Social Creature: Tara Isabella Burton

★★★½

What lengths would you go to for the perfect lifestyle? For Louise Wilson, even a mediocre life would be an improvement. At the age of twenty-nine, she’s lost faith in her New York dreams: her goal of becoming a great writer has lost its lustre, crowded out by the humiliating necessity of three minimum-wage jobs; a grotty apartment in a far-flung, seedy part of the city; and the patronising solicitude of her parents, back in New Hampshire, who hope she’ll return and marry her belittling childhood sweetheart. And then she meets Lavinia. Sparkling, daring, hedonistic Lavinia, who goes to all the good parties and knows everyone; who catalogues her life in breathless detail on the internet and who gives Louise a glimpse of a world she never dreamed of entering. And, once in it, Louise realises that she’ll do pretty much anything to avoid having to leave.

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The Driveway Has Two Sides: Sara Marchant

★★★

Time for another Fairlight Modern novella! This time we’re off to a remote island on the east coast of America, to a world of crisp winter winds and pines, and sudden summer influxes of tourists; a world where the year-round residents all know everyone else’s secrets and newcomers are watched with suspicion. And the gossiping islanders have plenty to occupy them now, because an old rental cottage has just been sold to the young and beautiful Delilah. The neighbours wonder about her story (and her morals), gleefully scandalised while Delilah rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the business of transforming her little cottage into a home. But she swiftly realises that she isn’t the only mystery on the island. What about the man who lives in the yellow house next door, with whom she shares a driveway, but who hardly ever comes out into the world?

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: Marina Lewycka

★★★

Thirteen years after it exploded into the bestseller charts, I’ve got around to reading this quirky tale of feuding sisters, immigration appeals and late-life love. Nadia and her older sister Vera are of Ukrainian heritage: their parents moved to Britain after the Second World War, fleeing the brutality of Stalin’s agricultural reforms. They’ve never been close: in fact, they’ve been engaged in a feud for the last two years over the division of their late mother’s assets. But things change abruptly when they hear troubling news. Their eighty-four-year-old father has fallen in love. He’s going to get married again, to Valentina, a pneumatic, blonde, thirty-six-year-old Ukrainian divorcee. Alarm bells start ringing, and Nadia and Vera find themselves forced into a stiff entente as they embark on a mission to protect their vulnerable Pappa – a quest which might just end up in them learning more about themselves along the way.

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The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

★★★

In the midst of a boring New York summer in 1969, the four Gold children sneak out of their apartment and head off in search of a clairvoyant who’s set up shop in their neighbourhood. They’ve heard that she can tell you the day on which you’re going to die. Egging each other on, they go one by one into the woman’s shabby rented apartment where, one by one, they’re each given a date. Out on the sidewalk once again, it no longer seems like such a laugh. The four children – pragmatic Varya; curious Daniel; fragile Klara; and little Simon – return home, each of them overshadowed by the length or brevity of their allotted futures. Surely, they tell themselves, it’s all a load of rubbish? But, as the years unfold, each of the Gold siblings will find themselves following a different path, more or less clearly determined by the clairvoyant’s eerie predictions.

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The Summer Without Men: Siri Hustvedt

★★★½

And news of a summer reading project!

With a certain sense of irony, I alighted on Siri Hustvedt’s novel. Acerbic, witty and intellectual, it tells the story of an emotionally tumultuous summer in the life of the poet Mia Fredricksen. Married for thirty years, she is blindsided when her husband Boris announces that he wants a ‘pause’, a euphemism that Mia can decipher only too well: ‘The Pause was French … She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses and an excellent mind.‘ Distraught and incandescent, Mia heads back to her childhood home – the town of Bonden in Minnesota – where she grieves, regroups and contemplates that eternally mysterious disconnect between the sexes. But, while her rift with Boris frames the novel, Mia’s time in Bonden gives her a fresh perspective on life, focused on the multifarious nature of female friendship.

P.S. Looking for more about that reading project? Scroll down to the end…

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There Are Things I Know: Karen B. Golightly

★★★½

Time for another novella from the Fairlight Moderns series, this time the tale of a little boy named Pepper. He’s eight years old, used to live with his mother in Memphis, Tennessee, and knows that he doesn’t see the world in quite the same way as other people. He dislikes loud noises, finds it difficult to read people’s emotions but finds numbers very easy to tackle: indeed, counting often keeps him calm when the chaos of the world threatens to overwhelm him. Now Pepper lives with Uncle Dan in Arkansas, but he’s having trouble adapting. In fact, he’s beginning to suspect that Uncle Dan isn’t really his uncle at all. But how can one lost little boy get hold of his mother when the only phone number he knows is missing its crucial three-digit area code?

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Secret Passages in a Hillside Town: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

★★★

Olli Suominen, an absent-minded publisher, lives in Jyväskylä in Central Finland, where he spends his days trying to find new authors for his firm, serving on the parish council, and losing umbrellas. His marriage is losing its sparkle and, when an old flame erupts onto the Finnish literary scene with a compelling new self-help guide, Olli finds himself being dragged back into memories of childhood summers, when he was a member of a band of children based on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. But the blissful adventure of those summers hides darker memories of torment, transformation and loss, all mixed up with the secret passages that run below this unassuming hill town. I sometimes got the feeling that Jääskeläinen was trying to do too much at once, but it’s certainly a unique novel with its own peculiar flavour.

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Nutshell: Ian McEwan

★★★★

Imagine that you’re privy to a murder plot: a fiendish, heinous plan to kill your father. Imagine that one of the conspirators is your own mother. Even worse, her accomplice is your uncle, your father’s own brother, who has slipped happily between the prematurely-vacated bed-sheets. And imagine, in this horrific scenario, that there’s absolutely nothing you can do but listen as the scheme unfolds along its pernicious course. That’s the fate of our narrator in this brilliant, playful novel, who is rendered powerless by virtue of being a nine-month-old foetus within his mother’s womb. A cross between Hamlet and Look Who’s Talking really shouldn’t work, but this does, triumphantly: it’s one of the most sumptuously-written books I’ve read in ages.

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Inside the Bone Box: Anthony Ferner

★★★★

In this day and age, with independent bookshops and small publishers closing in swathes, it’s a joy to hear of a newly-founded enterprise: Fairlight Books in Oxford. At one year old, they’re just about to release a series of five novellas in their Fairlight Moderns series and I was delighted to have a sneak peek. I decided to start with Inside the Bone Box, because it focused on a doctor and that appealed in the wake of Adam Kay’s diaries. It’s the story of consultant neurosurgeon Nicholas Anderton, whose burgeoning obesity has already threatened his marriage and now raises very serious questions about his professional capabilities. Meanwhile his wife, Alyson, has her own demons to fight. It soon becomes clear that the ‘bone box’ of the title isn’t just the skull, within which the brain-self resides, but also the prisons we build for ourselves, trapping ourselves within excess flesh or addictions.

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Bite-Sized Fiction

Bite-Sized Books

I’m thoroughly enjoying this bite-sized books theme. It’s given me the chance to leap in at the deep end with all sorts of books, offering a taster of different genres or themes that might lead on to new explorations, but which don’t require too much investment of time or money. So here’s a further selection of stories to see you through commutes or short journeys. They include tales by some of the great names of modern literature, several of whom I hadn’t encountered before, namely William Trevor, Anita Brookner (shameful, I know), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. From works of searing feminism to bittersweet studies of modern life and reworked fairy stories, there’s something here for everyone.

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