Tag Archives: Windmill Books

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume: Spring summer autumn winter

Cover imageThe trouble with marketing is its constant use of superlatives – too much hype. We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me. Hard to find words that will do it justice without floundering around in a sea of hyperbole but I’ll try.

Fifty-seven-year-old Ray lives alone. He’s a misfit – shambling, limping, barely able to string a sentence together in public, his greasy plait trailing down his back. On one of his weekly forays into the village where he’s lived all his life he spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. At the dog pound he finds the terrier, bad-tempered and alone, about to face the chop. Ray’s after a ratter, a dog who will keep the infestation of rats which have plagued the house he shared with his father at bay, and takes One Eye, as he christens the disfigured mutt, home with him. Soon this odd pair are inseparable. When One Eye’s terrier nature comes out, savaging a collie then a shih tzu with a little boy in tow, the dog warden knocks at their door. Appalled at the prospect of losing the only friend he’s ever had, Ray packs up the car and drives off into an unexplored world. As these two make their way through autumn into winter until the money runs out, Ray confides his sad story in One Eye.

As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s a slim novel but I found myself pulling out quote after quote. Crabs have ‘spots and spiked edges like pinking shears’; Ray’s hairdresser neighbour’s ‘gone on holidays and taken the hum of the hood dryers with her’; ‘Oystercatchers with their startled eyes, redshanks scurrying tetchily on strawberry legs, little egrets freshly laundered, whiter than white’ populate the shoreline. ‘I’m a boulder of a man. Shabbily dressed and sketchily bearded. Steamrollered features and iron filing stubble’ thinks Ray, introducing himself to One Eye, sure that he smells ‘more must and porridge and piss, I suspect, than sugar and apples and soap’. ‘Now you are my third leg, an unlimping leg, and I am the eye you lost’ poignantly captures Ray’s relationship with his dog. He’s a ‘wonkety’ man, afraid to be with people and painfully sensitive to what they think of his strangeness. The novel ends with a wonderfully vivid epilogue which almost mirrors its gut-wrenching prologue. It’s a gorgeous book – the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality. Dazzling, stunning, truly original – all those over used superlatives apply but this time they fit and I was delighted to see that Baume won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature the other week.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen: A touch of the Anne Tylers

Still Life with BreadcrumbsNot so long ago I had a run of heart-wrenching reads so it’s a pleasure to report that Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Breadcrumbs is in the opposite corner. Not that there were any guarantees that it would be – I remember two of her previous books, Black and Blue and One True Thing, being quite harrowing at times – but this particular novel reminded me of Anne Tyler: acutely observed, entertainingly  written and a pleasure to read.

It opens with what might be a gunshot, although it turns out not to be. Rebecca Winter is lying in the bedroom of the rundown cottage she’s rented for a year. Divorced, almost sixty and with ailing parents, she’s sublet her New York apartment in an attempt to eke out her meagre income from her diminishing royalties. Rebecca’s a photographer, made famous by the eponymous photograph of her kitchen after yet another impromptu dinner sprung on her by her then husband who never felt it was part of the deal to help clear up. The gunshot, she realises, was the springing of a trap set by the local roofer, Jim Bates, to capture whatever was making the skittering noise on her roof the previous night. Urban to the bone, Rebecca find adjusting to small town New York State hard but money is tight and needs must. She gets to know Sarah, an anglophile tea shop owner; Tad, a professional clown with an operatic voice and of course, Jim, the taciturn roofer. She begins to find things to photograph, the most intriguing being a series of white crosses adorned with memorabilia. Then, one winter’s night when the snow is so deep she’s unable to open her door, Jim arrives to dig her out. There are no real surprises in the way things turn out but the way we get there is thoroughly enjoyable.

Quindlen has a nice line in wry observation and a smart turn of phrase: Rebecca’s dilapidated cottage is the ‘real estate version of online dating, built atop lies, leading downhill to disenchantment’. Dry, often very funny, asides and observations on characters and what happens to them are woven through her narrative together with lots of pleasing little trails leading off into side stories often finishing ‘but that was later’. Every character has a story and the loquacious Sarah makes sure that Rebecca knows them all. All of this lifts Quindlen’s novel well above the sentimental while remaining firmly in heart warming territory. It’s a treat, and it’s made me want to pick up her backlist and read the ones I’ve missed.

Democracy at work?

Still from performance of This HouseFor those of us who don’t live in London the National Theatre’s link up with the Picturehouse cinema group is a godsend. Last night we went to see the much lauded This House, partly in the line of duty for H but also for some stonking entertainment. The play opens in 1974. Edward Heath has called a snap election, Parliament is now hung with Labour having the thinnest of majorities and so a coalition of sorts must be formed – is this ringing any bells? It’s set in the whips’ office of both parties so that we’re privy to the constant slipping and sliding of the coalition, and the increasingly desperate measures taken by Labour to cling to power. It’s a remarkable piece of work, totally gripping from its start to its poignant end in 1979 when the Conservative motion of no confidence in the government is won by a single vote and, well, you know the rest. A superb performance, made all the more interesting by the intermission chat with Ann Taylor, now Baroness Taylor of Bolton, Labour’s sole female whip at the time who proved herself to be anything but token. Apparently, the play has been hugely popular amongst politicians of all persuasions. Can’t wait to see what James Graham goes on to write next.

It felt slightly odd to be plunged into the world of rotary dial telephones and kipper ties after spending all day immersed in Jonathan Lee’s Joy where everyone has a Blackberry, a personalCover image trainer and Marc Jacobs handbags are de rigueur. Don’t be deceived by the novel’s title: this sharp satire has very little to do with happiness. Joy is the deeply ironic name of its main character, a beautiful, successful young corporate lawyer who has fallen to the pavement from the balcony of her City office and lies in a coma. From the off, hints are dropped that Joy plans to kill herself the following day and as that day progresses it’s clear that there are many reasons other than her husband’s sexual peccadilloes and their flagging sex life for her unhappiness. Her job is relentless in its demands and pointless in its purpose, her colleagues are self absorbed, she has had an affair with her best friend’s husband but the hardest to bear is the disappearance of her five-year-old nephew on a trip to Wimbledon while in Joy’s care five years ago. Lee expertly unfolds his narrative, leading his readers up cul-de-sacs only to reveal their purpose several chapters later. We learn about those who seem to think they knew Joy in their sessions with a counsellor which alternate with her own account. It’s a structure that could easily have backfired but Lee handles it deftly so that each narrative throws light on the other, allowing characters to reveal themselves rather than relying on clunky descriptions. There’s a good deal of black humour in their self revelations and the novel is peppered with nicely comic throwaway remarks. The whole coheres beautifully, leading readers entertainingly to the novel’s shocking and sobering conclusion. Highly recommended, and out in paperback in the first week of June.


Another day, another prize list

The Authors’ Club Best First Novel shortlist has just been announced, not one that’s likely to send many readers rushing to check out who’s on it but it’s well worth a look. The prize was established in 1954 and although many of the winners have sunk into obscurity some went on to have a very respectable degree of success. Brian Moore, Alan Sillitoe and Jennifer Johnston were early winners while Dan Rhodes, Mick Jackson and Susan Fletcher are more recent successes. It’s chosen from reports submitted by club members rather than publishers. Twelve of the submissions are put to a judging panel for the shortlist then it’s the job of a guest adjudicator to pick the winner. This year’s shortlist is a lively, varied and interesting one, but then they usually are. I’m always on the look out for interesting debuts and so it’s a prize close to my heart.

Cover imageTess Callahan’s April and Oliver is a debut which has been sitting on my ‘to be read’ shelves for quite some time. I’m usually a sucker for small town American novels but this one has such an insipid cover that everything else seemed more interesting. A shame, as it turns out to be an enjoyable and absorbing novel about the attraction between two step cousins – April, who’s abuse by a family friend has left her unable to have a relationship with any man other than one who beats her and Oliver, a thoroughly nice man engaged to a thoroughly nice woman but unable to shrug off his feelings for April. Nothing to set the world on fire but it’s deserving of a wider audience than its dismal Amazon ranking suggests it has. First novels are difficult to sell unless they’re in the media spotlight, awarded the Costa First Novel Award or the subject of an expensive Cover imagemarketing campaign usually reserved for big names. Readers have a limited amount of cash and want to feel sure that they’re buying something they can look forward to, the safest bet being a track record. But publishers could help by packaging a first novel as if they had faith in it otherwise it’s likely to sink without trace. If you want to see a debut novel with a jacket which shouts ‘pick up this book’, take a look at Warpaint by Alicia Foster. Set in the dark days of 1942, it throws light on the rarely explored work of women artists and the world of wartime propaganda, both covert and public, all with the pace of a page turning thriller. You really can judge this book by its excellent cover.