first novel and is now writing his second narrated by ‘Ben’, 10:04 ‘charts an exhilarating course through the contemporary landscape of sex, friendship, memory, art and politics’, apparently. Not lacking in ambition, then.

Let’s end with what I hope will be a highly entertaining nineteenth-century romp, the wonderfully named LucyThe Hourglass Factory Ribchester’s debut  The Hourglass Factory, which takes us to the circus with the equally wonderfully named Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, tiger tamer and suffragette, who’s stage getup includes the tightest laced corset you’ve ever seen and certainly wouldn’t want to experience. When Ebony disappears mid-performance, intrepid girl reporter Frankie George – fascinated with all things circus-related – is determined to find out what’s happened to her. Sounds like a rip-roaring tale, just the thing for fireside reading.

That’s it for January books. As ever a click on a title will reveal more information at Waterstones website and if you want to know what I’m hoping for in my Christmas stocking just click here.