Tag Archives: Upstairs at the Party

Books to Look Out for In November 2016

Swing TimeA new Zadie Smith novel is always the cause of a great deal of pre-publication anticipation. Twitter has been all agog for some time ensuring that Swing Time will turn up in quite a few Christmas stockings. Moving between Smith’s home territory of north-west London to West Africa and New York, it spans the years from the 1980s to the present following two childhood friends who meet at a ballet class. ‘Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them’ say the publishers which reminds me of Kim Echlin’s wonderful, Under the Invisible Life, a novel which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.

The subject of Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out is something of an attention-grabber. It looks at assisted suicide through the experiences of Evan, a hospital nurse who helps people to die, something he keeps firmly under his hat from his friends. A tricky love life, his increasingly unwell mother and his supervisor’s concerns as he sails ever-closer to the wind in terms of morality and law add further spice in what the publishers describe as ‘a brilliantly funny and exquisitely sad novel that gets to the heart of one of the most difficult questions each of us may face: would you help someone die?’ ‘Brilliantly funny’ may be the best approach to engage readers with this dilemma with which many countries, including the UK, frequently wrestle but never manage to resolve.Cover image

Mette Jakobsen’s What the Light Hides explores suicide but in a rather different way. Vera and David live in the Blue Mountains, still passionately in love after twenty years of marriage. Jakobsen’s novel begins five months after their son apparently took his own life in Sydney where he was at university. Vera is coping but David cannot accept his son’s death, taking himself off to Sydney to try to make sense of things. ‘Mette Jakobsen’s gifts of delicate and empathetic observation are on display in this tender and moving novel’ say the publishers. I’ve read several excellent novels from the Australian Text Publishing and have high hopes for this one.

Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle sounds a world away from her last novel Upstairs at the Party which I loved. It’s set against the backdrop of a TB sanatorium in Kent at the beginning of the 1950s, where a teenage brother and sister ’living on the edge of the law… … discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched’ according to the publisher. I haven’t enjoyed all of Grant’s novels but this sounds well worth a try.

Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love is set in another kind of hospital, just outside Stockholm. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but it’s been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Gerard Reve’s The Evenings is set in one of my favourite European cities which is one of its draws for me. It’s the story of ten evenings in the life of Frits van Egters as he walks the streets of post-war Amsterdam. That may seem a tad dull but it’s been voted one of the greatest novels of all time by the highly literary Dutch. Described by the publishers as ‘edgy, mesmerising, darkly ironical’ it sounds quite intriguing.

Cover imageMy last choice for November is Brad Watson’s Miss Jane which was inspired by the true story of Watson’s great-aunt, Jane Chisolm, born in rural Mississippi in the early twentieth century with, as the publishers put it, a ‘genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage’. ‘From the country doctor who adopts Jane to the hard tactile labour of farm life from the sensual and erotic world of nature around her to the boy who loved but was forced to leave her, the world of Miss Jane Chisolm is anything but barren’ continues the blurb. It sounds like an uplifting read which after several of the novels listed above may come as something of a welcome change.

That’s it for November. As ever a click on the title will take you to a full synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2015

Cover imageI’ve read all but two of July’s selection of paperbacks and reviewed four of them which makes this an easy post for me. I’ll start with one I haven’t read but have been eagerly anticipating: Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and before you castigate me for that missing ‘u’, that’s the way it’s spelt on the jacket. All four of the eponymous Tsukuru’s schoolfriends’ names have a colour in them: he is the odd one out. After they all turn their backs on him he fails to connect with anyone until he meets Sara. As ever with Murakami, I’m sure there’s much more to it than that.

Josh Emmons’ debut, The Loss of Leon Meed, has largely earned its place here because it comes from The Friday Project whose books are always worth a look rather than its seemingly ubiquitous Jonathan Franzen recommendation. Popping up inexplicably and in the strangest of situations, Leon Meed brings together ten disparate residents of Eureka, California, previously unknown to each other, each of whom has witnessed his appearances and each of whom wants to share their experiences. ‘A canny status report on the American Soul’, according to the Los Angeles Times.

I’ve read but not reviewed Katherine Hill’s The Violet Hour in which Abe throws himself overboard after confronting Cassandra with her infidelity leaving her and her teenage daughter aboard their pilotless yacht. Theirs was an apparently perfect marriage, a fulfilment of the American dream, but Hill’s novel goes on to reveal otherwise. A classy summer read – just the thing for lazing around which is why I took it on my own holiday then failed to get around to reading it.

Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights is also a portrait of a relationship which is not quiteAll the Days and Nights what it seems. Narrated by Anna Brown, a celebrated portrait painter, it begins with a cry of anguish at the disappearance of John – husband, lover and the subject of many of her paintings. Anna has told her housekeeper that John is merely in town picking up art supplies but she knows that this is no short absence. Slowly – sometimes in vibrant word pictures, sometimes obliquely – a picture of John and the life they have lived together emerges through Anna’s memories and imaginings. It’s a short novel that repays attentive reading.

Much longer, unsurprisingly given its name, The Hundred-Year House is Rebecca Makkai’s backward looking history of Laurelfield which we first enter as a family home, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional family. You may know Makkai’s name from her lovely, engaging first novel, The Borrower, the story of a librarian who goes on the run with her favourite customer, a ten-year-old boy whose Evangelical mother is worried about his sexuality. Her second is entirely different, but just as entertaining.

As is Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party which had me absorbed from start to finish. It’s a novel about a particular generation, my own, and many of her characters are all too recognisable. This is the second novel in which Grant puts the baby-boomers under the microscope. The first, the hugely enjoyable We Had it So Good, is about the first wave who matured in the 1960s rather than us tail-enders. Upstairs at the Party has some familiar Grant hallmarks – young Jewish girl rebelling against her mother, a much-loved uncle figure, an attention to clothes – and is also a thoroughly absorbing, if darker, read. Hard to untangle my own enjoyment from nostalgia but if you’ve liked Grant’s other novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.

Cover imageMy final choice is Emily Gould’s Friendship which didn’t seem to me to get as much attention as it deserved in hardback. We talk about relationship breakups but not the breakup of a friendship although they can be almost as heartbreaking, and in some cases more so. Gould’s novel makes no bones about its subject – it’s obvious from the title – but it’s about much more than that. Through the lens of Bev and Amy’s friendship she examines what it’s like to emerge from your twenties in the modern world, still unsure of what to do with your life.

That’s it for July paperbacks. A click on the title of the three books I haven’t reviewed will take you to Waterstone’s website for a fuller synopsis. If you want to see what I’ve picked out in hardback for July you can find part one here and part two here.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

It’s that time of year again. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges are putting the finishing touches to their longlist, due to be announced shortly. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2014 and March 31st 2015 qualify for the award. It’s the one prize I pay attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed. What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. A few of the titles are a bit out of the way but I’d like to think a sprinkling of them will appear. I’ve followed the same format as last year with thanks to Jackie at Farm Lane Books for coming up with such a simple but striking presentation. I’ve restricted myself to novels that I’ve read and there’s a link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2015 Baileys Prize:

Ridely Road                                       The Miniaturist                     Academy Street

Cover imageCover imageAcademy Street

Mr Mac and Me                         Our Endless  Numbered Days               Friendship

Cover imageCover image      Friendship

Upstairs at the Party                      Black Lake                                 The Lost Child

Cover imageCover imageThe Lost Child

Bodies of Light                          When the Night Comes In  After Me Comes the Flood

Bodies of LightWhen the Night ComesCover image

A God in Every Stone                         Some Luck                     A Spool of Blue Thread

A God in Every StoneCover imageCover image

Weathering                                  The Lightning Tree                 The Heroes’ Welcome

Cover imageCover imageThe Heroes' Welcome

I’m sure there will be omissions and inclusions that some of you feel passionately about. I’ve heard good things about Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, for instance, which is working its way up to the top of my pile. Do let me know what you think.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant: Familar territory for some of us

Cover imageThere’s a very clear, concise disclaimer at the beginning of Linda Grant’s new novel – ‘This novel is inspired by a particular time in my own life, but the characters and the events are the product of my imagination.’ Whether under instructions from the legal department or because of her own concerns she reiterates it in the acknowledgements at the back of the book, and I’m not surprised. It’s a novel about a particular generation, my own, and many of her characters are all too recognisable. This is the second novel in which Grant puts the baby-boomers under the microscope. The first, the hugely enjoyable We Had it So Good, is about the first wave who matured in the 1960s rather than us tail-enders. Upstairs at the Party has some familiar Grant hallmarks – young Jewish girl rebelling against her mother, a much loved uncle figure, an attention to clothes – and is also a thoroughly absorbing, if darker, read. Hard to untangle my own enjoyment from nostalgia but if you’ve liked Grant’s other novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.

Narrated by Adele Ginsberg, it begins with her chequered history. Adele is the spoiled daughter of an exuberant charmer who robbed, conned and embezzled to give her everything she wanted and a mother who looks grimly on while finding solace in her friends, united in their stoic acceptance of their men and all their faults. When one of his schemes backfires, her father hangs himself and Adele’s life changes: no more promise of a glittering future. Then she hatches a scheme worthy of her father – she and her mother send a copy of her prize-winning poem to every Ginsberg they know, including Allen from whom she receives a postcard addressing her as ‘cousin’. She sends a copy to a northern university (Grant went to York – see what I mean about the legal department) in the hope that they will ignore her dodgy A-Levels and admit her, which they do. Cue snort from H, my very own in-house academic – but this was the ’70s. Set in what might as well be the middle of nowhere, the university leaves its students to their own devices – none of this loco in parentis stuff as Adele discovers later. Soon a group of friends forms: Gillian, the innocent ripe for radicalisation; Dora, the fiercely idealistic Marxist bent on revolution; Rose, quietly well-connected but determinedly socialist; Bobby, gay and equally determinedly decadent; while Adele remains the enigmatic outsider – a little hard-nosed – who never reveals her own past. Early on she encounters the androgynous Evie/Stevie and becomes fascinated with the ethereally beautiful Evie apparently in thrall to her dominating male counterpart who has an opinion on everything. What lies behind the pivotal event that takes place at Adele’s twentieth birthday party and the mystery of Evie/Stevie is finally unravelled forty years later when their relationship is revealed as very much more complex than it first appeared.

The structure of Grant’s novel is one which I find perennially appealing – a group of young people form intense friendships then we follow them through their lives into adulthood as they deal with vicissitudes of life. Meg Wolitzer did this beautifully last year in The Interestings. Here, Adele and her fascination with Evie is the constant while other characters flit in and out of her life. Towards the end, the surviving members of her group are brought together satisfyingly at a university reunion although Brian seemed a little out of place to me, perhaps brought into make a few points. The characterisation is spot on – readers of a certain age are likely to find themselves both smiling and cringing in recognition – and there’s a nicely wry wit running through it all. As she did in We Had it So Good, Grant has things to say about the boomers and takes the odd swipe at modern life too. It’s a very satisfying read – I wonder what she’ll have in her sights next.

This isn’t the first  novel which made me come over all nostalgic this year. Louise Levene’s excellent The Following Girls took me back to my school days in February. Are there any novels that resonated with your own childhood or youth recently, and if so, would you like to share them with me?