I’ve had an extremely busy few weeks which explains why my ‘July round-up’ hasn’t appeared and we’re almost reaching the end of August. I am happy to say that I have got a new job and I hope this is a reasonable excuse for my blog-tardiness; I promise to be more committed in future. Think of this as more of a ‘what I’ve been reading lately…’
BOOKS READ (in the order I read them)
- If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go – Judy Chicurel*
- A Song For Issy Bradley – Carys Bray*
- The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton*
- The Opposite Of Loneliness – Marina Keegan*
- This Book Will Save Your Life – A.M. Homes
- These Days Are Ours – Michelle Haimoff*
- The Whole Day Through – Patrick Gayle
- Man At The Helm – Nina Stibbe*
- Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash*
So as you can see, it’s been a fruitful month and a half for me – I’ve been reading to retain by sanity through the recruitment process, I’ve also had a holiday and several long afternoons spent reading in the garden. Also, I was fortunate enough to receive a large number of advance review copies from some very generous publishers – I have starred these in the list. This is a fantastic time for new fiction with publishers are gearing up for that all important Christmas period; often publishers reserve their best new books for this season. Obviously having a dizzying array of new fiction to review is wonderful and I feel very privileged; although it does mean that I can also feel very overwhelmed by the towering, now swaying TBR (to be read) pile taking over my bedside table and that I find I career from one book to the next with little pattern or thought to what I’m reading and the order I am reading it. I like my reading process to be more organic – for me to read something wonderful and for that to set me on a path for subsequent books, whether by the same author, a writer that has been mentioned, a non-fiction book linked to the period in which the book was set or similar. I am going to make more of an effort to do this in future, however I did feel rather obliged to devour the feast of novels I had been sent by the aforementioned generous publishers first and to give them some decent reviews in return. Here goes…
A Song For Issy Bradley – Carys Bray
I had heard mixed reviews of this book, and I must say that I was put off by the title – I’m still not entirely sure it is right for the book. It adds a certain ‘twee-ness’ that this book just doesn’t have. This is the story of a Mormon family living in the UK – a mother Claire, Ian the father, two daughters (Issy and Zippy) and a son, Jacob. Their faith is severely tested when tragedy strikes and the family are forced to continue their enforced and often restrictive daily routine. Bray was brought up as a Mormon and remained devoted to the religion until her early 30s so she knows better than most the challenges, restrictions and daily pressures imposed on its followers. She writes children incredibly well; the voices of Zippy (a teenager) and Jacob are particularly strong; Bray explores their innermost thoughts and feelings with extraordinary dexterity and accuracy. The struggles of Claire, both to come to terms with her daughters death and to understand the teachings of the Mormon faith and her husband’s unwavering belief and devotion to the religion are agonisingly and painfully realistic. I found this book to be an incredibly moving and compelling read – be prepared for the rollercoaster of emotions that will be unleashed when you embark upon it. This novel is powerful, all-consuming, unrelenting.
The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
I completely fell in love with this book, despite deciding that I wasn’t going to like it when I first heard the premise. However not reading this book wasn’t an option; I had followed Jessie Burton’s incredible rise from when she was first signed just before London Book Fair 2013 to when the fantastic reviews began to roll in and the book gained momentum in the digital community so I had to see what all the fuss was about. I was worried that it wouldn’t quite live up to the hype but I needn’t have been concerned. The characters – particularly the females (Nella, Marin & Cornelia) – are so strong and alive, as a young woman I felt that Nella was instantly relatable, despite existing in Amsterdam over three centuries ago. The Vermeer-style tableau that Burton creates is so detailed; she creates an entire world which encapsulates all of the senses for the reader. Burton’s sensual descriptions of food, the smells, the textures, the colours are particularly strong and stood out for me in this novel. The plot is well-paced with just the right amount of tension – it stays consistently taut throughout. A fabulous, imaginative book which transcends the boundaries of historical fiction – memorable and beautiful.
This Book Will Save Your Life
A hilarious, farcical and darkly comic novel – exactly what I’ve come to expect from the fantastic Homes. Having read and adored ‘May We Be Forgiven’ last year (I literally pressed it onto everyone I know, it was one of my favourite books of 2013) I was expecting great things and the lady didn’t disappoint. The protagonist Richard is such an intriguing and complex character, he has an indefatigable desire and energy to use his wealth to help others so he sets about changing the lives of Anhil, owner of his local donut stop and a struggling housewife who he finds crying in the produce section of his local supermarket. Then he moves onto the hardest of the lot – his difficult teenage son Ben who through divorce and distance he has neglected for much of his life. The book is set in LA and Santa Monica and along various stretches of the pacific coast highway. We meet many interesting characters along the way – a lonely Hollywood film star who is desperate to make friends, a reclusive, ageing scriptwriter who invites Bob Dylan over for drinks on his terrace and Richard’s terrifying ex-wife, a powerful publisher who won’t break her rigid routine for anyone or anything.Richard frequently finds himself in absurd and comical situations in which he unwittingly ends up playing a key role. There is lots of warmth in this novel, endless witty one-liners and some memorable characters. Do not hesitate to pick it up.
Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash
This fantastic debut collection from New Yorker Tom Barbash follows the classic American short story tradition established by giants such as John Cheever and Raymond Carver but gives them a sexy , modern edge. Barbash explores the messy lives of a handful of New Yorkers of varying ages and occupations during periods of change and flux in their lives – a son growing up, a marriage ending, a relationship starting. It deals largely in the fracturing of relationships; between parents and children, husband and wife, through growth, through death, through jealousy and infidelity. Many of the stories are set at night; a technique which serves to emphasise the darkness (both actually and metaphorically) the bleakness, the loneliness and often a loss of hope which we see in the characters.
My favourites were The Break – an erotically charged story of a single mother who struggles to come to terms with the very adult behaviour of her student son and believes him to be too good for the older woman waitress he has fallen for. Balloon Night is also painfully memorable (this is available to read for free over on Bookanista) – it is the story of Timkin and his annual thanksgiving ‘open house’ during which he keeps up the pretence of marriage, despite his wife having left him two days before.
The stories are masterfully crafted, Barbash has carefully selected and pondered every word. The prose is subtle, uncluttered but devastatingly powerful. Reading this book brought to mind Hemingway’s famous quote:
All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.
One feels that Barbash has made this his aim. The prose has that James Salter quality about it – like Salter, Barbash is able to sum up a whole life, a childhood, a marriage, in a few sparse sentences. This is a quality that many writers strive for but few successfully achieve.
These are best enjoyed late at night, one at a time so they can be savoured; they linger in the imagination long after you have finished reading them. This is truly one of the most impressive short story collections I have come across in the last 5 years – there isn’t a dud story to be found, it can be read cover to cover. Upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to return to my favourites and did so, underlining my favourite sentences. I met Tom at the launch of the book and he was extremely humble, he mentioned that he is currently writing his first novel called The Dakota Winters, which will tell the story of a family living in the Dakota building in the year leading up to the assassination of John Lennon. This is a key moment in his own life; Tom grew up just 5 blocks from the now infamous building in New York. I would urge you to seek out this collection and put Tom Barbash firmly on your reading agenda – I think we will be in for a treat with the novel. Here are some of my favourite paragraphs:
One night, as they entered a restaurant for a late-night supper, Alice in a tight satin T-shirt and narrow black skirt, hair pulled back in a spiky bun, Henry lazily self-assured in the tan suede shirt Alice picked out for him, Alice’s hand in his rear jeans pocked, he paused to imagine what they must look like in their just-fucked bliss: like the kind of people you’d die to be (from Stay Up With Me)
“Two weeks later, in Venice, I proposed. She was probably the most beautiful woman I’d ever met,” he said. “And far and away the most perceptive. It’s like she’d lived a thousand lives because of all the books she read. It sometimes made me uneasy.”
“Because I couldn’t hide the way I could with other women.” (from The Women)
The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan
Firstly, a note on the cover. It’s stunning – a small format hardback with french folds, a simple photograph of Marina, bold blocky white text – rarely do you see a cover so well executed in relation to the content of a book. The publisher has got this spot on. For those of you who haven’t heard of this book, it is a collected of essays and short stories by a promising young Yale student, Marina Keegan, who 5 days after graduating was tragically killed in a car accident. This obviously means that her body of work (which, for somebody so young was substantial and impressive – she had completed internships at The Paris Review and The New Yorker and was due to start a job at the later following graduation) has acquired an almost inpenetrable level of sadness, of tragedy. I attempted to block this out when reading these pieces, I wanted to treat them objectively and rate them on their merit alone. This is hard as you can imagine – Keegan writes with so much freedom, her style is fresh, brimming with wide-eyed optimism and has a fearless quality which I found utterly heartbreaking. Most affecting is her eponymous opening essay, The Opposite of Loneliness
We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective consciousness as we lie alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialised. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement.
And her story Cold Pastoral about a young student coming to terms with the death of her sometime-boyfriend
But it became clear very quickly that I’d underestimated how much I liked him…Brian’s death was the clearest and most horrifying example of my terrific obsession with the unattainable. Alive, his biggest flaw was most likely that he liked me. Dead, his perfections were clearer.
But I’m not being fair. The fact of the matter is I felt a strange but recognisable hole that grew just behind my lungs. There was a person whose eyes and neck and penis I had kissed the night before and this person no longer existed.
As for the others, in summary:
If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful… – Judy Chicurel
The publisher is taking a risk with this ambitiously long title. This book is very atmospheric and instantly and effortlessly establishes a sense of place – it is set at Elephant Beach during the Summer of 1972. It features an intriguing and complex female protagonist Katie alongside a whole cast of well developed and memorable characters. However I found it difficult to connect fully with this book, I wasn’t sure what the writer was aiming for; each chapter offers an illuminating and often grim snapshot of life being played out but the plot lacked an overarching narrative tension to make it compelling. There is a lot to like here however – fans of music from the period will enjoy the frequent and detailed music references and it explores a period of history and themes – post Vietnam war, traumatised young men – not often dealt with in literature. This novel is due out in October and I will be interested to see the reception it receives.
These Days Are Ours – Michelle Haimoff
This novel has already attracted comparisons to GIRLS because it is set in New York and features a collection of exuberant, young and reckless graduates. However one you begin reading you realise it is quite un-like GIRLS because it focuses purely on the upper classes; the trust-fund kids of NYC who live in their parents’ penthouse apartments, wear designer clobber, are constantly bouncing from the coolest new clubs, dabbling in drugs, paying their way into internships, paying their way out of trouble. This novel wasn’t for me; I found the protagonist to be very shallow and all of the action happens on the surface; nothing is left unsaid (and we know how I relish in the unsaid). I disliked characters intensely, I found them annoying and their occasional bouts of rich-kid ‘guilt’ glaringly insincere. In this way it reminded me of Adelle Waldman’s THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P, a novel I couldn’t connect with but one that critics and readers showered with praise. However this will appeal if you enjoy getting a glimpse into the lives of glamorous American twenty-somethings (if you enjoyed Sophia Coppola’s BLING RING, or are feeling nostalgic about The O.C) it definitely has a voyeurism which has the potential to draw in readers. It also has a beautifully designed, instagram-style cover which wouldn’t look out of place on the trendy, minimalist bookshelves of an expensively-lit, exposed-brick NY apartment.