Tag Archives: Tinder Press

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Living or merely surviving?

Cover imageI’m sure most of you have already heard of The Immortalists. It’s been everywhere in my neck of the Twitter woods, not something that always bodes well. It’s been on my own radar for so long I can’t even remember how it got there but I suspect it was the very clever hook on which Chloe Benjamin has hung this glorious, engrossing novel which explores what it is to be human wrapped up in a piece of good old-fashioned storytelling.

It’s 1969. The tailoring business his immigrant father set up has prospered under Saul Gold while Gertie has channelled all her ambition into her children. Captivated by the idea of a fortune-teller who can forecast the date of her clients’ death, eleven-year-old Daniel Gold takes his three siblings off to see her. Klara is nine, already learning the tricks of her future trade from one of New York’s once-celebrated magicians; Varya is thirteen, self-consciously on the cusp of womanhood and Simon is just seven, still babied by his strong-minded mother. Each of the children will react differently to the sentence the fortune-teller passes on them. Simon will shrug off the responsibility of the business which it’s assumed he will take on when Saul drops dead, defying his mother and taking off to San Francisco. Klara goes with him, determined to break into the male world of magic with her daring Jaws of Death trick. Daniel will seek a safer life as a military doctor sparing young men from combat, unable to shrug off the guilt at the burden his siblings bear thanks to him. Varya becomes a scientist, researching ageing and battling the OCD which imprisons her in much the same kind of cage as the monkeys who are part of her research. The day of their sentence will be etched in all their minds, setting up barriers within the family and dictating their attitudes to life and what remains of it.

Benjamin’s novel explores themes of family, love, religion and grief within the framework of the overarching question: how would you live your life if you knew when you were going to die? Would you choose to live it to the full, or would you keep yourself as safe as you could? In other words, would you choose to live or merely to survive? Each of the four Golds’ stories unfolds separately, interwoven and overlapping on the rare occasions they meet, as they move inexorably towards their appointed date. Benjamin takes us into the four worlds they inhabit, particularly vividly evoking the joyous liberation of ‘80s San Francisco before AIDs rears its ugly head. It’s an immensely skilful piece of storytelling, peopled with well-rounded characters and Benjamin knows how to turn a striking phrase. The hook is undoubtedly that fortune-teller, a trope which has the makings of a clever thriller and there is a thread of suspense in each of the siblings’ stories but Benjamin’s novel is very much more than that, managing to be entertaining, moving and though-provoking all in one compassionate, satisfyingly immersive novel.

The Other Side of the World: An Unexpected Treat

The Other Side of the WorldThis was the first book I read for review after coming back from my hols. I was looking for something uncomplicated, nothing very taxing, and Stephanie Bishop’s novel with its gold-type adorned jacket looked like it might fit the bill but it took me by surprise. The Other Side of the World turns out to be a smart, elegantly understated piece of writing which looks at the complexities of parenthood and marriage, belonging and dislocation. The press release compares it to Rachel’ Cusk’s A Life’s Work but Bishop’s novel is altogether more subtle than that.

We know from the prologue that things have gone awry as Charlotte waits nervously in her small Cambridge bedsit, hearing the noises of her husband’s arrival but not the sounds of her children. From here, Bishop turns back the clock three years to 1963 when Charlotte, Henry and Lucie are crammed together in a tiny cottage in the dank, October English countryside. Charlotte has just learned she’s pregnant again but has yet to tell Henry. Lucie is only seven months old and Charlotte dreads the demands of another child. Once an artist, she has time for nothing but Lucie, struggling to keep on top of housework, cooking and childcare while Henry works as a lecturer. Charlotte takes solace in countryside walks, alive to the natural world whatever the weather, while Henry longs for the warmth of his Indian childhood, never quite accustomed to the English climate despite being sent to school in Britain to avoid the tumult of Independence. Henry is Anglo-Indian, fitting into neither country comfortably. When a leaflet arrives extolling the virtues of emigration to Australia, Henry sees an opportunity but Charlotte is reluctant: he may be rootless but she is not. Finally, she agrees to go if he can find a job. By 1965 they’re heading to Perth, now a family of four. Charlotte struggles with this alien, harsh landscape whose climate is either scorching or cold, while Henry finds that Australian academia is not quite as tolerant of his mixed race as he’d assumed. A crisis is clearly in the offing.

The theme of motherhood is not an easy one to tackle with honesty – the aforementioned  Cusk came in for a great deal of stick when she did it – but Bishop succeeds in exploring its contradictions with a powerful subtlety. Charlotte has longed for a child but finds the reality hard. Henry is a good father, spending more time with his children than many men did in the 1960s, but it is Charlotte who bears the brunt of the hard slog of childcare. When regretting her agreement to go to Australia she remembers that ‘She was, quite literally, not herself then, but a woman dispersed among her children.’ The narrative shifts smoothly between Charlotte and Henry, equally subtle in exploring Henry’s growing awareness of his rootlessness and others’ perception of his racial identity. Bishop’s descriptions of both the English and Australian landscapes are vivid, often used to convey the ache of Charlotte’s longing for home. It’s a quietly perceptive novel – a meditation on parenthood, marriage and belonging all wrapped up in gorgeously understated prose. The final chapter is a triumph, neatly sidestepping clichéd sentimentalism. Bishop’s first novel seems to be unavailable in the UK . My hope is that Tinder Press, who have a sharp eye for this kind of fiction, will publish it in paperback.

The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger: The real deal

The Mountain Can WaitI’m not easily swayed by those author quotes you see adorning book jackets – some writers seem to be a little too free and easy with their praise for me – but, as regular readers will know, so enamoured am I of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs that a fulsome quote from him makes me sit up and take notice. Such was the case with Sarah Leipciger’s debut, The Mountain Can Wait, and I wasn’t disappointed – it’s the real deal.

We know from the first brief chapter that Curtis Berry has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party, leaving her for dead at the side of a lonely road. From there Leipciger switches her focus to Tom, Curtis’ father. An unwilling parent at nineteen, Tom has raised Curtis and his younger sister alone. Their unstable mother was found dead in a snowdrift four years after abandoning them when Curtis was five and Erin a mere three months old. Tom runs a tree planting company, camping in the Canadian backwoods with his team where they spend a month or so working and, occasionally, playing hard. He and his lover meet now and then, each preferring to keep their independence. When Tom is visited by a detective at the planters’ camp he knows he must track his son down, a trail which leads him to his mother-in-law last seen a decade ago. There can be no happy ending, clearly, but there is hope of redemption and some kind of understanding.

Leipciger reveals Tom’s character and his relationship with Curtis and Erin through flashbacks to their childhood, interwoven with life overseeing the planters. Her 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 relationship between Tom and Curtis is beautifully portrayed: Curtis’ aching need at odds with Tom’s seemingly distant practicality which masks a driving determination to protect his son, neither able to reach each other. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words Leipciger made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. Tom views the natural world with respect and acceptance, suspicious and dismissive of his mother-in-law’s vaguely New Age rituals. He’s a deeply humane man, one who deplores the shooting of a bear that loggers have carelessly allowed to live too close and now want disposed of, but knows it has to be done. It’s a very fine novel, and hats off to Tinder Press, now in their third year, who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.

A Place Called Winter and Happy Birthday Shiny New Books

SBN-logoIt’s time for another issue of the wonderful Shiny New Books, stuffed full of interviews, articles and reviews by some of my favourite bloggers and this ones a celebratory issue: it’s their first birthday. Such a lot of hard work, energy and talent have been poured into this project. It’s been a delight to be associated with it.

My own contribution to the fifth issue is a review of Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter, the latest novel in a long writing career made illustrious by Richard and Judy whose choice of Notes from an Exhibition for their book club thrust Gale into the spotlight in 2007. Those of us who’d been enjoying his well turned out, humane and absorbing novels for some time could only be surprised that it hadn’t happened before. This one is intensely personal: 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. If you’d like to know more why not pop over to Shiny New books where you can read the full review and explore all manner of other delights.

If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go: Novel or short stories, and does it matter?

Cover imageNow there’s a title certain to be mangled in bookshops throughout the land and a brave one for a debut. I wonder if Judy Chicurel’s publishers tried to talk her out of it. It’s the title of the final chapter of the book whose meaning becomes clear towards its end. Set in the summer of 1972, If I Knew… is narrated by Katie, the adopted daughter of a white-collar family who spends her time in Elephant Beach’s rundown Comanche Street, a district frequented by drunks and druggies.

Already long past its glory days as a glamorous Long Island resort, Elephant Beach – like the rest of America – is in the grips of recession. Times are hard, money is tight and the Vietnam War still rages. Besotted with the reclusive Luke, back from the war and grappling with the aftermath, Katie waits for life to happen to her while watching it pick up her friends and shake them around: Marcel has taken off with her boyfriend, fleeing her parents’ unhappiness; Liz and Nanny take up with useless men – one a chancer, the other a stoner; Georgie gets beaten up because he’s gay despite the protection of the ferocious Feeney sisters. She talks to Mitch, the Purple Heart whose leg was shot to pieces in Vietnam, hoping to find a way to Luke but making a friend instead. All through the long summer after graduation, Katie longs for Luke, holds her friends hands through their troubles, quarrels with her mother, hangs out at the Starlight Lounge and drinks chocolate egg creams at Eddy’s. By the end of it she finally comes into herself.

At first I was a little disappointed at what I took to be Chicurel’s bitty style. Marketed as a novel in this country, it’s described as a ‘debut collection’ on her website however ‘episodic’ best fits it for me particularly as it’s strikingly cinematic at times, ripe for adaptation by HBO or the like. Chicurel has a nice feel for characterisation – the larger than life Feeney sisters, aka the Hitters, are nicely balanced by the likes of Mitch, coolly sage yet self-destructive. The intensity of Katie’s passion for Luke is thoroughly convincing in all its romantic teenage naïveté. Elephant Beach is grungy in a ‘seen better days’ kind of way while the effects of the Vietnam War and its cast aside blue-collar vets, left to cope the best they can, are well drawn. What ever you choose to call it – linked short stories or novel – the small-town American setting with its tight-knit group of characters at its core drew me in and kept me engrossed to the end.

Black Lake: A sad story, quietly told

Cover imageI’ve a weakness for Irish writers many of whom seem to specialise in spare, almost terse yet elegant prose from which the occasional lyrical gem shines out. Colm Tóibín, John McGahern and William Trevor – whose The Story of Lucy Gault is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read – are amongst my favourite writers. Their work is often infused with melancholy. Hardly surprising given the sadness of much of their country’s history and it’s that past that throws a dark shadow in Johanna Lane’s first novel, the story of a family no longer able to maintain their nineteenth century Donegal estate.

Black Lake opens with an almost dreamlike chapter: the mother has taken her daughter from her boarding school, installed them both in the ballroom of the old house and locked the door. Their meals are left outside, the mother gives her daughter lessons and the father does nothing for what seems like months until, finally, the door is removed. In the ensuing chapters, Lane gently unfolds the events that have led to this unhappy state of affairs. John and Marianne met at university. Marianne the party girl and John the conservative, naive observer, always on the edge of things – they made an unlikely pair. Marianne’s ambivalence to Dulough, its grandeur and isolation a shock when John first revealed it to her, has turned to love for its beautiful gardens set against their mountain backdrop. John has carried the burden of Dulough’s declining finances for most of his adult life and has taken the only path open to him moving his family out as part of a deal with the government to open their home to the public. The move from the big house to a cottage on the estate unsettles the family, ultimately with tragic consequences.

At first, Lane alternates her narrative between John and eight-year-old Philip who tries to find ways to accept the sudden turn of events. John is kind but otherworldly – at times a little exasperating in his ineptness. So bowed down is he with the responsibilities of Dulough that he fails to see the effect of his actions on both his family and the Connollys, the housekeeper and gardener closer to him than he was to his own parents. History is everywhere in this novel from the evictions when the estate was established – still a scarcely healed scar on the village – to John’s decision to embroider Dulough’s past in a lie which offends the people he holds most dear. Lane expertly catches a sense of place and the powerful attachment where we live can evoke. It’s a tragic story, quietly told and all the more effective for that.

Happy Birthday Tinder Press!

Tinder PressLast week was the first birthday of Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline publishers. I remember being excited by the first clutch of titles they published and thought them very canny in transferring Maggie O’Farrell from the Headline Review imprint to Tinder for their launch title, Instructions for a Heatwave. I think they’ve every reason to celebrate. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished two Tinder Press novels, Brian Kimberling’s Snapper and Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove.

Snapper was part of that original tranche of enticing titles and I’ve no idea why it’s taken meSnapper so long to get around to reading it. It’s a first novel set in Indiana and narrated by Nathan Lochemueller, looking back to his misspent youth. Nathan’s a birdwatcher, the paid variety – but only just – rather than an amateur. He’s besotted with the lovely Lola, tends to drift towards liberal university towns and is having trouble growing up. He’s an endearing character, prone to mishap, who drives a whimsically decorated pickup called Gypsy Moth because Lola painted it, even though he knows in his heart she’s never going to choose him. His on again/ off again relationship with Lola is a bit like his relationship with Indiana, although perhaps that’s best described as love /hate. It’s the kind of state in which the people of small town Santa Claus answer letters from children but also one in which the KKK welcome the arrival of Nathan’s argumentative Texas-born uncle. Brian Kimberling, who hails from Indiana but no longer lives there which is probably just as well, has a flair for eye-catching phrases. It’s a colourfully episodic novel, often very funny, entertaining and sweet.

Cover imageThe Lemon Grove couldn’t be more different, and I nearly didn’t read it – a little too much anticipatory tweeting which seemed to go on for so long that I’d gone off the boil about it. A shame as it’s so good that had I read it before putting together Monday’s post I would have included it on my Baileys wish list. I have Naomi at The Writes of Women to thank for putting me right. It opens with Jenn and Greg preparing for their last evening alone in the lovely Mallorcan villa they’ve rented from Benni, whose nose is into everything that happens in Deia. They’re frequent visitors, welcome regulars in smart local restaurants, buyers of artisan cheese and olives – Benni the only fly in their idyllic ointment. This year is different – fifteen-year-old Emma, Jenn’s stepdaughter, is joining them bringing her seventeen-year-old boyfriend Nathan, much against her father’s will but with Jenn’s collusion. Emma is in the throes of adolescence with all the sniping, embarrassment and over sensitivity that brings. When they arrive, Jenn is unprepared and nonplussed by Nathan’s insouciant beauty. A flicker of lust grows into an obsession which no matter how much she tries to quash it grips Jenn like a vice. The sex is graphic but there’s nothing titillating about this book: Jenn’s narrative is raw, visceral and at times painful to read but it’s utterly compelling. Helen Walsh’s stripped down prose powerfully conveys the complexities of family relationships, marriage and growing older while maintaining the pace of a thriller.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her novel on Friday’s Baileys long list.

I’m never sure how important imprints are to other readers. They say something to me – I know for instance that I’m more likely to enjoy something published under the Picador imprint than Pan – but are they important to you?