The Bookish Life of Nina Hill: Abbi Waxman

★★★

My book club has already thrown up several choices that take me outside my usual reading habits. Following on from Liar’s Candle, this month’s selection is a light and bubbly piece of biblio-chick-lit. Nina Hill is an attractive, kooky, bookish 29-year-old singleton, who works in a bookstore (of course she does), and lives alone with her cat (naturally) in a picturesque suburb of Los Angeles. She plans her life with military precision, but as the book starts she’s about to encounter two major curveballs that threaten to disrupt her cherished schedule. One curveball is Tom, the cute guy in the rival team at trivia night (aka pub-quiz night for Brits). The other, potentially more shattering, is news that Nina’s father has died. This comes as something of a shock, since she never knew who her father was. As she embarks on this terrifyingly unpredictable new chapter of her life, she must push herself to her limits, forcing herself out of the comfort zone she has so painstakingly created for herself. Will it be worth it?

Continue reading

The Garrick Year: Margaret Drabble

★★★½

Before I focus on the novel, I have to flag the wonderful shop in which I bought it: the Eagle Bookshop in Bedford, one of the largest and most welcoming second-hand bookshops I’ve visited in quite some time. Having recently moved to bigger premises, it’s thriving, with creative writing sessions, poetry readings and other literary events. If you live in or near Bedford, or find yourself in town with half an hour spare, I thoroughly recommend it. I came away with a modest stash, which allowed me to tread the fine line between supporting physical bookshops (on one hand) and (on the other) respecting the fact I have no book space left in my flat. It required great self-control. The first to catch my eye was this slim volume: Margaret Drabble’s second novel, written in 1964 when she was only twenty-five. Following a group of London actors as they decamp to Hereford for an arts festival, it’s a sharp and merciless tale of boredom, pretension and infidelity, notable for its acerbic and entitled narrator.

Continue reading

Conversations with Friends: Sally Rooney

★★★★

Sally Rooney’s debut novel was a phenomenon. It got people talking, tapping into the zeitgeist in a way that catapulted it onto bestseller tables and lists. Now it’s on the verge of being turned into a BBC series. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid reading it until now; not a conscious choice, I hasten to add, but simply the accident of having too many books and not enough time. It was worth the wait, though I must confess that my primary emotion on finishing it was relief that I am no longer of Frances’s and Bobbi’s generation. How exhausting it all seems in retrospect: the relentless posturing; the confusion of sarcasm with chic; the vulnerability of not yet knowing who you are; and the conviction that identity can only be discovered by taking on the world alone, anew, afresh. And how perfectly Rooney writes about that awkward age of self-definition, following two robustly vivid protagonists through a heady, sun-drenched summer. A delightful, very modern comedy of manners; but comedy in its darkest, most ironic hue.

Continue reading

Liar’s Candle: August Thomas

★★½

I said just a few days ago that thrillers aren’t really my comfort zone. So you can imagine I was rather amused when, after discussing The Binding, my book club decided to go for something completely different: this fast-paced CIA thriller set in Turkey. It’s a breathless modern tale of terrorism, murky ambitions, double-dealing and innocence maligned, and it’s certainly very readable: I got through it in a couple of days. But it is weakened considerably by its complete implausibility, which I shall detail with relish in just a moment. Let’s set the scene. Naive US intern Penny Kessler has been working at the American Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, for just three weeks when she wakes up in the Ankara state hospital with a piercing headache and vague memories of an explosion. She is one of the few survivors of a terrorist bomb that detonated at the American Embassy’s Fourth of July party, killing swathes of people. Penny has also become the poster girl for the tragedy, thanks to a photo of her, dazed and blood-drenched, pulling an American flag from the rubble. Suddenly everyone is very interested in her. But are they really just interested in her welfare? Or is there something more sinister going on? Before Penny knows it, she’s on the run – and there’s no one she can trust.

Continue reading

Blood Orange: Harriet Tyce

★★★

On the surface, Alison seems to have the perfect life: a successful career as a London barrister; a beloved daughter; and a kind, low-key husband who doesn’t mind picking up the slack. But scratch this veneer of prosperity and a very different picture emerges. Alison drinks too much. The pressures of work mean that she simply can’t be present in her daughter’s life. She’s let down her husband Carl one too many times and their marriage is on the brink of collapse. Oh, and she’s having a disastrous, humiliating affair with her solicitor Patrick. When Alison lands her first murder case, she believes that this vindicates her obsessive focus on work at the expense of her family – but her joy is short-lived. Someone begins sending her threatening text messages. Someone knows what she’s been doing. And someone is closing in on her.

Continue reading

Bel Canto: Ann Patchett

★★★½

It’s meant to be the perfect party. The vice-president of an unnamed South American country throws a lavish birthday gala in honour of Mr Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman. The only difficulty has been getting Mr Hosokawa to attend his own party, since it takes a great deal to winkle him out of his quiet life in Japan. But the vice-president has hit upon the perfect enticement. Mr Hosokawa’s love of opera is legendary, as is his enthusiasm for Roxanne Coss, the world’s leading soprano. Somehow, the vice-president has pulled off the impossible: he has convinced Roxanne Coss to perform for just one night at this party, thereby giving Mr Hosokawa an inducement he can’t ignore. And everything has turned out perfectly. The silver has been polished, the guests – the great and good of the diplomatic world – are assembled, and Roxanne Coss has performed her astonishing recital. For one shimmering moment, everything is as it should be. And then the party is rudely interrupted by a group of terrorists with a grudge against the government: in one second, the guests become hostages. Ann Patchett’s novel follows what happens next. It is a hugely celebrated book – enjoying a level of popular acclaim that, perhaps, leads one to have unjustly high expectations.

Continue reading

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence: Michael Marshall Smith

★★★

Hannah Green is eleven years old and has recently learned the word ‘mundane’. She learns that it has two meanings: 1) of the earthly world; and 2) tedious, everyday, inconsequential. As the book opens, her life very definitely falls into the latter category. She is an only child whose life follows a comfortable set of patterns: trips with her parents downtown in Santa Cruz; visits to a favourite restaurant in Los Gatos; holidays to a lodge in Big Sur. These things have formed Hannah’s childhood with a reassuring sense of security. But then things start going wrong. Suddenly Hannah’s mum and dad don’t seem happy any more. Then her mum moves out to focus on a big work project in London. Then her dad announces that Hannah is going to stay for her granddad for a couple of weeks. And it’s at this point that things start to become very, very weird, and Hannah begins to realise that perhaps her new life is going to be best defined in the first sense of ‘mundane’. Because, quite frankly, when your granddad turns out to be working for the Devil, and you end up on a road trip with said prince of darkness, ‘tedious’ just doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Continue reading

Family Album: Penelope Lively

★★★½

Allersmead. It’s a grand name for a house, but this suburban pile is the kind of house that deserves a name. Comfortable and sprawling, it has watched over the growing pains and squabbles of the family: six children; their mismatched parents; and Ingrid, the capable au pair who has never left and has been absorbed into the tribe. Redolent with cooking or baking, the house rambles around its kitchen, the heart of so many memories. But time passes. Children grow and move away. When one of them, Gina, brings her boyfriend Philip back to meet her parents, he begins to ask questions about her past. An only child, he’s fascinated by the dynamics between six siblings and curious about Gina’s parents. As Gina begins to tell her tale, dipping in and out of her family’s past, Lively reveals the tangled tale of a household built around secrets and lies, in which things are half-known but never admitted, for fear of spoiling the image of contentment.

Continue reading

The Girls: Lori Lansens

★★★★

Rose and Ruby Darlen have grown up in the small town of Leaford in Baldoon County, Ontario. Despite being twins, they’ve always striven to be different, refusing to wear the same clothes and cultivating different hobbies. Rose loves books, writing, and watching sports. Ruby is the pretty one, interested in magazines and TV, but also obsessed with the history and artefacts of the Neutral Nation peoples who once lived in their area. The girls’ lives have been simple: they grew up with their Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash in a big old farmhouse on the outskirts of town and now share a bungalow in Leaford itself. In many ways they are perfectly ordinary. And yet, in one of the most significant ways, they are utterly extraordinary. For Rose and Ruby are craniopagus conjoined twins, joined at the skull. And as the book begins, they are twenty-nine: if they can only reach thirty, they will be the oldest living pair of craniopagus twins (not actually true: see penultimate paragraph). Taking it in turns, they embark on a joint memoir (Ruby being somewhat coerced into it) and Lansens’s absorbing, beautifully-crafted novel draws us into their remarkable lives.

Continue reading

The Newlyweds: Nell Freudenberger

★★★½

When Amina meets George on an online dating site in the early 2000s, she can hardly believe her good fortune. She is in Bangladesh, he is in America, and yet they seem to be perfect for one another. She admires his old-fashioned values, while he appreciates her pragmatic and unmaterialistic spirit. They message for eleven months – with one brief interruption; he comes from America to visit her and her parents in Bangladesh; he produces a ring; she applies for a fiancee visa. And suddenly here they are: in a three-bedroom house in Rochester, New York, freshly married, at the beginning of their life’s journey together. Freundenberger’s novel traces – with clear-sighted compassion – the choices we make when we select a spouse: the futures we cross out in doing so, the futures we assume without ever actually talking about them, the pasts on which we turn our backs. What initially seems to be a simple story about domestic adjustment becomes something much bigger and, perhaps, much sadder.

Continue reading