I reviewed Philip Teir’s debut, A Winter War, back in 2015 when I described it as the perfect winter read, a book to tuck yourself up with. It may seem a little lazy but it’s hard to resist describing The Summer House as the perfect summer read. Set against a backdrop of a long holiday spent in the Finnish countryside, Teir’s second novel explores the dynamics of modern family life.
While Julia packs up the car ready to drive to Mjölkviken, she wonders where Erik has got to, idly trying life as a single parent on for size. They drive off later than planned with ten-year-old Anton and twelve-year-old Alice, each with their own expectations and worries. Erik plans to find his way back into fatherhood after long hours spent working in the IT department of a Helsinki department store; Julia is intent on making headway with her second novel while the children fret about phone reception and how many new people they will be expected to meet. After an uneventful first week, with nothing more troubling than a bad smell emanating from the drains and the constant sound of a bouncing tennis ball, they’re invited to a midsummer party by a neighbour. Much to Julia’s surprise, Chris turns out to be the partner of her close teenage summer friend Marika who plays a starring but not very flattering role in her first novel. While Chris expounds his doomsday views on climate change, Julia frets about whether Marika has read her book and admires the couple’s apparently liberated lifestyle. Before the end of the summer, the lives of everyone at the party will have changed and Julia will have come to a realisation about her safe, secure marriage.
The Summer House offers a neat seasonal counterpart to A Winter War. Marriage, family tensions and coming-of-age are all handled with the same sympathy and deftness. Teir shifts smoothly from character to character as he unfolds each of their preoccupations and stories: Alice constantly worries about the way she looks; Julia is convinced other people’s relationships are more exciting than hers; Erik keeps his worries about work and losing Julia to himself. A violent thunderstorm brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion, complete with a dramatic revelation and the resolution of that troubling smell. With its adroitly managed characters and involving story, The Summer House is well worth thinking about if you’re after an intelligent summer read.
Back from my travels (more of which next week) with a look at July’s nicely varied bunch of new titles taking in Native American culture, Indonesian customs and genre-defying Icelandic fiction to name but a few disparate themes. Quite some time ago, having spent several holidays in the Four Corners area of the US, I went through a phase of reading Native American fiction which is what attracts me to Tommy Orange’s There There. It revolves around the Big Oakland Powwow, following several celebrants not all of whose intentions are good. Described as ‘a propulsive, groundbreaking novel, polyphonic and multigenerational, weaving together an array of contemporary Native American voices into a singularly dynamic and original meta-narrative about violence and recovery, about family and loss, about identity and power’ it sounds both ambitious and enticing.
Philippe Claudel’s The Tree of the Toraja also explores cultural traditions, this time through the experience of a filmmaker fascinated by the Indonesian custom of interring the bodies of deceased infants in the trunks of trees which grow to encase them. On his return to France he finds that his dearest friend is dying. ‘Like the trees of the Toraja, this powerful novel encloses and preserves memories of lost loves and friendships, and contains the promise of rebirth and rebuilding, even after a terrible tragedy’ say the publishers of what sounds like a very personal exploration of death and our attitudes to it. Claudel’s writing is often very beautiful, as measured and contemplative as his filmmaking, so hopes are high for this one.
They’re also high for Philip Teir’s The Summer House which sees Erik and Julia taking their children off to the west coast of Finland for what may well be their last family holiday. Erik has just lost his job while the presence of Julia’s childhood friend and her charismatic environmental activist husband throw a further spanner in the works. ‘Around these people, over the course ofone summer, Philip Teir weaves a finely tuned story about life choices and lies, about childhood and adulthood. How do we live if we know that the world is about to end?’ say the publishers. I enjoyed The Winter War very much a few years back.
It’s the gorgeously written Moonstone that’s whetting my appetite for Sjón’s Codex 1962 in which a character is fashioned out of clay carried in a hatbox by his Jewish fugitive father in WW2 Germany. The woman his father meets in a smalltown guesthouse nurses him back to health and together they mould the clay into the shape of a baby. It’s not until 1962 that Joseph enters the world, growing up with a rare disease which will attract the attention of an Icelandic geneticist fifty-three years later. ‘At once playful and profoundly serious, this remarkable novel melds multiple genres into a unique whole: a mind-bending read and a biting, timely attack on nationalism’ say the publishers of this beautifully jacketed novel
Jordy Rosenberg’s debut Confessions of the Fox also features some eye-catching characters. A professor has stumbled on an obscure manuscript telling the story of Jack Sheppard, a transgender carpenter’s apprentice who fled his master’s house and Bess Khan who escaped the draining of the fenlands. These two find themselves caught up in a web of corruption at the centre of which is the Thief-Catcher General. ‘Jack and Bess trace the connections between the bowels of Newgate Prison and the dissection chambers of the Royal College, in a bawdy collision of a novel about gender, love, and liberation’ say the publisher which puts me in mind of Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree, setting the bar very high indeed.
Still in London, but moving on several centuries to the 1970s, Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney explores the relationship between a twenty-five-year-old composer and the nine-year-old daughter of the man with whom he hopes to collaborate. ‘It is not until years later that Daphne is forced to confront the truth of her own childhood – and an act of violence that has lain hidden for decades. Putney is a bold, thought-provoking novel about the moral lines we tread, the stories we tell ourselves and the memories that play themselves out again and again, like snatches of song’ say the publishers of a novel that could prove to be unsettling reading.
A M Homes takes us to twenty-first-century America with her collection of short stories, Days of Awe. These thirteen pieces explore ‘our attachments to each other through characters who aren’t quite who they hoped to become, though there is no one else they can be. Her first book since the Women’s Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven, Days of Awe is another visionary, fearless and outrageously funny work from a master storyteller’ say the publishers. Looking forward to this one very much.
Jen Beagin’s Pretend I’m Dead brings this selection geographically full circle to the Four Corners and Taos, New Mexico where twenty-four-year-old Mona hopes to make a fresh start along with sundry other truth seekers. ‘The story of Mona’s journey to find her place in the world is at once fearless and wonderfully strange, true to life and boldly human, and introduces a stunning, one-of-a-kind new voice in American fiction’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some entertainment combined with a little trip down the memory lane of holidays past with this one.
That’s it for July’s new titles. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…
There are some particularly tasty paperback treats to look forward to this September. I’ll start with the ones I’ve reviewed, my favourite of which is Helen Oyeyemi’s fabulous tale of race and identity Boy, Snow, Bird. Where to start with this complex, dazzling book? There are elements of fairy tale – a wicked stepmother, a Prince Charming or two, a girl called Snow – although no apples as I recall, and it’s stuffed with stories. From its very beginning, a richly symbolic mirror motif runs through the novel reflecting, or not reflecting, different images the characters have of themselves. It’s brilliant, and I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it.
Anne Tyler’s Baileys shortlisted, now Man Booker longlisted, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a another favourite. It’s the story of the Whitshanks told through the history of their house lovingly built back in the 1930s by Red’s father for whom it was the epitome of perfection. Now in their seventies, both Red and Abby are showing signs of ageing and Abby’s ‘absences’ – short periods when her ‘brain jumps the track’ – have become a concern. What to do? I’ve heard that this may be Anne Tyler’s last novel and it wouldn’t be a bad one to go out on but I can’t help hoping for more.
Jo Bloom is at the other end of the novelist career spectrum with her first novel Ridley Road. Carnaby Street, mini-skirts, coffee bars and rock n’ roll: these are some of the things that make up the glossy vibrant Swinging Sixties we see portrayed on our TV screens in nostalgic documentaries. Flip that coin over and you’ll find something nasty – racism and fascism alive and kicking almost twenty years after the Second World War. Bloom explores a fascinating slice of British history when a group of Jewish East Enders decided enough was enough, all wrapped up in a thriller and a love story.
Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter carries on the historical theme but in an intensely personal way: it’s based upon family stories of Gale’s ancestor Harry who fled looming disgrace in England to farm a few bleak acres in Canada, knowledge that makes the novel all the more compelling. It’s a glorious piece of storytelling replete with detail anchoring it in time and place as Harry, brought up to be a gentleman rather than a farmer, struggles to establish a smallholding in the frigid Canadian landscape.
Entirely different but also bound up with history, Early Warning is the second instalment of Jane Smiley’s The Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. I read the immensely enjoyable Some Lucklast year and had been looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. Early Warningopens with a funeral in 1953 and takes the family through the Cold Wars Years to 1986, ending with a revelation which adds another pleasing turn in their story. Now, of course, I’m impatient for the final instalment, although, like all absorbing reads where you feel on intimate terms with the characters, I suspect I won’t want to reach the end.
Philp Teir’s Helsinki-set debut tells the story of the Paul family over the course of just one winter rather than a century. Max and Katriina have been together for thirty years, apparently happy enough but in reality things are a little scratchy, wearing a bit thin. We know that divorce is on the horizon – Teir tells us that from the start – The Winter War is the story of how they get there, complete with strong characters and wry humour.
I haven’t yet read Amanda Coe’s Getting Colder but I enjoyed What They Do in the Dark very much. It’s one of those taut, domestic thrillers – very dark indeed, and she certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension. In Getting Colder Sara, who deserted her children to be with her lover – once a much-lauded playwright now whiskey-soaked and blocked – has died. Thirty-five years after she left them, her children have sought Patrick out wanting answers. A little less sinister than What They Do in the Dark, apparently, although it sounds pretty unsettling to me.
As does Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thiefin which a woman writes a letter night after night to what was once her dear friend about their shared past and the betrayal that blew their friendship apart fifteen years ago. As the letter progresses its tone changes, becoming both more self-revelatory and more defensive. Harvey’s previous books The Wilderness, about a man with Alzheimer’s trying to make sense of his world (that theme again), and All is Song, a novel of brotherhood and ideas, were both intelligent and beautifully expressed so my hopes are high.
My final choice is Johanna Skibsrud’s Quartet for the Endof Time, a very melancholy title for a novel which re-imagines the 1932 American First World War veterans’ march to Washington during the Great Depression to demand the wartime bonus they were promised. It’s written by a Canadian, surprisingly. Skibsrud won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2010 for The Sentimentalists about a young woman trying to understand her father through his experiences in the Vietnam War.
That’s it for September paperbacks. A rather lengthy post, I know, but not quite enough to stretch over two. A click on one of the first six titles will take you to my review, the last three will take you to Waterstones for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with my hardback selections, part one is here and part two is here.
I’m not sure how helpful most readers find comparisons to other authors in publishers’ blurbs. For me, they can often be irksome and some times downright inappropriate. Philip Teir’s debut comes with all sorts of comparisons – from Jonathan Franzen to John Updike; Julian Barnes to Alan Hollinghurst. It turns out to be an excellent novel in its own right, although another author did pop into my head but you’ll have to read to the end to find out who that is. Teir’s novel tells the story of the Paul family over the course of one winter. Max and Katriina have been together for thirty years, apparently happy enough but in reality things are a little scratchy, wearing a bit thin. We know that divorce is on the horizon – Teir tells us that from the start – The Winter War is the story of how they get there.
Almost sixty, Max is a professor of sociology at the University of Helsinki, struggling with all that his approaching milestone means and with his book on nineteenth century sociologist Edvard Westermarck. He’s been busy living off one piece of research, which earned him the soubriquet ‘young intellectual of the decade’, for quite some time. Katriina – who views marriage as ‘a form of reciprocal tyranny’ – works in the health service, recruiting staff to deal with Helsinki’s ageing population, travelling to the Philippines and grappling with her liberal conscience while doing so. They have two daughters. Helen, who married young, teaches high school and is the mother of two young children. Eva, twenty-nine and studying fine art in London after dropping out of her Helsinki course, is embroiled in an affair with her tutor. A fairly standard issue white middle-class family, then, with all its niggling disquiets and discontents.
The Winter War is a very satisfying novel. It draws you in with its strong but sympathetic characterisation and its knowing humour, poking gentle fun at Max and his late midlife crisis shenanigans. Teir shifts his narrative smoothly from character to character, unfolding their various struggles, unhappinesses and crises. Things are brought neatly to a head when Max’s ageing mother suffers a stroke, focusing the minds of all of them with surprising results for some. It’s a novel with much to say about marriage, at least unhappy ones but as Max says quoting Westermarck ‘people seldom talk about happy marriages…“Those are not the ones on which theatres, biographies and novelists build their dramas.”’ It’s a fine winter read, the kind of novel you can tuck yourself up and settle into. As for those comparisons, none of the aforementioned sprung to mind for me: if I was reminded of anyone it was Richard Russo who has a fine line in humour and a deft hand with characterisation.
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.
I’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 Beautyand 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 Lucy 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.