Tag Archives: Tuesday Nights in 1980

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2017: Part One

Cover imageA plethora of paperbacks to look out for this March – enough to justify two posts – beginning with John Wray’s ambitious sounding The Lost Time Accidents. Waldemar Tolliver wakes up one day to find himself out of time – the world is still turning but he’s not turning with it. Wray’s novel ‘takes us from turn-of-the-century Viennese salons buzzing with rumours about Einstein’s radical new theory to the death camps of the Second World War, from the golden age of post-war pulp science fiction to a startling discovery in a modern-day Manhattan apartment packed to the ceiling with artefacts of contemporary life’ says the publisher which sounds intriguing, although that time slippage may take a bit of swallowing.

Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching also wanders around the twentieth century. A New York setting is usually enough to guarantee any novel a place on my list but this one sounds particularly attractive, apparently featuring the city itself as the main protagonist. From Walt Whitman in 1891 to Robert Mapplethorpe in 1967, from Robert Moses in 1922 to Edmund White in 2013, Bradbury’s novel is about the artists and writers who have made New York a city that captures the imagination. ‘Through the lives and perspectives of these great creators, artists and thinkers, and through other iconic works of art that capture its essence, New York itself solidifies. Complex, rich, sordid, tantalizing, it is constantly changing and evolving. Both intimate and epic in its sweep, Everyone is Watching is a love letter to New York and its people – past, present and future’ according to the publisher which suggests it Cover imagecould either be a great sprawling mess of a novel or a resounding success. We’ll see.

New York is the setting for Molly Prentiss’ Tuesday Nights in 1980 which begins on New Year’s Eve in 1979 when parties are being held all over the city. Connections will be set up at two of these which play out through the rest of this entertaining and absorbing novel: one thrown by the doyenne of the New York art world; the other much more uproarious, held at an artists’ squat. Prentiss tosses a few well-aimed barbs at the art market and its ever-increasing prices – even the most raggle taggle squatters succumb to the lure of money once it’s on offer, no matter how hard they justify their excesses.

Prentiss’ New York art scene is a world away from Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker but they do share the theme of creativity. A sculptor of exquisite wooden dolls and the mother of five children, Gertie has a modest ambition to own a small farm in the Kentucky hills but the family is forced to move to Detroit. Freedom and art are sacrificed to a grinding need for money in what the New York Times described as “A masterwork…A superb book of unforgettable strength and glowing richness”. Billed by the publishers that brought you Stoner and The Power of the Dog as a rediscovered American classic, Arnow’s novel sounds well worth investigating.

Cover imageMy last choice shares a rural setting with The Dollmaker – this time the Appalachians from where Ron Rash hails and the backdrop against which he sets his award-winning novels. Above the Waterfall is about Les Clary, the local sheriff approaching retirement who is faced with a final case which will see him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion. Beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties, Rash’s novel is utterly convincing.

That’s it for March’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with March’s new titles they’re here and here. Part two shortly…

Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss: Adventures in the New York art world

Cover imageWhat to read when you have a house full of carpenters and decorators? Even when they’re as polite, careful and quiet as they can be, they’re still disruptive. With the good old British rain pelting down outside there’s not much else to do but retreat to the one room whose windows are not being replaced, stick some earplugs in and find something that looks both absorbing and unchallenging. Molly Prentiss’ debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 with its catnip period New York setting seemed just the ticket.

It begins on New Year’s Eve, 1979. Parties are being held all over the city, two of them setting up connections which will play out through the rest of the novel. At one, thrown by a doyenne of the New York art world, James, an art critic for the New York Times who experiences the world in a multitude of trippy sensations and colours, is in attendance with his pregnant wife, Marge, the breadwinner of the two. He catches a glimpse of Raul, an Argentinian artist whose sister we’ve already met on her way to a political meeting in their home country in the novel’s prologue. James is momentarily distracted by Raul as is the party’s hostess who thinks she spots a great talent in the making. Raul takes himself off to a bar where he meets Lucy, a beautiful young woman from small town Idaho, new to the city, persuading her to come back with him to his squat where a much more uproarious party is in full swing. It’s a fateful night for all of them: Marge suffers an accident; Lucy falls head over heels in love; James’ fleeting sight of Raul in striking colours is the last time his synaesthesia will register, robbing him of his celebrated, idiosyncratic way of experiencing art.

Prentiss tells her story from the point of view of her three main protagonists in turn, bringing them closer together as their paths crisscross the New York art world. The novel hinges on fate and coincidence: when James wakes up to find his world drained of colour, he’s devastated but a chance viewing of Raul’s portrait of Lucy reawakens his synapses, leading him to make a terrible mistake later. Lucy’s presence in New York has been predicated on the flimsiest of signs. And everything happens on a Tuesday. It’s the kind of framework which can try my patience but I found myself sufficiently engrossed not to mind. Prentiss tosses a few well-aimed barbs at the art market and its ever-increasing prices – even the most raggle taggle squatters succumb to the lure of money once it’s on offer, no matter how hard they justify their excesses. All this unfolds against a backdrop of 1980s New York City – gritty, grubby and considerably more edgy pre-cleanup. The novel has its flaws – the impressionistic ‘Portrait’ sequences didn’t work for me – but all in all it’s an entertaining, absorbing read with a nice appearance from our old friend redemption at the end.

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.